Imagine putting your relationship under a microscope and then sharing what you’ve discovered with the world. That is exactly what Jennifer Lang has done in her memoir Places We Left Behind, and we are all the better for it.
When American-born Lang, a secular tourist, falls in love with French-born Philippe, an observant immigrant, during the First Intifada in Israel, they embark on a twenty-year journey of rooting and uprooting a growing family in the search for a singular place to call home. Lang invites us to follow their steps in her stunning memoir in miniature. In very short chapters that experiment with form, Lang uses white space, strikethroughs, endnotes, and varied formatting choices to visually support her text, which sings with a sense of longing and loss, compromise and commitment. We are witness to growth through challenge and a moving exploration of a marriage that endures.
Lang, a graduate of Northwestern University, is currently rooted in Israel. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lang on Zoom, where we had a rich discussion on the search for belonging, the pull of love, and the gifts of writing short.
Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature is a wonderful exploration of an enduring relationship in the face of the pulls of difference.
It’s also a really powerful grouping of experimental forms.
I’d like to start with the first chapter, “For My First 18 Years.” There’s a bit of prose text, but what catches the reader’s eye is the timeline. It’s not only in form of a flow chart, it’s blue!
Each box represents a different place you lived in your life. Many boxes include the word “uproot.”
Can you speak to how you look at rootedness and uprootedness in the memoir?
At one point, Uprooted was my title. I grew up in the same house and the same everything for eighteen years—very rooted. My whole goal in college was to spend junior year abroad to Paris. I built my major around it and couldn’t wait to take this language I’d been studying since I was six and to learn it backwards, forwards, and inside out.
And yet, when I left Chicago the summer after my sophomore year, I felt like I was being wrenched and wrenching myself.
That started to play out everywhere. That feeling followed me. I was choosing to do it, but I’d made and was leaving deep, meaningful connections.
In 1987, I “Uproot to Paris” for my first job after college because I couldn’t wait to leave Ronald Reagan’s realm, the Yuppie lifestyle, the DINK economy. Everyone had to wear a blue suit and blue nylons and blue pumps. During my junior year in Paris, I noticed people wore many colors and separates, not suits. I yearned to live in and return to this more fluid and flexible society, where people worked to live and not lived to work like in America. It was a choice, and yet I left the US in tears.
Each time I moved, it was the same dynamic. I pulled myself, but something greater was pulling me.
Was it simply wanderlust?
Midway through that year, in January of 1986, my host mother was in the kitchen making dinner, I was in my room doing homework, and the three younger kids were in the parents’ bedroom watching the only television set in the apartment. All of a sudden, they screamed, “Jennifer, Jennifer, viens vite.” I stood in the doorway and watched the Challenger explode, hearing the American newscasters report in English in the background and the French dubbing it. It was this crazy moment where the floor underneath me no longer felt stable. I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged.
I’d always grown up feeling other: the smallest girl in my grade and one of very few Jews. In France, I hid my Jewishness and fit perfectly into size 36, never once needing to hem my pants.
Watching that explosion changed everything. Did I belong in America? Was I going back to California after college graduation to try and replicate my parents’ life? Or did I want to look through a different lens, learn other languages, see beyond? That is what started the pull.
In each of those places we left on the timeline, I had deep connections. When we uprooted from Israel to Paris in 1994, we left five years of close friendships and a strong community of Anglos from all over the world trying to start their young adult lives in Israel. Ten months later, I cried my way to California after saying goodbye to my French friends I’d made during my junior year abroad and new ones. The worst was each time we arrived in the next place, I couldn’t stop looking back, pining for the people I’d left behind.
Can you tell us a bit about the differences between you and Philippe that gave you pause at the start and that drive much of the rest of the book?
Philippe is two weeks older than me, a Leo, while I’m a Virgo. At 23, he moved to Israel and changed his status from tourist to new immigrant about six months before I arrived as a tourist with no intention of staying. I was in Israel to fill five months—after quitting my job at the World Jewish Congress in Paris and before graduate school in public policy in New York—and to learn Hebrew.
My mom had warned me not to fall in love and stay like some of her friends’ daughters. I reassured her it was not my intention. I’d spent the previous two years making up for lost time after two decades of acting as the Good Jewish Girl and four years in a serious relationship: date one Catholic, one married man, one tourist I met on the streets in Paris.
A few months before I arrived in Israel, Philippe started observing Shabbat: not driving, not spending money, not cooking, not watching television, not listening to music, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
I knew what these Sabbath prohibitions meant because my only sibling had also immigrated to Israel after graduating from college in the early 1980s and had become ultra-Orthodox. (Philippe is nothing like that; there is a huge difference between the words modern and ultra). But I didn’t believe in God or his commandments, so the restrictions seemed ridiculous.
So, the differences were there from the get-go.
You mentioned wanting to find a place where you belonged. That pull to find it was in you before you met Phillippe, and then you played it out together. Longing for belonging—times two.
You met Philippe in Israel. You fell in love. You moved in together. You married. But you had questions from the start. In the chapter “Sides,” you divide the page down the center into plus and minus columns and list the pros and cons of staying with him. And then, you say, “When the negatives outweigh the positives, I tear out the sheet and toss it.”
There was something that couldn’t be captured on a list, couldn’t be put down in ink. Do you know what that was?
Love. Chemistry. A relationship like I’d never had before. An intensity that I’d never experienced.
A knowing long before I knew.
And you paid attention to that, so, out with the list.
This chapter is just one of many examples of how the visual form you choose brilliantly supports the content.
There are many different uses of white space and different formatting. You have a lot of strikethroughs, which I love. They’re so powerful. Endnotes. There are shapes. There are dividers on the page.
So here’s the chicken-or-the-egg question: what came first, the form or the text?
Initially, this was just a longwinded, overwritten prose manuscript. Then after diving into the world of flash (and a lot of other nonlinear rewrites and false starts), I reworked my chapters into short vignettes, wheedling it down from 90K to 67K words. Still too long and so uninteresting. I took it out, put it away. Took it out, put it away. I doubted it, doubted myself.
About seven years ago, a writer-friend read it and suggested I reframe my story, ask a different question. Eventually I did, which made me begin anew in 2011, when my husband and I returned to the country where our story started.
In 2021, yet another writer-friend encouraged me to link my shorts by theme and submit to prose chapbook contests. I returned to the earlier story beginning in 1989, extracting bits and pieces that formed a narrative arc, ending before the other, new manuscript began. I chiseled and sculpted. Removed the connective tissue and backstory. Drafted different versions—short (under 3K words) and long (under 10K words) for different publishers. Pressed SEND.
While still researching small presses, the word “experimental” jumped out at me. I returned to the pro-con list and set it up. In “Between Seams,” I zigzagged the text like Philippe and I zigzagged through the Old City to get to the Western Wall.
I started to reread my boring prose, to look at the words, the images, the meanings, and figure out what I could do to say it, or format it, differently. I felt like the words alone didn’t suffice.
The endnotes started as my way to explain what I consider the inanity of Judaism and Jewish Law—and important information to relay that, if in the story, stopped the flow. I also used them to show everything I learned during my yoga teacher training. Lastly, I wanted to comment on the comments, off-topic, even snarky. Ironically, in Judaism, there are texts with commentaries from rabbis of long ago and then there is the commentary to the commentary.
As for the strikethroughs, I’ve never done that before. They are text I want the reader to know but feel ashamed to own completely.
Are you a visual person?
Yes and no. I love art and photography and movies and notice scenery and costumes. But I’m not an artist.
So, did these forms surprise you?
Yes, and I’m having trouble going backwards.
I feel like I found a way to globally approach writing. Like a treasure I don’t ever intend to give back. I might just say, “This is my style” and see where it takes me.
Your chapter titles are wonderful too. I think in short pieces or chapters, titles carry more weight and can do more of the work.
The same goes for the title of your book.
It’s from the text. There’s a chapter called “Places Left Behind” about Philippe telling me we have to relocate either to New York or Israel. At the end of the chapter, I say, “No matter where we reside, one of us will always rue the loss of the place we left behind.”
Yes, that chapter! That powerful realization. Perfect as your title, but I was also referring to your subtitle, memoir-in-miniature.
I struggled with that a lot. I first packaged this book as a memoir-ella, like a novella. But the publisher made it clear that that was not their terminology, so not to get too attached. I couldn’t call it a memoir in flash because not every chapter can stand alone. I thought of a memoir in shorts, but without alliteration, it didn’t sing. I played with “miniature” versus “miniatures” and landed on “miniature” because I felt it addressed both the short chapters and the length of the book.
Plus, I’m 5’1″ and was teased as a child. In fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, two boys chased me home screaming shrimp, midget, and other un-PC names. We had to go to the principal’s office. They had to apologize. We had to shake hands. They had cooties. I switched classes to get away from them. All my mom could say was “They like you. Good things come in small packages.” So, the fact that I used “miniature” in my title feels full-circle-ish and redemption.
That’s fabulous. Something that jumped out for me in your miniature is your gorgeous sentences. Here’s one I just loved from “Slay”: “For I am more ruthless than Ruth-ish, unable to embrace her words to her mother-in-law . . .”
I wanted to include those words, “Whither thou goest, I will go”. The ruthless and the Ruth-ish followed. Me challenging myself on the page.
I had so many people, close friends, say to me all these years, “My home is with my husband and my children. What’s your problem?” Like something was wrong with me. But while they were moving cities, maybe states, we were moving countries and continents.
I get it! And I love how you challenge yourself on the page.
The need for belonging is key for you, but you also long for the feeling of safety. When you were in the US and 9-11 happened, it was like, “Well, we’re not so safe here, either.” And I’m sure you’re following the news of all the mass shootings in the United States right now. How does that feel to you, living in Israel now?
This is emotional. Today, I got a message from a high school classmate I haven’t seen since graduation in 1983, who’s a very devout Christian, asking if we’re okay because she’s reading the news headlines about Hamas ramping up missiles into Israel.
When I lived here in the early ’90s during Rabin’s term as prime minister and the Oslo Accords, I used to think one day there would be peace. I can’t relate to that naive young woman anymore. I know there will never be peace. And I know that this will always overshadow our lives. And it’s so complicated.
In order to be able to sleep at night, I don’t read the news. When my son was in the army, I never read the news until I had to. When my daughter was in the Air Force, same thing. That is the way I live: on an as-need-to-know basis.
How I feel about what’s going on in America is in my second memoir, Landed, A Yogi’s Memoir in Pieces & Poses (Vine Leaves Press), forthcoming in October of 2024.
My loss of the country I left behind, where I used to feel safe, is very real, especially because I’m from California, home of wildfires, of shootings, of homelessness, of so many seemingly unsolvable problems.
I no longer yearn to come back. Here you can walk around at 2:00 in the morning as a woman on the streets of Tel Aviv. In the US, the violence feels random. Here, it’s big geopolitical stuff. Targeted. But all of it’s crazy.
You’re a reader for Brevity.
How has that informed your writing short?
It’s helped me see what good writing is, what appeals to my senses, and how subjective it is.
But you didn’t always write short, right?
No. This has been a journey.
In 2018, I took my first flash class with Kathy Fish, and my world turned upside down. I don’t think that Brevity was in my life yet, but I was more and more drawn to compressed prose.
I had a 90K-word manuscript that I now call Part I and Part II, Places We Left Behind and Landed. It was overwritten and flat. As I said earlier, I took it out and put it away more than once.
Around that same time, I saw a call for submissions from a British Journal called Mslexia: “J is for . . .”—300 words max. I went straight to my text, searched for the word jury, buried among hundreds of words describing my husband and me sitting like a jury of two, in our house in New York, deliberating the fate of our twenty-year marriage. I whittled down the text to under 300 words. And the prose popped.
The next month was “K is for . . .” and I zeroed in on the word kasher and did the same thing. And then, I started going backwards to A and forwards to L. And I just kept going and going and going. And that’s how I started to trim the excess.
Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature
By Jennifer Lang
Vine Leaves Press
Published September 5, 2023