Professor Frances Bartkowski, of Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of English, has been an integral part of the faculty since 1989, teaching courses in feminist theory, literature and criticism, memoir and autobiography, travel writing, utopian fiction, and 20th-century American and European fiction. She has served as director of the Women and Gender Studies Program and chair of the English department, and will assume the role of Interim Chair of the Arts, Culture and Media department this fall.
Bartkowski has also spearheaded some groundbreaking initiatives at RU-N, including team-teaching a course about HBO’s show The Wire and launching a series of events inspired by that show and focused on Newark in 2013–’14.
In 2015 Bartkowski was awarded a $75K Chancellor's Seed Grant for her work with The Collaboratory, a transdisciplinary group supporting team-teaching, faculty-development seminars, and public programming at RU-N.
Bartkowski also envisioned and directed “Cherry Blossoms in Winter,” a multimedia public art installation in December 2016 that turned hundreds of bare cherry trees into temporary art and sound installations in Branch Brook Park, creating an unforgettable spectacle while closing the year-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the city of Newark.
She has published three books of literary criticism as well as essays and poetry. This fall Bartkowski will publish her first novel, An Afterlife, the story of a young couple, Ilya and Ruby, who first meet in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, both lone survivors of their families, then travel to America to forge a future together. Suffering from post-traumatic stress, they face challenges individually and as a couple as they struggle to adapt in a new culture.
We sat down with Bartkowski recently to discuss her debut novel, its genesis, and how it dovetails with current events.
During your career you’ve written monographs and essays for the most part. Did you always have a novel in you, or did this project take you by surprise?
I began writing this book in 2002, when I was still in the process of finishing my last academic book [Kissing Cousins]. The writing came in the form of what I called vignettes, short scenes that I filed away, not knowing what they would become. By 2009, when I participated in a three-month seminar in England and Kissing Cousins was already published, I turned to these accumulated vignettes and realized they might constitute a novel if I could find the narrative threads that connected them. So, writing a novel did come rather as a surprise, yes.
When did it all come together for you?
Writing residencies gave me time to concentrate on this work, and by 2012 the jigsaw puzzle pieces had found their place. In 2013 I began to show it to friends and colleagues to gather ideas for revisions. I also began to search out an agent. And here it is, being published in 2018. So, a rather long and slow process. I simply kept at it, determined to see it in covers.
I was certainly well aware that we are living again a moment of crisis around immigration, ethnicities, borders and refugees. I could not help but realize how some of the story I told here resonates at this moment.
Where did this story come from? Is it based on actual people, or is it purely fictional?
This story came from my life in all sorts of ways, and yet it is fiction in every sense. What is autobiographical is setting and location: I was born in Landsberg, Germany, where the characters are living, and I grew up in Passaic, NJ, where they move once their displaced status is resolved in the post-war period of refugee resettlement from the Nazi period. In my family there weren't stories told about this post-war period, and yet I did have photos that sparked my imagination from the moment I first became aware of them in my adolescence. Going to Landsberg, and meeting some very key people there, opened up my imagination to what it must have been like for such a small Bavarian hill town to be filled with Jews and other foreigners immediately after the war ends. The tensions, the awkwardness, the curiosity, the anti-Semitism: Where did that go? How was it lived? How did people—in this case, characters—come to terms with being alive when nearly all their kin were dead? These were some of the questions that moved me and somehow led me to tell what is actually a love story, but one haunted by death and loss.
On the website for your novel, there’s a series of images of a couple. Is this Ilya and Ruby, the main characters?
The photos on the website include some of my parents and their friends from the displaced-persons camps. Others are photos I took when I visited: of the prison where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, the cemetery with graves of some of the first war criminals tried and executed, the beautiful river that runs through the town, and the magical Mothertower built by an artist from the town to honor his mother, after having made his fortune painting portraits of Boston high society in the late 19th century.
Your story is about trauma, dislocation and refugees. Did you write it with an eye on current events, or is that simply a coincidence?
As I was revising my novel, and yes, to some degree, as I was writing it, I was certainly well aware that we are living again a moment of crisis around immigration, ethnicities, borders and refugees. I could not help but realize how some of the story I told here resonates at this moment. How that might be taken up by readers is something I look forward to seeing. The situation of Ruby and Ilya looks so much more promising than the sights we have become accustomed to since the peak of the crisis in 2015. Yet Ruby and Ilya are carrying their pasts, which weigh heavily, as we have come to learn more and more about traumas and their aftermaths.
Will you be giving any readings of An Afterlife?
Yes, I’ll be giving a reading on October 23 at 5:30pm [location TBA], along with Professor Sadia Abbas, who recently published her debut novel, The Empty Room.
Thank you for talking with us.
It was a pleasure.
An Afterlife by Frances Bartkowski, will be published by Apprentice House on October 1, 2018.