Batya Swift Yasgur’s first fiction, “Me and Mr. Harry,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in Mid-December 1994. It won that year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. We’ve published several more of her stories over the years, including “Poof,” which appears in our current issue, January/February 2019. Batya is a therapist and former social worker as well as a writer, and her writing includes books in the health field and articles and other materials for healthcare professionals. It’s her penetrating characterizations that set her fiction apart, and this post reveals how her perspective on life—and especially people—informs her writing.—Janet Hutchings
The real mystery isn’t whether the jealous wife poisoned her husband’s mistress or whether the greedy accountant embezzled his client’s money. The greater mystery is why they might have done so.
The answers, of course, might seem absurdly obvious to the extent of being the oldest clichés in the book. The jealous woman wants to do away with the competition, or perhaps get revenge. The accountant has a wicked gleam in his eye, sparked by the flash of gold in his client’s bank account. What more do we need to know?
Everything. We need to know everything else about the person—most of which is unknowable. Why does one woman murder her husband’s mistress, while another ends the marriage? Why does one accountant embezzle money while the other eschews thievery?
There may be simple answers, psychological explanations. But ultimately, there are things that are unknowable. Because every person is a mystery. And every person has a story.
Seeing everyone as a mystery, someone with a unique tale, a narrative of joy or woe, of trauma or transcendence, has had profound benefits for me—literary, professional, and spiritual.
For starters, it has enabled me to withhold judgment. How can I know what forces have shaped this person? What hidden characters lurk in the basement of her unconscious or run through the corridors of his heart?
I remember the secretary of the Near Eastern Languages department where I got my Master’s, who was a stout, bespectacled woman with a flat voice and a monotonous demeanor. One of my friends remarked that she was the dullest person he had ever met. “I’m sure she has a story and there’s a reason she has become this way,” I said. To which he responded, “Then it would be a very boring story.”
My first reaction was, “That depends on the writer.” Think of the excruciatingly boring Mr. Martin, the protagonist of James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” and how droll, entertaining, and wonderful the story is, and what unexpected behavior emerged from under his dull exterior.
My next thought was, “No one is boring—not if you get to know them.” And I began wondering about her life—maybe she wanted to be an artist but was forced into secretarial school and survived only by shutting off any interesting or creative part of herself. Or maybe she had an abusive father and survived by tamping down any affect, smothering every spark or passion, hoping to slide through life, unnoticed and quotidian.
Or maybe she was one of the thirty-six hidden Righteous Ones talked about by the ancient Kabbalists—people of unparalleled sainthood who grace the earth every generation. Who knows?
I don’t remember if I ever turned the department secretary into a story. I don’t think I did. But many of my other early stories, puerile attempts at being an Author, were built around characters who were indeed consciously fashioned after people I knew.
Over time, however, I became uncomfortable with relating to actual living people as “fodder” for stories. I was once at a weekend workshop and met a very well known author, studded with awards and accolades of all kinds, widely anthologized and praised. A few people were sitting around after dinner, and the conversation turned to a bitter feud between two people I had never heard of, but apparently everyone else knew who they were. As I listened, I found the feud very sad. But the famous writer was gleeful. She leaned forward, her eyes bulging, salivating over every juicy tidbit of gossip.
“Tell me more,” she kept saying, her voice slightly breathless. “This is going to make an amazing story!”
(I should add that I was so turned off by this ostentatiously vulturistic attitude that I had no interest in following up and reading her subsequent writings to see if she had, indeed, turned the feud into a story).
My interest in each person’s story melded with my growing desire to become a therapist. I wanted to uncover the individual’s inner story, to accompany the client on a journey to discover his or her own unexplored depths, the unconscious motivations underlying behavior, and the deeper mystery of their humanity, their sorrows and their resiliencies—and mine.
But my interest in writing people’s stories never fully dissipated. It finally found its home in memoir writing. My first foray into telling the stories of others was America: A Freedom Country, written for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Society in 2001 and—sadly—as relevant now as it was then. I had the honor of traveling around the country and interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees, both in and out of detention.
One of the interviewees was an Afghan woman who escaped the Taliban and arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum, only to be put into detention. She became the subject of the next book, Behind the Burqa (published by John Wiley in 2002), which is her story and also the story of her older sister who escaped from the Communists in Afghanistan decades before the Taliban came to power. Through the lens of their stories, I told the larger story not only of the two sisters but also of their family, the broader society ravaged by war and foreign interference, and the story of America’s treatment of people seeking shelter from danger and torture.
Writing Behind the Burqa necessitated giving myself over wholly to the stories of these two amazing women, to the events and, even more deeply, to their “who-ness” as it flowed through me, organizing into words on a page. It meant getting out of the way so that I could be a channel, rather than a creator, of those words.
What I discovered in the process was that their story was mine as well. I am not Afghan, I didn’t flee the Communists or the Taliban. But I deeply connected with aspects of the older sister’s relationship with her father, for example and the role that poetry writing played in the younger sister’s incarceration. Their struggle against the restrictions and oppression of their society resonated with my own spiritual journey as well.
So seeing the story in every human being informs my relationship with my clients, as well as my passion for writing memoirs.
And it must have continued playing a role in fiction writing. How could it be otherwise? But, with the exception of the lead character in “Cat Medicine” (coauthored with Barry Malzberg), which appeared in Ellery Queen in 1998 and was consciously fashioned after a woman I know who loves cats more than people, I can say that there is no linear connection between the characters in my stories and the people in my “real life.” My stories seem to emerge from some large cauldron, brewing and percolating in the hinterland of my unconscious, where suddenly an event—a newspaper article, a noisy neighbor—will turn up the flame and some unexpected and hitherto unmet persona will burble to the surface and demand that his or her story be told. “Poof,” which appears in the January/February issue of EQMM, is an example of a story inspired by a short news article I read about bullies. But I see elements of my own childhood as someone who was bullied, and my own personal struggles with guilt (rational or otherwise).
Ultimately, it all melds together. In Sanskrit, this is expressed elegantly and concisely in the word “Namaste,” translated as “The divine in me greets the divine in you.” The mystery in myself seeks to join the mystery in everyone I meet, real or fictional. My mystery is their mystery, their mystery is my mystery. We are all interconnected, all part of the greater Mystery of creation itself, threads is the larger tapestry of the Universe and All There Is.