Leela Corman’s newest graphic novel, “Unterzakhn,” tells the story of twin sisters coming of age during the 1910s and 1920s in New York’s Lower East Side. Heartbreaking and compelling, the story provides a glimpse of immigrant life through the eyes of sisters Esther and Fanya. As young girls, their lives take divergent paths: Esther works for a woman — a Madame — who runs a burlesque theater and a whorehouse; Fanya is employed by a neighborhood obstetrician who performs illegal abortions.
“Unterzakhn” shows the other side of the American Dream, where the daily struggle to get by, as opposed to world of ease, provides a more accurate narrative. Often, it is the “things beneath the surface,” the translation of the Yiddish word “unterzakhn,” that reveal the truth.
I sat down with Leela before her talk at Elliot Bay Books in mid-April.
The title, “Unterzakhn.” It has multiple meanings, right?
Gosh, you know, you’re the first person who has actually asked me about the title, and as you ask me I’m trying to think of when that became the title. I originally had the idea that their mother ran a corset shop. I started looking up Yiddish words for underwear and I came across that word and it just seemed like the perfect title. And then as I was writing the book, it became evident that “things beneath the surface” are definitely part of the story. Which is true of any story — any good story, right?
So it’s original use in Yiddish is literally “underwear?”
Underthings, actually. The words for underwear are a little different. And they’re different by gender. I don’t speak Yiddish so I can only give you part of the story. Mitkes means panties; gotkes means, like, old man underwear. So, like, when I was a little kid, and I’d stay over at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would shuffle out in the middle of the night in his gotkes. It’s like a baggy old undershirt and baggy old boxer shorts. Those are gotkes.
Was it a deliberate choice to not translate the Yiddish words in this book?
Yes. Did you ever read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? It’s really good. I really recommend it. It’s by Junot Díaz. He uses all this Dominican slang, and he doesn’t translate it. So I don’t know what the shit means. I have Dominican friends, I could ask them. But I haven’t because I’m sort of afraid that it’s really offensive.
Then there’s Gilbert Hernández, who is probably my biggest influence in comics. I think his influence is all over my book, like, very explicitly. I’ve really allowed myself to be kind of very influenced by him. The only thing that I’m not crazy about [in Hernández’s work] is the asterisk with the translation at the bottom. I mean, it’s cool, it’s fine, and it’s an OK choice for him. But I didn’t want to do that myself, because it takes you out of the story. You have to move your eyes down to the bottom of the page.
As I read your book, I looked up a lot of the Yiddish words. There were some that I definitely knew, but others that I didn’t. But it felt natural to have the [English and Yiddish] words mixed together.
That was how I heard Yiddish growing up. I did not hear as many curses growing up as there are in the book. I mean, people did not say kishmach on a regular basis in my family. But I wanted to give the reader the experience of not knowing everything, and feeling a little bit out of their depth, because I think that that’s good. It’s good not to know everything beforehand, or in the middle of reading a story. I think you process things on a deeper level then.
What inspired you to write this story?
It’s funny. You know, I kind of smacked down another interviewer for asking me that today. I really wanted to tell him “don’t ever ask somebody that.”
Well, I’m also Jewish, so I was really drawn to the history.
The other guy didn’t deserve a smack down. It’s a well-intentioned question. It’s just a very big question. I hope the other guy’s not mad.
That’s a hard one to answer because I think inspiration comes from multiple directions. What happens is you have the original inspiration, but a lot of the work isn’t coming from a place of inspiration. What you have after the initial fire of the idea is you have a lot of work. As you work, you start to pick up things that make sense and put them in the story. Sometimes you take them back out. Inspiration makes it sound like it’s some kind of bolt from the blue. It’s more of a process of discovery, if that makes sense. Especially with a research-based story, I think, because you begin to discover things in your research.
So, what kind of research was involved in this project?
A lot. When I work with historical material it’s really important to me to come from a grounding in reality. I actually don’t like historical fiction as a genre. I think it’s really cheesy. I know some people really like it, but I just, I can’t. So I start out with the idea, with the characters doing something. And then I have to ask myself: Is it possible that this could have happened back then? So for example, a theater that fronts a brothel. Did those exist? That’s a little bit of a slippery one because I couldn’t really find a lot of evidence for it. I asked a friend of mine who’s a Vaudeville historian about that and he said, “Well, prostitutes would ply their trade up in the boxes sometimes,” but it wasn’t really that they were prostitutes or that there were brothels that also had theaters in them. Then I came across a theater-brothel photograph in an archive of photographs from the West. So it didn’t exist in New York City, but it definitely did in the Western territories. That was an area where I fudged a little bit and I thought, “OK, well, that could have happened.” Given the fact that performers were basically considered prostitutes back then anyway, why not?
So I went to the Lower East Side tenement museum again and again. I took the tour so many times they started to recognize me. I raided their bookstore. I looked at every article I could online. I did a ton of costume research. I went around and took snapshots of every cornice and crumbling fire escape that looked interesting to me. And the book built itself from that. Then I would have an idea of something I would want to put in there, and sometimes I’d just have to look it up. Like, what does a Russian tea house in 1870 look like in a small town somewhere in the mountains? It makes for interesting Google parameters.
Tell me more about the Lower East Side. What did it look like at the turn of the century, when your book takes place? What does it look like now?
At the turn of the last century, the Lower East Side was quite a bit more crowded than it is now. There were laws that were put into place a few years before my book begins that changed for the better things like access to indoor plumbing, air flow, and such, but in general, I think it was a much more difficult place to live. Now, of course, I am looking at this neighborhood as a person doing historical research. You would get a very different, more “alive” answer from someone who grew up there even a bit later. For example, Jack Kirby grew up there and wrote and drew some pretty great stories about his youth there that show a totally different aspect of life than I was capable of.
In terms of what it looked like, I think that the environment must have been much more visually cluttered, something I tried to express in my drawings. More stuff. Some of it is still like that, of course, but now much of the area has been gentrified. The gentrification started... maybe late 90’s? Prior to that, it went through many changes. When I was in high school, it was considered pretty rough, a place you went carefully. It’s still a place where immigrant groups come. Now, though, it’s full of fancy, very expensive designer boutiques, restaurants, bars and cafés.
One thing that I really enjoyed about reading your book was how complex each character was. How were you able to convey that through a graphic novel?
If it happened, I think it happened accidentally. Well, I think accidentally is the wrong word. But I’m just very glad that that was the end result. Humans are complex, and I think if you’re a storyteller, and you respect and honor that complexity in other people, it will come out in your writing organically.
Your book is also very politically relevant today…
Isn’t it, though? I did not expect it to be that relevant. Can you believe this shit?
First, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, a decision that was later dropped.
Yeah, I’ve been following it. Because it’s appalling. I mean, it’s grotesque. I did set out, when I had the initial idea, to talk about the ramifications of people not having a choice over their reproductive lives. But I didn’t think that the discourse was going to be this bad. And I’m shocked. I’m really shocked.