History in the Street: Leela Corman on Unterzakhn
I'm a highly self-conscious New Yorker -- arrived here four years ago and immediately started walking the city obsessively, tucking the map of it under my skin, tattooing the streets on my brain and in my muscle memory. I'm also a writer and a Yiddish-speaker, so when I got hold of Leela Corman's graphic novel, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for 'underthings'), I was electrified. The book is drawn in a cartoony, film-reel, black-and-white style, and it tells the story of Esther and Fayna, Jewish twin sisters growing up on the Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side of New York in 1909.
Over the course of the next two decades, the sisters engage in very different ways with the experience of being a woman in the city. Esther becomes first a prostitute and then an actress, while Fayna works in a health clinic; each of them deals closely with negotiations of language and home. The sisters are highly sympathetic characters, sexy and funny and sad and human -- both of their time and relatably modern, while Unterzakhn is very much of New York -- in language, in history -- without feeling dated or historical. I talked over email with Leela Corman -- who's also a visual artist and professional belly dancer -- about New York, storytelling, history, and performance.
How did you start getting interested in New York, and the Lower East Side in particular?
I'm a native New Yorker. We learned NYC history in elementary school before we learned American history. I've been steeped in New York all of my life. It's in my bones. As for the LES, I may be the only Jew from NYC whose family never came through there. It was simply the natural setting for my characters' live to take place in.
How did you go about depicting the city visually in Unterzakhn? And why did you decide to tell the story in graphic form, when I feel like so much of the book is about language (Yiddish, English, Russian, women's talk) and storytelling?
Why ask a visual artist why she uses visuals to tell a story? I'm not a prose writer. Luckily, the LES was one of the most photographed neighborhoods at the time my book takes place, because it was a magnet for social reformers and the like. So I had copious amounts of source material. I work with pictures. It's like working with actors but better, because I don't have to pay them or talk to them.