Ramapo welcomed back poet and writer Victoria Redel this past Tuesday to discuss her latest novel, “The Border of Truth.” Redel had previously spoken at Ramapo College last November. Dr. Michael Riff, director of The Gross Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies, invited Redel back, as her latest work follows the tale of a family’s escape from the Holocaust.
Redel is a well-known writer, with three books of poetry and four works of fiction under her belt. Her works have been widely published in many prominent magazines and anthologies. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Columbia University, she is currently teaching at Sarah Lawrence University.
Redel began her talk by asking students questions and creating a very intimate dialogue. She learned the majors of her audience and oriented the discussion toward their fields. The crowd was mostly composed of literature and history majors, and Redel focused her talk on her unique writing process and the research she did while writing this historical fiction.
Redel asserted that all stories are, in effect, a journey.
“The notion of the journey is a natural spine for fiction,” said Redel. “From the expulsion from the garden, Huck Finn, Exodus and the Odyssey. Nothing truly comes so naturally.”
When she began to brainstorm her novel, she had a pretty good idea what she wanted the journey of her novel to focus on: her family’s flight from Nazi Europe.
“I always wanted to write a book about the Holocaust,” admitted Redel. “But as I worked I began to ask myself, ‘What is the point of writing another Holocaust book?’ I constantly kept thinking of new ways I could add to this body of literature.”
“The Border of Truth” derives much of its narrative from collective memories of her parents, namely her father, who emigrated from Europe at the advent of World War II. Originally, Redel wrote this tale as a memoir, but as she did her research, she let a new narrative take form and evolve.
As she interviewed her father, Redel discover fascinating parts of history intertwined with her family’s story. After Germany bombed Belgium in 1940, her father and his parents sought passage on the famed ship SS Quanza.
A cargo vessel outfitted into a passenger ship, the Quanza transported European refugees to the United States in the August of 1940. Laden with immigrants, Jewish refugees, political dissidents and former movie stars, the Quanza’s long voyage along the Atlantic was not finished when it first reached New York.
The Jews on the ship were not allowed into the United States due to the anti-Semitic beliefs held by top officials of the federal government. Only after the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt were they allowed off the boat.
Knowing this facet of her father’s story, Redel molded his tale and history into its own drama.
“That’s what’s remarkable about writing,” Redel lectured the audience. “You take what you know about living and press it to new extremes.”
The book Redel ended up writing was a story of a modern day woman who discovers much about her father’s past, uncovering it slowly through a letter he wrote on the deck of the Quanza to Eleanor Roosevelt about his life and his desire to leave Europe behind and come to the United States.
She advised future authors, “Make sure you always pay attention to the stories parents or grandparents say over and over again. There are interesting and different textured worlds in them.”
Ramapo students in the audience took a lot away from Redel’s discussion. Senior literature major Ben Reinhardt particularly enjoyed the presentation.
“It’s such an interesting process, writing historic fiction, and the evolution of the story,” said Reinhardt. “I think it’s really amazing how there are new relevant ways to write Holocaust stories.”
Literature majors were not the only ones fascinated by Redel’s talk.
“I initially just came for CEC credit,” laughed sophomore history major Katie Dabrowski. “The history that goes into this is so cool, and I really connected, because I had family that came out of Poland. I’m definitely going to look up this book.”