Interview with Lily Brett - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews im Mai 2024 - Beitrag vom 16.11.2006

Interview with Lily Brett
Sharon Adler & Sarah Ross

The author of the hilarious novel ´Chuzpe´ talks about the comeback of her famous characters Ruth and Edek Rothwax, the rivalry among women and other crucial themes in her new book.

AVIVA-Berlin: ´You Gotta Have Balls´ is a very cheerful and charming novel. What was your inspiration for writing this book, and why did you decide to let Ruth and Edek Rothwax to come back?
Lily Brett: I think I let them come back, because you never know why you write things when you begin a new book. I knew I wanted to write a cheerful, very up lifting and joyful book, but on reflection – I think I had to make Edek come back, because this was the other side of looking on Edek Rothwax. In ´Too Many Men´ (Zu viele Männer) we saw him as a victim of the Holocaust, we saw him in very difficult circumstances. I think this is another dimension of him: This is a man with a fabulous appetite for life, a very loving and endearing human being. For me – although I didn’t know it consciously – I wanted to show people that this is a man with a very full three-dimensional life. It doesn´t mean that his other life didn’t happen to him. It happened to him, but this is, who he is.
It is very easy to look at victims as poor, pathetic ... We have to feel so sorry for them all the time. We can´t treat them normally, whereas he is very robust. It is one of the miracles of human nature. And when I think about it – this was the balance, which is why I brought him back. I didn’t intend to bring him back, I didn´t intend to bring Zofia and Walentyna back, but they just came back.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your parents were born and grew up in Lodz. What are your feelings when visiting Poland?
Lily Brett: I have been to Poland so many times. I have almost a compulsion to go to Poland. I first went there in 1982. It was the first time that I realised that Poland was not just an abstract stretch of horror, it actually was a country. I went to Poland looking for something, but after the first few times, I realised it is not there. There is nothing. But then, I came to feel that there is something there, and I can’t explain it other than like this.
I always go to Auschwitz. I like to go when there aren’t many people, because there is something about sitting in the latrines in Birkenau, where my father has told me much about being there. I have read so many books on the Holocaust, and if I just sit there, I feel as I belong to, as I am part of, everybody who was there. And if you look through the latrines, you can see the excrement, and I am sure that this hasn’t cleaned been up. And I am sure, if somebody went through there, you would find someone with today’s technology: DNA.
It is the same in the crematoria in Auschwitz. You can put your fingers along there and it comes up black. Black! That is what I do. I do it myself, because I feel that somebody’s soul is there, and who ever they are, I feel connected to them. And this sounds like a very odd thing to do, but is doesn’t feel that way. It is like looking through your own soul and going to the one place where they were. If you know that in that concentrated space there were so many, many people murdered, you can feel people in your own heart.
There is something to me about going there, and I have a really strange feeling of belonging. For example: I act like I am in the kitchen. I once rearranged the trolley into the oven, because I didn’t like the angle it was at. It was in the crematory, and I rearranged it to a more dignified angle. It is a very strange relationship to me, it´s a place that horrifies me and a place where I feel more connected to my family´s people and where I am a part of my own small family, a part of the Jews on a whole.
My poor husband, when he asks if we should go to Mexico, or if should do this or that, I say that I really would like to go to Poland. It is really bad.

AVIVA-Berlin: The overall question that comes to mind is: how autobiographical are your books? Are you writing about your family? Why does the reader often think you do?
Lily Brett: No. I want to make the reader feel. I want to connect them with somebody. The number of people who tell me that my father-character Edek is like their own father, or that they have an uncle or a grandfather like him is what always makes me really happy. I think what I am trying to do is to say: "This is a family, and we are all part of it. Regardless of our race, regardless of our religion, culture or sexual orientation, we are all part of it." All I want to do is to move somebody.

AVIVA-Berlin: In your novel ´You Gotta Have Balls´ (Chuzpe), but also in ´To many Men´, language seems to be an important issue: There is the Polish-English of Edek, and Ruth who writes professional letters for others. What does language mean to you?
Lily Brett: It means many, many things. First of all, I love putting words together. I just love it. It is one of the few things in life I do very well. I don´t dance very well, and I can´t ski, but I love putting words together. I feel very lucky that there is something I love to do so much.
But it also means power! My parents didn´t have the power of language. If you don´t have a language, you really are powerless. They couldn´t speak English, and people just shouted at them: "Speak louder!" As if they are stupid. I realised that words were very powerful, and that it was important to have a voice. From the time I was little, my parents were very impressed by my English, because I was the one who could speak English: "Look at what a good English she speaks", they would say.

AVIVA-Berlin: Ruth is always concerned about her weight. and Edek eats everything. Edek´s great sense of life against the background of his past and Ruth’s neuroses are themes that run through your entire novel. What is the message behind it, behind food and the Holocaust?
Lily Brett: Food and the Holocaust were crucial. The Holocaust made food life and death, because there was none. There was so little. When people went dead, they went on the edge of nutrition and starvation. I think that adds a whole new dimension to ones experience of food. We all know intellectually that food is life and death, but not so many of us have experienced that. And I think the difference in the personalities is that Edek didn´t loose his appetite for life. Edek was a man who, because of his past, should never have been able to experience joy. But he is able to experience joy. Ruth finds it very hard to experience joy. I think that is not uncommon in the life of children of survivors of catastrophe. So, that are the complications, and many complications come out about food - for Holocaust-survivors, for other survivors of catastrophe, and particularly for women. It is very, very complicated. It is sad that is so complicated for women, but having a history with the Holocaust in the background, you cannot be normal about food. I don´t know what "normal about food" is, actually.
I like to cook, I love to eat, but I love to cook more than I love to eat. I am learning to love to eat, like I love good things: I love good butter, I love good bread. I am very fussy, I just don´t like to have a horrible piece of bread. I always had an appreciation of very good food. What I love about food is sitting down and sharing it with other people. Food gives you a chance of great intimacy.
I would like to be less extreme about that. I would like to be a person who doesn´t mind to what they eat. To everybody in my family food is very important. Cooking for someone is a symbol of love. My younger daughter is a very gifted cook. We all love to sit down and eat together.

AVIVA-Berlin: In 1948, you and your parents moved to Australia. As a 19-year-old young woman you started to write for a rock magazine. How did that happen and what did you learn?
Lily Brett: My parents wanted me to a lawyer, but my big active rebellion was not to be a lawyer. It was really upsetting for them. The biggest thing I learned was that I could write. And then, I fell in love with the keyboard. Other people fell in love with Mick Jagger, and I fell in love with the keyboard. I was sitting in Mick Jagger´s apartment interviewing him, and all I was thinking about was my story I had to write on my beautiful, little, portable typewriter.

AVIVA-Berlin: How has living in the Jewish community in Australia and later on in New York influenced your writing?
Lily Brett: I have lived in New York now for 17 years, and now I write about Jews in New York – actually just about the people in New York. I think my books are very Jewish in one sense: Because I am Jewish. They are no Jewish, because I am surrounded by Jews. In my early books I did write about the Jewish community that I have grown up with, but I don´t write so much about the Jewish community in New York. I write about New York.

AVIVA-Berlin: From your perspective, what is the difference between the Jewish community in New York and Australia?
Lily Brett: There is one big difference: Australia has the highest ratio of Holocaust-survivors per capitol outside Israel. And that is a huge difference. Americans are much more assimilated, they visit Israel but are less concerned about Israel, whereas in Australia we give more money per capital to Israel than any other country. And we are not as rich as America. It is a very different feeling. American Jews feel that belong (to Israel in some way: annotation of editorial office), but in America they feel American. I think in Australia there was just a feeling of belonging to each other.

AVIVA-Berlin: Why do you touch upon the often hushed-up subject of competitiveness among women?
Lily Brett: It really disturbs me. There are very few women in power. It was a very big deal when Golda Meir was Prime Minister 35 years ago during the war. And it is a big deal to have Condoleezza Rice, too. But women are very good in tricking each other.

AVIVA-Berlin: Why haven´t they learned to accept that women can also be rivals?
Lily Brett: It´s good to be competitive in business, but it is not good to want to kill the other person to shreds, it is not good to ruin somebody for your own end. Women do that. They say terrible things to each other. I have never had a male journalist say anything inappropriate to me. I may not agree with his view sometimes. But I have had women journalists who agreed with me, interviewed me further and said – and this is just anecdote: "Is your hair a different colour?" I mean, who cares? One woman, a few years ago, when I was getting of the stage to walk through all the people to the book signing area, called out above the heads of the entire people: "Have you lost weight?" A man would never do that to you, and would not do it to another man. What really bothered me is Instead of ignoring her I said "I don´t think so." And she said "I think you have." I mean, this is a way of diminishing people.

AVIVA-Berlin: Are you in a women´s organisation?
Lily Brett: No, I would like to be. In this novel Ruth tries to set something up, very unsuccessfully, but it´s funny.

AVIVA-Berlin: Could you imagine being a mentor for young women writers?
Lily Brett: Yes! I want young women to be in power, I want young women to look after themselves. I don’t want young women to smoke, I get very upset at young women who do destructive things to themselves. I want women to have strength and power!

AVIVA-Berlin: Will we meet Ruth and Edek again?
Lily Brett: I don´t think so, but I said the same after the last novel.

AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much for the interview!

Please read our review in German on Lily Brett´s book ´Chuzpe´.

More information on Lily Brett can be found at:


Beitrag vom 16.11.2006