24th May 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Leah Hager Cohen
Leah Hager Cohen has been writing fiction for over a decade, but it is The Grief of Others which has brought her interest and attention in the UK.
A simultaneously brutal and delicate tale of one family’s grief, and the recipient of every nod of recognition the American literary zeitgeist can offer (from Oprah Pick to standing ovation from The New York Times Book Review). However, it is her recent Orange Prize long-list nomination that has put Hager Cohen on the map for many UK-based readers.
In 2009, Daisy Goodwin declared that the 129 submissions she’d been required to read as one of the Orange Prize judges had driven her to despair, stating ”there’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there.”
Goodwin’s words seem to have been ignored, given the popularity of Cohen’s recently Orange Prize long-listed title about a family dealing with the death of their 56-hour-old son and a man in mourning for his father, recently claimed by terminal cancer.
On being asked her feelings at being long-listed for a prize frequently declared extinct and described by its own judges as being largely focused on “Asian sisters and rape,” Hager Cohen casually responds; “No group of people that has been disenfranchised for millennia should have to apologise for or explain its efforts to redress inequality.”
She goes on to describe herself as “deeply ambivalent about my own sense of pleasure at making the longlist… This is because I have serious doubts about whether prizes (which are inherently hierarchical) can be good for art.”
This wry self-awareness and questioning attitude to contemporary literary mores has led Hager Cohen to write extensively about the role of authors and critics in her online essay The Dreariest Art, or Why I Write Book Reviews, a must-read for anyone hoping to engage with the troubling nature of literary criticism and contribution.
It is an attitude that has also lifted The Grief of Others away from the ponderous slog any book about sadness runs the risk of becoming. “I didn’t set out to write about grief,” explains Hager Cohen, “and I was well into the book before a friend, a reader, pointed out to me that this was my subject.”
The episodic nature of The Grief of Others bears out this statement, and although every character carries their own grief, this is essentially a book about the experiences that unite us as humans.
Hager Cohen notes that “a profound part of growing up is coming to realize how everyone you meet – everyone you see in passing – has lived through loss and sorrow, and whether we come to know one another’s stories or not, we are somehow linked by this commonality.”
Focusing upon the Ryrie family as they come to terms with the death of their third child, The Grief of Others explores the myriad of ways in which grief manifests itself. The two children, 10-year-old Biscuit and 14-year-old Paul, have followed their parents example by retreating into separate worlds and it isn’t until their half-sister, Jess, appears that things come to a head.
Although Hager Cohen denies that the emotions she describes are taken from her own life, she admits that “the array of griefs we all carry around, visibly or invisibly, is something I have long been curious about.”
She goes on to explain that the experiences in the novel “are not ones I have had in life, but conjured from imagination. In some cases, they do build on something I might have experienced personally… I drew upon my own real-life experience with miscarriage to help me imagine the fictional loss of a new-born to anencephaly.”
The strength of The Grief of Others lies in Hager Cohen’s ability to take such harrowing experiences and contextualise them for a wider readership. The cast of characters at play cover a vast spectrum of grief and yet each character is allowed to step outside characterisation and to surprise the reader.
Gordie and his recently deceased father, for example, act as “part of a whole constellation of other characters whose lives intersected with the Ryries”. This constellation includes Jess, Paul and Biscuit’s pregnant half-sister and Paul’s school friend Baptiste, a Haitian refugee.
Hager Cohen explains that she developed such a broad selection of characters in order to suggest that the Ryries’ grief “is not important in its singularity, but rather in its commonality: grief touches us all… I actually saw this novel as an ensemble piece from the beginning. That is, so Gordie’s orphaning, his dad’s cancer, Jess’s rift with her mother, and the deaths in Haiti of Baptiste’s father and sister – all of these are tiles in the same large mosaic of loss that makes up one part of our universal human experience.”
It is this commitment to the universality of grief that allows the reader to enjoy The Grief of Others without suffocating under the weight of, and exclusion from, unknown experiences.
So having done the near-impossible and written a warm, inclusive book about grief, what’s next for Hager Cohen? Possibly more of the same as she grapples with “what can happen when society finds it hard to fathom someone who is considered different or difficult, and whether or not we all have goodness within.”