Fiction on Soviet Jewish life and Canada during the Holocaust win 2021 Quebec Writers’ Federation Literary Awards

Two books of fiction with strong Jewish themes won 2021 Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF) Literary Awards, which recognize the best recent works in English by authors in the province.

Love Like Water, Love Like Fire by Mikhail Iossel received the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and Room For One More by Monique Polak took the Janet Savage Blachford Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

They were among five awards this year bestowed in different book categories, as well as one each for playwriting and translation, selected by independent juries.

Love Like Water, Love Like Fire is a collection of 20 semi-autobiographical stories about life as a young Jew in the final decades of the Soviet Union, published by Bellevue Literary Press of New York.

Set in Montreal in 1942, Room For One More is narrated by a 12-year-old Jewish girl whose family takes in a Jewish teenaged boy, an orphan from Germany, which opens her eyes to what had seemed like a far-off conflict. It’s published by Minneapolis-based Kar-Ben Publishing, which specializes in books for young Jewish readers.

The fiction jurors variously describe Iossel’s stories as “harrowing, hilarious, dark and devastating”; “surreal and realistic, enlivened by humour and irony”; and written in a style that reflects “the illogical forces of dictatorship, childhood, puberty, survival and writing angsty poetry in a communist regime.”

Polak’s novel is deemed “an important story, told with aplomb.”

The author’s “writing style is ‘just enough’: she allows young readers to understand and learn about the horrors of the Second World War and the terror that the Jewish community endured in a way that respects their developmental stages but pulls no punches with the shameful history of Canada’s intolerance and racism.”

Iossel, an associate professor of English at Concordia University, was born in 1955 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and immigrated to the United States in 1986. An electromagnetic engineer by day, he clandestinely wrote samizdat with other young dissidents by night. Although their output was more literary than overtly political, they still had to dodge the KGB.

Like most of his generation, Iossel grew up with little knowledge of his identity, but he was acutely aware of being Jewish due to Russians’ ingrained antisemitism and state discrimination. Jews, he said, were marked as outsiders from birth.

“It was a given… you either bemoan it or you are motivated to work twice as hard,” said Iossel, who was not among those Jews who defied the law and learned Hebrew or practised Judaism.

He also grew up indoctrinated that America was the epitome of evil.

Despite the title’s suggestion, the stories are not about romantic love, but rather comes from Hasidic wisdom about the dual qualities of the two elements: water and fire can be forces for good or ill.

So it was with the Jews who hailed the Russian Revolution as their salvation from pogroms and deprivation, but would in time be oppressed by communism.

In the title story, Iossel imagines what happened to his maternal grandparents.

His grandfather, who had been quite prominent in the Komonsol, the Soviet youth movement, by the 1930s found himself out of favour. Many of his colleagues were being arrested and disappearing. One night the NKVD came to the couple’s Leningrad apartment building.

Unlike her husband, his grandmother had no illusions about the Stalinist reign of terror, and somehow arranged their escape with their daughter to Belarus.

Iossel switched careers in North America, earning a degree in creative writing at the University of New Hampshire soon after his arrival. His mastery of English was swift earning him Guggenheim and other prestigious fellowships, and he taught at several American universities before coming to Concordia in 2004.

His fiction and essays in The New Yorker and elsewhere offer observations on American life from a Russian emigré’s perspective.

Other former Soviet Jews like Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis have mined the absurdities of Soviet life and immigration with ironic humour, but Iossel’s style is cerebral and, at times, lyrical.

Writing in his acquired language, Iossel said offers him a detached perspective on a place and time that no longer exist.

Polak is also an academic, having taught English and humanities at Marianopolis College for more than three decades. She has published over 25 books for young people, including the Holocaust-themed What World is Left, inspired by her mother’s experience at the Theresienstadt camp.

In Room For One More, Polak approaches the Holocaust from the standpoint of Canadian Jews at the time. The refugee Isaac becomes an instant brother in a family of three girls, but he is not as warmly accepted by the outside world. Rosetta discovers that her best friend’s brother holds prejudices about Jews, and more dismayingly, her friend’s ideas are not that different.

Kar-Ben makes available a teacher’s guide to the book, which is suitable for ages 8 to 12, that suggests how to discuss the issues raised.