Eye on the Indies

Eye on the Indies

A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor

FOR SINGLE MOTHERS WORKING AS TRAIN CONDUCTORS by Laura Esther Wolfson (University of Iowa Press, June 1, 2018). 144 pp, paper original $19.95. Also available as e-book.

“Language exerts hidden power,
like the moon on the tides.”
Rita Mae Brown,
Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual (p. 73)

Book cover of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors by Laura Esther Wolfson“Children? I kept on asking.”

Laura Esther Wolfson was neither single nor a mother—and most certainly not a train conductor. Yet whenever she brought up the subject of babies with her Russian husband, he’d put her off, saying they’d need twenty-four-hour daycare. Whatever did that mean, she wondered? It took her years, still childless and well into her second marriage, until she finally gained insight into “that particular corner of the social safety net” in the Soviet Union.

She employs the concept as the title of her debut collection of essays, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, in which she transforms her global life as a translator into an expressive memoir with philosophical insights beyond mere language conversion. Reading between the lines of her profession, she also deciphers the collapse of her two marriages amidst the disintegration of the former Soviet Union—plus the breakup of her body in a life-threatening illness. She accomplishes this meditative feat with calm resignation. No wonder the manuscript won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction.

Right off the bat on page one, Wolfson’s voice is breathless. Eager to share her story, she nevertheless doles out details as if she were trying to conserve their impact, sprinkling them along the path as trail markers lest she lose her way. Each chapter stands alone, but the entirety is a travelogue of vignettes from throughout her life that gradually deepens in perspective.

Wolfson’s essay “Losing the Nobel” was a finalist for the third Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize and appears also in Five Ways of Being a Painting and Other Essays.

“The Book of Disaster” is one of the most powerful (and longest) essays, rendered in three sections. Wolfson’s family roots are in Lithuania. Studying Yiddish there in Vilnius, she meets a retired professor of education—a Soviet Jew named Faina who is scrambling to interview the few remaining Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Their discussion of “literary genocide” is compelling. Faina, who comprises Part 1, leads Wolfson to a Russian named Arkady, who had lived in Lithuania before he moved to Chicago. Part 2 encompasses Arkady’s story about trying to publish his manuscript. Part 3 takes up Wolfson’s experiences working in the Archive, which becomes a “synagogue” to her. The tripartite essay is a paean to the power of stories.

Wolfson is positively in love with words. “I want language to be at the root of everything because language is what I do,” she writes. Wolfson’s pieces are odes—to eating fresh bread, to reading Proust on subways, to the life of an editor. Her blend of translation and cultural memoir is reminiscent of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows.

Wolfson holds up a mirror to Russian astonishment about “the things Americans jettison,” pointing out “the ingenuity and spiritual richness that can arise amidst deprivation.” As she reflects on her linguistic experiences, readers learn about difficult tasks in translation and the nuanced distinctions between a translator and an interpreter. Adroitly she shifts to matrimonial states in retrospect, seeking clarity about their failure as she deconstructs, for example, “the night of the flying crockery.” She switches to the reality of her chronic degenerative lung disease in a remarkable avoidance of self-pity. Because Wolfson is adept at functioning in multiple languages, she creates of this thematic trifecta a melody of memories.

Headshot of author Laura Esther Wolfson
Laura Esther Wolfson

She reminds us of the fragility of recollections—how they are lost if not captured, and how “remembering builds community.” Wolfson seeks to define herself through her writing, attempting to figure out who she is. Time and again, because of her mastery of language, she must explain to people, “No, I’m not Russian. I’m American. I learned Russian as a foreign language.”

One finds hidden nuggets of writing advice. When Wolfson encounters a Russian driver who asks if she will help him write a book, she suggests that what happens in a book is not as important as how the writer delivers it. “It’s your story,” she says to him. “Only you can tell it.”

Wolfson then took that advice and produced For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. She told her own story in her own way. And it’s captivating.

Laura Esther Wolfson is a writer, interpreter, and translator who lives in New York. She holds an MFA from the New School. Wolfson has translated from Russian, French, and Spanish to English, and lived in cities around the world.

She has been an interpreter for Russian-speaking authors at the PEN World Voices Festival, as well as a PEN prison-writing mentor. Wolfson translated Stalin’s Secret Pogrom, edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, which won the 2001–2002 National Jewish Book Award in the Eastern European Studies category from the Jewish Book Council.

Wolfson has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony (2018) and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (2017), and completed a second book manuscript, “Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra.”

University of Iowa Press LogoPublisher: University of Iowa Press

The University of Iowa Press is the only university press in the state. According to the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Vol. 2, UI Press, “established in 1938, was formally organized with a board of faculty advisors in 1969” (p. 377).

James McCoy, current director of UI Press, succeeded Holly Carver in 2011 upon her retirement. He had served as assistant director, as well as sales and marketing director, at UI Press. McCoy holds an English degree from Indiana University. Previously he was associate sales manager at the University of Chicago Press, where he worked for a decade. He began his career as a book buyer and manager at the former Waterstone’s Booksellers on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Dedicated to “the vital role played by small presses as publishers of scholarly and creative works that may not attract commercial attention,” UI Press is a member of the Association of University Presses and Green Press Initiative. Guidelines for submitting proposals may be found on the website.

UI Press offers long-established writing awards for poetry and short fiction, as well as the newer Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction—won in 2017 by Laura Esther Wolfson for the book under review: For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Wolfson is the second recipient of the prize, begun in 2016. The submission period for 2018 is currently under way, ending August 1.

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