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TLD Interview: LES Writer Joanna Smith Rakoff

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Photo from: Brooklyn Industries' "Live, Work, Create" campaign, November 2009. Courtesy: Lexy Funk.

Since the release last year of her debut novel, “A Fortunate Age,”  I have wanted to profile Lower East Side writer Joanna Smith Rakoff.  Her upcoming appearance at the Educational Alliance , with fellow author Gary Shteyngart (an event we’re co-sponsoring), proved to be the ideal opportunity.  We arranged to meet at Cafe Pedlar on Clinton Street, which was unusually busy for a weekday morning (it was Election Day). Over coffee, we talked about next week’s event, several intriguing projects Rakoff is working on and her life in the neighborhood.

“A Fortunate Age” tells the stories of six friends, recent graduates of Oberlin College, adapting to adulthood in New York City, in the late 1990’s. The New York Daily News called it “an expansive and elegantly executed time capsule of the dot.com generation.” Shteyngart, who attended Oberlin along with Rakoff, said the novel is “a wonderful, funny and spot-on portrait of my clumsy generation…”

How closely do the events in the book track Rakoff’s own post-collegiate life? Not at all, she says. The settings, Brooklyn (and to a lesser extent) the Lower East Side, are the same.   But the dramatic plot twists in the novel are purely fictional.  Having said that, this neighborhood influenced “A Fortunate Age” in more subtle ways.

Rakoff lives on Grand Street with her husband, also a writer, and their two young children.  The apartment, in the Hillman Cooperative, once belonged to her grandparents. Today, the neighborhood feels like home. But Rakoff remembers how out of place she felt after moving in more than a decade ago — a single, 20-something interloper in the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side.

In some ways, Rakoff’s personal and professional lives in those years paralleled one another. She began editing the online Jewish publication Nextbook, which later became Tablet Magazine. She authored a controversial cover story in “Time Out New York” on “hipster Jews” and helped edit the provocative magazine, “Heeb,” which was making a big splash in Manhattan.

All of these experiences gave her unusual insight into the major transformation taking place in modern Jewish culture. In the neighborhood, she saw these changes taking place right before her eyes. The notion of diminished Jewish identity became a major theme in the novel and is a topic Rakoff is continuing to explore in her new projects.

And what about those new projects? Rakoff told me she’s working on a new novel, “large in scope,” a family saga with political undertones. Among the primary characters: an American Socialist who becomes a Neo-con.  She’s also writing a short non-fiction work – a memoir. Vaguely hinting at the subject matter, she says, “it’s about a family secret that, in a way, led to my birth.”

Rakoff is looking forward to next Wednesday’s event. On face value, “A Fortunate Age,” and Shteyngart’s new satiric novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” are very different works. But these are two authors who draw at least some of their inspiration from literally the same territory — first at Oberlin and then on the Lower East Side (Shteyngart also lived on Grand Street until recently).  And, as Rakoff noted, they both write about what it’s like to be a young person in New York City.  But there’s no need to get too hung up on the parallels. We’re looking forward to a lively conversation next week between two great writers who are making their mark in the literary world.

EVENT INFORMATION: The Lo-Down is co-sponsoring next Wednesday’s event, “LES Lit,” at the Educational Alliance (7pm). Just yesterday we learned Michael Idov (the author of another LES novel, “Ground Up”) will moderate the discussion. Pre-registration is open until November 15th by calling 646-395-4270 or emailing: dccreg@edalliance.org. More info available on the Education Alliance’s web site. Tickets cost $12.

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