Why This Wall Of Silence About Mother-Daughter Sexuality?

That was the most shocking part of Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Edges. I've never seen this explored in English-language literature.

I call Leora Sunday night, July 30, 2006. "I can't think of another novel about a girl-mother almost-incestuous relationship."

Leora: "That was a large part of the reason I took to paper because I wasn't seeing that in [English-language] literature either."

Luke: "I can't think of a single example."

Leora: "There's an absence of that complex ambiguity in the relationship between girls and mothers. That bothered me. A female's progression into womanhood is dependent on that relationship.

"I've seen it represented in older works, in French works, in European authors, in Elfriede Jelinek. She wrote The Piano Teacher. She's fierce about that.

"I grew weary with the standard answers about child abuse and what incest was.

"I can't tell you how many letters I've gotten from women who said, 'Thank you. You just wrote about my mother and me.'

"It's a fearful place to go.

"I got a lot of support from men who said it was fascinating to read the female point of view. 'I've read a lot of Philip Roth and he's so honest.' But women have been holding back for many reasons, including fear of damaging the feminist movement.

"I know a lot of people simply put the book down. They couldn't go there."

Luke: "Is there something more Israeli or European in this openness?"

Leora: "I think so. I'm only half-American. My mother is Israeli. The literature I've always read is European, with a lot about the body and sexuality and symbiosis. There's a strong Puritanical streak here with a different view of sexuality and where it belongs."

Luke: Toni Bentley's book The Surrender, about anal sex, got big play for probing the last sexual taboo. I'm thinking there are a lot more important and bigger taboos about sexuality than anal sex such as a daughter's awareness of her mother's boundary-less sexuality.

Leora: "Thank you. In America, yes, we have a lot of psychoanalysis, but a lot of it is suspect and a lot given to clear-cut incest with clear-cut boundaries. There's just an entirely different sensibility and way of looking at life [in America]. If you bring up the Clinton incident in Europe, people don't even know what the fuss was.

"What about Australian literature?"

Luke: "Not big on mother-daughter sex."

Leora: "I know how terrifying it is, but you just go with what you have to do."

Luke: "There's a ton of stuff about boys wanting to have sex with their mothers. There's nothing new with that."

Leora: "I'm a big fan of Proust. He's a great teacher of complexity and ambiguity."

Luke: "Is your mother [born in 1920] still alive?"

Leora: "Yes."

Luke: "And she's got all her senses?"

Leora: "No. She's in a home. She has dementia.

"She did read my book. She loved it. She keeps it on her night table.

"She grew up in Palestine but was she educated in Austria. She said to me, 'You were honest.' That's her way of judging what you do as an artist.

"Grace Paley is the arch-feminist and she thought it was fascinating to see the daughter's side of what was going on.

"A lot of people see it as a negative portrait of my mother. I don't see it that way. She was just a complex, charismatic, problematic figure."

Luke: "Really screwed up."

Leora: "Yes. Definitely of the body. That's a problem for people."

Luke: "We don't like mothers who have so few boundaries with their daughters."

Leora: "Then I got fascinated with this whole issue of boundaries in the Middle East. That's all they ever fight about."

"Part of the complexity of my childhood is that every year we went to Israel for three months. My father is a New Yorker [American Jew, atheist, intellectual] and he made sure we knew her world."

Leora has a sister three years older and a brother three years younger. "My sister just hates her guts. The boundaries between a boy and his mother are different."

Luke: "Was he her favorite?"

Leora: "Oh yeah. He could do no wrong."

Luke: "Did your mother help the Haganah?"

Leora: "Oh yes."

Luke: "What are the differences, if any, between your mother and the mother in your book?"

Leora: "That's a hard question."

In other words, very little.

Luke: "Did your mother have these lack of boundaries?"

Leora: "Oh yes. She still does.

"I began to heal myself from that by understanding the culture she was raised in."

Luke: "What was your mother's reputation in New York?"

Leora: "It was very difficult for me growing up in Pound Ridge. Not only were we the only Jewish family, my mother was the only Israeli. She was an oddity. But everyone admired her.

"There were a lot of innuendoes about my mother being a primitive. She wasn't like the other Westchester housewives.

"I feel like I'll never have to write another book about my mother as long as I live because that was a very complete portrait."

Luke: "I can't think of any Jewish community in the U.S. who wouldn't ostracize your mother."

Leora: "Yes. The Jewish Book Council selected my book and publicized it but they had trouble with it because it didn't fit in to anything. It doesn't fit anyone's conception of Judaism or Israel."

Luke: "Was she physically affectionate with a lot of people?"

Leora: "Yes. That's the Israeli way. Just think of the Italians or the Spanish. Somehow people just understand that Italians are like that.

"Jewish Americans are very different from Israelis. They are very reserved."

Luke: "Was your mother sleeping around while you were growing up?"

Leora: "Oh no. She stayed loyal to my father."

Luke: "Did your parents have a good marriage?"

Leora: "I'd have to say no. It was a terrible marriage.

"I lost my father early in my life. We were in a car accident together. I was 17. He had permanent brain damage. He lived for six years. My mother brought him home from the hospital and looked after him.

"It was my college interview. He was driving me home from Vermont. He had a stroke [at the wheel] while we were going about 50mph."

"People ask me if my mother was homosexual. My answer is that she was polymorphous."

Luke: "Did your mother cling to you?"

Leora: "Oh God. Yes.

"The French sense of family is incredibly cloying. French parents don't visit their children. They stay over. I don't think my cousins have left the home where my grandmother was born. Americans are concerned with independence."

Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece, writes on Amazon.com:

Leora Skolkin-Smith's brief novel follows fourteen-year-old Liana Bialik on a trip to Israel with her mother and sister in 1963. The three women have left their Westchester home to attend the reburial of Leona's maternal uncle, whose grave is to be moved to the Israeli side of the country's border with Jordan. At the same time an extended visit with her birth family is intended as a comfort to Liana's mother after the recent death--by apparent suicide--of her husband. The tragic stories behind the deaths of these two men, Liana's father and uncle, though only hinted at in the book, form the backdrop to Liana's coming-of-age story.

Set amidst the barbed-wire borders of pre-1967 Jerusalem, Edges is more concerned with the figurative boundaries between Liana and her mother, whom Liana simultaneously loves and is repelled by. Certainly there is much in her mother, as Skolkin-Smith describes her, to send one screaming: "Her body was usually without undergarments which gave the sheets a hot, wettish odor. Her hair and face creams gave off a strong, fruity smell and tempered the raw coarse aromas that got loose from her flesh." In this and other passages the author paints Liana's mother as aesthetically odious--just the sort of way a girl of fourteen might view her mother. But reeking of sweat and other bodily fluids as she is, Liana's mother is not the only thing that smells in this book. Skolkin-Smith's Jerusalem is filled with the unappealing odors of food and people as well as of cocktail napkins, orgasms, and mirrors (which smell respectively like walnuts, curdled milk, and "sweat and old yarn").

We can view with sympathy Liana's desire to free herself from her mother's stifling, sweaty, noisome affection, if not the dramatic means by which she eventually makes good her escape. Her story becomes entwined with that of an American boy who's recently gone missing and whose disappearance has caused a national stir. Apparently the boy doesn't want to be found, but why this should be is never made clear. Skolkin-Smith's Edges is a quiet novel filled with small moments. Much of the story is told in dialogue, the stilted English of Israelis conversing in an unfamiliar tongue. They pepper their speech with untranslated Hebrew, which may be off-putting to readers unfamiliar with that language. More problematic for my own appreciation of the novel is that the various characters often have fractured encounters with one another that don't quite make sense:

"Two small nuns in black bowed in front of some ruins, and a priest with a scarlet-red Russian turban was smoking a cigarette beside a church door. He saw us and crossed the vestibule."

"'I am American. Christian. Does it matter?'" my mother began, and he waved us along, away from him."

Skolkin-Smith's characters rarely express themselves fully, much falling between their words. (Liana, for example, runs off with the American boy without the two ever having a conversation to that effect beforehand.) This imperfect communication probably reflects real-life dialogue well, but it is difficult to follow on the page.

Readers who like their prose on the poetic side--and anyone interested in a story that evokes the sights and sentiments and indeed the smells of 1960's Jerusalem--should give Skolkin-Smith's novel a look.

Leora: "Debra Hamel is a wonderful person. She has a Ph.D. from Yale. But she's very American. We had lots of dialogues about what she was saying. 'Fractured encounter' is a valid criticism but that was my experience.

"Artists face these challenges. Do you want to be clear? You know you'll get more.

"Israel's a wild chaotic place. There are few introductions to anybody. Everybody is living on top of one another.

"I chose to bring a sensibility and sometimes that won over how clear I was going to be.

"I'm a visual writer. I'm not good at the logic of plot because it doesn't excite me."

Luke: "Did you have any suicides in your life?"

Leora: "It's better for me not to talk about it."

Ivy, the sister of protagonist Liana, doesn't change much in Leora's novel. "That's true of my sister too," she says. "She's always going to hate my mother."

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Leora: "I've always wanted to write and to act. My father was a lawyer for actors."

Leora married at age 22 to the son of a diplomat and 32 years later, they're still married.

Luke: What's with the hyphenated name [Skolkin-Smith]?

Leora: "That was very conflicted. He's a Christian atheist. I'm a Jewish atheist. I don't believe in the manifest destiny of the Jewish people or Zionism or any of that. I was very sensitive about taking away my identity. My husband is a doctor. I didn't want to get letters [addressed to] 'Dr. and Mrs. Smith.' After your fourth letter as a physician's spouse, you begin to feel faceless. 'Leora Skolkin-Smith was an announcement of identity.

"It wasn't a feminist thing. I just wanted to keep my identity."

Luke: "Does he have the hyphenated name too?"

Leora: "No. He's just Matthew Smith.

Luke: "Do you have children?"

Leora: "That's something I couldn't do physically. I've managed to mother a great deal people who are not from my body."

Luke: "Would you rather write a great novel or have a great marriage?"

Leora: "Wow. Great music. That's a fear question inside myself. I never want to have to answer that. That's how important writing is to me and he is to me. I'm glad I'm with a man who can handle that. He's a psychiatrist. My intensity forced me into writing."

"I'm lucky enough to have a man who pays the rent while I write."

Leora has two degrees from Sarah Lawrence College -- a B.A. in Writing (1975) and an MFA (1980).

Luke: "What do you love and hate about the writing life?"

Leora: "I love writing. I hate the writing business. I don't think writing is a consumer product. I hate competing with other writers. We're not horses. They set you up for this horse race. I was nominated for a bunch of awards for this book. I've resented it."

Luke: "You resented being nominated? You resented not winning?"

Leora: "Of course I resented not winning. I won one thing -- a stipend from the PEN/Faulkner Writing Foundation -- and I wanted everyone to be happy for me. I'm going to Washington D.C. They're putting Edges into the school system."

Luke: "When you say you hate the business, what you're really saying is that you hate that aspect of reality."

Leora: "Yeah."

Luke: "This is just life."

Leora: "Yeah. You want everyone to love you. You want everyone to walk up to you and say you've transformed their life. Of course you want to win the Pulitzer."