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In August 2022 I received an email asking if I would like to read Sam Sax’s debut novel with an eye towards possibly becoming the book’s editor. I said yes immediately, and read Yr Dead later that day in a single sitting. The book, which takes place entirely in the span of time between when Ezra, the protagonist of the novel, lights themself on fire and when Ezra dies, is told in lyric fragments that span both lifetimes and geography. It’s a queer, Jewish, diasporic coming-of-age story that questions how our historical memory shapes our political and emotional present.

While reading the book I met everyone Ezra ever loved, every place they ever felt queer and at home, or queer and out of place. Parts of the novel read like past lives or fables, and other parts read like text messages. While the forms of the vignettes vary greatly, the texture of the prose is always lush, felt, and searingly empathetic. Yr Dead is visceral, propulsive, and at turns fluorescently beautiful and fluorescently tragic. It’s been a tremendous honor to be this book’s editor, and a deep pleasure to get to talk about the book, and its many brilliances, with Sam these past two years.

In advance of the book being published this August, I was delighted that Sam and I had the opportunity to have the below conversation about Jewish storytelling, nonlinear memory, and radical acts of literary care.

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RITA BULLWINKEL: How did this book begin for you?

SAM SAX: There were a couple origin points for this book. One is I’ve always secretly wanted to write a novel, so that little nascent desire has been scratching away, waiting for a larger story I could try to tell.

Another is that I’ve been going to protests since I was sixteen or so, and always have been fascinated with the protest as a space where history and the future collide in the present. As both a liminal space of concrete demands and utopian imagination as well as an appropriated and corruptible space that can reify structural harm. How the protest can model and cry out for possible futures and can also be a kind of theater that enacts Brecht’s critique of catharsis, and I’m interested by how often we move through these spaces dreaming of a better world while reproducing our own.

Another origin point is I, like everyone else, was going to a lot of demonstrations following the 2016 election of Donald Trump. This is when the book is set, which feels like a million years ago now, and part of working on this book was staying grounded in that historical moment while watching this collection slowly become historical fiction. I was pretty suicidal that summer. This book began as a small lyric I started writing to try to save my own life, as an exercise in control. At first it was just a few pages of text. But that summer I went to a residency and began to write page after page of these short memories from the present, past, and deep past of this character, not imagining it would become a book. I’ve been slowly working on this person’s story since then.

RB: This book takes heroic leaps in time and space. It’s a deeply embodied book, but it’s also a book that takes place outside of time. We visit Ezra’s last moments on earth, but we also visit their ancestors, and their friends from college, and past lovers, and their parents and even the moment they were conceived. How do you understand the movement of time in this book? Why did this story need to be told in nonlinear time?

SS: The nonchronological framework of this book exists within a little formal constraint I gave myself in part because it felt as though it both truthfully framed the world of the book and in part so I could make myself write a novel-length project. This is a book built of mostly page-long (or shorter) vignettes and fragments that ricochet across time and space, across real and imagined memory, that doesn’t attempt to make sense of a life, but rather to draw out a constellation of potential meanings. This to me feels like a truer way memory and causality work, in a spectrum of possibilities, and is also generally how my mind works when I think about memory, and so when I was working it felt like the only way I could possibly construct this book. Outside of this being a “truer” and more lyric way to represent a life in the form of a book, I was interested in showing how all of the far apart and supposedly geographically and temporally bounded “events” of our lives and histories, in fact, exist all at once inside our bodies, every time we speak, as we move through space, and they impact every choice we, and Ezra, make. Also, since this is predominately a queer coming-of-age story, in its structure it tries to perform a work of queer disjointed temporality in the way that resonance is built across unlike time and space.

RB: Did you take inspiration from any other novels in the process of writing this book?

SS: Oh gosh, so many novels. Especially books that highlight the lyric and associative impulse in narrative fiction, these books helped me believe I could try my hand at writing a novel—Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill was a pretty formative book for me. Novels written by poets, from Malte Brigge to the present. Also two of the books from folks who blurbed this novel, R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and of course Edinburgh, from my teacher and friend Alexander Chee, all fed into my thinking around this book. Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia alongside the antisocial turn in queer studies, are both pretty present. I was also reading this book as I began that informed some of my thinking called The End of Protest by Micah M. White. These were all the books in my mind when I began to work on this story, but of course, over seven years of reading various other texts and films made their way inside.

RB: Some of my favorite sections in the book are the ones that go back into “deep time”;—the sections that read like fables. How and when did these sections come to you?

SS: Thanks! One of the braids that scaffold this novel is a series of Invented Jewish Folktales. One way to read these are as a series of stories that Ezra’s father reads to them before bed as a child, another way are as imagined memories, another (less believable) way is as a true account of a factual history. An excerpt of these on their own is going to be published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and this is the little introductory note I wrote for that:

In the absence of inherited stories, the following are what a father invents to tell his child before bed. Cobbled together from eradicated histories, from a family line that ends one generation back with a drunk, these stories needle in the space between truth and fact, between the authenticity of feeling and the fiction of history.

I’m interested in this narrative impulse in the Jewish storytelling tradition, in literary continuity as a means of setting up the parameters of a people. How the stories we tell about ourselves become who we are. The stories carried through and invented in diaspora are more foundational to my understanding of Judaism than any argument for statehood or the settler-colonial logic of Zionism. I was interested in these sections being the skeleton of this book for a couple of reasons, one to narratively offer a quiet moment of storytelling between a father and child and a breath for the reader. And also, I wanted them to be little lighthouses that continued to draw the reader back to (or away from) these questions of what’s true in the world of this book and in their lives and who gets to say so.

RB: What is the significance and importance of religion in this book?

SS: To echo my previous response a bit, questions of inheritance, responsibility, faith, why we believe what we believe, and tradition are all central to this novel. In the book we see Ezra’s relationship to Judaism is materially, spiritually, and ethically different from their father’s little religious cult that he joins. Also, it is different from their grandparents, or the indoctrinated youth they meet. So one of the projects is to think through the multivarious forms that Jewish life necessarily takes that predate any empire by millennia. Additionally, I think there is a fealty to “the book” that is present in this novel as an object that constitutes a people—that to me feels equally religious, and equally Jewish. Also, this book pushes at that question of the space between religion, cult, and ideology and how do we invite these different structures into our lives from churches to coupledom to college.

RB: You open this book with a beautiful and felt address to the reader, which reads, “my deep gratitude to you for picking up this book. before you begin, i want to be sure you know this novel deals with suicide. please be sure to take care of yourself—you and your life are more precious than words.” The entirety of this book takes place in the span of time between when Ezra lights themself on fire as an act of protest and when Ezra dies. How do you understand Ezra’s self-immolation in the context of other historical self-immolations, several of which are discussed in the book?

SS: I think I’d like to approach this question a couple of ways. First with the note to the reader that opens the book. This is a book I’ve been living inside for the past seven years on and off, and it’s been, at times joyful and silly, but often a pretty devastating experience. And I knew I would appreciate the voice of the author welcoming me into a conversation with this book. I don’t want to be presumptuous, of course, about what a person can or can’t handle. But I did want to offer a gesture of care and gratitude to a reader first entering this story. To situate a reader in the internal world of this character who’s navigating deep alienation, loss, pleasure, and grief. It’s also a way of saying that this is a work of literary fiction, and what’s most important to me is that a reader encounters this story in a way that prioritizes their mental and physical health and engages with the book in a way that feels navigable.

This book was completed in its final form before Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation outside of the Israeli embassy protesting the ongoing genocide in Palestine. I, like everyone else I know and hold close, have been deeply devasted and moved by his actions in response to the unspeakable violence, starvation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid by the Israeli government in collusion with our own. The way I see this book tying into this particular moment is, of course, the method of protest, but perhaps more saliently around the anti-Zionist and anticolonial impulse of the book, around the deep suspicion and critique of the nation state and militarism.

Over the years I’ve been writing this story there were several highly publicized political self-immolations that took place in the United States. And as I was working each shaped the trajectory of the story. Each made headlines to differing degrees of visibility, and then each tragically faded away. Each made me reckon with the act, as symbolic, embodied, felt, and affective. Each time I worked toward a more compassionate and more complex understanding of both this form of political protest, as well as further understanding and complexity of what drove Ezra to make this decision.

The first recorded self-immolations date back to antiquity and have been acts of protest as well as religious and devotional acts. With Ezra, the more and more I wrote into them the more unknowable they became, and this is an impulse I pull from poetry. That the shape of a piece of writing can hold multiple contradictory, difficult, and necessary truths at once. Often, in our discourse, there’s an impulse toward surety and clarity, but this book as a project is interested in exploring the multiple historical, ancestral, somatic, early childhood, and minor factors that collude into building out the totality of a person’s life.

RB: Is this book a call to action? If so, to what action is the book calling?

SS: I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, and I’m a bit hesitant to (tbh?). Although I do think it, like most things I write, is an argument for the sacredness of life and pleasure, in a world that doesn’t value these things outside of a metric of capital or resource extraction. Maybe it’s a call to think about how history is alive in the present even, and perhaps most especially, when we don’t acknowledge it. It’s in one way a call to prayer for us to find each other and organize outside of the confines of our intentionally manufactured lonelinesses. I think perhaps then also this book is a call toward repair.

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Preorder Yr Dead from the McSweeney’s Store now.