The college financial aid forms asked: How much do your parents make — and I was, like, which parents? Do you have family members who fought in the Civil War — which civil war? My New Trier High School advisor laughed when I showed him my list of schools: Princeton, Yale, Georgetown. He thought I should aim lower. Everybody did. But then I got a letter: waitlisted at Yale. I flew to New Haven, in the spring of 2008, and walked into the Dean of Admission’s office to convince him that I belonged there, at Yale, that I deserved a place among the world’s future leaders, that if people wanted to make the world a better place, I knew what to fix. He called the next week and offered me a full scholarship.
My writing in English was still not that great, so the Dean arranged for a post-grad scholarship year at Hotchkiss. Mrs. Thomas drove me out to Connecticut. She’d never been at an East coast boarding school before. Her own kids attended high-status universities — Duke, American, St. Olaf College — but as we drove onto the hundred-year-old estate of a campus, complete with boat house, cemetery, and two hockey rinks, Mrs. Thomas looked proud and confused. She’d done this: her family’s generosity had made Hotchkiss possible for me. But at some level, she expected life to have a certain order. Me being here wasn’t it.
Claire always taught me everything is yours, everything is not yours. The world owes you nothing; nobody deserves more or less than the next person. Even as a refugee she always kept one dignified outfit — early on, a crisp white blouse, well-fitting flare jeans, short black boots; later, a brown suit — so she could present herself to anybody, anywhere, as a smart, enterprising young woman, period. She asked no pity, no permission. She was a fact of life, an equal. Nobody needed to know more.
At Hotchkiss, Claire’s attitude, along with my refugee skills, served me well: Whose behavior do I model to achieve in this place? Who has real power and who is bluffing? Where are the dangers and how do I escape? My ability to hack the system got me there, into those long halls filled with portraits of pale, square-jawed men. But it couldn’t protect me from my inner life. I was also alone for the first time, away from Claire and the Thomases. I was 20 and felt so old and so young. One day, in a philosophy seminar, I sat around a table with my fellow students, the boys in sports jackets, the girls in sweaters. It was a beautiful, crisp fall day. The professor gave us a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain with two passengers. Your boat is sinking. One passenger is old and one is young. Who do you save?
With this, my veneer of decorum started to crack. Before I arrived on campus I asked the headmaster not to share my history. Nobody knew who I was. “Do you want to know what’s that really like?” I blurted out. “This is an abstract question to you?” Everybody stared.
A few weeks later, around that same seminar table — mahogany, with a view of the golf course — the professor asked us all to share the presentations we’d prepared on whether or not to send troops into a Black Hawk Down-like war scenario, like in Somalia. I cracked for real. “You have no idea, do you?” I yelled as one girl spoke. “You’ve never been in that scenario. What gives you a right to even talk? This is real. That’s me — and I have a name, and I’m alive and there are people out there who are dead, or they’re living but they’re checked out, and they hate the world because people in your country sat there and watched all of us getting slaughtered.” I ran out of class.
When I returned to fetch my bag, the professor asked me to meet him later in his office. He was in his mid-50s, with a salt-and-pepper beard, contained but kind. He told me that I needed to learn how to be a less emotional student. I did not agree. “I can’t be less emotional. It’s personal,” I said, all the while thinking that I didn’t survive all that horror to sip tea and join his club. I dropped the seminar and started therapy.
The following fall, at Yale, I tried again — psychology, history, and political science classes, to learn about the world abstractly. But those courses didn’t help me make sense of my life. I found them unnerving, intellectualized, and cold.So I built a private curriculum. My sophomore year I signed up for a class on the intense, inscrutable German writer W. G. Sebald because Sebald had written a book called On the Natural History of Destruction, and that sounded like my history. Sebald dropped into his books random-seeming photographs of libraries, eyes, animals, windows, and trees, as a way to try to capture the mass amnesia that fell over his country after the Second World War.
Ever since my freakout at Hotchkiss, I’d been on a mission to piece together who I was. I’d been looking at my hands — they were my mother’s hands. I’d been looking at my feet — my right foot in particular, it looked like my father’s foot. I knew I couldn’t understand myself through my American family or my classmates in their YALE sweatshirts and J. Crew skirts, even though I dressed like them. But I had so few concrete artifacts from my past — just a vinyl pencil case from South Africa and a photograph of myself at age four, dressed up for my aunt’s wedding, that I’d now hidden so deep that I could no longer find it. But Sebald offered a method, a technique for navigating out of the fog: He implied that if a person wades deep enough into memory, and pays close enough attention to the available clues, a narrative will emerge that makes moral and emotional sense.
I read all of Sebald’s books — The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, Vertigo. Then I started rereading. I also made a practice each day of walking by Annette, a woman who stood in front of Graduate Hall with a bucket of flowers that she purchased in bunches at the grocery store and sold as singles for a tiny profit. She was a fighter. Almost nobody noticed her until she called out, “Hey, sugar, come buy some of my flowers.”She had nothing to do with most students’ impressive, Ivy League lives. But to me she was a clue, a link to a buried past, a reminder of my sister who used to sell anything — salt, meat — so that she could save enough money for us to try to escape our deadening refugee lives. I had so many questions. Why did I use the GPS map on my phone, even on campus, when I knew where I was going? Why did I obsessively collect buttons and beads? Why did I talk so much — was I afraid I’d disappear? After Annette, I turned down Hillhouse Avenue and took pictures of the roots and vines growing outside the Yale cemetery. Then I studied the patterns in the images to see if they matched the patterns of the veins in my hands.
Once back in my dorm room, I retreated to the nest of pillows I built on my bed and pulled out my worn copy of Austerlitz, Sebald’s novel about a middle-aged man, who, as an infant, was shipped out of Czechoslovakia by his Jewish parents on the kindertransport, though nobody ever told him this. I twisted my earbuds to listen to Austerlitz on audiobook as I read. When my fair, green-eyed boyfriend, Ian, returned from his day — political science, crew team — I said, “Listen to this! Everything is connected!” I’d been with Ian for two years. I loved him and clung to him, but he often joked that I was having a more intense relationship with Sebald than I was with him. And it was true, in a way: I did want Ian to care more about Sebald, to interrogate the details of his own life. For instance, Ian was constantly playing and twisting pieces of paper or anything small in his hands, a nervous tic. But he wasn’t inclined to assigning much meaning to this, he didn’t want to investigate why he behaved as he behaved.
“Clemantine, you’re so weird,” Ian said, gently dismissing me.
Still, my own interrogations did not feel optional. Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?
Days after saying that the "underlying message" of a memoir was more important than its truth, Oprah Winfrey announced yesterday that her next book club selection was "Night," the autobiographical account of life in the Nazi death camps by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has tirelessly campaigned to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Wiesel said that "Night" is a true account of the horrors that he witnessed as a young man at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the camps where his mother, sister and father were killed. He said that he and Ms. Winfrey are scheduled to visit Auschwitz together later this month.
Mr. Wiesel will also appear on a segment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to be taped in February that will feature winners of a national high school essay contest based on the book. In announcing the selection, Ms. Winfrey said the book "should be required reading for all humanity."
The edition of "Night" selected by Ms. Winfrey is a new translation by Marion Wiesel, the author's wife and longtime translator, from the original Yiddish manuscript, which Mr. Wiesel wrote in 1955 and 1956. The new translation is being published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which owns Hill & Wang, the publisher of the first English-language edition, a 1960 translation from a volume first published in French.
The book includes a new preface by Mr. Wiesel explaining the differences between earlier editions and the new version, which Mr. Wiesel calls "better and closer to the original." Farrar, Straus & Giroux has printed both a hardcover and a paperback version of the new book and is distributing a combined one million copies, said Jeff Seroy, a senior vice president at the publisher.Continue reading the main story