Melville House: In an interview that you did a few years ago about Shakespeare’s Kitchen with BOMB, you said, “Being an elderly person, I want to write about the loss or partial loss of memory, so I’ve got myself a character who remembers nothing—an amnesiac.” Is Half the Kingdom the culmination of your interest in memory loss?
Lore Segal: Incidentally, one of the things that I’m going to find as I talk to you and as I will be talking: my facility with language is quite slower; [words are] much less available to me than [they were] ten years ago, twenty years ago. And that’s part of the experience, and that’s part of the conversation. When I went to speak in Austria some ten or twenty years ago I had the experience of speaking in German when my vocabulary was missing. I had the vocabulary of a ten-year-old. And now I have the same experience as an old person; my vocabulary is not necessarily available to me. And I think most people in my generation are now experiencing that. It’s sad. I miss it. I regret it.
MH: How does it affect the actual process of writing?
LS: It doesn’t affect writing very much, because I can put a holder. I can put three question marks—that means go back there and find the word. The other day I wanted to say “Charles Dickens” and he wasn’t available—but he came back a little bit later.
But in the course of conversation, I am now aware and even a little bit worried as I start a sentence; I wonder whether I’ll get to the end of it. [All I can do about this affliction] is say, maybe boringly: isn’t that interesting, what happens to language? That’s my defense.
We interviewed Lore Segal about her new novel Half the Kingdom, but I never expected answers as candid and wonderful as this.
Person A: Hey, I’m looking for Biljmer Arena A train station.
Person B: Oh, you are going the wrong way
Person A: But the police told me to go this way
Person B: Oh…lol because you are black, the police give you the wrong directions
Let us not speak of those days
when coffee beans filled the morning
with hope, when our mothers’ headscarves
hung like white flags on washing lines.
Let us not speak of the long arms of sky
that used to cradle us at dusk.
And the baobabs—let us not trace
the shape of their leaves in our dreams,
or yearn for the noise of those nameless birds
that sang and died in the church’s eaves.
Let us not speak of men,
stolen from their beds at night.
Let us not say the word
Let us not remember the first smell of rain.
Instead, let us speak of our lives now—
the gates and bridges and stores.
And when we break bread
in cafés and at kitchen tables
with our new brothers,
let us not burden them with stories
of war or abandonment.
Let us not name our old friends
who are unravelling like fairy tales
in the forests of the dead.
Naming them will not bring them back.
Let us stay here, and wait for the future
to arrive, for grandchildren to speak
in forked tongues about the country
we once came from.
Tell us about it, they might ask.
And you might consider telling them
of the sky and the coffee beans,
the small white houses and dusty streets.
You might set your memory afloat
like a paper boat down a river.
You might pray that the paper
whispers your story to the water,
that the water sings it to the trees,
that the trees howl and howl
it to the leaves. If you keep still
and do not speak, you might hear
your whole life fill the world
until the wind is the only word.