History in the Street: Leela Corman on Unterzakhn


I’m a highly self-conscious New Yorker — arrived here four years ago and immediately started walking the city obsessively, tucking the map of it under my skin, tattooing the streets on my brain and in my muscle memory. I’m also a writer and a Yiddish-speaker, so when I got hold of Leela Corman’s graphic novel, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for ‘underthings’), I was electrified. The book is drawn in a cartoony, film-reel, black-and-white style, and it tells the story of Esther and Fayna, Jewish twin sisters growing up on the Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side of New York in 1909.

Over the course of the next two decades, the sisters engage in very different ways with the experience of being a woman in the city. Esther becomes first a prostitute and then an actress, while Fayna works in a health clinic; each of them deals closely with negotiations of language and home. The sisters are highly sympathetic characters, sexy and funny and sad and human — both of their time and relatably modern, while Unterzakhn is very much of New York — in language, in history — without feeling dated or historical. I talked over email with Leela Corman — who’s also a visual artist and professional belly dancer — about New York, storytelling, history, and performance.

How did you start getting interested in New York, and the Lower East Side in particular?
I’m a native New Yorker. We learned NYC history in elementary school before we learned American history. I’ve been steeped in New York all of my life. It’s in my bones. As for the LES, I may be the only Jew from NYC whose family never came through there. It was simply the natural setting for my characters’ live to take place in.

How did you go about depicting the city visually in Unterzakhn? And why did you decide to tell the story in graphic form, when I feel like so much of the book is about language (Yiddish, English, Russian, women’s talk) and storytelling?
Why ask a visual artist why she uses visuals to tell a story? I’m not a prose writer. Luckily, the LES was one of the most photographed neighborhoods at the time my book takes place, because it was a magnet for social reformers and the like. So I had copious amounts of source material. I work with pictures. It’s like working with actors but better, because I don’t have to pay them or talk to them.

Why did you decide to work with Yiddish? Do you feel like it still has a place in the character of the city? And especially, one that’s not just purely nostalgic?
The family in the book are Ashkenazi. So Yiddish is one of the languages they speak. And yes, it plays a huge role in New York still, and in American language and culture, especially comedy. I just came back from France, where a TV interviewer said to me, “You know, in the U.S., you don’t have any Yiddish humor. In France, we have this.” When I stopped laughing I gave him a lecture about Woody Allen and vaudeville. I mean, really. I love France, and they have their own excellent traditions of humor. But it ain’t Yiddish.

Speaking of vaudeville and performance, do you feel like the physical connection to place — and the sensuality in your book — ties in at all to your work as a belly dancer?
Probably. I’m a very physically active person. It’s the counter to all those hours spent at a desk. It also helps when drawing people in motion, to understand movement from the inside.

With a book, the reader gets to have an intimate, individual experience. But if New York is a text (as you mentioned in an interview with the Forward) or layered histories, how does the “reader” manage to have that kind of experience in a public, physical space? Is it even possible?
Sure, if you’re observant. It’s everywhere, even in the New York of today, which is so corporate, where so much has been effaced. All you have to do is look up, look around, understand a little of the history of what you’re looking at. When were these buildings constructed and who designed them? Look at that old sign painted on the side of that building with that defunct phone number on it, look at that crumbling cornice. What was here before us? Look at that great old typeface. Actually, the artist who does this best is Ben Katchor. His Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer is basically a long reading of the city as a palimpsest.

In another book I’m reading at the moment, The Measure of Manhattan, Marguerite Holloway calls New York “a place where we can feel and see several eras at once, a place where environmental imagination permits simultaneity, rare wonderful moments, these places allow time travel and size shifting. Different maps become transparent and overlapping.” Where do New York’s overlaps appear most vividly for you?
Well, see my answer above, but to get more specific, the LES is a good place to see that. Chinatown as well, and parts of Brooklyn. I don’t know if that’s going to change irrevocably now with glassy condos everywhere. It’s amazing how easy it is to erase history in NYC.

I feel like it’s more a tension with history. There are definitely parts of the LES that still feel very working-class, lots of immigrants — I’m thinking Two Bridges — but it’s also become this hip place to go out, a place that’s too expensive for immigrants to live there. A tenement is now a desirable walk-up — how to share those spaces?
I love the revival of history there. I think it’s very heartening in a neighborhood where crumbling tenements that have been painted so many times the corners are round now cost an ungodly amount of rent, and that’s now so high-fashion. It’s now a neighborhood for the kind of people who actually like to pay full price, how about that? Who are those people? Don’t they know what chumps they are? Everyone who moves there should be given a copy of Luc Sante’s Low Life. I’m all for people knowing their history. I don’t think we can even ask “can these spaces be shared?” The time for that has passed. In New York, all spaces are shared, except in the most exclusive districts.

And what about the revival of history (the Tenement Museum, Pushcart Coffee, Hester Street Fair) that’s happening in the neighborhood?
[D]o the immigrants from the Midwest and such know what they’re moving into? Do they understand that they’re just the latest wave? Hopefully places like the Tenement Museum and the Eldridge Street Museum help with that. They keep the experience real and they keep the city at the forefront, with respect for what’s gone before. Now when’s someone going to do a museum dedicated to the Lower East Side of the second half of the 20th century, huh? That’s something I’d like to see. Trash fires! Smack! Flophouses! Get on it, guys! [Ed: Check out the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, in the storefront of C-Squat on Avenue C!]

One more thing: I know you’ve done a few short, riffing comics with Esther and Fanya, but do you plan on writing more about New York, about cities? What are the ideas that stick in your head?
Maybe. New York is always something I come back to. But my next couple of projects are about other places and times. Right now I’m concerned mainly with history, especially more distant times. I’m always interested in cities, because they’re the intersections of cultures that otherwise wouldn’t mix. They’re often laboratories of tolerance. I read a great description of the Mongol capital of Qaraqorum that made me want a time machine. So that’s why I keep working with historical subject matter — I can’t physically go back, so I have to read about it and imagine the intimate human lives there.