By Leslie Lindsay
Wildly thought-provoking medical, ethical, and genetic mystery, Dani Shapiro opens up about her journey of identity in INHERITANCE.
A Washington Post, Vulture, Bustle, Real Simple, PopSugar, and LitHub
Most Anticipated Book of 2019
A New York Times Bestseller
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of four memoirs, HOURGLASS, STILL WRITING, DEVOTION, and SLOW MOTION, and five novels including BLACK AND WHITE and FAMILY HISTORY. Her books span diverse subjects from her tumultuous upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community and the tragic death of her father to her explorations of spirituality and the nature of our deepest relationships.
Praise for INHERITANCE call it ‘important and timely,’ ‘beautiful but heartbreaking,’ and an ‘introspective mystery’ that is both ‘captivating and traumatic.’
I finished INHERITANCE (Knopf, January 15 2019) in just two sittings (but it could have been one if I had been more disciplined). Here, she begins with a lovely childhood memory of waking in the morning hours and scurrying to the bathroom where she perches on the sink to gaze at her reflection in the mirror.
Who is this girl?
Seems this question has pierced Ms. Shapiro’s consciousness all her life. Quite different in her appearance than other family members, Dani’s skin was/is lighter, her cheeks pink discs, and her hair–so golden she could have been used as a ‘bread-getter’ in Nazi Germany. But she was full-blooded Jewish. The only child of devout Orthodox Jews, Dani never had reason to question her paternity. Until her husband says, rather off-handedly, that he’s going to order away for one of those DIY DNA kits, and did Dani want one, too?
What results is a medical/genetic mystery: Dani is not her father’s daughter. So, who’s daughter is she? And what of her personal identity, her culture, her religion?
Ms. Shapiro writes with a gentle hand in this lyrical and deeply moving memoir. I was absolutely captivated and felt right there with her as she spun through time and memory. I felt her anguish and confusion, her defeat. And yet, she rises above it all–and just as any ‘good’ character, she is transformed from the experience.
Not only does Ms. Shapiro weave in childhood memories, but she also touches on the history of artificial insemination, flashbacks to her younger parents, and how family secrets and identity have played pivotal roles in her other memoirs, as well as novels.
INHERITANCE is presented in such a way that I found very captivating and even a few gasp-out-loud moments. This is one of those books that would make a good book discussion group–how many of us have used the services of Ancestry.com or 23andMe, or a similar test? What about genetics and ethics, and paternity…what would you have done in a similar situation?
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Dani Shapiro to the author interview series.
Dani, you open INHERITANCE by gazing at your face in the mirror. It was if you wanted to know and understand your reflection, but never quite connected because it looked radically different from the family you knew. For me, the opposite was true. My face looks staggeringly similar to my own mentally ill mother’s. I thought, ‘if I could look more like my dad, maybe I won’t become crazy?’ Can you talk about this, and how we are more than our outward appearance?
When I stared at my own face in the mirror as a child, I was searching for something I couldn’t have possibly articulated. Of course, we’re much more than our outward appearance, but in my case, my appearance – which was so starkly different from my parents – was a clue to my identity. I couldn’t have dared the thought that my beloved dad wasn’t my biological father – I was so bonded to him (and not to my mother) that it was out of the question. But that’s what the staring was about. My outward appearance did not match my inward sense of self, and the family I believed myself to have come from. If I had always known the truth, this feeling would have been different, I imagine. The secret was reflected back at me in the mirror.
Like you, I spit into a tube and mailed it in. I waited. I got the results. I thought I’d be half-German. I wasn’t, though it was there in smaller amounts. I felt some relief. Maybe I’m not my mother’s daughter after all. I also learned I’m a tiny part Jewish. And this cleared up a few things: like, why I sometimes call my daughter Bubbe. [a psychic once told me my daughter had once been my grandmother]. How do you think these DNA tests will affect future generations?
Well, I think that soon, there will be no more secrets, at least in this regard. Anonymity is a thing of the past. And I believe that in future generations, the idea that we ever kept such secrets from each other will seem ludicrous, unethical, just plain wrong.
You’ve been super-prolific in your writing career and INHERITANCE isn’t your first memoir. How does this one differ from the others? Or, does it?
I’ve written five novels and five memoirs. I turned from fiction to memoir because I was digging into questions about my family history (with the exception of Hourglass, my memoir before Inheritance, which is an inquiry into long-lasting marriage) and Inheritance answers those questions. In a sense, it’s as if all my previous books led to this one. With the discovery about my dad, and about the massive secret that was kept from me, I was given a lot of answers, and also a lot of questions. Which led to the writing of this book.
INHERITANCE is obviously deeply personal, but it’s also universal. We all desire to feel at ease with ourselves, to know who we ‘really’ are. Do we ever? Aren’t we always evolving? How can writers—especially those writing memoir—make a deep and lasting connection with their readers?
Writers of memoir would be well-advised to keep away from trying to write the “definitive” memoir, or, as I think of it, the “kitchen sink” memoir. Memoirs are stories. And good memoirs connect with readers when the specificity of a story connects with the universal thread. Though the writer can’t be sitting at her desk thinking “wait, is this universal?” That kind of question sets off the inner censor – which I write a lot about in my book Still Writing – the censor will stop you in your tracks. Indeed, we are always evolving. What we’re trying to do is pin down a particular story from a particular moment. The me-now examining what happened to the me-then. Therefore, there is never a definitive “got it” moment. And also, this is why it’s possible to write multiple memoirs, if one has that bent.
“Shapiro recognized that what she had experienced
was ‘a great story’—one that has inspired her best book.
“Before focusing on memoirs, Shapiro drew from her family life in her fiction. In her latest, she delves into an origin story that puts everything she previously believed and wrote about herself in fresh perspective.”
—KIRKUS, a starred review
I imagine the family you call Walden in INHERITANCE is supremely private. But I found them [mostly] warm and accepting in the narrative. Can you give us a bit of insight as to what is going on with them now that the book is available? How do they feel about this now?
Sorry, but I’m not talking about the Waldens beyond what happens in INHERITANCE. We are in each other’s lives, and they understandably would like our relationship to be private moving forward, as would I. It’s a lot for private people – even those whose identity I have protected – to have a book written about their experience. And I totally respect that.
Dani, it’s been such a pleasure and delight. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Well, I do think it’s interesting that so many people are making these discoveries because of easy and accessible DNA testing. Last year alone, twelve million people bought these kits. Many of those people – as much as 2% — are making discoveries that are intense for them. Hundreds of thousands of people are discovering that they didn’t know significant aspects of their own identities. It’s really staggering on so many levels
Oh! One more thing: what’s obsessing you? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Oat milk. Seriously.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of INHERITANCE, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: DANI SHAPIRO is the author of the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Also an essayist and a journalist, Shapiro’s short fiction, essays, and journalistic pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and many other publications. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University; she is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Knopf and used with permission. Family photos of the author courtesy of D. Shapiro and used with permission. Cover images of other Shapiro books retrieved from Knopf website. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram]