Feeld conversations: Felicia Berliner
October 30th, 2023
The New York based author of Shmutz talks love languages, the Torah, and the act of translating sex for the page.
“So this is what a woman does! Shaves her shmundie, takes a man in her mouth, eats without saying a blessing first.”
—Shmutz, by Felicia Berliner
In the novel Shmutz, a young Hasidic woman named Raizl gets access to a laptop. Though she’s only supposed to use her computer for schoolwork, she quickly develops an addiction to online porn. Raizl oscillates between two different worlds: by day she is a dutiful student and daughter, meeting with potential future husbands that her parents are setting her up with. By night, she is exploring the deepest recesses of her desires. Soon, she has difficulty keeping these worlds separated.
Written in Yiddish-inflected English, Shmutz is a funny, sexy, and empathetic read about finding the right words to express what you want. Author Felicia Berliner has an MFA from Columbia University, and currently lives in New York. Feeld spoke with Berliner about love languages, the influence of the Torah, and the act of translating sex for the page.
Feeld: How familiar were you with Yiddish before writing Shmutz?
Felicia Berliner: Yiddish was the secret language that my grandmother and father used when they didn't want me to understand what they were talking about. I would say my familiarity was more about the parts of a chicken soup than anatomy. I definitely learned a lot of anatomical Yiddish along with Raizl. It was really fun to think about her exploring and learning Yiddish, and to think about what it would be like to learn the vast secular Yiddish that exists for sex along with my character.
What was that research into anatomical Yiddish like?
I felt like anything Raizl would encounter online would be fair game. She's a smart young woman. She's got a secret connection to the internet, and she was exploring. This is really a book about discovery, exploration, sexual curiosity, and anything that she could find online, she could react to, and that's what ended up in the book.
There's one passage where Raizl doesn't like the words she hears in a video — titty — and she doesn't have a good Yiddish equivalent, so she makes up her own word, titte. The book calls this "Raizlish." How do you see different romantic and erotic concepts translating across different languages?
Yiddish itself is a language that's an amalgam of other languages. By definition, if you're speaking Yiddish, and if you're a native Yiddish speaker in Brooklyn the way Raizl is, you’re constantly doing what I've learned to call translanguaging. She's using different languages; she's doing a mashup of the Yiddish that she's heard growing up, English that she knows, the English that she's heard online in porn videos, and the Yiddish she's discovered online.
Creating her own new language called Raizlish is an even bigger amalgamation than just Yiddish. She's finding ways through language to express her multidimensional identity, and refusing to give up on any aspect of her identity through language, through creating words that have the kind of sound and rhythm and familiarity and comfort of Yiddish, but which are also influenced by what she has seen by pornography, and her explorations in English online.
It was pretty fun to create Raizlish, and to think about how she's absorbing through her ear and processing her experience to create this new language, and to “language” herself into identity. I think readers are going to have multiple ways of pronouncing the words in Raizlish, and of course there's no right answer. All answers are good with a spirit of celebration.
In one chapter, Raizl is touching herself watching pornography. The paragraph is written in a mix of English and Yiddish and as she approaches climax, the chapter ends with the word "oyyyyyyyy." All the extra Y's are a really good representation of where she is mentally. What are the limits in representing sex through the written word?
I wanted Shmutz to use a very embodied language. Yiddish is a very embodied language, it sounds good, it has a texture. Some people have said just the title — Shmutz — makes them laugh. I think [the word] shmutz is funny, and I like that humor. I want that humor. I think Raizl also appreciates it. "Oy," there's a kind of onomatopoeia. There's a way in which it sounds the way that it feels. The sound reflects the meaning. Yiddish has that dimension to it.
I think Yiddish is a great love language. Using Yiddish, creating Raizlish, having the book itself be this amalgam of languages, was a way to express Raizl's multiple identities within the frame of language. That includes her sexual experience, her experience with pleasure. The book is a celebration of curiosity, of pleasure for her.
The title is great. The cover is also great.
The designer is fantastic. Her name is Laywan Kwan. I asked her about her process. She said she did research into food and clothing to really understand Raizl's background more. I certainly was looking for a design that would not use pictorial representation in a traditional sense. Something streamlined [instead]. I think that cover really expresses the way Raizl’s Jewish identity and her sexual identity are completely intertwined.
What were some formative books for you?
I would say the Torah was a formative book for me. The way that the Torah is read on multiple levels and that there is a kind of straightforward literal meaning as well as a metaphoric one. What's considered a secret or mystical meanings; I love that idea of text that is intended to be read on multiple levels, and I certainly hope Shmutz works that way too.
Toni Morrison; I'm actually rereading Beloved. It's just so incredible. I've read various Toni Morrison novels over the years, and I hear the biblical resonances in her work.
I'll give a shoutout to Maggie Nelson. I love her work. I have an epigraph in Shmutz from The Argonauts. I think she is a bold, fierce, beautiful writer. I love that Shmutz is a novelistic expression of what I put in the epigraph, which is that the binary of normative and transgressive is unsustainable. What does it look like for those socially imposed binaries to be unsustainable for a character, for Raizl? And yet she finds a way forward. The book is about taking Maggie Nelson's writing to heart, and a protest against those socially imposed binaries.
What books are on your nightstand?