Today I am joined by the talented Tara Lynn Masih, author of My Real Name is Hanna. This YA historical fiction novel is out September 15th and has been featured on GoodReads’ Ultimate Fall Reading List for YA Fans! Told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl living during the Holocaust, this is a poignant and beautiful story about human connection and tenacity of spirit. Fans of The Book Thief should check this out!
Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.
Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
About the Author
Tara Lynn Masih has won multiple book awards as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. Author of My Real Name Is Hanna (a Skipping Stones Honor Award Book) and Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories, she has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, and The Caribbean Writer). Several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press and archived at such universities as Yale and NYU, and awards for her work include The Ledge Magazine‘s fiction award, The Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, a Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist fiction grant, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Webnominations.
Where did you get the inspiration for My Real Name is Hanna?
My family and I were watching a documentary, No Place on Earth, about Esther Stermer and her family and friends who lived in Ukraine during World War II and, for the most part, survived the Holocaust. We were riveted. The strength of Esther and the perseverance of her family, who hid in underground caves and battled fear, anxiety, starvation, and the Nazis, was inspiring to us all. I took the DVD back to the library but couldn’t forget the Stermers. I’m drawn to stories set in nature. We live so far apart from it now. Thinking of hiding in the bowels of the earth from the evil above, and the lessons we all could learn from the family on how to survive not just physically but emotionally gave me the drive to retell their story through my own fictional characters.
You’ve been published before, but My Real Name Is Hanna is your first novel. How did your writing process differ for this compared to, for example, your short stories? Was it a difficult adjustment?
It was very difficult for me to go from decades of condensing story to expanding on it for the first time. I was astounded when I finished the first real draft in three months. But it was full of holes and lots of problems. It took almost 5 years to get to the finished draft, with lots of help along the way. And as you can see, it’s still not an epic volume. But I think my training in short stories helped me to distill three years into a short novel.
Historical fiction tends to require a lot of research to be done well; what kind of research did you need to do for this book? What would you say is the most interesting thing you learned in your research?
Oh my, every kind of research. From food to birds to animals to customs to the war and the history of the region. Those first categories were fun and relatively easy to research. There is a wealth of research online these days for writers. However, the history of the region was incredibly complex. I can’t say I still know or understand it all. Ukraine has changed hands so many times. I feel for the country. I learned one reason is because of its fertile soil. So much of war and conquest is over trying to dominate the best land that contains water and grows crops.
For me, the most interesting research I did was on the Stermers themselves and how they were able to live underground for almost two years. Much of Ukrainian history was kept under wraps by the Russian government until the 1990s. And so few Jews survived in that part of the world. We’re lucky to have the Stermer autobiography and the work of caver Chris Nicola, who discovered their story and worked hard to preserve it. I encourage everyone who reads the book to watch the film. Hear the real voices, see the real survivors.
What made you decide to write this story as a YA novel specifically, vs. writing for any other age group?
I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a young girl, and I wanted to tell it in a relatively simple, almost fairy tale-like voice. I wanted the younger generation to read a story that hasn’t yet been told in a Holocaust novel. Everyone wants to be seen and heard in life. When voices are purposely ended, it’s a tragedy that goes beyond words. But we need to gather words as much as we can to retell each person’s story, for those who were silenced. As a writer, for me, the most important story I can tell is one that might make readers think differently about their lives or the lives of others.
What is one message that you hope your readers will take from My Real Name Is Hanna?
Be kind to everyone, but especially to those who you may view as different from yourself. Understand their worth, especially if they are being attacked in some way. Speak out, stand up. As a fellow human being, you have an obligation. It can happen again, and, in fact, it is happening on a smaller scale in places such as Syria and on the U.S. border.
You must have read a lot of books about the Holocaust. Can you recommend any to readers besides the obvious bestsellers?
I did read a lot. Irena’s Children, by Tilar Mazzeo, is an amazing biography about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children at great personal cost. We need to read about more positive role models these days. Another biography that had a huge impact on me was Greg Dawson’s Hiding in the Spotlight, about his own talented, beautiful mother, who played piano for the Nazis without their knowing she was Jewish. Hence, the title. Hasen, a classic from the 1970s by Reuben Bercovitch, is a beautifully written and tragic tale about two boys hiding from the Nazis in the woods. It should be read more than I suspect it is. Finally, The Were Like Family to Me, by Helen Maryles Shankman, is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read, set in the real town of Włodawa, Poland. As mentioned there are few fictional books set in this part of the world during the Holocaust, and her stories are layered, remarkable, and important and based in part on real historical figures and her own family.
What author has most influenced your own writing?
This may seem odd, but I’d have to say Mark Twain. Hearing his words read aloud in fourth grade are what made me fall in love with story writing. I loved his lyricism and his descriptions of the natural world and his willingness to take on tough cultural topics. It’s a coincidence that his words from Joan of Arc made it to the part openers of my novel, but a happy one, for me.
Many thanks for Tara for participating in this interview! Her newest book is available for purchase 09/15/18, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s sure to be a well-deserved success.