I grew up in a family of voices. Not because I had an especially large family (I am one of three children) but because our house was full of languages, full of the melodies and mysteries of other countries and cultures. Whenever I answered the phone, I expected to hear an accent on the other end: someone calling my mother in Russian, Polish, Hebrew. She spoke seven languages, one of which, Swedish, she shared with my father as their private code, a language from the country where both had found refuge immediately following the end of World War II. Sweden was where they had found love too, and so that melody was for me both the sound of exile and the sound of romance. Early in my life I learned that the music of foreign tongues meant an echo from the past, a sometimes unspoken history carrying with it layers of joy and sadness, longing and liberation.
There was an even more secret language than Swedish in my family, and although it too was shared between my parents, German remained almost entirely hidden from my audible universe. Both my siblings and I were forbidden to study it in school, even though it was the language my father spoke with his own father on the occasions of our get-togethers. One Passover, I remember my father holding an astonishingly resurrected edition of his old German Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. I had never seen it before; he must have hidden it in some dark closet, forgotten even by him. We had a Russian family at our seder that year, and our dining room resonated with at least four languages, including the long-silent sound of my father’s native tongue. That same year he and I traveled together to visit Hamburg, the city of his childhood, and I heard him speak German as if he had never left. But I also heard in his voice the language of his incarceration in a concentration camp, and the language of the invaders whose presence in my mother’s native Poland forced her into hiding during the war. I heard the sounds of suffering and, somehow, of survival.
With my parents determined to assimilate in America, my own vocabulary remained stubbornly English, even in the presence of so many other possibilities. When I began to write, I listened carefully for the sound of my own voice, and eventually for the voices of my characters. In writing my novel The Speed of Light, I discovered that each one of my three characters needed equal permission to tell the story, and slowly I realized that the shape of this book would be a kind of braid, a narrative with alternating first person threads. In the process of writing, it became clear to me that my characters were actually revealing the redemptive power of storytelling, the power of language, in any dialect, to carry the pieces of the past into the present—and into the future. Sharing stories could allow for the possibility of connecting each of us--with our intricate shadows, our joys and our sorrows--with the lives of others, and most importantly, with those we love.