Hotel Amerika Introduces its new Interview Series

Beginning with an interview by one of our editors, Liz Gower, with

The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible author Aviya Kushner

About the interviewee: 

Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible(Spiegel & Grau / Random House), a 2015 National Jewish Book Award finalist and a 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature finalist. Her writing appears nationally and internationally, in publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, The International Jerusalem Post, and Zoetrope: All-Story; she has been nominated for a Puschart Prize in poetry, and one of her essays was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015.

She has been awarded grants from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature and the Illinois Arts Council, as well as residencies from Writers’ Omi at Ledig House and the Vermont Studio Center. Once a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post, she is now an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches creative writing and translation. She is also a contributing editor for A Public Space and a mentor for The National Yiddish Book Center.

About The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible: 

In this eye-opening chronicle, Kushner tells the story of her vibrant relationship to the Bible, and along the way illustrates how the differences in translation affect our understanding of our culture’s most important written work. A fascinating look at language and the beliefs we hold most dear, The Grammar of God is also a moving tale about leaving home and returning to it, both literally and through reading.


Aviya Kushner is a writer and editor living in Chicago, IL.  She has worked as a Hebrew translator, a travel writer for The International Jerusalem Post, and an editor for A Public Space. Her poems, essays, and short stories are published in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, and more.  Kushner is also the director of the Creative Nonfiction M.F.A. program at Columbia College Chicago. I first met her as one of her students in an undergraduate course on nonfiction literature, where she introduced a memoir-heavy major to M.F.K. Fisher, Mark Strand, and James Baldwin.

On the mostly secular campus, Kushner is considered extremely religious, something she laughs off easily after a childhood in a community where she wasn’t considered religious enough.  When I heard she had a new book coming out, Grammar of God (Random House, August 2015) – a nonfiction work that’s part memoir, part biblical commentary – I asked her to sit down and chat about the experience of writing her first book, growing up in a Hebrew-speaking house, and what exactly makes Grammar of God such a necessary, timely work.

I: How does this Grammar of God appeal to non-religious readers?  In what ways does it do so?

A:  I’ll quote my brother, actually.  My youngest brother said something to me that I thought was really fascinating.  He said that one of the few things that religious people and secular people agree on is that the Bible matters, that the Bible is a major text.  So, secular people may not believe in the Bible and might not think it’s the word of God, but they do think it’s had a major effect on world culture.  I thought that was interesting, because if you’re a religious person or a secular person, you may not agree on what to wear or if church is worth going to, but probably both groups have read the Bible.  This is a text that we share.  So Grammar of God isn’t a religious book.  It’s a book about language and the power of translation—what it does to all of us.  I don’t think it’s about faith or spirituality, and I have no desire to convert other people.  It’s not really what I’m about.  But I do think that the language of the Bible has been forgotten and lost by large parts of American culture, and by extension world culture.  I thought that was worth talking about.

I:  What do you hope readers will take away from Grammar Of God and your work in general?

A: [Laughs] I don’t know if I really thought about it.  The main thing I wanted was to give English readers a window into Hebrew.  I will have succeeded if educated readers think about the Bible as a translation.  I was very disturbed to continually meet educated people, other writers, who would ask what language the Bible was written in.  No one says, “did Dante write in Italian?  Or in Serbian?”  Everyone recognizes that The Inferno was written in Italian.  Somehow, the fact that the Bible was written in Hebrew seems to be forgotten by a lot of people.  So what does it mean if you’re reading a translated text as your holy text?  That was the first thing I wanted people to think about.  The second is, I grew up speaking Hebrew, and I want to give English-speakers a taste of Hebrew.  I want to give them a sense of what’s there and to maybe think about reading three or four or five translations before you say, ‘the Bible says…’  or before you make a law based on the Bible; before you, as a politician, give a major address quoting the Bible – not crediting the translator and not thinking about the fact that really, you are delivering a translator’s version of a text.

I:  Do you mind getting a little political here?  What do you think it means that we are making laws based on translations?

A:  I’m very concerned actually.  Even though we, in the United States, have the concept of separation of church and state, I still think it’s important to understand that the Bible is beneath some keys laws we have.  And, maybe because I worked as a financial journalist, I can tell you something I thought a lot about is bankruptcy law.  In the United States, if you’re late on a payment, it stays on your credit report for seven years.  If you, God forbid, go into foreclosure – seven years on your credit report.  It’s from the Bible!  It’s from Deuteronomy.  Every seven years you get rid of your debts.  That’s where it’s coming from.  Now, do I think if you go into bankruptcy it should stay on your credit report forever?  No.  But we, as a country, should have a discussion.  Do we think our sense of morality should come from the Bible?  Maybe it should, and maybe it shouldn’t.  But, I think the most secular person in America—when they’re late on a credit card they’re actually getting subject to a biblically influenced financial law.  And that does concern me.  That translation may more or less be accurate, but remember other things on the seven-year plan are when a slave can go free and things like that.  So the number seven, the correlation between seven, debt, and freedom, is absolutely straight from the Bible.

I: You’ve worked as a translator.  How do you get that clarity? How do you find it?  Or do you think all translations are going to lack something?

A:  Is clarity your number one focus?  Should it be?  What if you’re translating something that isn’t clear?  What if you’re translating something that has a double or triple meaning, as a lot of biblical phrases do?  What do you do?  Well, I don’t translate ancient work, I translate contemporary, so it is different.  But I have a lot of the same issues.  I’m fortunate that my most recent two translation projects have been with living authors, so we can discuss and we can talk about it, but I have a lot of the same problems.  Languages are not equivalent.  I can see the challenges with translating grammar and punctuation, these are real live problems.   But with ancient texts, and with a text that so many consider holy, it’s even worse.

So I started out being shocked, disturbed, by biblical translations.  But as time went on I had more and more empathy for them.

I:  Assuming you speak and read the language, would you rather read a translated piece or the original one?  Or both?

A:  If I can read the language, I’ll read the original.  However, if there’s a translation by a great writer, I’ll want to read it.  If there’s a translation by someone I know is a fabulous translator, I might take a look.  But in general, if something is in Hebrew or French, I’ll read it in the original language.  I would never just read a translation and not the original if I knew the original language.  I want to see things, like are the stanza lengths the same if it’s poetry? What’s the look of the poem? I try to see the original.

I: You talk about the aspect of loss in translation a lot in Grammar of God.  Were you ever able to put your finger on what exactly gets lost in translation?  What is that magic the original Hebrew version of the Bible has that English translation lacks?

A: I think that one of the big things is that biblical Hebrew is very multilayered.  It’s a condensed language, a rich language; it has a lot of texture for that reason.  The other thing that biblical Hebrew has is that it’s often ambiguous.  And when you read translations, you get the false impression that it’s clear.  The Bible is not clear in many key points, and that, to me, is both worrisome and damaging, because many things that people have been arguing about for thousands of years become simple declarative sentences in English with no doubt whatsoever.  And I was very concerned. I thought that was part of the gulf between secular and religious people.  I think if secular people understood how ambiguous, how wild, how multilayered this text actually was, they wouldn’t view it as this oppressive force it’s been made out to be.  It’s just not true.  It is not one-sided.

I:  You didn’t want this to be a spiritual book, but your spirituality does impact your work.  Or does it?  Does your spirituality and religion impact your work, or vice versa?

A:  I struggled with this. I think there are two aspects to writing about the Bible in translation that stunned me.  The first is all the stuff about language, and I tried to write about that.  The second is, in the Jewish community at least, the Bible is lived.  And I thought was important to get across.  To do that, I had to discuss some elements of spirituality and religion. And the only way to do that was to talk about Judaism as a living thing and how the Bible fits into that.  The Bible is something that’s full of laughter; it’s full of love.  It is a book of law, of creation—that’s why I like the section titles.  They accurately convey that aspect.  It’s hard to separate. I feel like Jewish texts have influenced my life very much, but I don’t know that writing has influenced how I feel about Judaism.  Everything you do fits in who you are as a person, and fits into who you are as a writer.

I will say it’s very uncool to be a writer writing about spirituality.  I think it’s because artists are questioners.  And a lot of people see religion as being about not questioning a belief.  Those two don’t go together.

I:  Is there anything you question?

A: I question a lot!  I mean, I don’t see it that way, but I think that there’s a lot of doubt and questioning that’s a part of Judaism, that’s part of all faith, but that’s not the way that a lot of people see it.  And I feel fortunate that I grew up in a family where discussing things was encouraged.  But to be fair, that’s not how all religious households are.

I:  That’s true; there are some that are very strict.  Some of the most poignant scenes in the book are of your family around the table—specifically where your sister is compared to Abraham, because she so dutifully goes about her work.  When you were growing up and you would talk about the grammar of the Bible, of the nuances, did you ever think it was odd?  That it wasn’t what other families did?

A:  No, I mean, we still talk about it.  I was just home for the Passover Seder, and of course, every five seconds someone has a grammar issue—that’s just how it goes. Now that people have married in, it was my brother-in-law getting into it.  There’s a lot of discussion.  We have a French translation, a German translation, a Spanish translation, so there’s a lot of discussion about that.  Every year several family members argue that aspects of a story shouldn’t be there.  Which isn’t your traditional religious view, that it’s all holy and should all be there.  That’s not how I grew up!

But if you spend a lot of time reading Jewish texts, you’ll see that it’s all argument; it’s all disagreement.  And a lot of it is about grammar.  So, I thought it was normal. I thought everyone talked about this stuff.  My parents were always talking about it. My siblings were talking about it.  Even now, my little niece is five years old and she is able to recognize the differences.  Because her grandma is talking about!  She’s growing up with a sense of discussion, of maybe yes and maybe no.  And when I took that class about the Bible at Iowa, I realized that, oh my God, there are all these really smart people who just read and are okay with it and don’t discuss.

I:  You said writers in general are questioners.  Do you think growing up like that has led you to become a better writer?  Because you grew up always questioning?  Not just the Bible but in general?

A:  Absolutely.  Without a doubt.  I was taught to always look at multiple points of view.

I:  Are there any boundaries in your work?

A:  It’s been very hard to figure out, and I don’t think I ever will.  There are things I can’t do because I have an attachment to Judaism.  For example, if I get asked to speak on a Friday night using a microphone, I won’t do it on a Shabbat.  It’s a small thing. People are surprised.  I won’t work on Jewish holidays, as I think all my students know.  And the arts are tough—you probably shouldn’t turn opportunities, but I have.  I’m sure there’s been some opportunity cost.  I think a lot of my writing – I write short fiction, too, and poetry, essays—and I think a lot of it is people struggling between two different ideas.  And I think a lot of it is because I’ve spent a lot of time struggling between doubt and belief.

I:  What are other influences on your work beyond religion and family?

A:  I think I’m really interested in visual art, so I spend a lot of time looking at paintings—

I:  Like the copy of Mark Strand’s Hopper sitting there on your desk?

A: [Laughs] Yeah.  I was an Art History major in college.  One of my closest friends is a painter, and we lived together at one point.  So I feel I know a lot of painters, and I spend a lot of time thinking about that.  I also played piano for much of my life, so I think music fits into my work too.  And I know a lot of people just want to stay home and write, but I find travel very inspiring.  I travel a lot, and I think that helps me, too.  Different places give me ideas on what I want to think about.  I’m really interested in the conversation between cultures, and I really feel that when I travel.

I:  Speaking of travelling, you spent a lot of time in Jerusalem as a writer and translator.  Did that influence Grammar of God at all?

A:  When I lived in Jerusalem, I was writing a travel column for the International Jerusalem Post, so I think… Israel, the gulf between Israel and the United States did influence a lot of this book.  Israelis look at Judaism closer to the way my family does—my mother is Israeli, so part of that is what’s going on.  I think the major thing is, I came to Iowa right after Jerusalem.  I had just come from this environment where religion really mattered, where people were taking individual lines of the Bible really seriously and were willing to fight to the death over them.  And some of them felt the same way about lines in the Koran.  There was a connection between religion and violence that was clear to me.

Beyond that, when I was in Marilynne Robinson’s class, I took a particular Bible with me every day, and the circumstances of how I bought that Bible were something I thought about a lot.  There were a lot of bombings when I was in Jerusalem during the second intifada.  One day there was a bombing in this very famous open-air fruit and vegetable market called Machane Yehuda.  And I was there when loud, loud sounds…  I mean knew it was a bomb. I realized later just how close I was.  Several people died that day, a woman who was the daughter of a politician died.  She was 28 years old, and I was 26 at the time. I remember spending a lot of time thinking about whether I would ever see my next birthday, because I just kept coming so close.  I was terrified I would never be 27—that’s what I was thinking about, which is kind of funny.  So I ran down the street, and I went into a used bookstore and a lot of other people had the same idea.  There were maybe 20 or 30 people crammed into this used bookstore, and this girl came in, about my age, and she said to the bookseller, “I just realized I don’t have a Tanakh in my house.”  She was as secular as they come, she was clearly—she had her jeans and her open shirt.  And she said, “do you have a Bible?”  And he replied, “well, what kind of Bible?”  She said, “I don’t care.  What about the Bible they give you in the army?”  The Israeli army gives every soldier a Bible, and since many of them are secular, they rush to sell it to a used bookstore!

We were all shell-shocked, and the way bombs worked at the time is, they would try to attack with a second round, trying to attack the first responders.  We all knew that. We all knew there would be a second bomb, or even a third bomb, and what happened was bombs were studded with nails that were dipped in rat poison.  And we knew that even if we were down the street, the nails would fly.  So no one was leaving this bookstore. I still remember the sound of horses outside—you almost never heard horses, but the police were on horseback trying to get there as quickly as possible.  So, I’m in this bookstore, the horses are going up and down, and she’s buying a Bible.

I don’t know what came over me, but I was like, “can I get the same thing?”  And the seller said, “you want one, too?”  He couldn’t believe it.  It was kind of like ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ you know?  I had a Bible in my house, but I wanted hers.  Kind of like that.  So I bought that Bible, and I took it to Iowa – and it was just the perfect size to fit in my backpack when I took that class.  And every time I picked it up I remembered that feeling of running down the street and basically being killed because of who you are.  And just remembering that fear of thinking I would die—that whole first year at Iowa I was traumatized.  It went away, but in the beginning, I really was afraid.  Every time I looked at that Bible, it brought me back to that moment.

When I first came to Iowa, I would look at the undergraduates, and I thought they had such a sense of safety.  At that age in Israel everyone is in the army, but I didn’t feel safe at all.  How could I?  That experience stays with you.  I had the experience of a bomb killing someone two years older than me, of taking nails with rat poison out of an old woman’s skin—you don’t forget stuff like that, even though you try so you can get through the day.  So I would glance at this Bible, and I would remember.

I:  And that’s the mindset you had when you started writing the skeleton of this book as your graduate thesis?

A:  That’s right.  I will say, I wrote “How It All Began” very late.  Because when I was done, I realized no one understood where this was coming from.  I had to go back in time.  But when I was starting, I was just coming from Jerusalem.  I was in a mindset of “this is very serious,” which, people in Middle America, in the Mid-West, didn’t feel.  Maybe now with the other stuff, ISIS, maybe they understand—I don’t know.  Maybe they understand more.  But I very much felt that there were things going on, that we were seeing an increase in something frightening.  I felt there was something going on with the view of religion and politics that was a threat to everyone.

I:  What are you working on next?

A:  While working on Grammar of God, at some point I started thinking to myself, what kind of person spends years of their life writing on the Bible?  I just felt like such a freak.  I’m not super religious; I never wanted to be a priest or a rabbi at all.  So how did this happen?  What sort of person wants to write about the Bible?  And to answer that question I started investigating the personal lives of biblical commentators throughout history.  So my next project is based on the personal life of one such commentator.  A twelfth century figure.  That’ll be the next book.

I:  Are you envisioning more of a biography or—?

A:  I think it’s going to be a multiple genre work.  I’m deep in, so I’ve been working on it for years now, and that grew out of this.  But it started from asking, who does this stuff?  And why?  I found that, in many cases, there was a very dramatic story and a very dramatic reason why someone would do that, because biblical commentary really is a decades long project.  If you think of anything you want to do for thirty years or more, there’s usually a lot of passion involved.  In some way, many commentators were mavericks in their era. They didn’t agree with some aspect of their time.  Maybe they were deeply feminist, for instance, or they had an unusual view of religion, or they saw history in a way their contemporaries did not.  Or, they viewed language in a different way.  But, they were at odds with the majority view of their time.  They were rebels, and that’s the exact opposite of what you think when you think about the Bible.

I:  Are you hoping to publish that book, or anything else, at large publishing houses in the future?

A:  Well, this was my first book, so it was my first time.  I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I was lucky to have a really amazing editor, and I hope I have another amazing editor, no matter which house.  I feel really lucky to have worked with Cindy Spiegel.  I have no idea what the future will be, but I wish myself an editor with as high of standards as her.  It can be challenging to work with someone with such high standards, but in the end, it makes a better book, and I’m very grateful for that.

I:  You start Grammar of God by saying it isn’t so important what you learn so long as you keep learning.  In what ways do you continue to learn?

A:  I feel like this is a real challenge—how do you keep learning? I’ve done a lot of book reviewing, and I think that’s a great way to learn, to read books by authors you don’t know about subjects you don’t know about.  I also think I learn a lot by teaching, I learn from my students.  Especially at a school like Columbia College Chicago, there are students from various backgrounds, and I’m always learning about that.  I learn about what it’s like to grow up in different neighborhoods with different value systems, and that’s really important.  I’ve also always learned by talking to everyone, which I recommend.  I live in a building in Chicago that’s all refugees, and I love doing my laundry.  I learn so much!  I don’t like doing my laundry, but I like going to the laundry room.  I like talking to the old ladies in my building and the Somali and Bosnian refugees about why they left, when they left—I live in a building my parents call “the United Nations.”  It’s fascinating just to hear different people’s stories.  So it doesn’t matter how you learn.  Yeah, you could be in a classroom, but you could be in a laundry room.

I:  What is your favorite biblical passage?

A:  I don’t know if I have one!

It would definitely be Isaiah; there are a lot of sections I really like.  I don’t know, maybe I would say Isaiah 40:1—“comfort, o comfort my people,” in Hebrew it’s really beautiful.  What’s interesting is that phrase has inspired a lot of writers.  For example, Isaak Babel.

I don’t know that I can pick one, though!  There’s a lot that are so, so beautiful, it’s hard to pick.  What’s funny is that I could answer that question for every member of my family, just not for me.

I:  “Law” mentions that, as a precocious ten year-old, you thought you were beginning to understand the Bible as your parents did.  As you are know, do you think you understand it as they do, or less?  Or more?

A:  I actually feel the more time passes the less I feel I know.  I think anyone who really reads the Bible and commentary realizes how little one person can ever know.  It’s basically the project of several lifetimes to understand that book.  It’s very rich and very complicated.  But I think a lot of it, the tone and character, is something very individual.  How do you hear tone?  In your regular life, do you hear something as inquisitive?  As angry?  As hopeful?  As rude?  Some of that is what you bring to the table, how you understand.  And maybe this is the writer talking; maybe a scholar would feel different.  A scholar might say, “I can prove this and this and this.”  But I think a lot of this book was about feeling.  How do I quantify feeling?  I feel that Hebrew and English are different; how do I explain that to another person?  Like with Abraham and Sarah, my dad feels very deeply that she chuckles to herself, and I’ve never believed that.  I was trying to help English readers understand, to see that something like, “and she laughed—“

I: Isn’t just, “and she laughed?”

A:  Exactly.  I wanted to make people a little more curious, a little more inquisitive.  Biblical Hebrew is rarely simple.

I:  How did it feel putting the personal elements of family religion to the page?

A:  This is one of the reasons the book took a long time.  I really was torn; I didn’t know how I felt about it.  It started as my thesis.  I didn’t plan it to be a book. It was not meant for public view, and then suddenly, it was.  I struggled with how to convey the multilayered nature of the Bible, the ambiguity, the fact that it is a lived text, and all the grammar of it in a way that is interesting.  And no matter what I did, I really felt that without the people of home, it just wasn’t that interesting.  If I just wrote an essay on punctuation in the Bible, I don’t know that it would be that interesting.  I don’t think there’s anything in Grammar of God that is scholarly at all. There’s nothing ground breaking.  Most of what I talk about is familiar to someone who knows Hebrew well.

And yet, many educated English readers have no idea.  So somehow, this hasn’t been conveyed.  Many literary readers miss things like the names.  Jonathan means “God gave,” and you should know that.  Joshua, “God saved.”  And Jesus is a variant of that—the savior.  It’s a Hebrew word!  People have lost that.  I’m not sure if I wrote an essay on names of the Bible if that would be so exciting to read.  I wanted it to have the charm, the warmth, and the humor of home because to me the Bible is home.

The way I look at is, I only talked about elements of language and translation—there’s nothing in there about my parents’ weight or their financial status.  It’s not a tell-all memoir.  I tried to only write about what’s related to the Bible.  And that meant that some family members who talk about the Bible more were represented more than those who do not.  My mother is more interested in grammar than a few of my siblings, so she gets more space.  I did struggle. I had everybody read it.  But in the end, I hope the portraits were warm, and I hope they were relevant to language.  That’s really what I tried to do.  And if they weren’t relevant, I took them out.  I really didn’t know any other way to make the point that the Bible is a living thing without including living people.  Having a conversation with my brother just made it more immediate than quoting some rabbi who lived a thousand years ago.  Everyone quoted is contemporary, I didn’t see any other way.  Grammar was interesting to me because it was interesting to my family, and so I presented it in that way.

I:  What would you say about Grammar of God to convince someone non-religious, or even non-Jewish, to pick it up?

A:  Honestly, I really hope this book is read by people of different faiths.  I’d really like to see a conversation about the Bible in translation in our culture.  I would like to see a discussion about translating the Bible and what it means to all of us.  Whether you’re Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or none of the above, the Bible has influenced your life if you’re a citizen of the world.  At the very least, you should take an interest in the story of the Bible and how it got to you, and you should consider the history when you read the newspaper, when you look at legal texts, and even when you pay your credit card bill because it’s a part of all of it!  You don’t have to believe in it, you don’t have to think it’s holy, but you ignore it at your own peril.  And I think you may not realize how deeply it influenced our culture.  I think at least if you investigate that, you can question it.  You don’t have to agree with it, but you can recognize and question it.  I wanted to show that, deep in the Bible itself, there is a tradition of questioning.  And I wanted to show it isn’t heretical to question, it’s actually an act of faith.

I hope people talk about it.  The Bible is a minefield, but I hope that people will go back to the Bibles they grew up with. I hope that they’ll look at other Bibles. I hope that they’ll just consider how the version of the Bible they read has affected their world. Just think about it and to be willing to look at another version.  I think, religious or secular, whatever you are, it’s extremely educational to read other religious texts.  And I hope that happens, too.  I think that in a lot of religious communities, reading other religious texts is discouraged.  I hope that instead of discouraging our children from reading other texts, instead of seeing it as a negative, we encourage it, that we start to look at it as a conversation starter.

I:  If you had been born into any other religion, do you think it would have impacted your life as much as it has?

A:  I really don’t know.  To me, it’s not so much religion that influenced me so much as Hebrew, as growing up in another language.  It’s the language itself more than anything else.  For me, the Bible is language above all, so whether or not it’s holy is not my main concern.  It’s whether or not it’s beautiful.  Maybe this goes back to your question about religion and work and writing.  One of my siblings said something to me—I think it was in the 130 pages I cut from Grammar of God.  He said, “you don’t really fit into the writing world, and you don’t really fit into the religious world.  The Bible is where you feel at home.”  I’ve always felt comfortable with Isaiah, with Genesis – they’re what I know.  I don’t necessarily feel comfortable with every aspect of Judaism, neither do I feel that every aspect of creative writing reflects who I am, but I do feel like the Bible is a home.  I’ve always felt that way.

Hotel Amerika congratulates our Best American Essay, “Notable Essay of the Year” honorees:

Jericho Parms

A Chapter on Red, Hotel Amerika, Spring.

Read full essay here

Karen Wunsch

My Mother, Eating; or Dystalgia, a Memoir, Hotel Amerika, Spring.

Read full essay here

As Robert Atwan wrote in the introduction to Best American Essays, 2013: The vitality of American literature has long depended on the almost heroic efforts of literary magazines that somehow manage to survive today despite budget reductions, rising costs, and an unstable publishing environment. . . .When the excellent Ohio Review came to an end in 1999, one of its associate editors, David Lazar, created Hotel Amerika, (see Marcia Aldrich, “The Art of Being Born,”), which he brought with him to Columbia College in Chicago when he moved there in 2002. Featuring a generous sampling of cutting-edge writing in all genres, traditional and hybrid, Hotel Amerika has maintained an eye-catching and creative literary identity for over a decade. It is always a pleasure to read.

Hotel Amerika congratulates author Adrianne Kalfopoulou on her new book Ruin: Essays in Exilic Living.

Adrianne Kalfopoulou

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‘With My Daughter, Hannah Arendt, and the City of Futures’, which appears in Kalfopoulou’s new collection of essays, is a ‘Best American Notable’ and made it’s debut appearance in Hotel Amerika, Volume 10:2, Spring 2012.  Hotel Amerika first published Kalfopoulou in Volume 8:1, Fall 2009, with her essay ‘Dislocated States’ an essay that also finds new breath in Ruin.

Adrianne Kalfopoulou is Associate Professor of Language and Literature at Hellenic American University/HAEC in Athens, Greece. Her publications include two poetry collections, Wild Greens and Passion Maps, from Red Hen Press and scholarly work on Sylvia Plath in Women’s Studies and Plath Profiles. Her newly published book, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living deals with moments that explore in Rachel Hadas’ words “…not only cities but states of mind and soul in a pulsing, fraying time.” Awarded Room magazine’s prize in nonfiction for 2011, and a “Notable Essay of the Year” in Best American Essays, Adrianne engages meanings of “exilic” and how it feels to live in cities emblematic of late capitalism. She has taught creative writing and literature in the Creative Writing Program at New York University, and at the University of Freiburg. Her current projects include a work in progress that uses tango as a structuring motif for a character’s changing relationship to Athens, a city she finds herself somewhat ambiguously engaged with. It is a hybrid work, mainly fiction but with elements, too, of the lyrical essay. Read more here.

‘With My Daughter, Hannah Arendt, and the City of Futures’

Lisa Samuels

Lisa Samuels teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Theory at The University of Auckland. Born in Boston, she has also lived in the Middle East and Europe. She has a PhD from the University of Virginia and has published seven poetry collections and a recording of Tomorrowland with soundscapes (2012). Her most recent books are Anti M (creative nonfiction, 2013) and  Wild Dialectics (poetry, 2012).  Some of her works are available online via the Electronic Poetry Center and at PennSound.

Lisa’s  first work with Hotel Amerika was published in Volume 3:1, in the Fall of 2004.  Her latest was in Volume 10:1 in the Fall of 2011; these latest works are highlighted below.

Historical Girl


The Garden of Love

Aaron Gilbreath

Find him @AaronGilbreath.

Aaron Gilbreath is a West Coast essayist and journalist. He’s written for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, The Believer, Oxford American, The Threepenny Review and The Kenyon Review, wrote the musical appendix to The Oxford Companion to Sweets, and was a 2013 Best American Essays Notable with his Essay “\’Ra-Di-Kel\”, about the resurgence of the word ‘rad,’ cultural recycling and aging. “\’Ra-Di-Kel\” was first published in Hotel Amerika in our Spring 2012 issue. You can read it below and/or hear him read \’Ra-Di-Kel\ here.


Other pieces from Aaron include:

“Nothing is Strange” and “Lunch at the Robot Grill” featured in Harper’s Magazine, “House-sitting and Other Work” featured in The Paris Review, “A Pilgrimage to the Vanishing Streets of My Grandmother’s Lower East Side” in Tablet, and selections in The Kenyon Review. Aaron has a piece for The New Yorker forthcoming.