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City of Laughter gives readers permission to wonder

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Temim Fruchter — Photo by Leah James  

For debut author Temim Fruchter, writing is a love language. For years, she did stints in the various worlds of her short stories but never stayed long enough to produce a full-length novel. Then, in 2020, everything changed. Fruchter participated in a writing residency, where she had the time and space to focus on ideas and characters that demanded more attention than just ten pages.

"The idea of it scared me — of staying in a fictional world not just for ten pages but for ten chapters," Fruchter said. "I love the pressure-cooker environment of a short story — it lends itself to good tension and characters I can visit with but not, you know, marry."

She first started writing City of Laughter as individual sections for a possible linked collection, but as the story grew, she knew it could not be contained. "It pretty quickly demanded my attention, specifically as a novel. There was a lot to thread together, and a novel is the only form large and wide and capacious enough to hold it all," she said.

Ancestors and folklore
City of Laughter is a beautiful multigenerational tale woven through the perspectives of an 18th-century jester and a modern Queer Jewish woman coping with heartbreak and grief.

"The obsessions central to the novel have been with me and showing up in my drafts and notes for many years," Fruchter said. However, the story found its wings after she took a trip to Ropshitz (Ropczyce, Poland), once a shtetl where her great-grandparents lived.

"I was standing there, in a place that was now just mostly trees and road, totally unlike the place it had once been, and I couldn't decide if it felt riddled with ghosts and ancestral presence or if it simply felt empty and I was projecting," she said. "I decided to write into this ambivalence — that a visit back to one's ancestral place doesn't necessarily yield anything clearly; sometimes, I think, the mystery gets richer."

Thinking about her ancestors, Fruchter wondered if they experienced queerness similarly to herself. "In entertaining the playful folkloric space of this book, I gave myself permission to imagine: what if they had been [Queer]?" she said.

"Regardless, given the erasures and silencing of Queer and Trans stories across history, and the destruction of much of Eastern European Jewish life at that time, I would have no way of knowing, so I turned to fiction, and specifically to folklore."

Fruchter grew up on Jewish folklore and wove beloved stories from her childhood into her work. "The twin resources of Jewish folklore and Queer imagination allowed me to speculate, to weave a new story from my family's roots," she said.

Open to the haunting
The masterfully creative tale that unspooled from Fruchter's imagination and cultural roots is one she describes as haunted, written in collaboration with the ghosts that have taken root in her soul.

"Even as a little kid, I felt haunted," she said. "I don't necessarily mean this in a bad way, though sometimes it did feel bad. But in the sense that I feel like I can't understand myself or the world I'm in unless I zoom my way out."

Writing City of Laughter gave Fruchter the perspective to see her life and lineage temporally. "I needed to delve into generational thinking to write this book about how cumulative we all are in ways that are difficult to see without looking at not just the big picture but the very, very big picture. I needed to fully open myself to the haunting," she added.

Fruchter sees the book's playful approach to time and space as a delicate homage to queerness. "Writing the book itself, for me, felt like a Queer project," she said. "The book's temporal zigzags and the nonlinearity of the time and space felt Queer. The wondrous logic of the book and its insistence on possibility felt Queer. Its sense of humor felt Queer."

Of course, queerness is also explored through the desires of the characters. Ultimately, her exploration of LGBTQ+ ancestors led Fruchter to understand her identities with a new perspective. "It pushed me to imagine, as I never had, for example, what it would have been like to be a Queer person with transgressive desires or ways of being in a Polish shtetl in the 1920s, for example. Or elementally, Nonbinary identity and ways of being can mean, or allow."

City of Laughter asks readers to give in to their curiosities and allow their minds to wander. "I wanted to write a story that reminds the reader that sometimes if you think it means something, it means something," Fruchter said. "I hope the book is permissive and readers take this permission with them on their explorations."