Lexi Freiman is in the Mojave Desert looking for a toilet. She can’t quite explain how she ended up here and on the phone with me, it “just sort of happened,” which actually feels like it all makes sense. Freiman’s debut novel, Inappropriation, hit shelves July 24, a satire following a teenage Jewish Australian (Ziggy Klein) through queer subreddits, negative Nazi Youth voices in her head, and pertinent identity-shaping questions such as: Did Jewish herring appropriate Nordic cuisine? It is unlike any other Jewish book I’ve ever read — and that’s a good thing.
While wandering the desert (and, spoiler: eventually finding her car), Freiman talked to Alma about her transition from being an actress to a writer, where she finds inspiration, and how her quirky grandmothers inspired Ziggy’s bubbe Twinkles, a Holocaust survivor hooked on online dating.
You used to be an actress, what made you want to transition to being a writer?
I always wrote. I wrote plays and for theater and became more interested in writing professionally. When I worked for the National Shakespeare Company in Australia, I was on the road touring shows and had a lot of time between shows during the day, so I’d write. When you’re performing Shakespeare every night you develop a love of language and of metaphor to express emotion. I wanted to be Shakespeare [laughs]. There’s still time I guess. I wrote more and more and decided I wanted to do that more than acting. So l left the country and my career.
That’s a big move. Why did you come to New York to write?
I had it in my head I needed an MFA [Masters of Fine Art]. I don’t fully remember why. A lot of writers I liked had an MFA so I wanted one. And I had always wanted to live in New York and it seemed like a way to live in New York. I applied only to schools in the city. And of course I did it in such a naive way; I applied to Columbia not understanding that it cost nearly $100,000. I got in and was like, “Hey mum and dad…” and they were horrified. Luckily I got scholarship money and my parents did help out. I don’t know how interested people are in my parents paying for my MFA, but now you know.
Your novel takes place in Australia. Where did you come up with the idea for the novel?
When I finished my MFA I worked as an editor at a publishing house in New York. While I was editing people’s books I thought I could write my own. I had always written short stories before. This proceeded #MeToo, but there was a lot in the media at the time about catcalling and the male gaze and I wanted to sort of write this date rape revenge story where the women do the date raping but not really, consensually. [I wanted to] interrogate the idea of male gaze.
What made you want to tell that story through teenage girls?
I think confusion that you have as a teenager about your identity is there for everyone, whether or not you end up with a non-normative gender or sexual identity. It felt like Ziggy was the right character to explore that without saying anything explicit about the type of person who may have real issues of body dysmorphia — she’s struggling with her identity, her Jewish identity and being an other. Anti-Semitism gives her a sense of being othered in a different way than racism. Jews have this special place in culture, they’re somewhere in between, and it gets very contentious debating whether Jews are white or not. So she was a great character to explore these things, and as a teenager, [she] has some license to make mistakes and mess up. Adults are expected to know better. Also, the teenage body felt like a good idea to explore these ideas of porousness and borderlessness.
Ziggy transferred from a Jewish Day School to an all-girls prep school, though most of her Jewishness is cultural rather than religious. Why?
I wanted her to antagonize the religiosity of her grandmother, from a generation where that was important for different reasons. It was important that Ziggy be aware of how she’s culturally different, but antagonistic to the beliefs she’s supposed to hold and how they’re supposed to shape her identity; she’s pushing back against that. This book is about interrogating what identity is.
Speaking of identity politics, you started writing this novel during Obama’s presidency and then Trump became presiden. How did that affect the book, if at all?
Starting the book in that time, I thought I had more of a license to be satirical, because America had a Democratic president and the left controlled culture. Satirizing the ideas of identity politics, not making fun of marginalized groups, is an apparatus that functions in politics, culture, and the arts. When Trump was elected, I worried this was not a great idea, because people were fighting for their lives, but I eventually decided it’s important to ask the same questions regardless. Especially because this is a novel, it’s not a political text. It starts conversations. I definitely tried to be as sensitive, careful, and cognizant in my choices on which things I was critiquing, and offering alternative viewpoints on.
Do you consider Inappropriation a Jewish book?
It’s loving towards Jews, in the way that Jews can be half loving and half loathing of themselves. And I think it’s asking good questions about how we conceive of our identity as a people. Three generations of Jewish women are questioning ideas of Jewishness. I show an empathetic picture of a Holocaust survivor and a young Jew trying to figure out what it means to be Jewish in the world right now, with Israel, and how complicated it all is. It’s an honest kind of conversation between the characters that shines a light on the difficulty of being a Jew right now.
Let’s talk about Twinkles, Ziggy’s grandmother. Was she inspired by anyone you know?
My grandmother is a big personality and a Hungarian woman. She’s actually not a Holocaust survivor — she has her own war stories — but my other grandmother is. So Twinkles is sort of an amalgamation of my two grandmothers.