Ruth Madievsky’s Jewish Diasporic Drama Queens

The "All-Night Pharmacy" author chatted with Hey Alma about her critically-acclaimed book and what the deal is with Jews and anxiety.

When Ruth Madievsky’s debut novel, “All-Night Pharmacy,” came out earlier this summer, I devoured it in one sitting. It seemed as though the book was written specifically for me, exploring themes I think about all the time, including superstitions, queerness, Jewish diasporic culture, generational trauma, lineage, toxic relationships and what modern Jewish women owe ourselves and each other as we figure out how to exist in this world, all told through the voice of a messy unnamed main character.

We meet our narrator on the night of her high school graduation with a gripping first line: “Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus.” The plot unspools from there, following the narrator as she allows her sister to drastically change the course of her life — until a dramatic conflict with Debbie leads to her sister’s disappearance. Facing withdrawal from her addiction to both pills and her sister, the narrator begins working as an emergency room secretary. It’s there she meets Sasha, a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union who says she’s the narrator’s amulet — her “spiritual guide.” Through the book, our narrator tries to parse out her various roles in life: as the daughter of a mentally ill mother, the granddaughter of an immigrant grandmother, the sister of Debbie, the spiritual project of Sasha, but most importantly: as herself.

Needless to say, I begged everyone I know to read this book so we could discuss it. Not satisfied with my impromptu and ongoing bookclub, I reached out to Madievsky so we could discuss her brilliant book, too. We spoke for an hour while her newborn napped, and it was so exciting to hear from the author herself about the big questions she was thinking about when writing this book, why her characters are such drama queens, and what the deal is with Jews and anxiety.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I’d love to start by talking about what being a Jewish woman, and more specifically being a Jewish immigrant woman from the Soviet Union, means to you both as a writer and as a person.

I think it’s impossible to separate the Jewishness and the post-Sovietness from my writing because that’s the tea that I was steeped in. The dark comedy of the book is very much a Jewish post-Soviet orientation toward the world, where nothing is sacred [and] everything is available to be turned over to find both its luster and its darkness. I grew up in a house where traumatic stories and funny stories were always sandwiched together — there was really no separation. So I think that that’s been instrumental in my tone and style as a writer.

I really appreciated how much the book focuses on what we inherit from our ancestors. Do you relate personally to the way your main characters experienced family?

So, the fictional part is her immediate family structure, with this mom who’s very mysteriously mentally ill and a father who’s mostly absent and a grandmother who’s very hard and icy. I don’t have that. My parents are very warm and enveloping.

But the family stories in the book are very much taken from my own family history. The great-grandfather who was murdered as an enemy of the state by the KGB, that was my great-grandfather. My grandma and her sister were alive to see that when they were teenagers. The itinerary of the trip to Moldova was totally my itinerary when I went for the first time with my family after I emigrated… like the Jewish cemetery scenes, how grim it was with weeds everywhere, bushwhacking to find your relatives, a kind of taciturn groundskeeper spitting phlegm, and the people’s names scratched off the graves by the weather — all of that was very much taken from my own trip.

I had some mixed, thorny feelings about using real life family stories in the book because, if you want to be really cynical about it, it’s commercializing trauma you didn’t personally experience to sell books. But I also think it’s a way of being a custodian for these oral histories that otherwise would get lost if they don’t have generations constantly remembering to tell them and remembering the details. So I like to think that it’s a way of honoring my ancestors.

Your book has a lot of drugs in it. What is the most Jewish drug and why is it Ativan?

Oh my God. I was literally gonna answer Ativan or Klonopin. Yeah, shut our fucking brains off! I feel like Ativan more than Klonopin because of its short half-life, right? I feel like it’s a very Jewish fear to be like, I took too much of something! I broke my brain forever! But with Ativan it’s like, six hours and it’s off.

What do you think it is about Jews having anxiety? Is it really just our generational trauma?

You know, this makes me wonder if anyone’s done a sociological study of Jewish anxiety and guilt and all that stuff, pre-Holocaust. Like, what were the mental health vibes before that? I mean, I guess Jews were always… as I’m saying this, I’m like, it’s not like the Holocaust was the first antisemitic event!

Right, before that everyone loved Jews.

I feel like this is something not just with Jews, but with a lot of immigrant cultures where there’s often intergenerational trauma. Anytime you have migration and persecution, and assimilation to a new country… then that tension between wanting your kids to maintain their original culture while also wanting them to be accepted by the new one… this hybrid culture crops up in between whereby the child who grows up as an immigrant is kind of legible and illegible to both cultures and there’s no one discrete culture that they can call home. All of that feels very anxiety-inducing in its own way. And not even necessarily in the acute, of-the-moment, somebody-sedate-me anxiety but in a kind of low-level hum at all times, right? Because that question of belonging is always there. I think a lot of immigrants are always thinking about the question of what you lose, what you gain…

So I guess it is generational trauma that gave us our anxiety.

I think it is. It feels to me more the immigrant side than the Jewish side specifically… but also, porque no los dos, right?

How did those tropes of Jews and immigrants and anxiety inform the way you wrote the story?

I was interested in writing about how historical traumas affect people who are several generations removed, not just the ones it happened to, and I feel like I haven’t read a lot of books where that thread of generational trauma isn’t what the book is about, you know? It feels so heavy. You often see in the back of the book, like: a multi generational family saga about living through trauma and immigration. That’s not really what my book is, even though in some ways, that is what it is. I was interested in having that be just one theme of many because I think for a lot of immigrants I know, that’s just how it is. Like you have a job, you have friends, you take cough drops when you’re sick, you try new restaurants, you do your fucking best and you make mistakes and also, there’s this thing in the background that’s informing all of it in some way. But you don’t necessarily think about it like, oh, here’s my immigrant trauma! Here’s my generational trauma informing why I was cruel to this person or why I have no boundaries with my grandmother or whatever. It’s my thesis that it’s there, it’s relevant, but not in a way that you could sum up in a pithy one liner.

Something that was really intense for me as I was reading the book was how much I related to every Jewish female character, especially the mom. For example, I lock and relock the front door every night and I accept it’s an anxiety thing and that’s just life. But when does it tip from being “just life” to being the mom character where she really can’t care for her daughters at times because her mental illness is hindering her capabilities and she’s not really getting care for it and is instead looking out the peephole of her apartment waiting for spies to come and harm her? I feel like your characters all, in different ways, walk along that edge of being OK and being not OK.

Yeah, wow. Now that you put it that way, I do wonder: Is it a Jewish thing to constantly, from a young age, be anxious that you might turn out to be unfit for society? Like, I’m actually broken in some way and need support from basically everybody to function and it’s because of these delusions that have taken hold?

But are they delusions? You know, if the mom lived in the Soviet Union, or even that part of the world, they wouldn’t really be delusions. People in Ukraine who are worried about firing squads around the corner — that’s not delusion. It’s just because of context. It’s not sensical for her to be worried about this in present day Los Angeles, when the mom lives a fairly safe life. But change the context a little bit and think about the kind of soup in which she was stewed, with her grandfather being murdered and her growing up hearing all these stories from her own mom about state-sanctioned antisemitism, and it becomes almost logical to be distrustful of the government and afraid that at any moment things could turn and you could be persona non grata again, just because of being Jewish. I think it’s unrelatable sometimes to people of our generation, because we haven’t been through anything that intense — most of us — but for someone like the mom, it’s not entirely outrageous, right?

But yeah, there is something about that fear: Will I be OK? And I think for me, when I was younger, and even now, I feel like I kind of hinge on this idea of okayness and what it would mean not to be OK. What is the tipping point, and what happens if you tip past it? What does it mean to not be OK, and is it a firm boundary or a realm that you can cross between?

Tell me about your work that you do when you’re not writing.

I work as a clinical pharmacist, which means I see patients by appointment and I help manage their chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV, osteoporosis, all that stuff. Becoming a pharmacist was very much an immigrant-parent-informed profession. I didn’t wake up one day being like, this is my dream! But from the age of 8 or 9, seeing my mom work as a pharmacist and my dad as a doctor, I had this impression that health care jobs are how you stay afloat. It’s how you can go from living in a small cramped apartment with four generations of family to living in a house one day. And not that I was thinking about the class mobility lens per se, but my parents really instilled in me the importance of having a profession that will always be needed, like a healthcare job, so you could be financially independent and not have to depend on anybody else, and also because you never know when things could turn in America. So it was definitely not without angst that I went into pharmacy, but I was lucky that I found some fields that I really enjoy, like HIV in primary care, and that the work-life balance is such that I can work to try to tangibly improve people’s lives in some way when I’m at work, and then when I get home, I can write. If I’ve had a bad writing day or week or month at least it feels like I’ve done something of value during the day for my patients.

In your acknowledgments, you thanked the readers for spending time with your diasporic drama queens, which I loved. I want to know what specifically makes you characterize the sisters that way?

[Laughs.] That’s fun. You know, I think that the narrator and Debbie don’t necessarily think of themselves as diasporic because they were born in America, and their parents were born in America, but you know, they are. Those legacies are still there.

I think they have less to translate and assimilate to compared to people who were born elsewhere and immigrated here, but those stories are still in their blood. They’re still in this kind of mist that surrounds them, the legacy of these historical traumas that they can’t totally get away from. And they’re drama queens! They chase chaos. I think that part of the reason they’re always putting themselves in these deadly situations is a reaction to the unrelatability of the life and death circumstances that their families lived under, with state sanctioned antisemitism in the Soviet Union, where they can’t relate to all their grandmother’s stories about persecution and they feel that tension in the way that they live compared to the way that their family lived. They have all this freedom, but they’re making choices that they suspect their ancestors would disapprove of and were not why they imperiled themselves and eventually died, right? Like they didn’t sacrifice themselves so that they could take every drug on the planet and hook up with cursed randos at the world’s worst dive bar… or did they? That’s kind of the question the book asks: Or did they?

But yeah, they’re drama queens, they create chaos wherever they go. And I think part of it is because they can’t stand the quiet.

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