By Meghan McNamara
I have read Wendi Kaufman’s short stories again and again. When Stillhouse Press first selected her collection as its debut publication, I devoured them. When the books arrived in our offices the morning that we learned Wendi had passed, I found consolation in them. In the months that followed, as we organized an early release of Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories and fervently promoted the collection, I came to know her narrators intimately. Wendi never had the opportunity to complete an interview about her book, but her voice lives on—powerfully, enchantingly, painfully—in this voice-driven collection.
This sentiment was fondly echoed Jan. 25th at Politics & Prose Bookstore in NW Washington, D.C. at the event celebrating Wendi Kaufman’s life and work. Stillhouse Press Editor, Marcos L. Martínez said of Wendi, “The same caring spirit that she possessed in life is vivid on the pages and focused on her characters; young women in difficult situations, always aware that the other shoe is about to drop, surviving and sharing their wisdom from story to story.”
Mary Kay Zuravleff (Man Alive!), who penned the introduction to Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, remembered Wendi’s ebullient energy, which had the power to inspire writers of all backgrounds, young and old, established and emerging. “She brought the party to the room,” said Zuravleff, who shared memories about informal literary salons on the Kaufman front porch and her work with the Changing Lives Through Literature Initiative, through which Wendi taught creative writing to female juvenile offenders. “My girls, she called them,” Zuravleff remembered warmly.
Scott W. Berg (38 Nooses)—a long-time peer of Wendi’s and co-founder of the Rotisserie Writers Group, which she and Berg and three other graduates of George Mason University’s MFA program maintained informally for the better part of 20 years—reflected on the early iterations of “Helen on 86th Street,” the title story in Wendi’s collection, which was first published in The New Yorker in 1997. “She caught lightning in a bottle with [that] story,” he said. “Helen on 86th Street” was easily Wendi’s most successful story, appearing in The Best American Short Stories, The Elements of Literature textbook, and later adapted into a play, before becoming the face of her full collection.
During the event Jan. 25, Berg read from the final scene in the story: the pinnacle moment in which Vita, the 12-year old narrator, enacts the closing scene from her school’s rendition of “Helen of Troy,” secretly hoping to spot her absent father in the audience:
I’m supposed to hit my fist against my chest, draw a hand across my forehead, and cry loudly. Mr. Dodd has shown me this gesture, practiced it with me in rehearsal a dozen times – the last line, my big finish. The audience is very quiet. In the stillness, there is a hole, an empty pocket, an absence.
This scene—like so many in Wendi’s stories—resonates with the reader, because we find ourselves so completely drawn into the mind of the narrator. “Her voice in this collection of stories is a magnetic blend of strength, humor, and compassion,” said Martínez, reflecting on the power of Wendi’s narrative voice. And it’s true. These very elements are what initially drew me to her collection. As a young woman, I find so much veracity in her stories. They feel so true to life. They remind the reader that life is not without its ups and downs, its painful truths, which are made endurable with just the right balance of humor—a technique which Wendi so elegantly employs—and the compassion of others. Knowing this, I can’t help but feel the impulse to want to read Wendi’s collection all over again.
Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) can be found at: www.stillhousepress.org/helenon86. For more information about Wendi, please visit the “Authors” tab at the top of the screen. In an effort to share her stories with others, Stillhouse Press is open to arranging readings from her work. If interested, please contact: Meghan McNamara, firstname.lastname@example.org.