Mireille Silcoff’s “Chez L’Arabe” is an impressive debut short story collection by any measure. What makes it all the more outstanding, however, is that she wrote it incrementally, in daily 15-minute bursts, lying flat on her back while her brain was unsuspended and sinking into the occipital bone at the back of her skull.
Silcoff had been a busy feature writer and senior editor at the National Post, one of Canada’s leading dailies. Then she left the newspaper world to spearhead a new Jewish quarterly magazine called Guilt & Pleasure. But in 2005, at age 32, she became gravely ill with what would eventually be diagnosed as spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak syndrome (SCSFLS), a neurological disorder in which the cerebrospinal fluid leaks out of the protective sac that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
Silcoff became “deeply bedridden” for several years. She didn’t know whether she would ever recover or get out of her tightly fitted medical corset and up from her declined bed (the former meant to stabilize her spine and the latter designed to keep her head lower than her chest, thereby relieving the pressure on her brain).
“It felt like the top of my head was being pulled off with nautical rope,” Silcoff tells The Times of Israel about the pain she experienced.
The author, now 41, underwent 14 surgical procedures between 2005 and 2007 — all of which she says made her worse. But somehow her body managed to heal itself and she eventually returned to regular life.
Three years ago she gave birth to a daughter.
“I still get chronic leaks, but it is much less serious than it was,” says Silcoff, who lives in Montreal and is expecting a second child with her husband next spring.
“It is a genetic connective tissue disease. I turns out I have both porous bones and elastic spinal tissue.”
In much better physical shape now, Silcoff recalls how she began prolifically writing in notebooks as she lay immobilized on her declined bed.
“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t speak. I was a husk,” she says.
Living in her head much more than in the world, Silcoff channeled her creative energies first to poetry and then to fiction, a genre she had never before attempted.
“Chez L’Arabe,” the title story of the collection published this August, traveled from her imagination to the page fully formed.
“It just plopped out,” she says. “It fooled me a bit into thinking that the rest of the stories would be as easy to write, which they weren’t.”
For a long time, Silcoff could handle writing only 15 minutes a day. Midway through her recovery, she was able to sit up and compose on her computer, which was attached to an easel that was specially rigged to her bed.
Many, but not all, of the eight stories in the collection have obvious autobiographical elements. In four of them, the protagonist is a young Montreal woman suffering from the same neurological disorder that afflicts the author.
In each story, the woman is at the different stage of illness. In “Chez L’Arabe,” the protagonist is completely bedridden and immobilized, the only bright spot in her day being when an Iranian woman from a small grocery store down the street delivers her lunch.
‘I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t speak. I was a husk’
In “Appalachian Spring,” the woman is still in seriously ill health, but she manages to escape her sickbed and flies to Ojai, California. There, she rents a beautiful home with an interesting history, which she becomes wrapped up in…until her husband shows up and takes her home.
The protagonist in “Flower Watching” has recovered to such an extent from the illness that she is trying to get pregnant. This story and another titled, “Shalom Israel!” are what Silcoff calls “fantasy pieces.” She wrote both, in which the young woman stricken by the terrible neurological disorder has progressed toward health, while she herself was still very sick and in excruciating pain.
In “Chez L’Arabe,” Silcoff introduces readers to the sick woman’s Israeli mother. In “Shalom Israel!” the mother has an even larger role, and here Silcoff reveals significant information about her background and motivations.
The fictional Israeli mother is inspired by Silcoff’s own Tel Aviv-born mother who, like the character in the “Shalom Israel!”, was once a lead member of a well-known 1960s Israeli folk dance troupe who meets her husband while on tour in Canada.
“The character in the book is a less cultured version of my mom,” says Silcoff. “My mother overcame a difficult childhood in Tel Aviv by becoming a dancer. She escaped through the brilliance of her body and her beauty.”
Silcoff found it especially interesting to have a mother so invested in beauty when she was struck down with such a debilitating illness.
“She found beauty in me even when I was unhealthy,” the author says of her mother, who she describes as looking like a “Yemenite Sophia Loren,” even though she was born to Polish and German Jewish parents.
While not all the stories in “Chez L’Arabe” have an ill protagonist, they are, however, all beautifully wrought and full of keen aesthetic observations. They also all share themes having to do with female isolation, domesticity, emotionally distant husbands and emotional loss.
“The common themes were not intentional. I approached writing the stories by finding some atmosphere or emotion I wanted to pull apart like when you pull apart a ball made of rubber bands,” says Silcoff, who is now a leading columnist with the National Post and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine.
‘Having never written fiction before, I wrote in an intuitive way’
“Having never written fiction before, I wrote in an intuitive way, and with a freedom that journalism never allowed me.”
Seven years passed between the time when the then-bedridden Silcoff began jotting down her thoughts in notebooks for 15 minutes a day and the recent publication of “Chez L’Arabe.”
As with most authors, the writing was a labor of love. But in her case, as she faced the possibility of death at a young age, it was also a labor of life.