In Vesper Stamper’s moving graphic novel What the Night Sings, teenage musician Gerta must rebuild her life after her family, her identity and her expectations for the future have been destroyed in the Holocaust. We spoke to Stamper about the power of music, helping teens grapple with history, Judaism and more.
Most books about the Holocaust focus on victims’ experiences just before or during their time in death camps. What the Night Sings concentrates instead on the aftermath: displaced-persons camps, the survivors’ uncertain future and their attempts at healing. Why did you choose this particular focus?
My work has always centered on how people, especially children, thrive after trauma. The immediate issues surrounding the liberation of [Holocaust] survivors are fascinating and inspiring to me—especially the will and courage to live fully. Right after I began this project, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher kosher supermarket happened in Paris, and it became clear that anti-Semitism was not just historical, but a present and growing global reality. It was important to me to show that tyranny never ultimately succeeds in its objectives.
What inspired you to illustrate such a visceral story, and why did you choose to work in sepia tones?
I’m an illustrator first, so I think in pictures. That’s how I approach writing, too. There are some concepts that work better in pictures than in words. I try not to mirror the text verbatim but to reinterpret for the viewer to see from a different angle. For example, in the illustration of Gerta lying under the roots of a tree, I wanted to convey an inner state of being that had to be felt rather than described. It’s important to try to feel another’s humanity in your own body, I think, even if it hurts, but then to release it back into the art so it doesn’t stay there. I tried to have the illustrations act as a point of reflection or personal placement for the reader. The sepia tones enabled me to communicate using the mood and familiarity of archival historical material while using metaphor as an alternative.
Gerta’s music forms an enormous part of her identity and even saves her life in Auschwitz. Do you play an instrument? What role has music played in your life?
Yes, music has always been a huge part of my life. I come from a family of musicians and have been a performing and recording singer-songwriter since I was 15. My husband and I toured as Ben + Vesper, an indie-rock outfit, until a few years ago, when I had a car accident that altered my relationship to music. I’ve been slowly trying to regain my ability to play guitar over the last five years. The injury to my arm made me feel the loss of music very keenly, and Gerta’s character enabled me to wrestle with that. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship to my music, but I’m happy that the story’s not over. I do absolutely believe that music can save lives.
What has your own experience with Judaism been like, and how did it inform this novel?
I was raised in a Reform home in New York. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a positive experience. However, I absorbed so much more of the Jewish ethos than I thought I had. That began to come through in my teen years when I had a spiritual awakening. The embrace of wrestling and questioning was very formative. My family life was tough, but I cannot imagine it any other way for the person it made me. I’m grateful to be re-engaging with my Jewish upbringing in very healing ways thanks to some special friends, especially in orthodox circles. To be sure, writing this book helped me work out some of the painful questions of my past. The question of what it means to be Jewish is one being asked of a lot of us, and the answer is certainly not monolithic.
Most of What the Night Sings is stunningly realistic, but Gerta’s occasional visions of butterflies—especially at critical junctures—have the flavor of magical realism. Can you tell us a little more about what these butterflies represent?
A lot of my thought process in life happens in mystical tones. It’s funny; on one hand, I am a hyper-realist with a high premium on logical reasoning, but there’s an equally strong side to me that lives in constant engagement with metaphysical reality. I see meaning in everything, so I don’t mind mixing magical realism with history, because it’s real people who live history, and real people are metaphysical beings. The butterfly image came to me when a friend, also a singer, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She was in real danger of losing her voice from the surgery and thankfully did not. The thyroid gland is shaped like a butterfly and is right near the source of the voice. When Gerta showed herself to be a singer, the butterfly kept making its appearance as a symbol of both her singing voice and her unfolding self-understanding.
Roza’s mother once told her, “some things you do out of skill; some out of excitement. But some you do out of brokenness.” The numerous quick marriages might be an example of this; playing music or praying might be others. Do you think these actions help your characters become more whole?
There are people who can learn from watching others make mistakes, some who have to make the same mistake ten times before they choose a different approach, and some who never learn. We’re all on a journey, seeking wholeness or balance. Some find it, some don’t. But we’re all looking for it. For some survivors, the spontaneous marriages worked out beautifully; for some, not so much. There was such a collective will to defy Hitler and defeat his plans, that many pushed through to look for wholeness in the formation of their new families. I mean, think about that—you lose everyone, but something in you risks doing it again—not because of any promised result, but because of the human need to love and be loved. There’s no guarantee that it will work; none of us are given that. The same goes for pursuing music. Nothing says you’ll “make it.” But the hunger for more of music’s nourishment keeps the player moving forward. There are a ton of technically skilled musicians out there, but you dread listening to them because there’s no heart. You’ll always choose a musician with heart over one with stiff chops.
Prayer is an interesting example. Many people think of prayer as a quid pro quo—“I pray, God checks my request off the list, therefore God is good or real.” But prayer has no guarantees, either. Like marriage or music, prayer is about the relationship, not about the result.
What do you hope your teen readers take away from this story?
I believe so strongly in this generation of teenagers as very clear thinkers. A lot of them are shaking off convenient labels in favor of thinking for themselves. Of course, the book might bring up larger external or historical questions—the nature of global anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, personal freedom, freedom of speech—but I really hope that readers connect deeply to the characters. I hope they see Gerta and Lev as peers, and as examples of two approaches to the question: Who, not just what, am I? This is a lifelong question that you don’t figure out by the time you’re 21—or 81. And I hope readers will connect to how much a person’s character really matters, above all other considerations, when choosing their circle of friends and partners.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new illustrated novel, also historical fiction, centered on the Great Plague in medieval England. It’s exciting but incredibly challenging!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of What the Night Sings.
Author photograph by Katrina Sorrentino.