Local author weaves family history into literary debut

FAMILY TREE: In Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt's debut book, she examines her family history and how it shaped her father, as well as her own life. Author photo by Emily Nichols

In 2010, while living in Montford, Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt received a phone call from her father, Moshe Blatt. He was in Thailand, on his way to California, but his travels were beside the point. He was ready to tell his life story — one of a Holocaust survivor who would later become a Harvard professor, before turning to the psychedelic intrigue of the 1970s. That sent him on an ongoing spiritual journey. He also fathered six children with five different women. It was a complex tale, and he needed someone to write it.

Sezak-Blatt, the fourth of Moshe’s offspring, knew the perfect person for the project: herself. In fact, throughout her time at Sarah Lawrence College in New York (where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing in 2007), Sezak-Blatt had been doing just that: writing her own life story, much of which revolved around her relationship to her estranged father.

What began as a monthlong session living with and interviewing her father inside her one-bedroom apartment led Sezak-Blatt, who was working for Xpress at the time, on a six-year odyssey of her own. “Recording with my father, I glimpse our destination; I see my elder before me, and I see wisdom and mystery in his eyes,” she writes in the book. “I have a sense that the journey will lead us somewhere beautiful, magical, yet the path curves ahead, and into the dense jungle we turn.” That adventure included writing, revising and seeking out a publisher. After a series of close calls with a few large publishing houses, along with three major rewrites, Sezak-Blatt connected with Logosophia, a small press based in Asheville. On Saturday, June 3, Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe will host the launch of Sezak-Blatt’s debut work of creative nonfiction, A Tangled Tree: My Father’s Path to Immortality.

Broken into three sections, the first part of the book examines aspects of Sezak-Blatt’s childhood. It also chronicles Moshe’s arrival in Asheville, where he begins to relay his many experiences. Within these early pages, Sezak-Blatt learns unknown details of her father’s life, while also revisiting periods of her own complicated past.

“Prior to [his visit], we had nearly 12 years of distance,” she says. Their reunion was fraught with periods of tension, as well as moments of greater understanding.

“He’s passionate and prone to anger and tears, and that passion makes him a really dynamic character and human,” she says. “He’s not just telling the story with a straight, stern face. He’s really recalling his emotional world. He was a powerful person to interview, separate from me being his daughter.”

Sezak-Blatt spends the second section of A Tangled Tree reimagining her father’s escape, with his parents, from Poland during World War II. The chapters are based on Moshe’s retelling of events, as well as Sezak-Blatt’s own research and creative interpretation. She notes that much of this section’s background predates the project. In the winter of 2006, Sezak-Blatt traveled to Eastern Europe in order to retrace her family origins, with the intention of one day capturing the story in print. “I went to visit the trail of Jewish history,” she says. “From Auschwitz to Krakow, where my grandfather was born.” All of this preparation, she notes, helped inform her writing.

The book’s final part examines the fallout between father and daughter after Moshe reviewed an early draft of A Tangled Tree. “In that moment, he was reliving his whole life story and facing judgments that I had not told him before, and opinions of him expressed by my siblings that he had never heard,” Sezak-Blatt explains. She notes that her father felt betrayed; he also accused Sezak-Blatt of stealing his story and turning it into something that it was not.

His reaction created reservations about the project’s future. Over time, however, Sezak-Blatt says she realized that there was no way to divorce herself and her opinions from her father’s life story. “This book, I think to myself, will have to tell two truths,” she writes. “No matter how much they differ, they will have to stand, contradictory, and side by side. I turn, empty-handed, and reluctantly make my way back home.”

She notes that she and her father have since restored their relationship. And it’s this reconciliation, she says, that captures the true message of her book. “It’s about accepting people, even if we don’t understand them,” she says. “Even if they’re too complicated to ever really comprehend.”

The unknowable, Sezak-Blatt continues, is another key component of A Tangled Tree. “I thought [after writing the book] I was going to understand my father,” she says. “That was the quest. … I naively thought I’d come away with answers. But in some ways, I’m relieved that I didn’t. There are no easy answers to how we become who we are.”

WHAT: Book launch for A Tangled Tree: My Father’s Path to Immortality

WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood St. avl.mx/3qp

WHEN: Saturday, June 3, at 7 p.m. Free

Additional readings will take place at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 11th at Congregation Beth Israel, 229 Murdock Ave; 
Sunday, June 25th at Firestorm Books, 610 Haywood Road at 6pm. Free 


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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