I have a new name: Sister Jocabed. Mother Superior issued it to me yesterday when I took the veil, her papery eyes hardening with an almost undetectable smile, searching my own for disappointment. I admit I have not yet shed the last of my vanity. Mother Superior knows this, must have seen through the walls to my room, how I’d stand before them as though before a mirror, practicing introductions as another might model a necklace or pair of earrings. “My name is Sister Raquel.” “I am the Lord’s servant Sister Lucinda.” “You can call me Sister Innocente.”

Sister Jocabed. Even the mouth must make unpleasant contortions to pronounce it.

My parents attended the ceremony. Before it began, a boy rushed through the sparse crowd outside, reporting that the Nationalists had definitively pushed the reds across the Ebro. All that remained was the collapse of Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid, then the war would finally be over. My parents didn’t react to this news they’d long desired to hear. From a window in the sacristy, I watched them brush past the boy, his palm open for a tip, and go inside.

Julian Zabalbeascoa

Julian Zabalbeascoa’s stories have appeared in American Short FictionThe CommonCopper Nickel, Electric Literature’s The CommuterThe Florida ReviewThe Gettysburg ReviewGlimmer TrainPloughsharesPloughshares Solos, and Shenandoah. He is a visiting professor in the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. You can find more information about him at julianzabalbeascoa.com.

Patrick Ryan on “A Life Anew”

Our new issue drops us into a hospital run by nuns, in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. It also places us squarely in the head of a novitiate who’s just been given her new name—a name she intensely dislikes: Sister Jocabed.

Sister Jocabed wants to do well, but in the eyes of the Mother Superior and the other nuns, she is what we, today, would call “damaged goods.” She had a child out of wedlock before taking her vows, and that child was taken away from her. Now, as a novitiate, she tends not only to wounded soldiers but to expectant mothers—and finds herself part of a system that removes babies from young women who are unwed. When one expectant mother, about to go into labor, asks her for help in escaping the hospital, Sister Jocabed is caught in the crossfire of her vows and her sympathies.

As he says in our Q&A, author Julian Zabalbeascoa doesn’t ever set out to write a specific story; instead, he sets out with the intention of discovering a story, and we’re fortunate that this particular discovery of his, “A Life Anew,” has found its way into the pages of One Story. We won’t soon forget Sister Jacobed, and we doubt you will either.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JZ: In other times, the idea could have been quicksand for me. I want to write about Spain’s stolen babies. I had little else beyond that. Not much of an idea, really. More a creative impulse. This, though, happened during a particularly inspiring string of weeks where I had all the confidence that I could step off a ledge and take flight. I’m typically not an early riser, but I was practically possessed back then, getting up earlier and earlier to write, so that, when it came time for this story, I was up at 4 a.m., walking to the coffee machine, when the narrator of the story spoke to me: “I have a new name.” I heard it as though someone in the room said it aloud. She was a novitiate. I knew that much, but what was her new name? Some cursory research of saint names brought me to Moses’ mother—Jocabed—and suddenly I had access to the narrator. Whereas before that impulse to write about the missing children was so expansive as to overwhelm (where to even begin?), it had now narrowed to a particular person’s voice. Everything that followed would be dictated by it. She began telling me her story, the ingredients of which were troubling and dark, but there was levity, as well, provided by the tension between her vanity and the unpleasant name Mother Superior had given her—apologies to all the Jocabeds out there.
PR: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JZ: I wrote the story in four days. I then moved on to the next character who was determined to tell me a tale. During this time, I’d feel them standing just off stage, waiting patiently in the shadows for their turn to approach the mic. After I emptied myself completely, I returned to all I’d written. Some stories needed more work than others, but with “A Life Anew,” I only had to tighten a few screws and apply a quick polish, then I submitted it. However, the number of passes that we made together on the story revealed how many loose screws and blemishes I had missed. Now, though, it feels airtight. We could toss it to a drowning person.
PR: Your story is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Did you research the time period before you started writing? Did you research along the way?
JZ: Yes and no. Three and a half of the shelves here are taken up by books on the Spanish Civil War, and I’ve just completed my own about the war, a novel-in-stories. My father is from the Basque Country in Spain, and most of my immediate family there lives in Gernika. The carpet bombing of the village during the war has long been a part of the story we tell ourselves. I also teach a course on the Spanish Civil War in the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. So, aside from finding Jocabed’s name and learning about the process toward becoming a nun, along with some of the workings of a hospital in those times, I didn’t need to do much research for this story. Should any readers want to learn more about Spain’s stolen babies, though, I highly recommend the documentary The Silence of Others by Almudena Carraceda and Robert Bahar.
PR: What experiences or observations from your own life were you able to draw from in order to write about a nun in 1930s Spain?
JZ: I went to a Catholic elementary school where I was taught by nuns. I also had a great aunt who was a nun and have three great uncles who are/were Franciscan priests. They nor their likenesses appear in this story, but what perhaps made it into the story from the countless experiences with those of the cloth is a familiarity, the conviction that they possess personalities that are as ego-driven and contradictory as everybody else’s.
PR: How different is “A Life Anew” from the story you set out to write? Another way I sometimes I ask this is, What surprised you the most in writing the story?
JZ: What took me far too long to learn is that if I set out to write a specific story, it’s DOA. If I set out to discover the story, though, then what I tend to produce surprises and excites me. The hope is that it will do the same for the reader.
PR: Do you gravitate toward historic stories and settings when you write?
JZ: It’s just about all I write. Terrible things may happen to my characters, but at least I’ve never punished any of them with owning a cell phone. For more than a decade now I’ve been writing about the violence in the Basque Country and Spain—violence that began during the Spanish Civil War and continued through the Franco dictatorship and the eventual restoration of democracy. That larger story has so many parallels to our own in the US: a polarized electorate, an ascendant far right, a divided left, misinformation spreading like a virus, etc. What’s troubling but predictable is how these stories of the past have become only more relevant over time.
PR: Name a few writers who’ve influenced your work.
JZ: Where to begin and where to end? Instead, I’ll mention those writers I read during the weeks I was possessed, writing this story and many others: Svetlana Alexievich, Kevin Barry, Hilary Mantel, Denis Johnson, George Saunders, and my friend David Moloney’s new novel in manuscript form. I’m not sure if another writer mixing those ingredients together in their lab would get similar results, but it’s worth a shot.
PR: What are you working on now?
JZ: As stated earlier, I’ve just completed a novel-in-stories that takes place during the Spanish Civil War. It’s recently found representation. “A Life Anew” is one of its chapters. I’ve now begun my second novel. I’m discovering it as I go, but at the moment it focuses on a village in the French Basque Country over the course of three days during the Nazi Occupation.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JZ: Today I like this one by Joseph Campbell: “One way to deprive yourself of an experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience.” I doubt he was addressing a writers’ workshop when he said that, but had I done either of those I wouldn’t have written this story.