Corie Adjmi’s second book, a novel called, The Marriage Box (She Writes Press, 2023), was named one of the best Jewish books of the year by The Jewish Chronicle. It’s an honest slice-of-life narrative that respectfully explores Syrian Jewish culture and traditions in the ‘80s and examines themes of patriarchy and belonging.
I met Corie Adjmi at a book party hosted by Zibby Owens. Adjmi told me her story of growing up in Louisiana and moving to the Sephardic Jewish community in Brooklyn. I was drawn to her unique ability to describe the community as both an insider and an outsider. Corie has raised five children in the community and believes this one has its beauty and flaws, just like all communities. The Marriage Box, while fiction, records a specific moment in time.
Here I speak with Adjmi about the Syrian Jewish culture, motherhood, and what it takes to get a story into the world. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: What sparked your idea to write The Marriage Box?
Corie Adjmi: The Marriage Box is based on my real life. My family moved from New Orleans to Brooklyn in the ‘80s when I was 16. We lived a reformed Jewish lifestyle in Louisiana and moved into an orthodox Syrian Jewish world in New York. That community expects its girls to marry at 18. Through writing, I wanted to share some of the comical and painful moments of that cultural transition for me. The novel grew from there. The Marriage Box explores cultural and familial expectations and the obstacles individuals face when they have different needs and desires than their community. At its heart, The Marriage Box is the story of a young girl trying to find her way.
HRP: Writing The Marriage Box took you 20 years, from the first word on the page to publication. Why? What was your process like?
CA: It took me so long to publish The Marriage Box for many reasons. I have five children, and that is probably reason number one. But also, over the years, I wrote a book of short stories titled Life and Other Shortcomings. That collection was published in 2020. Before that, I published essays and short stories in literary journals and built my resume. Nonetheless, it was a slow process. Sometimes I’d put the manuscript away for months and even years. And when I found the time to pick it up, I’d get through, I don’t know, 20 or 30 pages and have to put it away. And then by the time I picked it up again, I’d have to start all over. It was really hard to get through 300 pages of a novel. With a short story, I could edit in a sitting. In addition, since The Marriage Box is related to my real life, I needed distance and time to process. As years passed, I was able to free myself from what was true, and instead imagine and discover new, surprising narratives, spinning my real-life story into a work of fiction. I think between not having the time when my kids were small, the premise of the novel being close to my real life and trying to find a way to write about the things I wanted to write about while maintaining the utmost respect for the community I live in, it just took some time. In addition, I was learning a lot about the craft of writing in general and the business of publishing. And that was quite a journey. I came to understand the pain of rejection but developed resilience. And with each draft, my writing got better. It’s nice to know your dreams can come true, even if it takes a long time.
HRP: What do your daughters think of your writing career?
CA: They are proud of me. Of course, they are happy about my success, but I think they are most awed by the fact that I wouldn’t give up.
HRP: It was interesting to learn that The Marriage Box is a real area where “available” women sit on display for potential suitors. Does this tradition still exist? In the author’s note, you touch on the evolution of the Syrian community over the years. Tell me about it now and back in the ‘80s when the book takes place.
CA: Yes, some things have indeed changed, and some have not. Today there is no Marriage Box. Young people are getting married later and meet in different places like at a party. Girls are more independent, and they are educated. They might even be the ones to pursue a relationship. Still, marriage and starting a family are important values in the orthodox Syrian Jewish community. That hasn’t changed.
HRP: Michael, the main character Casey’s husband, says, “Don’t button up so fast. You’re always wearing a coat. Let me see what you look like under there.” That line struck me as both sensual and patriarchal. What are you trying to say about patriarchy in The Marriage Box?
CA: While I appreciate so many aspects of community life, I wanted to shine a light on some of the Syrian community’s beliefs and traditions that didn’t sit well with me. The Marriage Box takes place in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and of course, this was a different time period when patriarchy was not exclusive to the Syrian community. Women were objectified all over the country. The scene with Michael is meant to be both sensual and patriarchal. It makes me uncomfortable, and I hope it makes my readers uncomfortable too.
HRP: What did you hope to achieve by writing The Marriage Box?
CA: I didn’t set out to do this, but The Marriage Box has been a part of an important conversation around broadening Jewish representation in books and film. Jewish people worldwide have similarities, but we are also diverse. We are Sephardic and Ashkenazic, we are rich and poor, we have light hair and dark, we are orthodox and reformed, and we live all over the globe. Being seen is an important ingredient in the fight against anti-semitism. The Marriage Box is a tiny contribution. When people are not known, others rely on dangerous tropes. We need more Jewish stories and more Jewish voices. Stories educate, enlighten, and humanize people.
HRP: How did members of the Syrian community receive The Marriage Box? Can you provide an example of someone’s feedback that resonated with you?
CA: It doesn’t get much better than this text message: “I zipped through The Marriage Box today!! What a fun and brilliant read. I felt seen but not judged, heard without having to say the words, and I deeply, deeply appreciate your bravery-meets-candor underscored with a dose of humor that hits every single time.”
HRP: What is next for you?
CA: I am working on another novel inspired by a newspaper article from years ago. At the time, I was watching the TV series Banshee and reading the book Kissing in Manhattan, both written by David Schickler. I was riveted and wanted to create something as odd, intoxicating, and outrageous as those works. My novel has six points of view, and I’m having a good time with it. I like creating different challenges in each project I tackle. It keeps things fun and interesting.