Monday, May 31, 2010

Odeh Bisharat's reluctant hero

By Mitch Ginsburg

Israeli Arabs are the minority people of the eternal minority people. This is a strange, sometimes cruel and sometimes humorous place to find yourself. It is also, I think, some very fertile literary soil.

According to Odeh Bisharat, a first time novelist who was at Tmol Shilshom last Wednesday introducing his book, Bchutzot Zatounia, there are no more than ten novels published each year in Israel in Arabic. Those that are brought to print are self-published. But many writers that have sprouted from within that community, from Emil Habibi to Sayeed Kashua to Bisharat, share, what seems to me, a note of self deprecation and acerbity that sounds like the same note Yiddish writers used to hit.

Bisharat, an editorialist at al-Ittihad newspaper and former Secretary of the communist Hadash Party, spoke with Professor Moshe Ron, a former department head at the Hebrew University and current editor at Am Oved publishing house. The two sat on tall stools, before a disappointingly scant crowd. I counted eight people, including his wife. Which was too bad because he had a lot to say.

The soft-spoken and silver-haired Bisharat sent his novel in the mail to Ron, who looked at the obviously self printed copy and the Arabic text and wondered why this had arrived on his desk. No Arab-language novel written by an Israeli had been translated since the days of Emil Habibi a generation ago. (Kashua writes in Hebrew.)

Then he read the accompanying letter, in Hebrew, and was intrigued. The book is about Khaled el-Musli, a young, underachieving teacher who’s picked, by a devious and far more influential relative, to run for office in the Local Council of the fictional town of Zatounia. The plan is for him to lose, but he, and especially his ambitious wife, take the offer far too seriously, forcing the protagonist, over the course of the campaign, to deal with many of the not-so-fictional problems that riddle the town—entrenched nepotism, a feeling of victimhood, and a violent misogyny.

Obviously I write differently in Hebrew and in Arabic, Bisharat said. “In Hebrew, I write about your problems—prejudice, land theft, that type of thing—and in Arabic I write about ours.”

Ron gave the book to a young, Arabic-speaking friend, Daniel Bahar, who had written several articles on Arabic literature in Haaretz, and on his recommendation decided to bring this novel, which features not a single Jewish character, to the Israeli public.
But first he needed a translation. He gave the book to two different translators and found both of their work lacking. “So I called Odeh and I told him, you speak Hebrew well. Write this book for me in Hebrew as best you can and have faith in me that I’ll make it work.”

Judging by the parts Bisharat read aloud on Wednesday night, it does. The third person story has a fluid style and a satirical bite. Ron said many reviewers have compared Bisharat, style-wise, to the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem.
I was not surprised.

Mitch Ginsburg is a graduate student in the Shaindy Rudoff Gratuate Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Light Fell, on authenticity and desire

Novelist and translator Evan Fallenberg will be the first to tell you he is currently living his dream, though, he cautions, it was a long time coming. He’s probably one of the most grateful people I’ve met.

His first novel, Light Fell (Soho, 2008) which won a slew of heavy-weight prizes, takes its title from the translation of a Talmudic expression nafal nehora, which describes a sudden and overwhelming desire.

After reading the book ns one grand sitting (I simply could not put it down), I would say this about the title: The light seems to reveal both who you are and what you really want. But it can be devastating and destructive if the subject of this falling light is not willing to make enormous sacrifices or endure the consequences of knowledge. As often as not, this knowledge makes you change (or end) your life. The light does not promise joy and ecstasy, but rather, authenticity.

And though the book is not autobiographical, a point about which Fallenberg is adamant, for good reason, it does deal with the issues the author had been grappling. Indeed, they are issues that anyone who wants to lead an examined life have: How does one balance being true to oneself with being true to one’s family, who often transform us to fit the shape of their needs? How do we reconcile genuine religious beliefs and love of G-d with our innermost self, if who we really are is not recognized by other practitioners of our faith?

Evan Fallenberg’s authenticity is evident in the joy and delight he takes in sharing the beautiful home he and his partner have made in Bitan Aharon, a Moshav. And he is very generous in sharing this space. (And yes, he does have a swimming pool in his living room).

He has created The Studio, a center for writers and readers of English, a space for readings, celebrations, workshops and retreats.

The studio is built on the grounds of a nursery, flanked by a field of flowers. The nursery, one of the most extensive I’ve ever seen in Israel, sells, among other fragrant and gorgeous flora, a type frangipani that was named for Fallenberg’s partner, Yariv, who discovered it.

Fallenberg’s authenticity also shines through his literary translations, which include Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy, Ron Leshem’s Beaufort, Alon Hilu’s Death of a Monk and Batya Gur’s Murder in Jerusalem. As a practicing translator, I believe that self-knowledge is one of the most necessary tools in translation. To translate well, one must be able to recognize when one's own obsessions and world view are filtering the words of the writer. In order to lose oneself in the text one translates, one must first know where he or she begins and ends.

Fallenberg the translator makes himself a luminous pathway between the reader and the writer. He himself is invisible, but his work makes the original text glow.

His second novel When We Could Dance on Water has been acquired by Harper Collins, and is slated for a 2011 publication. I can’t wait to read it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


by Judy Labensohn

Ever since I read Amos Eilon’s biography Herzl as background for an articleI wrote for Hadassah Magazine in 2004 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Theodore Herzl’s death, I have been in love with Herzl.

I have gazed at the dilapidated building where he slept in Jaffa in 1898 on the first night of his only visit to Palestine. I ogled over the renovated 2nd-story porch in Rishon Zion from which he spoke to the villagers below. I have stood on the road outside Mikveh Yisrael where he waited in the hot sun to catch a glimpse of Kaiser Wilhelm, who was riding a white horse up to Jerusalem. I walked from the Jerusalem train station to the Stern House in Mamilla, where Herzl spent two nights and then to a derelict building behind Jaffa Road that served as Herzl’s hotel while he waited to gain an audience with the Kaiser, hoping the Kaiser would help him gain a Protectorate for the Jewish People from the Turkish Sultan. In short, I am a Herzl groupie.

After the Hadassah article, Herzl began to appear in my fiction, so there was no doubt I would go see the Cameri’sproduction of Herzl,based on Eilon’s book and Herzl’s journals, and performed at the Cameri’s temporary location on Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv.

Here I encountered the familiar events of his biography, played by eleven Herzls, each actor depicting another side to his mosaic personality. The minimalist set and props bring to life the Vienna that shaped him and the Paris that convinced him Europe was finished for Jews. Here, in this two and a half hour performance (including an intermission,) his wife finally gets a public platform to complain: “Zionism ruined my marriage” and an excellent belly dancer reveals the pull of the East, a taste of that foreign land far away from the troublesome Zionists in Basle.

After the play I waved down a sherut to scoot me over to the central bus station. You know it by its smell, a curious blend of urine and vodka. Next to the line of five people waiting to ascend to Jerusalem, a group of ten men sat in front of a flat screen watching a football match. African cleaners swept the filthy floors while I remembered Herzl’s first impressions of Jaffa and Jerusalem. He would clean up the place, he had written in his journal.

But as the bus left the station, past the apartments collapsing behind soot-covered plastic walls, and flew across Highway One, the lights of Ben-Gurion Airport and the Nesher cement factory shining on either side of Israel’s main artery, and as the Judean hills beckoned the Egged bus eastward into the mountains, I thought of this sad man Herzl, this complex European figure torn between his loving mother and jealous wife, whose children went crazy or converted, this tall man who loved the theatre but failed as a playwright, this assimilated Jew who had a dream one night in Paris and became obsessed by turning this dream into drama.

I thought how he might enjoy the late night bus ride up to Jerusalem. I would show him the cypress tree he planted in Motza in 1898, chopped down in its youth, covered today by Perspex. Herzl, Directed by Renee Yerushalmi, in Hebrew, Cameria Theatre. Tel. 03-6060960. For Herzl lovers only.

Judy Labensohn coordinates the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, of which she is an alumna.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The exotic library

For weeks now I’ve been feeling like a nineteenth century explorer in my own home. I’m not referring to the fact my three-year-old daughter and I made aliyah last month in the middle of the academic term. Or that I have built every piece of furniture in the new apartment with my own bare hands. Or that I have to map out every tiny detail of my domestic world from scratch : Where do I buy paint? How do I pay bills? What’s the deal with these strange mops?

No, this exotic and exhilarating feeling is the direct result of reading Joy Katz’s The Garden Room (Tupelo Press) which won the Snowbound Series Chapbook Award in 2007. The poetry collection is astonishing for the way it breaks open the smallest, most insignificant domestic objects and spaces until these spaces contain cities, worlds, cosmoses, and all of history. But, remarkably enough, they remain intensely intimate. Here is an excerpt from “A Desk,” a symbol for our mediation with the world, presumably through language:

Perhaps I cannot have a sentence without a desk,
more pepper than salt, more voilá. Perhaps in life
one does not discover a desk enough—its cruelty and trousers—
simple as a line of dancers, full of bone.

Is a desk modestly a field?
No: a turnstile, an airplane wing.

You can count on railroad bridges, on a cut celery.
You can count on the flatness of bateau,
on all that is not the flesh, such as a deck of cards.

The boxes fit one inside the next, the cutlery is put away,
sturdy to push on as bike pedals. All this belongs to the desk,
not panicked or insane.

Here we have a mundane and useful object, a servile object, in fact, in the sense that desks are merely the hard surface that allow us to exert pressure (in the days of pen and ink) to produce words or that, today, hold our laptops. Our words are the agents that create or define reality. But in this poem, the reverse is true: the desk becomes the central reality, or consciousness, and the mediating I that normally constructs and orders the world is secondary.

Other objects are imbued with the accretion of daily significance that makes our lives meaningful. The bed, for example, in the poem “The Made Bed” becomes a historian place-marker as well as moral paradigm:

is a highway between us, we go away from each other.
Further it accepts contagion, conferring upon it the dignity of a
low voice.
Between our birth and death, this place marker.
Between sex and fights the made bed turns a clean cheek.
It makes us believe we are clean, too.
It breathes slowly, evenly, like Gandhi.
If this is true, then what kind of mind must I have?
Surely not disordered.

Katz is also the author of the full-length collection Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press 2002) which examines the history and culture to which we stand heirs “from Dachau to the deceptively still surfaces of American suburbia, from Proserpina to Plath, from the subjugation of women to the lust for empire.”

Joy Katz has given both of these books to the new reading library for creative writing students at Bar-Ilan.

When I first discovered I would begin directing the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Creative Writing Program, I began building a reading library for all creative writing students. I went about soliciting as many recent prize-winning collections of fiction and poetry as possible--also journals and magazines—from people I knew, barely knew, or only virtually knew.

Obviously, I, like many writers, believe that books are the sacred, magical, mundane spaces through which we find meaning, order, and intimacy with and in the world. As Katz puts it in the dedicatory poem of Garden Room [“To the sun]:

This black wet I walk myself through is the world
I am ashamed of needing,
is meaning.

Is the “black wet” ink?

Maybe. Send us your books!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh and Meir Shalev

By Judy Labensohn

Yesterday Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh visited Tel Aviv University to receive the $1 million Dan David Prize in literature for “Rendition of the 20th Century.” Atwood, the novelist, poet, essayist and environmentalist, charmed the standing-room-only crowd with her glib, monotone, soft voice that bites. “I’m the cleaning lady,” she said, relating an episode from her past when she taught nature at a Jewish summer camp; “I’m the one who looks in your drawers when you’re not there.”

She knows the power of monosyllabic words: “Uncle George swam there. Don’t go,” describing the human need to tell stories, “a trait we acquired in the Pleistocene.” She describes the novel as “Black marks on a page,” comparing it to a musical score that must be read to be heard. The novel, according to Atwood, is “the only art form that lets you see another person from the inside.”

She read from The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize and from Oryx and Crake, a novel about “the near future” and 2003 finalist for the Booker. In Oryx and Crake, one character called Jimmy, who changes his name to Snowman, creates a new breed of people who, among other things, can purr like cats as a self-healing mechanism. “This new trait is great for broken hearts.”

Amitav Ghosh, an Indian, Bengali and New Yorker novelist and non-fiction writer, read from his 1992 In an Antique Land, which is part autobiography, part biography. His gentle voice, melodious Indian inflection, his beautiful white hair against dark skin and his ability to identify with the woman in the audience who didn’t know how to turn off her cellphone when it rang forever during his reading—“It always happens to me”—totally endeared him to the audience. He read In an Antique Land, the story of a search for Abraham ben Hidju, a 12th century Jewish trader who wrote letters about his travels from Tunis to Egypt to India and back. Ghosh learned Judeo-Arabic, a colloquial Arabic written in Hebrew script, to read Hidju’s letters and lived in an Egyptian village for a year, also as part of his studies in social anthropology from Oxford University, where he earned a D. Phil..

When Israeli writer Meir Shalev joined the panel and the excellent moderator, Dr. Hana Wirth-Nesher asked the three writers to discuss the topic of the shifting boundaries of Home, Shalev took the mic and with wry humor replied that it wasn’t a fair question, “We are the best in exile.” Nonetheless, Atwood wondered out loud if nations matter to a writer. She recalled the opening of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man where protagonist Stephen Daedalus tries to locate himself in the universe. “Nation is only one category of that attempt to pinpoint identity,” she said. “No one can be defined just by that.”

Ghosh countered with “Nations are important and it is important to be active in them. Moving around a lot has taught me that I am completely Indian.” Coming from South Asia, he explained, makes him understand that the nation is an institution with a certain reality and should not be taken for granted. “The alternative is much worse. It isn’t love peace and brotherhood, but war and warlords.”

In the university cafeteria after the event, the Irish woman standing behind the food counter swore at her co-workers with “Jesus Christ.” While arranging the humus beans around the sprouts, she told me that a customer earlier in the day had told her not to swear that way in Israel. It made me think of Atwood’s Snowman character: We could all profit by learning to purr.

Judy Labensohn coordinates the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, of which she is a graduate.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A.B. Yhoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn

By Mitch Ginsburg

A.B Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn were at the big tent last night in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, proving to one and all that opposites really do attract, and that they make fascinating conversation while doing so. Yehoshua—short, shlumpy and relentlessly sincere—interviewed the dapper and wry author of The Lost: the search for six of six million.
In 1972 Yehoshua had taught a course on Literature of the Holocaust and one of the class’s main objectives was to figure out why literature failed to artfully render the events. Perhaps the sheer awfulness stifled the imagination, smothered the notion of humor. He was not sure. What he did know was that Mendelsohn’s book, although non-fiction, was a towering achievement, a true work of art.
The author waited for the end of the simultaneous translation and then said, thank you, before I address that I want to say two things. “One, I did not fly all the way around the world and reserve seats in the front row for my mishpucha so that they could now be seated all the way in the back row. So, to the people who took the reserved seats, enjoy the rest of this talk from a standing position. And two, to the woman who gave me these headphones and is worried about the deposit, I promise to return them.”
Then he addressed the issue. Turns out he never wanted to write a Shoah book. If I’d wanted to do that, I’d still be in front of a blank computer screen, he said. What he set out to do, in this book that recounts his attempts to chronicle the lives of his Great Uncle Shmiel Jäger, wife Ester and their four daughters, is to gather as many details as possible about those who were “killed in a way that was meant to deny them specificity.”
Then he told a story: of kids playing in a cemetery in Bolechow, Ukraine. His brother asked if they knew where they were, and they said yes, a Jewish cemetery. Mendelsohn, after some time, had a thought. He asked them if they knew what Jews were. They did not. That, he said, is the meaning of annihilation.
You were obsessed with the details, Yehoshua said, and that obsession of yours, of the protagonist’s, as far as I’m concerned, is what gives this book its literary force. (In an aside Yehoshua wondered if this type of obsession, which he sees in Faulkner and Hemingway, wasn’t very American.) Mendelsohn said he used to joke with his friends that the alternate title of the book was Moby Dick. He said it was true that he was obsessed and that memory was in fact the obsession of the age: not just Jews and not just in Israel but everywhere—computer memory, i-pods etc. But extermination, he said, by its nature erases memory, leaving us only with commemoration. Creating a memory of his lost family members, Mendelsohn said to heavy applause, has been a minor victory.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Writing in the Dark

Novelists are frequently asked during interviews how much they know about their books before they begin. So it was no surprise when the question was put to Paul Auster and David Grossman last Tuesday night at the International Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’a’nanim in Jerusalem.

But what was perhaps surprising to listeners was the unequivocal answer given by both writers: they know very little of their stories when they start. What’s more, they added, neither of them would want it any other way. What would be the point of writing the story if they knew how it all played out before they began?

This not-knowing approach to fiction writing often mystifies writers new to the craft. How can you grope around so long in the dark? Don’t you need some kind of outline, framework, plan, if only to keep yourself going, or to stay sane or focused? And, most pressingly – a challenge sometimes put forth with a palpable air of irritation –why don’t you work the material through in advance? What is there to gain from this work-by-feel method, which was described by E.L. Doctorow like this: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

As a writer who has long worked in the driving-in-fog mode, I’ve tried to explain to students (and others) why I, and many others, are compelled to produce our fiction this way. Often I talk about the need for discovery, and quote Robert Frost: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Or I say my internal critic is over-active and that if I had to run my story ideas through my head in advance, they’d never get onto the page.

But, ultimately, how the not-knowing approach manifests is difficult to describe. “You change the story and the story changes you,” Grossman said, Auster nodding beside him. Writing is a reciprocal activity; you speak to the story and the story speaks back. You’re engaged in a dynamic relationship, an active dialogue where your in-process manuscript has as much to tell you about what you’re trying to express – to show you and teach you – as you have to tell it.

How does one engage in such a give-and-take, or even become aware that it’s going on? Frequently Grossman used the word “surrender,” suggesting that we need to give ourselves over to the writing process with something approaching faith. One must be willing to lose oneself and give up the quest for control. We may make up our characters, for instance, but we don’t know everything about them. It’s like any couplehood, Grossman said. It takes time to become familiar. Grossman likes to take whatever time is needed to discover intimate details about his characters before he begins: what she likes to eat, how her clothing feels against her skin. Such a slow accretion of intimacy requires patience, effort. And, sometimes, obsession. To get to know one of the characters in his 2008 novel “The Museum of Innocence,” Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk purchased a house in Istanbul for her, furnished it, and bought her clothes. Readers can now visit the house (the museum) as well as read the book.

Whether the driving-in-fog approach is for everyone, neither Grossman nor Auster would say. Both men were modest and humble in the packed tent outside Mishkenot, a video camera to Grossman’s right recording every word, the space packed to the gills, the event sold out weeks in advance. When asked by the interviewer what they’d learned about their writing process after so many years at the craft and so many published novels between them, Auster offered only this: with each new project, you have to teach yourself all over again how to write a novel. It’s as if it were the first novel you’d ever written. The only difference is that now, after some 14 books, he knows that when he gets stuck, he’ll eventually get unstuck. Grossman, hands folded, listened thoughtfully, considering, and then nodded.

The Dark Side of the Heart

by Mitch Ginsburg

The first night of the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem a few dozen people sat down in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim auditorium to hear Zeruya Shalev and Siri Hustvedt discuss their work with Yediot Aharonoth reporter Eilat Negev. Hustvedt, a PhD from Columbia University, has written a dissertation on Dickens, authored a book of poetry, several novels and several collections of essays, on painting, literature and popular culture; Shalev, an editor at Keter Publishing House, has written a book of poetry, a children’s book and four novels, including Love Life, which was nominated to Der Spiegel`s prestigious list of “20 Best Novels in World Literature” over the last 40 years. Both women had read each other’s work. Both seemed keen to discuss the material.

But Negev had another agenda. She wanted to know if the women worked at home, in proximity to their husbands (novelists Paul Auster and Eyal Megged); she wanted to know whether their husbands read their work while it was in progress; she wanted to know whether their critiques ever stung badly enough to start domestic feuds; she wanted to know whether their feuds ever made it into their respective work; whether they found themselves dipping into the same well of material. And on and on. Till at long last Hurstvedt pursed her lips, shook her head, and said, “You know what, these are not interesting questions.” Shalev concurred, but the hour was up.

Not wanting to leave the festival on that note, I bought another ticket, to Kathryn Harrison and Gadi Taub. Their conversation was spellbinding. Harrison has written twelve books, fiction, memoir, non-fiction, biography and travelogue. Taub, who confessed to a deep fascination with her writing, made an interesting point. Love, he said, was one of the last taboos still standing in our culture. We are instructed to see it as an all-conquering force of benevolence. But it seemed to him that love’s dark side, where murder and revenge sometimes come to feed, was Harrison’s home turf as a writer. She agreed. Tapping an alligator skin boot she began discussing While they Slept, and the draw she felt as a writer towards the real life protagonist, Billy, who murdered most of his family with a bat. Strangely she told how his sister, a PR executive in Washington DC was far harder to talk to. Billy, in prison for life, was rather likable.

I think at this point the people in the half-filled auditorium were still breathing regularly, Then the two began discussing The Kiss and the attention in the room tightened like a knot. The memoir explores the author’s relationship with her cruel mother, her rigid grandparents, her protected upbringing, and the absolute devastation of those ties, when, at age 20, she first met her father, a charismatic Baptist preacher, and proceeded to sleep with him.

I know. there is a slight impulse to run for the double doors upon hearing such information, but the humanity with which Harrison conveyed it, the honesty, the self deprecation, the awareness of the gravity of what she did, the human capacity for revenge—the kind she inflicted on her otherwise impenetrable mother and the kind her father visited on the rest of the family—and the need to wrestle this onto paper, even at the pain of ruining her relationship with her unknowing children, was tremendous.

Harrison does not write for a drawer, she said, she writes for people and she does not write because she likes it but because she must. And so the story, in order for her to reach a point that she could live with it, had to be told, even though she was fully aware that the retelling could cost her her relationship with her children. She recounted how when her daughter was twelve she heard her call to her and ask, in an unfamiliar voice, “Mom, is memoir non-fiction?”

Mitch Ginsburg is graduating this June from the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing