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.

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