The Finest Living Author Writing in Hebrew Is in Exile in the U.S.

The protagonist of Maya Arad's latest book is a stressed-out writer who yearns for a prestigious literary prize and falls in love with a woman. 'My husband told me, 'Maya, if the reader doesn’t think that you’ve left me for a woman, then you didn’t do your job''

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Israeli-born author Maya Arad, who lives, writes and teaches in Stanford, California, Jan. 2022
Israeli-born author Maya Arad. "The status of literature as an exalted art form no longer exists. On the other hand, there are more voices coming from others: women, LGBTQs, emigres like me."Credit: Yosef Arad
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The following are comments I've jotted down after many long years of reading the books of Maya Arad, and from conversations I have held with her over the past year:

* She is the finest living author writing in Hebrew (most certainly if one takes quality and productivity into account).

* In spite of her colossal talent and excessive zeal, she is in exile, not only from Israel – Arad has lived abroad since 1994 and in the United States since 2002 – but also from the Israeli roster of “canonical authors.”

'I do not buy goods from settlements, the same as I do not buy meat. Is a religious person who won't go into a nonkosher place boycotting it? If that is a boycott, then I too am boycotting'

* She claims this does not bother her at all (but in many of her works the protagonist displays a desperate desire for honor and recognition, and then dismay over having such wishes).

* She is one of the most controlled and reserved interviewees I have met (in other words: tough), preferring to answer questions by email, where she fires off rigid, precise responses – and then revises and resends them later.

Author Maya Arad, who lives, writes and teaches in Stanford, California. “Everything that I write is completely me, no one else could write it."Credit: Yosef Arad

Arad, who just turned 51, has published 12 books to date. She wrote one of them – a book of essays on culture – with Reviel Netz, who has been her partner since she was 17, and is a professor of classics and of philosophy at Stanford. Her books often feature characters from the realm of academia or the literary world, both of which she is highly familiar with. She is currently Writer in Residence at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University.

Her wrinkled and bitter protagonists are at times given to crises or simply overcome by a painful lack of awareness. Arad will from time to time pierce them with her own precise diagnoses, or at the very least trains her especially strong flashlight on them. Indeed, every so often a real and sad compassion that appears for a moment like a bent-over and withered flower is directed at them or toward them or hovers in the background much like a faint violin melody, emanating from somewhere in the worlds she creates.

Among her most prominent titles are “Short Story Master,” "Suspected Dementia,” “Our Lady of Kazan,” “Seven Moral Failings” and her latest book, “All about Abigail,” which was released last year and has to date sold nearly 10,000 hard-bound copies and about 1,500 digital copies. Industry sources stress that given the upsetting realities of the book-selling market these days, these numbers are not at all bad. Still, they don’t even come close to the tens of thousands-strong ones garnered by David Grossman, the sales Eshkol Nevo chalks up or those of most of the books penned by Zeruya Shalev, for example.

When I recite these names to Arad, she says: “Obviously Zeruya and Eshkol sell more than I do, and receive much acclaim, and that is wonderful. But I think, and this is also referred to in ‘All about Abigail,’ that in the late 1980s there was a move toward sealing the canon. Today, no one receives the status of the 'three tenors': A.B. Yehoshua-Amos Oz-Grossman. The status of literature as an exalted art form no longer exists. On the other hand, there are more voices coming from others – more women, LGBTQs, Arabs and emigres like me.”

As for the very surprising fact that in spite of her extended U.S. self-exile, none of her books have been translated into English, Arad says, “I am cautious when I speak about this, because I do not want to come across as a whiner. Nor is it entirely true to say that I have not been translated at all. Stories and excerpts of novels have been translated, and have appeared on the internet. True, no book has been translated in its entirety.”

The campus of Stanford University in California, where author Maya Arad, her husband Reviel Netz, a professor of classics and of philosophy.Credit: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

That, she adds, is due to the fact that "the publishing market in the United States is in the throes of great difficulties, to a greater extent than the market in Israel. A total of 2.3 percent of the books appearing in America each year are translated from another language. Books about relationships, cheating, marriage – there are quite enough of them in English. In Hebrew, people are looking for Army, Mossad, Holocaust – and women don’t write about these topics as much, so women are translated less.”

I am trying to understand to what extent your Limited exposure is by choice, and to what extent the vulgar tastes of the audience are to blame.

“I really don’t get into that. I am traveling in the dark with flashlights, and only see what’s going on 20 meters in front of me. I cannot influence the status that I will have, but I can influence how my next book will be.”

Are you interested in the exposure, or does it cause you anxiety, or both of those?

“Both, it would seem.”

The cover of author Maya Arad's latest book, called "All about Abigail" in English.Credit: Modan Publishing House

'Let the chaos begin!'

“All about Abigail” is story of Abigail Shalev, a fairly well-known 40-plus author who anxiously watches as the fate of her most recently published book unfolds, while announcement of the long and short lists of candidates for the Sapir Prize, the prestigious award for Hebrew writers, serves her simultaneously as oxygen and butcher’s knife. She is also in the midst of a writing crisis and what would seem to be a crisis in her intimate but passion-less relationship with her husband, an academic. She makes a desperate escape from everything by falling in love with a woman who crosses her path, and who is involved in what might be called “an alternative family.” The book is replete with Nabokovian contrivances that Arad successfully weaves into the plot, but it is reasonable to make the assumption that after so many years and so many books, Arad has simply written a book about herself.

Arad: “I thought that in any case everyone would think that it’s me, so why shouldn’t I play around with it a bit. Abigail Shalev is an author, she also has two children [Arad has two daughters: Darya, 18, and Tamara, 15]. Her spouse is a history lecturer, she wrote a book about the Education Corps [the setting of the first book by Arad, who served in that corps) and another one about the academic world, and people comment that she writes too much about food. Just like me. It doesn’t end there, because there is also the second Abigail – Abigail Negbi, her nemesis who lives in California, and there is Tal, who is from Rishon Letzion and is the daughter of a psychologist, like me. Let the chaos begin!”

Any dime-store Freudian would tell you that you set up this exile for yourself so that you would not have to face the same situation faced by your protagonist: the humiliating waiting game, waiting for the list of Sapir finalists to be announced.

“First of all, until 2015, when the rule was issued forbidding authors who live outside Israel from being candidates, I had been nominated as one. I made the long list twice [with ‘Short Story Master’ and ‘Suspected Dementia’] and the shortlist once [with ‘Another Place, a Foreign City’]. So much for your Freudian.”

Israeli author David Grossman, in 2011. "No one receives the status of the 'three tenors': A.B. Yehoshua-Amos Oz-Grossman," says Maya Arad.Credit: Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

Why does your new protagonist fall in love with a woman?

“When I do the 'reverse engineering' of the book, I understand that she should have fallen in love with this character, that she thinks that she will give her the key both to her personal crisis and to her writing crisis, and this character must be a woman, because she speaks about women’s literature. And if we’re already doing a spoiler alert, then this book, which begins as a very realistic novel about the literary world, gradually turns out to be the debut novel of Tal, a young lesbian writer who is in love with Abigail, Which is also Tal’s revenge fantasy.”

In this book passion finds all sorts of expressions and outlets. It all happens between women. Anything that has to do with a man is simply devoid of passion.

“I very much like writing about the literary world, and in 2009 when I wanted to write about it, I hid behind a male author [in ‘Short Story Master’]. I missed writing about the feminine experience. The difference between the place of women in prose and their place in Hebrew poetry is quite conspicuous. In poetry, women have been present in the center – Rachel, Leah Goldberg, Zelda – whereas in prose they have been in the margins, at best ...There have been female authors, of course, but they are relatively marginal vis-a-vis the prototypical male author, the man of letters who also speaks out in public at political assemblies.

"From the 1990s on, two things occurred simultaneously: Women began to be present in prose in a more significant manner, and literature lost the stature it had had until that generation. Are these two things interconnected? I think so. And the change that the literary world has undergone is the subject of the book no less than the fact of a woman writing it.”

Passion for women – not necessarily sexual – is that something that's happened to you? A non-erotic crush?

“I have been in a monogamous relationship for 33 years. My oldest daughter is now the same age I was when I met Reviel, which is just crazy. Not long ago, I told her that when I met her father, Russia was communist, Berlin was divided by a wall, Reagan was the president ... As I was speaking with her, I felt as if I were some historic museum exhibit. But I am actually happy about that.”

How did your partner react to the book’s depiction of marriage?

“When I let Reviel read the book and, we reached chapter 8, where there is a sex scene between the two people in the long-standing relationship, I told him: ‘It’s obvious to you that anybody who reads this will think that this is us.’ And he said: ‘Maya, if the reader doesn’t think at the end of the book that you’ve left me for a woman, then you didn’t do your job.’ In other words, he totally understood what he was getting into, and couldn’t give a shit.”

And it isn’t the two of you?

Israeli author Zeruya Shalev, in 2012. “Obviously Zeruya and Eshkol [Nevo] sell more than I do, and receive much acclaim, and that is wonderful," says Maya Arad.Credit: David Bachar

“It isn’t us, in the sense that it didn’t happen to us, but the fact is that I wrote it. It’s a little bit like seeing a nude portrait at an exhibition, and afterward meeting the model and telling her: ‘Hey, I saw you naked!’ You didn’t see her naked. What you saw was a representation of something.”

You once told me that “All about Abigail” was a time of terrible crisis, that you told yourself “if this book fails, I am failing, as well.”

“At the start, Reviel read it and said: Listen, this isn’t going to work. Either put it in a drawer or rewrite it. So I said, OK. We’d also worked together a lot on ‘Our Lady of Kazan’ and he said: 'This is a worse situation than "Our Lady of Kazan."’ That was a very difficult moment. I felt that I wasn’t going to shelve it. A book entitled ‘All about Abigail’ will come out, even if I have to rewrite it.”

Often your central characters are in a mid-life crisis. What's it like to be past that, what’s happening now you’re over 50?

“I’m still working on it. Anyone who’s reached age 50 has already gathered around him or her several people who have not reached age 50. Friends, acquaintances, people who’ve studied with them. So I remind myself that I am fortunate to reach that milestone. My grandmother passed away at age 100, so that’s where my target lies, but people do ‘flip the record over to side B.’ I do see a decline among authors after age 70.”

Does cognitive regression or a decline in sharpness frighten you?

“Yes. I want to be at my best.”

'A fly on the wall'

Arad grew up until age 11 on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza Strip in the south, and then her family moved to Rishon Letzion, then more of a sleepy, green suburb in central Israel than a city of shopping malls. Her family still lives there. She was an outstanding pupil in high school, pursuing advanced math and physics. At the same time, no one was surprised when she began to write, and even published a debut novel in rhyme – “Another Place, a Foreign City” (Xargol Publishers, 2003) – based on the format of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” no less.

Arad did her B.A. in classics and linguistics at Tel Aviv University and received a doctorate in linguistics (she speaks six languages) from the University of London. As she puts it, she was a decade ahead of her protagonists and experienced her mid-life crisis at age 30, when she abandoned academia and became an author.

A pro-Palestinian protest by supporters of BDS in Paris, in 2015. "Most of the BDSniks are not saying ‘We want a multistage plan for ending the occupation," says author Arad.Credit: AFP

She is a very diligent writer, sitting down to work at her desk at 5 A.M. before her daughters wake up. When writing a book, she is meticulous about keeping to a daily quota of 1,000 words.

“Now I have a manuscript that I am correcting. It is in the second draft. It is a classic genre novel, an epistolary novel, with my own personal twist. I began writing it in early February last year, when ‘All About Abigail’ went to press. I always need something to divert my attention when the book is with the printer.”

The Arad-Netz family lives in Stanford, a community 45 minutes south of San Francisco. “Our WiFi network is the only one in the house with this double name. Neither of us is crazy about hyphenated names, so we chose not to do it to our children. Reviel suggested that if we had girls they'd get my family name and the boys, his family name. I agreed. I knew that there would be daughters, I don’t know how.”

When she isn’t writing, she resembles some of the characters in her works – Israelis searching for themselves in the Diaspora, who go into teaching and lead creative writing workshops.

Who comes to creative writing?

Prof. Noam Chomsky, in 2010. Maya Arad, a fellow linguist, remembers the frozen bagels reheated on a radiator in his office at MIT.Credit: Majed Jaber/Reuters

“The groups are very diverse, from 20-somethings to 70-somethings. They all share the desire to be in contact with Hebrew and with people who write in Hebrew. Very beautiful things have come out of it, both in terms of writing and also in human terms.”

Do you look down on your pupils as do your characters – authors with abundant talent who are compelled to earn a living and deal with a ludicrous and unaware bunch of untalented people?

“In the first group I taught, 11 years ago, when everyone introduced themselves, someone said that she nearly didn’t come, because she read ‘Short Story Master’ and was afraid I would treat my pupils like its protagonist did. I said that I was happy that she’d come; she also came to the follow-up workshop and we remain in contact to this day. In these workshops, you see all sorts of things, for better and for worse. For example, I had one pupil who said she really loves to write, but not to read. Obviously that provokes a certain response.”

The majority of people do not have skills like yours, and are usually not aware of that. I don't believe you are not aware of this gap.

“If in a yoga class there are people that can't do an exercise unless they are given two blocks, then they shouldn’t be doing yoga?”

An author typically forfeits his subconscious. Writing is essentially an irresponsible act for a person like you.

“Everything that I write is completely me, no one else could write it. On the other hand, I sometimes surf online forums of authors and literature on Facebook, and I read about writers who talk about how it all flows from within themselves, how it bursts forth from their subconscious. They say: ‘I do not want to tamper with that because it would interfere with my true subconscious bursting forth.’ But I work differently. I am thinking about what will be on the paper, what a person who picks up the book will see.”

Why do you surf using an assumed name? Why don’t you have a Facebook account?

“I have an account that is not in my name. I have never uploaded a post and I don’t have friends. I want to be a fly on the wall.”

That's a little creepy.

“Yes. I agree.”

When I ask Arad what she’s read recently, she mentions that she enjoyed reading “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” the satirical novel by Joshua Cohen.

Are you happy the Netanyahus are now less prominent than in the past?

“OK, now we have arrived at the subject of Israeli politics,” she says, sharpening her concentration in order to maximize control. “I have a long-term relationship with them. When we left Israel the first time, it was to go to England, in order to study and it was obvious that we were returning after a few years. In 1996 we bought tickets to fly in, to vote in the election, and all of a sudden we woke up with Netanyahu. I was in shock. Reviel’s academic adviser asked him beforehand if he wanted him to help him to find work [abroad], and Reviel said, ‘No, no, I am only applying for jobs in Israel.’ And a little while after that, he told him: ‘I changed my mind. Help me find work, anywhere.’ That is how we got to where we are. I felt that if six months after [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated you could elect Netanyahu, then there's no hope.”

Arad received U.S. citizenship about a decade ago. “When Trump was elected here," she says, "it was a sort of painful reminder that there is something wrong with the world. My American friends were in shock, and among the Israeli friends it reawakened the trauma of Netanyahu. My daughters cried after Trump was elected. I told them, ‘Imagine if Barack Obama were assassinated, and then Trump was elected.’”

In ‘The Hebrew Teacher’ [a recent work that consists of three novellas] there is a character named Yoad Bergman Harari, An academic with strident left-wing opinions who is an insufferable person. He is a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Are you?

“I am left of Meretz, I am not BDS. I am opposed to the occupation, in favor of dismantling settlements. I do not buy goods from settlements, the same as I do not buy meat. The way to offer support, according to my principles, is through the wallet. Is a religious person who won't go into a nonkosher place boycotting it? If that is a boycott, then I too am boycotting.”

Do you support economic sanctions on Israel in order to end the occupation?

“Before the last election in the United States, my mother, who is a good Zionist, was saying that if only there would finally be a president who was ‘bad for Israel’ – in the sense that it would put pressure on Israel to withdraw from territories and reach an arrangement.”

So, what is your problem with BDS?

“In South Africa it was obvious that the pressure was meant to do away with apartheid. Most of the BDSniks are not saying ‘We want a multistage plan for ending the occupation, 1, 2, 3, 4’ – but are saying: ‘Let’s do it, let’s boycott Israel.’ And that is useless and illogical.”

Chomsky's bagel

What's up with you and food in your writing?

“In my opinion, food is a means of characterizing people. There are two authors I love, Alison Lurie and Barbara Pym, Both of whom love descriptions of clothing. ‘She wore the pleated skirt with the lavender sweater.’ With me, you have to assume that people aren’t going to leave the house naked, but it will always mention what they ate. My sisters and I always laugh about how my grandmother would ask about every event: What did they give you to eat? There is something about food that is sensual and tactile; based on food, you can get a take on a person.

"Food that isn’t good is a real downer for me. When I was a linguist at MIT, if you would come to a meeting with Chomsky in the early afternoon, he would take out some frozen bagel he’d brought from home and put it on the radiator to thaw, and then fill it with some processed cheese, and have some mass-produced kind of cookie for dessert. And it would simply make me sad.”

Last question: Is there a chance, even theoretical, of you returning to Israel?

“That was the question I most hated being asked when I’d give book readings. In the early years of this century, there would always be the boomer who would get up and ask: When are you returning to Israel? So I learned how to answer it, and said: I return to Israel every winter. I love my idea of spending increasingly longer periods of time in Israel, and most certainly when the children will no longer be in school. I don’t know if I will get to the point of what is described in the Sapir Prize as having ‘the center of her life in Israel.’ Right now, I don't see that happening.”

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