An Israeli-American Writer's Tale of Two Cities

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Shelly Oria on the New York Subway.Credit: Dan Keinan

In a telephone call to New York, I ask Shelly Oria how she appeared on the literary scene out of nowhere. She laughs at my question, because her ascendancy had not been sudden. She had been working hard for many years. She is 36 and moved to New York 11 years ago. Her first collection of 18 short stories, “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,” has just been published by the prestigious American publishing house FSG Originals. Oria’s stories are about gender, sexuality, nationality, identity and isolation. Their themes include a couple which discovers it is capable of stopping time together; a father who leaves his daughter in Israel for the sake of his career as a painter in New York; and three people who live together until cracks develop in their relationship. Some of the stories were written in Hebrew (and translated), others in English.

Oria was born in Los Angeles while her father, the actor Avi Oria, was working there. Her parents returned to Israel when she was seven weeks old. She came to New York in 2003, aged 25, for a master’s degree program in writing, after earning her bachelor’s degree in theater and gender studies at Tel Aviv University. That was where her journey to the English language began, a journey that went as far as changing the language in which she wrote.

“It’s a very long process that took quite a few years,” she says. “When I moved here, all my writing was in Hebrew and I started to translate it. I did that for a year while working three jobs.” Accepted to several places, she chose the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers.

Her difficulty with English persisted, and during the first semester she wrote her school projects in Hebrew and translated them into English. She says she had the choice of giving up or jumping into the water, and she jumped in. In the second semester, she began writing in English. “I saw right away that writing in English was just different. My voice was different. At first it was different and awful, but the difference gave me hope. I thought I had something interesting here, and it was worth it to keep working.”

A kind of miracle

The next stage after graduation was to get her work published in journals. “It’s very hard for a new writer to get an agent, which is necessary here. You can’t get an agent until you’ve [been] published in journals, and the more important ones the better. I started sending out texts like mad. I got myself into a routine. I prepared envelopes every Saturday for months.”

It was 2008. Oria, who was married at the time, cast her bread upon the waters, as the Bible says. She and her husband decided to return to Israel shortly afterward. But a week after the decision, Oria received a letter informing her that her story had been accepted to McSweeney’s quarterly magazine. “It was a kind of miracle,” she says, but it did not change her decision to return to Israel.

Something else happened the day she landed. “My husband checked our voice mail in New York, and there was a message that I had won the Indiana Review Fiction Prize for 2008. A pretty strange trend developed. Things started happening after I worked very hard for a year, and I was in Tel Aviv.”

Suddenly she found herself the focus of attention, and literary agents began to contact her. “Most of them said they were contacting me because they had read my short story, but they were calling to ask whether I had a novel. It was nice for my ego, but it didn’t go anywhere.”

She had several stories at the time and intended to tell the agents who called her about them, but a friend in New York gave her some advice. “She suggested I tell them I had half a novel completed, and that I was in the advanced stages of the second half. I’m grateful to her to this day for that advice.”

In the end, two agents were interested. One of them, PJ Mark, became her agent. “I felt the best connection with him,” she says. “I also asked people in New York and everybody recommended him highly, saying he was a rising star. He’s a star now. Back then, he was at an important but small agency and moved to one of the largest ones in New York, Janklow & Nesbit. Fortunately for me, he took me with him.

“I felt very strange,” she continues. “I loved living in Tel Aviv, but suddenly I couldn’t reap everything I’d sown. It was like I had another self in New York who was doing well and to whom good things were happening, and I didn’t get to be her.”

After nine months in Israel, she returned to New York for a visit and realized how much she missed it. That started her journey back to America, but still with no book.

That was when her father entered the picture. “He sat me down for a talk that helped me a lot. He spoke with me artist to artist, and told me he understood that it took a lot of time, but it seemed to him that there was something else – that I wasn’t letting it out – and sometimes the hardest thing in creativity is just to let it out and let it be in the world. It’s frightening, but it’s an important challenge to deal with. That conversation was a turning point for me.”

Although her agent was tolerant and put no pressure on her, she set herself a deadline, and fairly quickly she had a manuscript in hand she could submit to publishers. “In April 2013, it was sent to 20 large publishers,” she says. “It happened pretty quickly and created a buzz. Two days later, my agent was already calling to ask when I was available for meetings.” She signed with FSG Originals.

“It was very exciting for me,” she recalls. “After I’d already had the experience of working with them, I can say it was a formative experience.” As she wrote, she began teaching fiction in a writing program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Her book, which was published last month, has already garnered a positive response. Oria says that while some of the buzz is a matter of luck, some of it stemmed from the fact that the book was published by an excellent publishing house, with an excellent editor and an excellent public-relations person. She is very open about all the mechanisms one needs to succeed.

‘A complex thing’

The first story in the collection, which is also the title story, contains two women and a man who live together as a trio. Two are Israelis living in New York. They stick to their decision to speak English among themselves, until something changes and they exchange a few words in Hebrew. Oria says that keeping up both languages is a complex thing, and it is part of the reason for the literary choice she made.

You gave the book the title “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0” – is that part of it? Tel Aviv lost out?

“The book’s title and the story come from the fact that it’s a game the two Israelis are playing. They keep making comparisons because it’s something that’s part of you, part of your identity. So on the one hand it’s 1:0 in New York’s favor, and on the other, the very comparison shows how much Israeliness is still a part of me.”

You also deal with your own identity issues in the book. Do you think Americans are interested in that?

“I hope that the book will interest all of the United States, too. It’s easier for me to answer questions that have to do with New York, where there is definitely interest in the world at large. And many times, beyond interest, there’s also a glorification of other cultures. Israel is in the news a lot, and of course there are many Jews and Israelis here. Many people, Jews and non-Jews, have opinions on what is happening in Israel. They feel that they know what is happening, or they want to know. I do think it’s part of the cultural fabric here because of the large number of Israelis living here. Not a huge part, since there’s an incredible cultural mix here, but it’s one of them.”

Oria mentions her interest in the new identity – the American Israeli – being created there. She says a new identity is forming, one that is neither completely Israeli nor completely American. “It’s an interesting identity in itself, a new identity, and, after all, the Israeli identity is new when we think about it in a broader perspective.”

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