Second-class Writers

The more writers get together, and the more encouraging their audience, the better their quality. A dialogue like this might well begin in the pages of this newspaper.

From across the dinner table, I watched an English writer friend crumple. A fiction writer of great flexibility of language, and the winner of international competitions, he sat silent and sheepish under the barrage of criticism from our dining partners. "I think a writer in Israel should write in Hebrew," the woman next to him proclaimed, "and if he can't do that, he's not really touching the Israeli experience." "It's more than that" - the woman on his other side fired off - "A writer whose language isn't Hebrew can't get close to the genuine Israeli experience. To know what's going on here, I read books in Hebrew or their English translations." "And who needs English writers here, anyway?" a woman from the other side of the table chirped, "If I want to read a novel in English, I'll pick something that won the Booker or the Pulitzer. Anyone who's really good here should get himself known worldwide - then I'll pay attention."

The entire assault was my fault. I shouldn't have brought up the subject. Years of experience should have taught me not to try to talk about English writing in Israel. It's like the women in the Kippele shul where I prayed as a child, in Rochester, New York. Even though we were closer to the beautiful sky-blue ceiling that symbolized the sheltering divinity, the women could barely see or hear what was going on downstairs, so they spent the prayer hours gossiping about each other.

I used to sneak downstairs in the shul to sit by my brother so I could actually hear and understand the main event, and no one bothered me because I was too small to make a difference, but I knew I'd never make it up to the bimah. In the Kippele shul I'd always be an observer. Unless I wanted to change shuls, I could either content myself to kvetch with the other yentes, or shut up.

But that was long ago. Now I sit with the Hebrew writers, most of whom know my work only in Hebrew translation, and discuss literature. All of them can find me very amenable, because I'll never be in competition with any of them for any of the national prizes, which specifically exclude non-Hebrew writers. (There were a few literary awards given by the president and by the Ministry of Absorption for foreign language writers, but they've disappeared.) So there's no competition, but there's also little influence. My 50-odd years of experience in writing and teaching English poetry is helpful to Israelis only in that I can tell a funny story about Gertrude Stein.

Had the women in the Kippele shul been allowed to participate in the service, they would have had a great deal to contribute, to enrich, to teach. And had the women in the Kippele shul recognized their own importance and interest, they would have been able to train their keen eyes on the prayers and the praying from their superior perspective above.

But as with this evening at dinner with the writer, we were shushed by the men downstairs, as it were, who pounded on the table to make their points and never looked up to see what was going on above their heads.

Scribbling is too much in my blood for me to stop writing just because I'm criticized and since I usually write only poetry or poetry criticism, I'm accustomed to being marginal. But when I saw my friend across the table sit silently as the merit of his writing efforts was being negated, I understood why immigrant writers remain so unknown here. If they publish abroad, we rarely hear about them in Israel. If they stay here, they write alone, join a small community of Anglo writers, or fall silent for want of support.

But what if even one of them could grow to become the bridge between the Anglo-Saxon and the Israeli experience: Wouldn't they be worth supporting? As the chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English, I stay up nights thinking about this, remembering the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, writing of exiles: "Ce qui me tourmente [...], c'est un peu, dans chacun de ces hommes, Mozart assassine." "This is what worries me [...], it's that a bit in each of these men, Mozart has been assassinated."

This situation may be changing. A number of years ago almost every interview in Hebrew with me would begin with, "You've been here so long, why aren't you writing in Hebrew?" But in the past few years, writing workshops, groups of poets, and publications that reach a wider audience than the writers and their families have been appearing in numbers. Tel Aviv University has been encouraging English writers with constant visitors from abroad, workshops and programs. Bar-Ilan's M.A. in creative writing has had a wonderful impact on the atmosphere. Slam poetry and performances seem to be finding a more general local audience, and there are even presses that publish local literature in English. It would be wonderful if these writers could get together in some way for mutual benefit and create a significant presence in the local literature scene.

The more writers get together, and the more encouraging their audience, the better their quality. A dialogue like this might well begin in the pages of this newspaper.


Karen Alkalay-Gut teaches in the department of English and American studies at Tel Aviv University, and chairs the Israel Association of Writers in English.