In March 2013 I had attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, aka AWP, in Boston’s Hynes Convention Center. I scrutinised the schedule beforehand, circled interesting panels, and counted down the weeks—then days—leading to the event. I have never before participated in a writers’ conference, and so I walked into the Convention Center feeling like a little girl on her first day of school.
I quickly learned there was a gap between my expectations and the conference’s reality. I was like a snail that dared out of its shell only to find out the world is in fact a scary place. I sat in on a few interesting panels, and enjoyed strolling down the book fair’s endless isles, but ill prepared to handle the overwhelming throng, namely the 11,000 participants, the conference left me with a dampened spirit and a broken heart.
What’s the point? I thought. Who would be interested in what I have to say, even if my voice could be heard over the literary din? Yes, I know, each voice is unique, one of a kind, etc, etc. But still.
I am after all, I mumbled to myself on the way home, a writer without a language.
Born and raised in Israel, Hebrew is my native tongue, and as a keen bookworm I had mastered it from an early age. I was practically in love with the language, and just as childhood experiences leave deep impressions on us, Hebrew resonated in me with layers of meaning. Certain words, or a combination of them, conjured up intense visceral emotions.
Since childhood, writing has been one of my main channels of expression. Creating my own kingdoms, populating them with scenes and characters, fills me with immense joy and satisfaction. Moreover, writing is my anchor. Putting reflections into words is vital to my thought process; it gives form and weight to abstract notions, and helps me gain a better understanding of myself and the world at large. With words I try to connect the often-elusive substance of life—thoughts, feelings, events—to the ground on which I stand.
Long after I had immigrated to the U.S. in 1991 I continued to scribble poems and stories on pieces of paper. When a friend asked me which language I was using in my writing, I replied: Hebrew of course. But the question hovered in my mind until I could no longer resist the urge to try and compose in English; a language that represented worldliness, opportunities, and a vague sense of freedom.
My granny, who fled Germany shortly after the Nazis took power, eventually settled down in London. As a child, I looked forward to her visits. I loved her small green suitcase (which I later inherited) that held a delicate bouquet of perfume, and promises of gifts and sweets we did not have in Israel back then. With her German-accented English Granny inspired me to admire the language.
Throwing away the crutches and experience English from within turned out to be a struggle. The English vocabulary is far larger than the Hebrew one, and its grammar and spelling are more complex. Facing my childhood dream of becoming a writer, I thus found myself leaping from a lake into a vast ocean. Determined, I transitioned into my second language and began developing stories with vigour.
Alas, my determination was greatly challenged during the aforementioned AWP Conference. Disillusioned by the reality of the literary scene, my confidence took a serious hit, and my hopes seemed dashed. I felt motivated for nothing save for stargazing and daydreaming. My answer came in a poem written by Vicente Aleixandre, Who I Write For. One sentence struck me most: “Perhaps I write for the people who don’t read my poems.”
I was deeply touched by his commitment to his craft, and his lack of ego or self-pity.
All right, I thought, if I were to write, if I were to put into my work all I have, I’d need to figure out what it is that I can contribute. This question exposed the fact that all along I have been avoiding the subject of Israel in my writing. It felt too real. Too raw.
After more than twenty years of voluntary exile I was ready to look at the place I once called home and left with a semi-slammed door. It was time to try and exorcise my devils, and examine that which keeps gnawing at me. With the geographical distance, and using a second language, I thought I just might be up for that.
This new focus helps me better appreciate my homeland and all the intricate emotions and throbbing memories it evokes. When I write, I imagine my words slicing through the various layers of life in Israel to expose its complexity and nuances through the social, political, and cultural challenges.