The ProsenPeople

Wandering Mother, Wondering Daughter: Part 1

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 | Permalink

Anne Cherian was born and raised in Jamshedpur, India. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and visits India regularly. Her second book, The Invitation, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Jew town,” Mom directed the autorickshaw driver.

“Where in Jew town?” he asked in Malayalam.

“The big church,” Mom responded, because she did not know the word for synagogue in Malayalam.

My mother and I had made a special trip to Cochin to see the synagogue. Mom was excited because she had last been in a synagogue forty years earlier, when she lived in Berkeley with her parents. After she married my father and moved to India, she discovered that our small town had churches, mosques, a Buddhist stupa, but no synagogue. I had read about synagogues, had seen pictures, but I had never been inside one, so I, too, was very excited.

I knew about the Cochin Jews, knew, too, that there weren’t enough for a minyan, because most had immigrated to Israel. Still, it was a tremendous disappointment when we arrived at the synagogue and discovered the doors were firmly shut.

“It has been empty for a long time,” the driver informed us. “I thought you simply wanted to see the clock tower,” he pointed to the sky.

We looked up at the bell and clock tower, which, Mom explained, approximated a dome.

“Back to the train station now?” the driver asked.

“No,” Mom responded. “We are going inside.”

“Not possible,” the driver insisted.

“There has to be someone who can open it for us,” Mom said, and turning around, walked into the shop that was across the road.

“Do you know the man who has the keys to the big church?” she asked the shopkeeper.

The shop keeper took in my mother’s 5’10” frame, the blue eyes, the white skin, and asked, “You are Jewish?”

“Yes,” Mom said, “my daughter and I are both Jewish. We want to pray in our church.”

The man glanced at the brown skin I inherited from my Indian father and shrugged. He wasn’t going to question kinship. “I will call the man,” he said, and half an hour later, the doors swung open.

We were the only two in the synagogue, and yet we whispered. We marveled at the blue tiles from China, the Belgian chandelier, the brass that glinted.

“Just imagine,” Mom said, “It used to be filled with people.”

I thought about the generations who had worshipped here, the men who had built the synagogue, all the way back to the ones who had arrived in Cochin on a ship centuries earlier.

I recalled that very moment when I was writing The Invitation. My character Lali is a female version of my father: Jacobite Syrian Christian, comes to America for graduate school, marries a Jew. What if, I wondered, Lali’s ancestors had once worshipped in the synagogue? Locals must have converted to Judaism, for how else had that first ship load married, kept their faith? It was entirely plausible, then, for a Jewish family to decide to become Christians at some point, and so I wrote it into my story.

This was the part of the novel that worried me the most when Mom read an advanced copy.

“I love it,” Mom’s words were sure, her accent still American. “What I like best is Lali's Jewish ancestor, which means she is Jewish. I’ve never read that in any novels, but it makes perfect sense.”

I heaved a sigh of relief. I had Mom’s approval. And for me, that mattered the most.

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of Anne Cherian's posts for the Visiting Scribe here.


The War of Narratives

Friday, September 14, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Shani Boianjiu explored the book of Jonah and writing her debut novel in a foreign language. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I first started writing, I loved reading advice for writers from my favorite authors. Yet there was one common piece of advice I didn't quite get. Whenever writers spoke about letting the characters control the story, I became skeptical. It sounded a bit too fluffy and hazy for my understanding. I had no idea how to implement that advice. After all—I was the writer. I was the one deciding my characters' fate. What does that mean, in a practical sense, letting the characters control the story?

I still don't fully get that advice, but after gaining more experience writing, I have learned that in order to produce my best work I have to be willing to abandon many intentions I had for a story when I first began writing it. This is probably one of the hardest things that I had to learn to do as a writer. Every writer comes to the page bursting to say something. Yet I found that in order for a story to work one must be willing to abandon their original intentions in the service of what works best on the page.

A few months ago I googled myself and found a bunch of thoughtful responses (both favorable and less favorable) that engaged with one of my just-published stories, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations.”

Some responses, however, treated the story as if it was non-fiction, and clearly in service of one particular opinion or another. Because the story was fiction, I was surprised to read these polar opposite responses from people who held strong opinions on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Some viewed the story as pro-Israeli propaganda and claimed that it was degrading to Palestinians, while others claimed that I must hate Israel, and that I’m trying to profit by negatively portraying my own country. The language of the responders on both sides was far less kind than my summary of their sentiments.

I was pleased to see that other readers pushed back on these purely political interpretations of my story, and that they urged for it to be understood as fiction. I think the fact my story managed to enrage people with opposite political views is actually an odd kind of accomplishment. The irony is that one of my story's central themes was the absurdity of the war of narratives that is happening in the West regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

A passionate war of narratives regarding this conflict has been going on for ages. People on both sides are eager to evaluate everyone and everything only in regards to how that person or work of art either agrees or disagrees with their point of view. Although I wish my work could be evaluated only as a work of art, I know that because of my subject matter that may not always happen.

While many differing interpretations have been given to the choices I made in that story, the truth is I feel as though many of those choices were not up to me. They were in service of the story. Whatever my original intentions were when I began writing that story, it was the story itself that dictated my later choices and brought me to write from my characters' perspectives in the ways that I did.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jersualem in 1987. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has appeared inThe New Yorker, Vice magazine and Zoetrope: All Story. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, and The People of Forever are Not Afraid is her first novel. She lives in Israel.

New Reviews

Friday, September 14, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:

Writing in a Foreign Language

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Shani Boianjiu explored the book of Jonah. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was born and raised in Israel, and my novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes place in Israel. Because of that, many people wonder why I wrote my book in English. Someone asked me if I had something against the Hebrew language. One Israeli person speculated online that I chose to write in English because I was looking for a shortcut into getting published widely. 

That's not at all true, but the question of why I chose to write in English is a valid one. 

The truth is—it happened by accident. I wrote my first book while I was studying at a US college. That's the only reason I wrote it in English. It wasn't really a conscious choice, and I never expected the book to get published, so I didn't give the decision to write in English too much thought.

Whatever I write next may be in Hebrew, or it may be in English. It all depends on what I feel like doing. I am terrible at writing English with pen and paper—I never quite got used to drawing those strange Latin letters, and I need my spell check, so it is easier for me in some ways to write in Hebrew because I don't need a computer for that.

Yet I believe writing in a foreign language helped my fiction. There is something about writing in a language that does not truly belong to you that is liberating. It is easier to create a new world from scratch when the words you are using are not the ones you used as a child, or those you use to talk to the people you love. Just the knowledge that the characters and places I was describing belonged to the Hebrew language meant that by using English, I was firmly footed in the realm of fantasy, where anything I wanted to make happen could happen as long as it made sense in the world of the story.

Additionally, writing about Israel in English meant that I sometimes had to translate Hebrew phrases and metaphors. The process of navigating between the two languages often resulted in some of the most significant parts of my book. My title, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is actually a translation of a Hebrew bumper sticker and slogan.

I also found that at times it was advantageous not to know all the words that I needed. I often knew what I wanted to say, but did not have the words to say it in English. This forced me to turn to a dictionary, then to others' fiction. To consider different possibilities, to examine how the new words I considered using were used by others. When writing in English, I am often at a loss for words. I have to fight harder for what comes naturally to native speakers. In Hebrew the choice of words is quickly obvious to me. I don't have to discover them.

My book is in the process of being translated into several languages, and I have found in my interactions with my translators that they ask the best questions. In my book, I describe the hairs inside a mean base commander's nose as looking like "the life lines of spiders." My Croatian translator recently asked me about that image. She wanted to know whether I meant "'life lines', the ones you throw into the water when somebody's drowning or just life + line?"

The truth is I meant both meanings, but even I didn't realize that was the case until my translator asked about it. She needed to know which of those two meanings I meant in order to accurately translate the text.

Unlike most readers, translators are forced to care about every word and comma. They really read what is in front of them. They press me to explain what I fully meant by every image or dialogue line. Is it a common Hebrew metaphor? Is it an American figure of speech? Did I just invent that image on my own? Could this or that line be a combination of a common metaphor and invention? I myself translate fiction, so I understand exactly how translating forces you to engage with a text in a way merely reading it never does.

I wrote my book in English, but when I wrote it I was often translating from Hebrew in my head. English was an accident, but not, I think, a bad accident.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jersualem in 1987. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Vice magazine and Zoetrope: All Story. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, and The People of Forever are Not Afraid is her first novel. She lives in Israel.

Book Cover of the Week: Jewish Radicals

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History (published in July by NYU Press), Tony Michels explores the history of Jews and the American Left through primary documents written in English and Yiddish:


JBC Bookshelf: A Nod Toward the Past

Monday, September 10, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Each of these upcoming books nod toward the past in one way or another,  be it the republication of the first Jewish cookbook in America (original pub year: 1871) and a 1962 classic of German short fiction, a look back at the life of Leonard Cohen, or an exploration of the true story behind a young man's death. While these titles leave much to look forward to, here are a few more titles to be on the lookout out for: Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, Shani Boijaniu's The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Marc Tracy and Franklin Foer's Jewish Jocks, and Amos Oz's Jews and Words.

Speaking of fall delights....JBC's Annual Raid the Shelves event will be on October 10th at JBC HQ. Find more information, including a link for registration, here

Finally, Jewish children's book authors and illustrators should click here to find out more information about the November conference in NYC.


I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Sylvie Simmons (September 2012, Ecco) 
A biography of one of the most important and influential songwriters of the past fifty years.

Jewish Cookery Book: On Principles of EconomyEsther Levy (October 2012, Andrews McMeel Publishing)
This was the first Jewish cookbook publishing in America (1871) and it was written to help European immigrants adapt to life in the New World while maintaining their religious heritage.

El Iluminado: A Graphic Novel, Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin (November 2012, Basic Books)

When young Rolando Pérez falls off the cliffs outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, the mysteries begin immediately. Was he pushed or did he jump? What are the documents he’s willing to give his life to protect from his family, the police, and the Catholic Church? Ilan Stavans tries to seek the truth about Rolando and the secret documents that reveal the mysterious sect of crypto-Jews (whose lineage is traced back to the Inquisition, and who still live today, partially concealed, in the American Southwest).

The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann; Isabel Fargo Cole, trans. (December 2012, The University of Chicago Press)
Originally published in 1962, The Jew Car is an examination of the psychology of National Socialism, beginning with childhood anti-Semitism and moving to a youtful embrace—and then an ultimate rejection—of Nazi ideology.


The Book of Jonah

Monday, September 10, 2012 | Permalink

Shani Boianjiu's debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.


The characters in my novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, are Israeli. Because of that, my writing will undoubtedly be considered to be Jewish fiction. Yet the truth is there are only a few instances in which Judaism as a religion is a topic in the novel. The most significant instance involves the book of Jonah.

Religious feelings, if we narrow religion to mean having something to do with God, are perhaps not a large part of my novel because they haven't been a big part of my life. For me, being Jewish had nothing to do with God or even the bible. All of my friends at school were Jewish. Nearly all the people in my town were Jewish. I have fasted on Yom Kippur since I was in second grade and observed Passover, but never once went to temple while I was growing up. In my house, we never once discussed the existence of God, or the meaning of the bible.

At my secular school, as in all Israeli schools, Bible was a required subject. Yet our teachers never stressed theological issues, and the bible was taught just as literature was taught—the focus was on the bible as stories. The emphasis was placed on understanding what a parable meant, or on learning to understand biblical grammar and vocabulary.

Although my first book is just being published, I’ve learned from the few interviews I have already had that people love asking writers whether or not their fictional stories are based on real life experiences. I don't know why that is. Almost none of my book is based on my own experiences. The few details that I did draw from my own life are small moments that are in service of a larger narrative that comes directly from my imagination.

The part in the book that most closely resembles a personal experience is the section in which one of my characters describes studying the book of Jonah when she was in middle school. My character, Yael, is frustrated by having to learn about the book of Jonah three times in the same year. She finds that even though she is lectured about the book repeatedly, it still doesn't quite make sense to her.

When I was in seventh grade, I was forced to study the book of Jonah three times—the second time because of the change of a teacher, the third time because I think that new teacher had forgotten that we already spent months on the book of Jonah. One of the odd products of a secular education in Israel is that the student is made to become an expert on certain parts of the bible deemed test worthy by the minister of education, while knowing absolutely nothing about the other parts of the bible.

Like my character, I was confused by the book of Jonah, no matter how many times I had to study it. It is a strange tale, which many have found to be completely different from the stories of other prophets.

Here's what I think happens: as far as I can understand, God tries to force Jonah into being a prophet and orders him to tell a city full of really bad people that God is going to kill them all. Jonah is scared and doesn't want to, because he doesn't want the whole city to get pissed off at him. So he runs away from God, gets eaten by a whale that later vomits him up (the best part!), and in the end he realizes that running away from God was just about the world's a dumbest idea (duh), so he becomes a prophet and tells all these bad people they are super bad and God is going to kill them all. The bad people turn out to be surprisingly receptive to criticism, so they repent and become good. God spares them all, and then Jonah gets really pissed, because it is like so awkward— he already told all these people God is going to kill them. To top off the peachy month Jonah is having, he ends up in the desert and the heat almost kills him. The whole getting lost in the desert thing is actually a part of God's educational mission, so he creates a tree that saves Jonah from dying. Jonah is happy to be saved, but then God kills the tree and Jonah is so pissed he is suicidal. Then God says something to the effect of: "Ha! I got you Jonah! You see? You were so sad about the death of this tree, even though you did nothing to help it grow, and I am supposed to just kill all those people I worked so hard to create?"

This is where the story ends, and that's also the part that makes no sense to me. Jonah was sad about the death of the tree because it was giving him shade. He didn't love the tree, he needed it. But assuming there is a God, what does God need people for? I mean, the claim is he is almighty and all that. This metaphor makes zero sense to me. It didn't make sense to me in eighth grade, and it makes no sense still. In middle school it was not cool to ask the kind of questions that were not going to show up on a test. But I still wonder about it, which is maybe why I chose to include the book of Jonah in my novel, although I usually never write about real experiences. What does the ending of Jonah's story mean? And what does God need people for? I actually want to know. If anyone can get back to me on that, do let me know!

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jersualem in 1987. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Vice magazine and Zoetrope: All Story. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, and The People of Forever are Not Afraid is her first novel. She lives in Israel.

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New Reviews

Friday, September 07, 2012 | Permalink

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The Real Flavor of the Streets

Thursday, September 06, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Steve Stern wrote about embarking on a quixotic journey and his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages. There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.

“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”

Understand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vilnius is very good, especially the dark Baltic variety with its tincture of caramel. Well past my limit (of a single beer) I was inclined to presumption. Also, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the Lithuanian national identity crisis, having recently visited their Museum of Genocide Victims. This is the museum housed in the old KGB headquarters, a forbiddingly grim building where thousands of Lithuanian partisans were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Soviets. With its punishment cells and execution chamber, it’s a chilling monument to inhumanity, and there’s no question that the Lithuanians suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Russians. But I was more than a little uncomfortable with calling their particular tragedy a “genocide.” I reminded the poets that the Jews had constituted nearly half the population of Vilnius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the richest Jewish culture in Europe. I called the roll of Jewish geniuses from Vilna—the Gaon and the Chazon Ish, Moishe Kulbak and Chaim Grade, the scholar-rabbis, the Yiddish authors, actors, and artists—and suggested that, if the Lithuanians were so desperate for a narrative, they could do worse than to appropriate that of the Litvak Jews. After all, while the official identity of Vilnius had long been Russian, the public life was largely Polish, and the real flavor of the streets was distinctly Jewish. The scant native Lithuanian population was, at least until recently, negligible and ghostly.

I waited for my remarks to revive some atavistic form of anti-Semitism among my listeners, who merely registered then dismissed the suggestion; my reputation as a nudge had preceded me. Lithuania, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity. In the late 14th century, when the rest of the continent was building its high gothic cathedrals, the Lithuanians, it seemed, were still worshipping trees. In their zealous quest for identity many of the young were now looking back to the mist-shrouded pagan past. Shikkered from a second beer, I recalled an item of graffiti I’d seen on a crumbling wall earlier that day. It was a more or less stick figure with a protracted middle limb and a legend chalked above it reading in English: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in retrospect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuanian Stone Age, possibly the image of some trickster god. I presented my theory to the poets, supporting it with improvised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole borsht from the gods, lassoed a dragon with his schlong, etc. “And a little known fact,” I added as a postscript, “Long Dick Boy was circumcised.” I think the Lithuanians were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cherish the souvenir hangover I brought back from my time in Vilnius.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include twoNew York TimesNotable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Book Cover of the Week: Approaching You in English

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Approaching You in English, the first book to appear in English by noted Israeli poet Admiel Kosman, was published last year by Zephyr Press:

Read a review in Words Without Borders here.

Listen to an interview with Admiel Kosman over at the Forward here.