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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Kenneth Bonert

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

With the recent announcement of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists, we thought you might want to learn a little more about the five outstanding writers who made the list. Last week we introduced you to Ayelet Tsabari, who wrote a collection of short stories called the The Best Place on Earth. Today we turn our attention to Kenneth Bonert, whose novel, The Lion Seeker, won a 2013 National Jewish Book Award. Set in South Africa, Bonert's novel stretches across the 1930s and 1940s, following a Jewish family as they seek to find their place in a new culture, having escaped their war-torn homeland. 

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I think writing well depends on being able to concentrate for long periods of time. You need to have patience, you need to make a sustained effort, to stick with it when it doesn't seem to be working. If your mind wanders, you need to train it to come back to the task at hand. I suppose it's like a kind of meditation. Eventually you come out the other side and find those moments of soaring excitement and clarity that carry you along. That rush of creative expression––it’s what I live for.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Life and books. I mean that the inspiration for me often comes from a combination of two things: having the spark of a good idea, and then finding the right language to transform it into a story. The ideas usually come from life, from situations. It could be something that disturbs me, like a reaction to an argument, or gnawing on a difficult problem, or else having an insight into how someone's personality works . . . or it could be a flash of memory, like the smell of rain in the woods, or a face passing on a city street . . . some flicker of feeling that I want to try to capture with words and make permanent, a moment that sets the machinery of the imagination humming into action.

But then the inspiration for the language and the structure of the story, I almost always find in books. By reading carefully, I see what other writers have done and the possibilities are opened up to me, different avenues I might try, experiments that will in turn generate their own inspirations until I've found what I'm looking for.

Who is your intended audience?

I don't have an audience in mind when I write, at least at the beginning stages. I believe that would be a mistake. You need to write for yourself and not try to please others. You need to write the kind of book that you would honestly love to read. Of course you hope that others will enjoy the book also, that it will find a large audience, but I think it is folly to chase after that. You would only be trying to guess the tastes of complete strangers, and that is surely a mug’s game.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I'm close to finishing a novel which is a kind of sequel to The Lion Seeker, although it’s a very different sort of novel, one that draws more on my own direct experiences of growing up in South Africa, which I left at the end of high school.

What are you reading now?

In fiction, it's a long novel called An Act of Terror, by Andre Brink, a South African writer of Afrikaner background. I'm finding this to be an absolutely brilliant novel. It’s the story of a bomb plot in apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s and it is both riveting and profound. Unfairly perhaps for the book, it was overtaken by history since just as it was published the apartheid state came crashing down, and the story was no longer as relevant to the reading public, which is a great shame because it really is masterful. I'm full of admiration for Mr. Brink at the moment.

In non-fiction, I'm reading The State vs. Nelson Mandela, by Joel Joffe. This is an interesting and well-written account of the famous 1963 treason trial, by the man who was one of the defence attorneys. I became especially interested in the trial when I learned just how many of the principals involved were Jewish. Not only among Mandela’s co-defendants but also, on the opposite side, the rather unsavoury prosecutor trying to convict him.

Top 5 favorite books

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Wall by John Hersey
  • Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I can't think of a specific moment. It's something I've always wanted to do.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Success for a novel is measured four ways, I think. Critical success, commercial success, longevity, and influence.

For me, the top of the mountain would be to write a novel that attains all four.

However, the “top of a mountain” also implies that there is some end point to a long journey. This is not the way I look at what writing is. Rather, it’s a joyful art that I would never want to stop practicing. I can’t imagine ever not writing novels. Writing is a way of life, and to live this way is success for me.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I write in a room with few distractions, just a desk and a computer that is not connected to the internet. Nothing on the walls. The desk is an old one, a gift from my father. I also like to wear the same set of clothes, my work clothes. When I put them on I feel myself getting into the right frame of mind for work.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I would hope that they would experience what I have experienced when I come across a book I really love: a story that sweeps you along, characters that come alive. A deep book that you can’t put down, and afterward you don’t look at the world quite the same way anymore. You want to re-read it again, in order to savour favourite parts.

Kenneth Bonert’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Grain, and The Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. Born in South Africa, Bonert is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants. He now lives in Toronto.

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Interview: Kenneth Bonert

Monday, January 20, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert spans a twenty-five year period in South Africa. It delves into a Jewish family’s trials and tribulations as they journeyed from being immigrants to striving for advancement during the war-torn period of the 1930s and 1940s.

Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to write this novel?

Kenneth Bonert: It is an exercise in artistic self-expression. I was inter­ested in my family’s roots and trying to understand myself better. I was curious about why my family went to South Africa. My grandmother, who lived with us, would tell stories on what it was like for her. She had a lot of culture shock coming from the shtetl in Lithuania. I wanted to imagine this and create a novel for it. I named it The Lion Seeker because I envisioned a lion as typical of ambition, glory, and a part of Africa. There are a lot of layers to the symbol of a lion.

EC: Where did Jews fall on the spectrum between whites and blacks?

KB: Jews were considered white, but during the period in the book, the late 1930s, there was a lot of anti-Semitism. This was an era when Fascism was on the rise everywhere. South Africa had the Grey Shirts, a Nazi-type movement that wanted to enter the war on the side of the Germans. Today, South African Jews are very proud of their heritage. I remember going to Jewish schools and growing up in a Jewish environ­ment. Unfortunately, there still existed that feeling that being Jewish drew some form of hatred.

EC: Can you talk about your main character, Isaac Helger?

KB: He is a working-class, uneducated guy. I based him on my uncles who worked in the auto industry in Johannesburg: they were not the most refined. I hope I captured some of their grittiness. Isaac is a com­plex character who has a side that can be really sweet and another side that reflects the environment he grew up in, an intensely racist one.

EC: Was Isaac a racist?

KB: To portray a white person in South Africa in the 1930s I had to paint him with a racist attitude. This was an era when a black person had to get off the sidewalk when a white person walked by. I wanted to show how this ordinary Jewish family only looked out for themselves. On the pecking order of the social hierarchy they found themselves in a supe­rior position to the blacks; how they handled this is a part of the book.

EC: Throughout the book Isaac’s mother asks, “Are you stupid or clever?” Can you explain?

KB: His mother, Gitelle, is obsessed with this. She is ruthlessly deter­mined to get her South African family out of poverty and to get her sisters out of Lithuania. She is very fixated on getting ahead. The point is to be smart to get ahead and advance the family economically. She tries to instill this philosophy in Isaac. It plays out in the course of the book.

EC: There are a lot of contradictions in the book: black-white, stupid-clever, poor-rich, Jew-Gentile?

KB: Yes there are, but there are a lot of contradictions to Isaac: he does and says things he regrets and then tries to make them right; he is intel­ligent but often does things that are dumb. South Africa is a country with a lot of contradictions. It is a place of extremes, which I wanted to convey, and the people who live there have many emotional ups and downs.

EC: You just won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for 2013. You must feel honored?

KB: Yes, past winners have included: Leo Litwak, Chaim Potok, Cynthia Ozick, Dara Horn, and Nicole Krauss. I will be travelling to Hartford for an awards ceremony in the spring. The Lion Seeker was also fortunate to have won a National Jewish Book Award and been shortlisted for the Governor General's Award here in Canada.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

KB: A good story that a person can get lost in. I wanted it to have a complexity so that the reader will think about it and get something out of it. Other than the racist angle no one reads about other South African characters. I see a comparison between the 1930s era and our times, and this is a scary observation. There was the great economic crash and we have our debt crisis; there is also anti-Semitism happening then and now.

EC: Is your next book going to be a sequel to this debut book?

KB: I am working on a collection of short fiction that also deals with South African Jews, but more in the modern time. It will be about the Jewish communities spreading from South Africa to all over the world from the past to the present. As for a sequel to The Lion Seeker, I am interested in writing one that will bring the family into modern times.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national se­curity articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

Notes from a Conversation with Dovid Katz: Part Two

Thursday, December 05, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kenneth Bonert, author of the novel The Lion Seeker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), shared some notes from the first part of his conversation with Dovid Katz about Lithuanian and the Holocaust. Today, he continues the conversation. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In part one, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.

Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”

The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.

Since the accusation that "the Jews" sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent ­– the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.

What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.

The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.

On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”

For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murdered to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.

Kenneth Bonert's fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Grain, and the Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications.

Notes from a Conversation with Dovid Katz: Part One

Tuesday, December 03, 2013 | Permalink

Kenneth Bonert's fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Grain, and the Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. His novel, The Lion Seeker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is now available. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I first came across the writings of Dovid Katz while researching what happened to my relatives in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Though my novel The Lion Seeker is set in South Africa, it tells the story of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, still bound to that blood-soaked land during the horrors of that time. I had learned the details of how, following the withdrawal of Stalin’s forces, Lithuanians had turned on their Jewish neighbours in an orgy of mass murder that began weeks before the Germans took control, then continued under Nazi direction till over ninety-five percent of the country's ancient Jewish community was wiped out, mostly in a matter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuanian death squads with their white armbands; on Katz’s website I saw the same white armbands but in full colour, the photos recent and sadly real.

Katz is an American linguist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a position at the University of Vilnius and began to travel all over the region, interviewing the last surviving Yiddish speakers. Ten years later he became aware of a change, something troubling in the young democracy. Fascists were again marching through the centre of the Lithuanian capital. It started with skinheads chanting the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larger and more diverse with each passing year. Sitting members of parliament and ordinary middle-class citizens have joined these parades, conferring authenticity. Other groups are routinely banned from marching, Katz says, but the neo-fascists always seem to get a permit, and have received police protection and centre stage for Lithuania’s independence day celebration. Above all, Katz says he’s seen little opposition, no popular outcry against these marches, even as they have spread to other cities.

When I talked with Katz earlier this year – an animated, amusing presence through the videolink from Vilnius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a persisting Brooklyn melody to his accent – he began by insisting that today’s Lithuania is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic society. "After living here happily all these years I don’t regard the Lithuanian people as anti-Semitic. The majority of people here, and especially the younger generation, are open-minded, non-prejudiced, interested in a better life, in travelling."

Rather, he sees the burgeoning ultra-nationalism as the result of how Lithuanian institutions are dealing with their history, or failing to. In Lithuania, unlike in, say, Germany, there has been little honest soul searching and public scrutiny of the unusually extensive role that Lithuanians themselves played in the genocide of the 200,000-plus Jewish Lithuanians.

Lithuania was proportionately the worst country for the Jews during the Holocaust, with the lowest percentage of survivors out of any country with a large Jewish community. It was a high-speed genocide carried out in the open, mostly. People ­­­­­- children and infants, women - were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuanian volunteers did almost all the killing, Lithuanians rounded up the Jews, who were usually killed not far from their homes. A Lithuanian term zydsaudys or "Jew shooters" still endures, testament to how commonly well-known the activity was. The Jews "screamed like geese," as they were shot, said one participant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Survivor testimonies, like those in the recently-published Kuniuchowsky archives, detail how the perpetrators included Lithuanians from all strata of society such as the clergy and intellectuals. The writings of various historians (like Timothy Snyder, Alfred Senn, Alfonsus Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Milan Chersonski), all helped to outline for me how widespread Lithuanian collaboration with, and approval for, the genocide was. Part of my research into my late grandmother's village also included watching video clips of witness testimony from elderly Lithuanians, and this too, for me, was confirmation on a micro level of what had happened more generally.

In short, if there was a polar opposite to Denmark (where virtually every Jew was saved by their fellow citizens), then Lithuania unfortunately stands out as prime candidate for that shameful distinction.

In part two of my discussion with Katz, we delve a little more into the reasons behind this.

Check back on Thursday for Kenneth Bonert's next post for the Visiting Scribe.