Friday, August 2, 2013

Why I write

Since childhood, writing has been one of my main channels of expression.  Creating my own kingdoms, and populating them with characters of my choice 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.
       Before I began writing, I was an avid reader, which I doubtless owe to my mother.  When I was young, she would cross town twice weekly, in any weather, to borrow books at the pubic library for my sister and me.  Back then my parents had little money to spend on such luxuries, and my mother’s dedication has enriched my world far beyond where my imagination, or life in the insipid suburb of Tel Aviv where we lived, could have carried me.  Thus I became a bookworm.  By the time I was a teenager, I had already consumed the library’s children and young adult books, and began devouring adult titles.  Many of them, like Gone with the Wind, took me years to fully digest, as I lacked context and the appropriate maturity to comprehend the narrative’s implications.  In high school I treasured the summer vacation recommendation-list, from which we were asked to choose one or two books.  By the end of the summer, I had read all the books I could find in the library, covering between ten and fifteen volumes. 
       Though as a child it was clear to me that I would become a writer when I grow up, it took me half my life to fully realize this vision.  The reasons for this might be many, but one of them, no doubt, is the language itself.  My knowledge of the English language has been reasonably proficient from an early age, yet it took many years to gain the confidence and skill to be able to write with fluency.
       Born and raised in Israel, Hebrew is my native language.  As an obsessive reader, I had mastered the Hebrew language.  And just as childhood experiences leave deep impressions in us, Hebrew had resonated in me with layers of meanings.  Certain words, or a combination of them, would conjure up visceral feelings, such as longing and loneliness that were associated with the ambience typical of Jerusalem’s quiet streets on the Sabbath.
       After immigrating to the U.S. in 1991, when I was in my mid 20s, I continued using Hebrew in my creative writing.  I was working on a short story collection when a friend asked me which language I was using.  Hebrew of course, I replied.  With my friend’s question hovering in my mind, I could not resist the urge to try and compose in English.  And so I decided to throw away the crutches and experience English from within.  It was a struggle.  Like other immigrants, I too often translated from English into my native language to fully comprehend what I heard or read.   Moreover, the English vocabulary is much larger than the Hebrew one, and its grammar and spelling are more complex.  I have leapt from a lake into a vast ocean. 
       As a child, I looked forward to my grandmother’s visits from London.  I loved her suitcase 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 made me admire the language.  It, as she, represented worldliness, opportunities, and a vague sense of freedom. 
      Growing up in Israel, I never quite felt I belonged there.  I imagined a place where people are unstressed and kind to one another, and the landscape is green and lush.  As a preteen, my bedroom wall was covered with picturesque photographs, cut out from a Scottish calendar.  Gazing at the open pastures, many hours were spent daydreaming about these landscapes.  Beyond the obvious attraction for someone who grew up in an arid country, these images represented a different reality: Peaceful, harmonious, and generous.  Though I never traveled outside its borders before I emigrated from Israel, I somehow knew I belonged elsewhere. 
      This sense of unease was amplified when I turned into a young adult.  It was doubtless the result of growing up in a war zone.  In particular the four years of living in violence-ridden Jerusalem, prior to arriving in Boston.  The first Intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation) plagued the entire country, and it hit the Israeli capital the hardest.  In 1987, a year after I moved to Jerusalem to attend college, the city’s sleepy streets were radically transformed.  People were knifed in public spaces almost daily.  The bus I took to school, crossing Arab neighborhoods on the east side of town, was often stoned.  Once, a rock hit the window right beside me.  I was deeply thankful that I had been too lazy to open it earlier, as I usually did.  Through my years in Jerusalem I have developed a habit of looking over my shoulder whenever walking in the street; a nervous tendency I have never been able to overcome, even though I had left my homeland more than twenty years back.
       My grandmother’s visits were my most direct connection with the kingdom of “abroad” I had been cultivating in my fantasies.  It took effort and time, but this vision has since become my reality.  And it doesn’t fall short from my childhood imaginations.  Brought to the Boston area by serendipity, I soon felt quite comfortable here.  Of course, no place is trouble free, yet I find life here to be much more manageable.  Unaffected by traumatic wars, nor burdened by the weighty past of the Holocaust, New Englanders seem to be relatively calm, kind, and most important, tolerant of the “other.”  Inspired by the liberal spirit—and the diversity of its international and multicultural populace—my new locale feels like home. 
       Though my work often draws on my Jewish-Israeli background, I find it easier to write in the U.S., as I wrote in my piece, Air:  “[here] my wings gained strength, by and by, until they grew large enough to break the bars.  And I tiptoed into new air.  Crisp air.  Open air.  I began breathing; small swigs at first, deeper gulps at last.  In this new land.  In this new air.”
       Over the years, being immersed in English, my relationship with Hebrew has transformed.  In fact, a few years back I read some poems I wrote when I was sixteen, which left me impressed by the high quality of the writing.  I even needed to translate a few words into English.  The resonance I so enjoyed in the past slowly faded; nowadays, when I read Hebrew, my emotions are rarely stirred by the words.  At some point I realized that, though I am no longer intimate with Hebrew, I might never acquire a similar relationship with English.  In a recent poem I wrote: 

                       I love to write.
                       I am a writer.
                       I am a writer without a language.

       It was working on my first novel, From the Desert, that enabled me to complete the immigration route into my new lingual homeland.  Weaving the story for more than three years, thread by thread, has granted me a sense of ownership over the English language.  I might never be able to emulate the relationship I once had with Hebrew, yet English and I are certainly growing closer.  With this, my work and focus have gained impetus, and my mind is inundated with ideas.
       I often work simultaneity on a few pieces; flash fiction, poems, short stories, and a novella that is slowly brewing.  While much of the themes center on new ideas, some of my work relates to past experiences, such as my service in the Israeli Air Force.  
       With the distance from my native country, and using a second language, I am now better able to exorcise my devils and examine that which keeps gnawing at me.  When put in words, war and violence seem less traumatic, and help me better appreciate my homeland and my upbringing, and all the raw feelings and throbbing memories that come with it.  I find that writing liberates apparitions and enhances the act of living.
      One can never know what the paths untaken might have offered, but I am quite certain that had I remained living in Israel and writing in Hebrew, my work would have taken a very different shape.  And I love the wide horizons my immigration of both home and language made possible!

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