In the new year a collection of my short stories, `Tell it Not,` will be published by Red Heifer Press, publishers in California. Next week, at the UK festival of Jewish culture known as Limmud, I will present a session named One Collection or Two. Because the reason I looked online for a publisher in the USA, was not because I had tried 25 other agents or publishers in the UK. I had tried three or four. But one of these got back to me with the message that they were indeed interested in my writing, but thought it would be better if I were to produce two short story collections, rather than one. One would be Jewish Stories. The other would be – other stories, just about me in general.
I found this suggestion unacceptable. But/and it set me thinking. So I am preparing this session, which will take place at 18.00 on Sunday December 26th. Limmud online. Can be googled.
I phoned one highly literary Jewish friend for some advice. A, I said, could you tell me which, in your opinion of Howard Jacobson`s novels is the most Jewish? Apologies, said A. I used to know H J, in fact a relative of mine taught him once, and I have heard him speak several times. A brilliant man. So which novel, I asked. But it turned out A had not read any. I went to The Finkler Question which I had read some time back, but was stopped in my tracks by the realisation that there were not only Jews in this novel. The whole thing depends on the interaction between Jews and the rest of the world. Obviously.
Ambitiously, and late in the day, I went back to the amazing writing of Cynthia Ozick. Of course I was aware all along that Jewish writers in the USA, not to mention Jewish writers in Israel, are simply different ball games. But I am a Jewish writer in the UK. I got The Pagan Rabbi and other stories on my kindle. After the challenging but very absorbing Pagan Rabbi, I looked at the other stories and realised that a) to be a Jewish writer in the USA is not the same as being it here, and b) even the great Cynthia Ozick didn`t stick to only having` Jewish` stories in a collection. Some of her stories are set completely out there in the big wide world. Incidentally, while researching, I checked the figures. Jews are less than .2% of the population of the world.
So I quickly jumped to some conclusions. There wasn`t even anything to think about. For the session next week I would prepare a mix of material, and would mention some great Jewish writers, and would refer to a couple of my stories. But the message would be clear. One collection. Definitely not two. And I appreciate that as a Jewish writer writing in English in twenty-first century Britain, I am free to put stories first, identity stuff second, wherever the tales happen to start or finish.
But then it occurs to me there may be a hitch. I am recalling a conversation I had last year with Bet (B) an Israeli historian, tour guide and translator. B works with a company which takes people on tours through Jerusalem and the West Bank. He translated my story The Emissary, which after publication in Stand Magazine will be part of Tell it Not. You know, he said, there are two narratives, and if you don`t mind my saying, your story only refers to one. And I realised with a sinking feeling that I knew him to be right. When it comes to telling national or cultural stories, (and surely these leak into literature from time to time? Surely!) the past present and future of Zionism and Israel is only one narrative stream. There is also the Palestinian narrative. This is what B was referring to. This, I realise is the narrative that all kinds of people who might read one of my stories, might find disturbing, sad, sometimes tragic – but above all not the Jewish Zionist narrative. Not at all.
So am I saying that if I have stories which focus on Zionism and Israel (all views my own, and subjective, obviously) that will attract one kind of reader? But if I have a character or a whole story which links with the Palestinian narrative, then it will be meaningful and significant to a very different kind of reader? And is this, for me personally, a bit of a problem, given that quite a few people whose views I care about are (these days) seriously caring and concerned about the Palestinian narrative, and keen to access it? Of course lots of people care about both narratives, acknowledge both narratives. But however I might feel like smoothing the issue over, pretending not to care about it, fact is, I feel that there is some issue here, and I need to keep watching it.
Yes, that is what I`m saying.