Friday, April 29, 2005

Choose 3 With Leora Skolkin-Smith

Today inaugurates a new feature called "Choose 3" in which I submit several questions to a writer or other person of interest and invite them to choose the three that speak to them most.
My first interview is with Leora Skolkin-Smith, the author of 'Edges' which is scheduled to be released next month by Glad Day Books.

"Edges" is set in a pre-1967 Israel, during the Cold War. Liana Bialik is fourteen years old when the suicide of her American father forces her family to return to her mother’s native Jerusalem. A chance meeting with a runaway American diplomat's son in the forest draws Liana into an odyssey of borders, loss, and love. After witnessing the accidental death of a young Arab boy caught in a crossfire between snipers, Liana is impelled to confront her conflicts about identity and culpability. She must choose between following the paths of darkness that have kept her bound to her grieving and engulfing mother and her own sexual self-discovery .


Characters are drawn from Israel’s long-forgotten past, members of the 1940’s Haganah and Jewish underground who find themselves displaced amidst the chaotic and complex tensions of an Israel just beginning to modernize and expand. Liana learns about her mother's childhood in the ancient city, and her past in the wars.


Places and dates eventually yield to timeless truths as she is able to use this heritage as her own mystical starting point. Growing into a womanhood forever formed by the boundary-less spaces of a lost geography and people, Liana’s coming of age brings this tumultuous region into startling light and relief.


This is Leora Skolkin-Smith's first novel. A Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of a P.E.N. American Center grant, she has been published in "Persea: An International Review" an anthology published by Persea Books, "The Sarah Lawrence Review", and has a short piece forthcoming in "Fiction" Magazine.

Visit her website: http//www.leoraskolkinsmith.com

P.F.: The Marvelous Garden frequently concerns itself with aspects of faith, both negative and positive. It seems that 'Edges' also addresses those issues. Can you say a little bit about how faith serves as the source of personal strength and identity, as well as a source of division and strife in the novel?

L.S-S.: The question of "Faith" is an interesting one for me, as the daughter of a mother who was born in the old city of Jerusalem. Clearly, the ancient stones formed my mother and later, me, but in a very different way than most people would expect. When my mother was a little girl in Jerusalem, the quarters of the old city were inhabited by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Only very radical extremists disturbed the balanced and mutually respectful life between these communities. I was not allowed to ever speak ill of any Muslim or Arab. I would be punished for doing so, religious intolerance was a great evil in my grandmother's home. And when the Zionists first came to Jerusalem, she was known for throwing pots of boiling water at their marching feet and trying to shoo them away. So my novel is about a different kind of faith. One that takes the reader back to this peaceful time, to the friendships between Arab and Jews and my faith comes from a Kaballah theology, not a Zionist or orthodox Jewish one. That the world is a mysterious, unseen fabric of fatalisms but--most importantly, we all belong to the ancient city. I felt very erased and was sure my feelings were shared, and that these were human feelings, not religious ones. So "Faith" to me is not a religious faith is the strictest sense. It's a kind of continuity of souls.

P.F:I'm interesting in learning more about how 'Edges' was chosen as the first work of fiction to be published by Glad Day Books. Obviously, something in the novel broke through a barrier that the house had previously set for itself. Was it perceived as a political
novel? Or did Grace Paley's recognition and love for good fiction prevail?

L.S-S.: Well, actually, Grace published a novel before mine and a collection of short stories. But, truthfully, I don't write political fiction, I never intended "Edges" to be at all political. It's just set in a region that is constantly aflame with politics. Recently, Amos Elon's daughter made a documentary film about Palestine, as an Israeli of course, and she ended up with a similar story. A search for identity based on personal relationships, a de-politicalization of this region and its people. If anything, Grace mainly responded to this impulse in my work. That it was about a family, about sexual awakenings, about people who just happened to find themselves thrown into the cauldron of Middle Eastern political wars. So, no, she didn't chose it at all for political reasons.

P.F.:I'm always fascinated with the question of where a writer sees herself in her work. Was there one character with whom you strongly identified, one who may not have shared any concrete details of your life, but whose odyssey somehow parallels your own?

L.S-S.: None of the actual events in the novel ever happened to me. They are pure invention. But the odyssey, the psychological geography and, equally, the actual geography was all part of my life. I hesitated for a very long time to write anything about Israel and then one day I just got mad. I got furious, in fact, because in the news the places I lived as a child, the places my grandmother and mother lived, were being so distorted--exploited this way or that for this or that political opinion and for me, writing this was a journey to regain my emotional equilibirium in the face of these daily assaults on truth. It seemed everyone suddenly was dictating to me who I was and where I was from and I had to find my selfhood again, I was driven to by a feeling of being absolutely trampled. In this way, I felt very much like the Palestinians, having their houses demolished, being spoken to as if they had no real claim on their birthplace. In other ways, I felt like the Israelis--equally being trampled by new immigrants who demanded so much of them, and yet hardly stopped to consider what the cost was. I was really pissed off. So if rage counts, I guess that's what made me finally write "Edges", I wanted to show how marginalized the original Jewish pioneers and the Palestinians were becoming in the world's heat. But also, I was of course driven by trying to resolve my own relationship with such a charismatic and confusing mother--what she had gone through was important to me at this stage in my life. I wanted to understand her. And I knew she had been in the original Israeli underground, carried bullets in her underwear, had a gun slung over her shoulder at the age of 14. Perhaps, since my relationship with my mother was so problematic, this was the real drive in me, the real odyssey, and I hope that makes the novel universal, not limited to being about "Israel". Women, sexuality seemed so important to me and to write about these themes as events in a place usually rhapsodized about only in religious terms. Or political terms. Putting myself back there was claiming personhood, visibility, a way to fight these uncomfortable feelings, this anger.

8 comments:

Pierre Fay said...

Sounds like an important book & the interview was fascinating. It also could not be more timely. It's easy to forget that Jews, Arabs, & Christians lived in peace in the Middle East for decades. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Mark Schannon http://parodieslost.typepad.com

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