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.
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.
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.