A little more than a year ago, I was feeling out of sorts and depressed. Trying to make a life in Jerusalem, write my book, and even just fill my days felt like a struggle. Once, I burst into tears in my Arabic class and my teacher took my outside and was like “What is it? What is it? I know what it is: It’s Jerusalem! This place can be so hard.” That made me cry more, even though I wasn’t sure what the problem was. A blah apartment, no besties, the strangeness of Jerusalem? Take your pick. So when the regional psychiatrist – the State Department’s mental health professional who goes around seeing patients at various posts in a given region – was coming to visit, I figured I should just chat with him. What could it hurt? Plus, I have a scene in my book where a regional psychiatrist comes to Yemen, so research. So I met with the psychiatrist and told him about how I was finding life in Jerusalem difficult, and how I wasn’t really making the connections I was looking for, and I wasn’t making progress on my book despite my ample free time.
“Who are your ideas people?” he asked. “Sounds like you have plenty of friends and a social life in the consulate community, but you need some artist friends – writers, painters – with whom to discuss ideas.”
For two years, even if I didn’t have an outlet for this sort of nourishment in my daily life, I could always look forward to another residency in Paris as part of my graduate school program where discussing ideas is par for the course. I’d bounce from hearing a talk on the challenges of translating Proust, to a lecture on the Oelipo movement of writers who would put constraints on their writing like omitting the letter “E” from their work, to hearing writers like Zadie Smith and Robin Coste Lewis read from backdropped by stunning Parisian views. Then my classmates and I would discuss what we were hearing and learning and doing and writing over French wine and Croque Madams. It was all so inspiring and energizing I didn’t have to search for it – it was planned out for me. (All I had to do was pay New York University tens of thousands of dollars…)
This is all to get to the point that last week, when I saw the posters around town announcing the Jerusalem International Book Fair, I tracked down an English schedule and planned my week around it. (As much as I could anyway with the constraints of having a nearly full-time office job and fewer than half of the book fair events being in English). Highlights included hearing Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of the “My Struggle” series of novels and gifted essayist (especially loved his piece in the New York Times where he retraced the steps of his Viking ancestors throughout North America) speak about how he writes “how things are not how they should be.”
And I loved meeting a Jen Gorge, the young New York Based author of the short story collection “The Babysitter at Rest.” Her style kind of blew my mind. Her stories are “brief but total…like going through a museum and pivoting to look at certain things” (her words during a Q&A on stage with an Israeli author). What she chooses to focus on her short stories, and what she leaves out, got me thinking about my own writing.
One night, I biked over after work to get a good seat for an outdoor talk that was billed as crime writers discussion the fine line between fiction and reality. The talk was supposed to be in Hebrew, French, and English, but the English was abandoned early on. Israelis in the (very small) audience yelled corrections to the moderator on her translations at some point (pretty typical); a group of beautiful Israeli girls sipped beers at an outdoor bar a few yards away, all of them in white tank tops with visible black bras; Orthodox kids ran past the stage with melting popsicles, their little kippas clipped on with metal barrettes. And Ultra-Orthodox groups Segwayed by on a tour, black suit-tails blowing the wind. And there I sat, sipping my chardonnay, and not understanding a word, yet enjoying myself thoroughly. That’s how much I like listening to literary lectures and being in that scene. I stayed for an hour.
Then I bought some books at one of two English-language stalls inside and then biked home on my merry way.
One of the books I bought, Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, was the subject of a lecture here a few nights later. Another literary event! When it rains, it pours. This book is a collection of essays from international authors who all visited Israel with the group Breaking the Silence, who are former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, who give tours and speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was quite excited to hear Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon and wife Ayelet Waldman discuss the book, but, not so surprisingly the event was much more political than literary (that often happens when writing or talking about this place).
Anyways, a week of book talks, reading, lectures, and inspiration. It was almost like being in grad school again and I loved it. Now will this boost translate to me finally finishing my book? Please, please, please let it be so.
To literary ideas,
Em in Jerusalem