Sunday, April 19, 2009

Immigrant Writer's Identity Crisis

I went to see the film Defiance last night, which is excellent, I found it very moving. I find most Holocaust-themed works moving, very personal. It's most definitely worth seeing. But before that I sat in the cinema's cafe, having something to eat, and was struck by a kind of revelation which is both quite upsetting and also makes so much sense. I will try and describe it:

I emigrated to Israel from England in 1994. I was 24, had just finished university (including two graduate degrees). I wasn't someone who had grown up in a Jewish family that was very attached to Israel; we were secular, not that interested. But I came here during the summer of 1993 and knew when I touched down that I wanted to move here. It felt like a kind of calling, a gut feeling.

Why? I couldn't have told you at the time, couldn't have explained it. But looking back, I was searching for something, a sense of community, a belonging that I didn't feel in London. And I found it here. For years I was thrilled every morning waking up in Jerusalem. I learned the language quickly, I found work as a science and technology journalist, and I loved my job. I went around the country and interviewed entrepreneurs who had set up little technology start-ups, amazing technologies, excited interviewees who were delighted to speak to me. It was fun! And I was good at it, I loved being freelance, I learned how to make contacts, to get my articles in magazines around the world.

But. But. After a few years that little nagging voice in my head: what about short stories? what about fiction? And slowly I started getting back to it, including a nine-month stint in England to do an MA in Creative Writing which turned me from wannabe writer into pretty-serious-about-this writer. For a long time I tried to do both: journalism and short stories. But then, a week-long Arvon short story course in England with one of my favourite writers, and she says what you always hope an idol will say: You can do this. You're a writer. Give up journalism and do this full time.

Scary. I was terrified. Stepping off into the abyss. It took a year, and then I did it. A few months later (very very quickly!) Salt offered to publish The White Road and Other Stories, and things have never been the same since.

What I realised yesterday was that when I stopped being a journalist, I started withdrawing from the society around me. There was no more reason professionally for me to be "out there", no-one to meet in order to write fiction. It is just me, in my little room. And as I withdrew from society, as this major shift occurred, my "absorption", the word Israelis use for the process a new immigrant goes through, has been slowly reversing. Until the point where I am sitting in a cafe, 15 years later, and I am unsure of my Hebrew. I was fluent. I was totally happy in the language. I felt Israeli. Now I sit here, surrounded by Hebrew-speakers and I feel different. I feel other. I don't feel like I fit in anymore.

I feel like I have re-Britishized myself. After years of trying desperately to be as Israeli as I could - I'm English again. All that effort: gone. And this is a condition particular to someone in a situation like mine: writing in English in a non-English speaking country, without a community of fellow English-speaking authors around me. Hence: immigrant writer's identity crisis.

No wonder I have been anxious. When they say "crisis", it really can be a crisis. Realising what was happening makes me terribly sad. I so wanted to be here, to be part of this society. But something stronger was at work. And I can't write in Hebrew. That's not who I am.

I don't believe that this is the writer's lot wherever she or he is. If I was in an English-speaking country, I would be "out" as a writer as well as "in". I would be out at readings, out teaching fiction, out meeting other writers, others doing what I do.

How ironic that coming here in a search for community has led me, 15 years later, almost right back to where I started, culturally-speaking. I am certainly not going backwards, I am in an entirely different place personally, professionally, in all respects. But I feel as though I have passed through something and have come out the other end and I am not where I expected to be.


Nik's Blog said...

That makes so much sense, T. But isn't it a great and reassuring thing to understand the path you're on?


(haven't blogged in almost a year) tafka pp said...

Very perceptive and very true, now you mention! Just one quibble: I wouldn't say your efforts over 15 years to absorb yourself in Israeli society have been wasted in the slightest, and I can vouch that your Hebrew is still fantastic, even if nowadays you don't get to speak it quite as much as you once did.

To my eyes, you're living a very cosmopolitan lifestyle (yay for the Internet) and having achieved this much while being physically disconnected from the international writing community, is quite fabulous. And don't forget that there are many sides to "absorption"- your hometown of Jerusalem (much like your life!) is, unlike the rest of Israel, uniquely multi-faceted and very international- not with regards to the various immigrant communities, rather the "bigger picture" of the context of conflict, to which you're (both) very much atuned to.

All my way of saying that while I understand the potential of the realisation that you're less embedded in Jerusalem than you once were to generate crisis and anxiety, I see it more of a celebration and I'm really rather proud of you (the last part said with English restraint!)

Tania Hershman said...

Nik, yes, it does help immensely to understand what's going on, even if it wasn't what was planned. Plans! Ha!

TAFKA, how lovely to have you back here. And thanks for the nice words. I don't feel anything has been wasted, certainly not. But it is just quite unexpected, to realise that this is what has happened. No regrets, never any regrets!

Haim Watzman said...

I share this feeling--it's odd to be writing for an audience that's not the people you live among, and in a language that is not their language. Not just odd, but also problematic in principle. But under the constraints I face, I write in English, for an audience outside Israel--and must make the best of that. And when it comes down to it, it's not a bad deal at all...

Tania Hershman said...

Haim, thanks so much for commenting. I feel that for me it goes much deeper than writing for an audience that isn't here. It is more about where my place is here now, who am I here, now?

Anonymous said...

Likewise, I once felt more part of Israeli society. When I became a technical writer, I got to know more English speakers, and now I find myself speaking English much more than Hebrew. However, many Israelis know English and two native Israelis have read my (unpublished) novel. And the reasons that brought me here still exist. ~Miriam

Sara said...

In life we sometimes make friends who we feel a connection with, a recognition, understanding, sense of belonging, a match if you like. Then, it is perfectly possible to lose that friend and to not even really know how that drift apart happened, be it geographical or internal.

I have loved and lost a fair few friends in my life, and I count myself lucky to have had their friendship when I did. Sometimes it is the right time, they bring you along, you share an experience, they teach you, support you, or they need you and then they don't. I think that given the choice I would always have kept the friendships going, but that isn't necessarily the best thing. I'm not sure if this makes sense in conjunction with what you are saying, to me it does. In your case it's not a friendship, but it is deep and part of you and your sense of belonging and place, a similar thing perhaps?

Sometimes things are of their time, however long that time is, and the change and flux of life is good for our growth.

You are fabulous, and you're doing great! Keep on keeping on...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Is it naive to say that we are the product of all our experiences, whether they turned out as we wished, or whether they didn't? You are lucky to have had the experiences you have - who knows, maybe the question of identity, belonging, language, will surface (if it isnt already) in your work, and it will be even richer for it.

Shame I never got to visit you in jerusalem though!

Tania Hershman said...

Miriam, thanks so much for commenting. For me its much more than just what language I am speaking and who is reading my book, it's more that I don't feel a part of society anymore, on an existential level. But I am so glad that the reasons that brought you here still exist!

Sara - you are completely right about the time being right, things happening when they happen, and then things change. Yes, flux is good, I do believe that.

Vanessa, spot on. I wouldn't go back and do anything differently, it all adds up to me. Just like I wouldn't go back and study English Lit instead of Maths and Physics, even though it may have been good for my writing career. I am the sum of all of my life and very grateful for all of it.

Merc said...

There's also the gift of a certain "Narrenfreiheit" (freedom of fools?) that is there to be enjoyed, says a kangaroo in Austria ;)

Rachel Gurevich said...

Just wanted to say I enjoyed this post, and I can relate to the isolation that writing in English full-time can cause. I came here, though, already working from home and writing in English -- never had connection with Israeli society like you did -- lucky you! :) I want to learn the language, and I'm trying... but I get very few opportunities to speak Hebrew. It drives me crazy to feel illiterate, especially since as a writer I value language so highly.

Anyway, I'm rambling! Just wanted to say thanks for posting this, it helps me feel less alone in my struggles with absorption into Israel.

~ Rachel

Nik's Blog said...

My hand's up, D.

Good point.

annie clarkson said...

Lots of interesting thoughts here. Need more time to process them, it's quite complex this idea of belonging/not belonging...

Ian said...

Oh my God, you're English again. I guess that means you've turned into a cold, unfeeling, heartless bastard. Soon, you'll be signed up as an extra in The Patriot II.

Pippa Goldschmidt said...

Fascinating post. I agree with Douglas Bruton - I wonder if writers ever truly belong anywhere, or whether there is always a little observer inside us that stops us from fully integrating. Perhaps as Jews we worry more and think more about integrating too, perhaps it's more of a conscious process for us. Have you read Emanuel Litvinoff's essay on being a British-Jewish writer? I found that very useful. It's published in his book 'Journey through a Small Planet'.

Also, being a writer is such a lonely job. There's so little interaction with the rest of society. I think this can exacerbate our worries of fitting in. The only thing we can do to counteract this is talk to each other!

Tania Hershman said...

Annie, it isn't so simple, it helped me to write this blog post, to try and sort out how I am feeling.

Ian - nice of you to stop by, welcome! I guess you are not an Anglophile :)

Pippa, I guess it depends on how much "not belonging" an individual can take. Some might relish it, some might not. And yes, being a writer is already so lonely, but I wouldn't have that any other way. Thanks for the essay recommendation, I will try and get hold of it. Yes, being Jewish and a writer... a common combination, maybe because of that sense of "outsiderness". I know I am far from the first person to suggest that!


Hi T,
Lots can depend on where you live. I live in an uncultured (for the most part) town. I write full time and spend far too much time alone, away from peers, friends, family. It has its advantages: apert from my kids and partner, I am un-interrupted, I have space to write.
Still, I crave like-minded company, or just society in general. But I have to travel to get that. A minimum of 45 miles to the nearest cultural city. I often think of moving back to Dublin, to be more immersed in the writers' world. When the kids are bigger, I plan to move home to Dublin. Will I be too old to care about it all by then, I often wonder?!
N x

cherys said...

I've just read your post and it has stunned me. What a powerful insight. have to pick kids up, so haven't had time to read other replies, but wanted to say that this is so exciting. A lot of writers need to be away from a place they are strongly attached to, in order to find the freedom to write about it. Perhaps, as well as that crisis of identity, this is a way of giving yourself permission to write about Israel. I don't doubt it is absorbed in you now, in your heart, your blood, your mind and memories. So many writers write because they don't belong, or feel they don't, because they watch the world, trying to find how it all fits together when they feel so outside it. It is a writerly habit to feel outside of the society you live in, I think. Quite a useful one. Can't say much for the loneliness. What I'm saying, badly, rushed for time, is that it sounds, to an outsider, that this could be a tremendous shift for you as a writer. It sounds almighty. Exciting.

With love

Siusannah xxxx

Tania Hershman said...

Hi N,
I totally understand, I guess 45 miles can be the equivalent of another country when you have kids and so much to do and can't get there. Will you care when the kids are older? Who can tell?!

Susannah, thanks so much for commenting, it would be interesting to see whether I would write about Israel if I was out of it. And yes, you're right, there is a difference between feeling like an outsider and feeling lonely - I don't think they necessarily have to go together. But a shift? Yes, definitely!

sonia said...

I found your post very interesting. i was born in England of ukrainian parents and never felt english but i didn't feel like it was right to immerse myself in the Ukrainian community so i lost touch with it. Recently I wanted to find out what my deceased father did first of all when he came to england and quite by accident have found myself living seven miles away from the camp he lived in and where there is still a community of ukrainians that remember my dad. when i visited ukraine i felt at home but with the community here i feel like a peripheral character. thanks for a great post.

Deborah Rey said...

What a lovely post, Tania. It helped me - like some of the others - understand the extra part of loneliness I feel, being an author who writes in English while living in France in the middle of nowhere and in my case, with the extra joy of being 'wheelchair handicapped' and dependent on the 'once in a while' good moods of my husband, to 'air' me. It's lonely, bloody lonely, but that extra dull feeling comes from not being able to share my work with anyone in person. It's all virtual.
Go back to Canada? Can't. Back to Holland? Never. France? I love living here, I truly do, but ... and that's where you come in, telling me what it is... Thanks, it helped to solve the puzzle.
now at: