The house I am staying in belongs to my friend Meirav and is in Abu Tor. It is the last house on the street which belonged toIsrael pre-’67. Step out the front door, walk five paces and you would have crossed the border into Jordan. As such, it’s something of a tourist attraction. Part of the festival in Jerusalem involves guided, themed walks around the city. I joined a Yehuda Amichai themed walk. We stopped at strategic places and hear a poem which related to or was inspired by that particular landmark. One stop of the tour focuses on the house I am staying in. As it is near the end I leave the tour to go back home. Twenty minutes later there is already another group outside the house. This time it’s a party of school children and the guide is pointing at the front door as I open it and walk down the stairs. One of the children asks if the lady emerging from the door is an Arab or a Jew and I feel like another Amichai poem, ‘Tourists’, which nails the feeling of every Jerusalemite as just another tourist attraction.
The main event that day was at Tmol Shilshom, the bookstore café named after the S.Y. Agnon story. Up the narrow winding steps there is a book-lined room which seats no more than 50 people. It feels incredibly lucky to be able to see three writers such as these in such an intimate environment. Russel Banks, Jamaica Kincaid and Jonathan Safran Foer each read from an unpublished piece. Their writing is powerful and each piece very different to the other.
Kincaid’s excerpt, like all her writing, shifts somewhere between autobiography and biography with some fiction sprinkled in. She is a fantastic reader and hearing her soft Antiguan accent in this Jerusalem café is perfectly strange enough to make it feel quite special.
Safran Foer reveals that he is struggling to write fiction again since his recent On Not Eating Animals. The piece he reads is experimental, a detached voice listing traits in a partner after the ending of a relationship.
He talks about the response he anticipated to his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. He thought it may speak to Ashkenazi-Americans in their 20’s and 30’s and couldn’t imagine how it could resonate beyond that demographic. But after its publication he attended his first public interview. The interviewer quoted several sections of text and revealed her suspicion that the novel was based on ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Safran Foer confessed to never having read or seen the play but the assumption thrilled him. He realised that the book was cleverer than he was and, like all good writing, the text was a vessel rather than a completed sculpture into which the reader would pour in their own thoughts, ideas and references.
The discussion between the three turns to the role of writers in the U.S. versus their position in Israel. Here, writers are necessary consultants and advisors during political watersheds. They inevitably shape political discourse. When they are invited to literary festivals abroad(including our own) they are asked, not only about their craft, but also about the political landscape that is their context. It is their role, as much as producing the fiction which established their careers. At this, all three writers were in agreement, writers don’t matter in the U.S. When opinions are sought by artists, it is film stars who are turned to. The position of the writer is relegated to something far more solitary, certainly not an integral part of the fabric of national identity.
At a time when the state of national identity seems so fraught, there is at least one positive side effect, at least writers are taken seriously.