By Sayed Kashua | Keter | 318 pages | NIS 92
If you were to ask Sayed Kashua about his new, best-selling book, Second Person,
he’d say it’s “a satire disguised as a cheap melodrama.”
But, of course,
you shouldn’t take his word for it. As intimated by its name, Second Person is a
story of identity, and one as deceptive as its author.
Kashua, 35, is the
acclaimed writer of three novels; he writes an acerbically introspective weekly
column in Haaretz
and has just completed the second season of his TV show, Avoda
, which began airing this week.
He lives in Ramat Sharett in
Jerusalem with his wife and two children.
With many clues borrowed from
Kashua’s own autobiography, the story of Second Person
cunningly follows two
Israeli Arabs, a lawyer and a young social worker. Both had renounced
village heritage, moved to Jerusalem and are now trying to reconcile
were born as with what they wish to be.
The lawyer, who buys every status
symbol he can afford to fit in, suspects his wife is having an affair
a note he finds in a used book, mind you). In a fervent, specious
he’s determined to find the phantom lover, whom he considers the
everything he is not. Amir, the bright but unfulfilled social worker, is
to the cultural world of a paralyzed, middle-class, Jewish teen he’s
of, and slowly encroaches on his identity.Your book is quite an
intricate journey of intersecting identities, illuminating some stirring
It’s difficult to discuss identity here. It’s always
over-simplified. When you say “identity crisis” in psychology, it
to someone maturing and finding his way in the world. But in Israel,
say “identity,” it necessarily means “national identity.”
There’s no room
for individual decision.
You are born into a certain side in an ongoing
war and it marks you forever.Your characters heavily define
by the books they read and the music they hear. Is identity the sum of
culture you embrace?
Personally I don’t get this need to figure out “who you
are.” It’s true that these characters define themselves by their work,
books and their friends, and that deep down they’re torn because they
But my bottom line is, that your true identity is your bank
account, baby. When you’re young, you get to wallow in questions about
I.” Just wait till you get your first mortgage; that’s your identity.
lawyer, for example, can’t help getting a car he doesn’t really want.
about the neighborhood you live in and what house you’ve got. And it’s
pretty much genetic; you inherit your socioeconomic identity.”Isn’t that
the sort of predetermination your characters constantly try to defy?
lawyer, you might upgrade yourself a bit, and your life might seem
better than your parents’. But it’s nearly impossible to truly break
socioeconomic frame you were born into. What I’m sure of is there’s no
crisis two double whiskies can’t solve.How has parenthood defined your
My anxieties, since becoming a father, are baffling. You’re defined by
your obligation to be dependable, both financially and in actually
kids. But most of all, there’s this dreadful apprehension that you can’t
quit. You can’t give up on your family, or on your career, or on this
this life. When you’re young and single, particularly if you’re not too
with the world as it is, you act stupidly and irresponsibly.
you quit one way or another. Being a parent, the option of cutting your
irrelevant. It’s consciously grueling to know you have got to
survive.”Family is a poignant and unresolved
theme in your work. To me,
one of the most touching characters in Second
Person is that of Umm Bassem,
(landowner to Amir and his mother, who also functions as Amir’s
In a way, I based her on my grandmother.
She was a
very powerful person. She pretty much kept the family together. I think,
the last years of her life I might have neglected her a little. When she
realized how much she really loved me. I felt undeserving of this love,
I really wasn’t there for her.Dancing
Arabs also had a powerful
All the stories I heard in my childhood, whether
historic or fairy tales, were told to me by grandma, while I was leaning
against her lap. These moments started my passion for stories. She was
window to what happened to the family in ’48, when she lost everything
left to raise four kids on her own. That mental scar, knowing you could
everything in a second, I got from her.Is it all about this mental scar?
Is your writing driven by your anxiety?
Let me tell you a story. It was about
two years ago. I met Amos Oz at some conference and he asked me: “What
new book?” I told him I was working on my TV show and on my weekly
that the book would come out, eventually. What he told me then was the
terrifying thing I’ve ever heard. He said: “Literature writing is like a
woman; you can cheat on her once or twice and she’ll forgive you. But if
make a habit of it, she will never accept you back.” To think that I
lose my ability to write! Horrified, I darted out of there right to my
to write this novel.And are you pleased with what came out?
me most about this book is that it feels essentially different than my
two. I’m happy to see that I’m evolving.
I guess I also like the little
moments in it. For instance, when the lawyer remembers the first time he
his wife to an orgasm while thinking about his grandfather’s
funeral.Where did that come from?
idea. I don’t follow a plan, I go
by feeling, and somehow it manages to connect and tie up the right way.
pleases me. And I’m not usually pleased with anything I do, you
I think Muhammad Darwish once said something like:
“Modesty is often a form of stupidity.” I can relate to stupidity, but I
think I’m modest. I simply can’t connect with success. I tell myself, I
book, it’s a best-seller, the reviews are good, what else do I want? Why
get excited about it?
Don’t you ever get excited, not even while writing?
Sometimes, when I write a chapter and see it’s rounding up well, I get
for some very powerful minutes. But they’re gone so quickly and turn
feelings of distress and idiocy and an inability to distinguish good
That’s why I can’t wrap up a chapter without a trustworthy editor
it’s good. And if he tells me it’s not, then it’s not. And I delete
But he must know how to articulate his feedback, even when it’s
negative. It has to be: “Sayed, you’re beautiful, smart, even brilliant,
this chapter is not worthy of print.” If it’s something like: “Listen,
sure about it,’ then I’m done for. I crush into a two-week depression.
about the “how.”Do you have a favorite character in Second Person?
love the lawyer’s obsession, I think he’s great. He’s seriously screwed
only I can be. He drowns himself so deeply in his wild, paranoid
he just wouldn’t give it up. I love this lawyer.Who are you jealous of?
I guess I envy people who are free of
life-impeding fears; people who are not afraid of flying. I’m jealous of
who don’t feel that every success must be followed by some great
disaster.As a guy who compulsively likes things
done his way, how is it
to survive the synergistic effort that is creating a TV show?
else. As a screenwriter, with so many intervening people and opinions, I
myself asking: “Where am I in this grand scheme?” You need to step over
you believe in and adjust them to different schematics. You try to argue
your ideas: “But they did so in Curb
” and they tell you: “This
isn’t HBO. Curb Your Enthusiasm
wouldn’t have made it onto Channel 2.” And it’s
true. And it’s a shame.Ever feel like broadening yourself
I’m planning to buy a video camera soon; maybe I’ll do something
with it. And music.
My greatest fantasy is to start playing and writing
wonderful songs. Whenever I’m in Boston, I ask my hosts to take me to
where young bands play. This results in dozens of hapless Brandeis
calling their kids for help. Eventually they come along. And I love it.
I’ll end up a musician. It’s not going to happen, but I’d really like
and rallying. Even though I’m the worst driver; I’ll only drive in the
places. I’ll race in the fields. Yes, that’s what I want. Music and