A writer identified and identifies

Author Francesca Segal’s post-festival residency ‘is an incredible opportunity to absorb some inspiration’.

Francesca Segal (photo credit: LAURA ALICE HART)
Francesca Segal
(photo credit: LAURA ALICE HART)
The sixth International Jerusalem Writers Festival takes place at its regular berth of Mishkenot Sha’ananim from May 8 to 11. As usual, there will be a mix of local scribes and their fellow professionals from foreign climes.
It is not just a matter of getting non-Israeli writers here, to illuminate us about the inner machinations of their oeuvre; there are some fascinating confluences lined up for us over the four days, with authors from here, there and everywhere not only talking about their own work but also about areas common to all the discoursers.
Irish writer Ruth Gilligan, a rising star in the English-language literary firmament, recently published her fourth novel – based on the Irish Jewish community – at the young age of just 30. Gilligan will take part in The Dubliners session on May 9, alongside Knesset opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog, who comes from Irish stock, and author Assaf Gavron, son of olim from England whose father wrote for The Jerusalem Post.
The session, which is sponsored by the Irish Embassy and will be attended by Ambassador Alison Kelly – and conducted in English – will touch on a range of topics, including religion, community, literature and the common ground between the Irish, English, and Israeli cultures.
There are several English-language slots over the four days, including an intriguing confluence between celebrated Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty, who will be joined by Etgar Keret. Both Beatty and Keret raised a few eyebrows with their recent offerings. African-American writer Beatty’s book The Sellout is based on the premise that slavery and segregation are reintroduced to his hometown, while Keret’s new book Fly Already entices young men to join the army by distributing rare Pokémon figures in combat zones.
Historian and TV personality Dr. Yael Sternhell will speak to the authors about the left-field antics their protagonists are up to in order to achieve their goals; about humor and political correctness in Israeli and American society; and about the fine line between the humorous and the sad in literary works.
THE MORNING of the last day of the festival features another English language event – although parts will be in Hebrew – when internationally renowned Jerusalem- born writer Eshkol Nevo and British novelist Francesca Segal meet author Sarai Shavit. London-born, sometime New York-resident Segal’s sophomore offering, The Awkward Age, was well received and is currently being adapted for a screen version by the BBC. The festival blurb notes that Nevo, Segal and Shavit will discuss “urban romance, bourgeoisie, and the lies and truths of love.” The slot also includes readings and musical numbers by singer-actress Dana Berger.
Segal – who is the daughter of the late, feted writer Erich Segal, whose best known book Love Story became a smash hit movie in 1970, but who was also a respected classicist and screenwriter – is delighted to be coming here. “Most of my family lives in Israel,” she notes.
In fact she will be staying on for some time after the festival, as she has been awarded a residency berth by Mishkenot Sha’ananim. “Besides eating hummus,” she laughs, “I am working on a non-fiction book at the moment, which I hope to continue in Jerusalem. But I am also hoping to use the residency to think about my next fiction book, which is a bit more nebulous.”
She anticipates leaving us with more than she brings here. “The residency is an incredible opportunity to absorb some inspiration and see where it takes me.”
Segal hails from a very Jewish area of northwest London which she has described as both “warm and incredibly supportive,” but also as “a little bit claustrophobic.”
That flipside take might be recognizable to others who have lived in a tight-knit community.
Then again, feeling stifled can be a boon, and can lead you to take a peek beyond the confines of the familiar, in a quest for more physical, emotional and cerebral expanses.
That line of thought resonates with Segal. “I think that can make you explore other things,” she notes. “I think it is very important to look outside, and to understand the wider context of one’s own experience.”
Then again, this is a not a black-and-white situation.
After all, for better or worse, our take on life is very much colored by what we experience in our formative years and, later on in life, we gain the perspective of time which affords us the inestimable advantage of objectivity, or something akin to that. “I also think that part of growing up is the pattern of rejection and adult return. I think that part of growing up is also understanding the value of family and looking for the nuances.”
That acquired wisdom was helped by a change in Segal’s own familial circumstances. The 37-year-old writer is now a mother of two-year-old twins. “Becoming a parent myself has made me think that there is something beautiful about being as part of a community, of the wider community. And all the things that maybe I found claustrophobic when I was 23 – when one is an adult one can take them on one’s own terms; they have a different meaning.”
BOTH OF Segal’s books to date touch on issues of identity, including religious identity. In The Awkward Age, for example, a character called James, partner of Julia whose husband died five years earlier, wishes Julia’s parents-inlaw “Christmas Sameach.”
There are also issues of individual identity, independence and where we draw the line between giving to our offspring and just being ourselves. That comes across palpably in The Awkward Age, in which both James – a divorcee – and Julia are contending with the challenges of adolescent children.
“I was interested in that tension between parenthood and personhood, and the push-pull of those two,” Segal explains. “I thought it was interesting and poignant to have that tension exacerbated by a new relationship, so the child not only has a rivalry with the other parent but, in fact, it is not another parent but the parent’s partner.
And they have a parent who has the temerity and cheek to admit they have needs of their own.”
At the end of the day, you are drawn to the characters in the book, as they go about their business of accommodating life’s challenges and joys. “What I wanted to reach for in this book was the dilemma of a house filled with fundamentally good people who are all flawed but are trying to be good and trying be kind, in a very difficult situation.”
Segal says she is eagerly anticipating her visit here, and not just for the local cuisine. “Israel has a place in my heart, and I feel incredibly privileged to be able to spend a longer time in Jerusalem.”
For tickets and more information about the International Jerusalem Writers Festival: www.mishkenot.org.il