Out of the closet

Leading men and women of letters from around the world will rub shoulders with our own leading literary figures.

Indian writer Anita Desai (photo credit: JERRY BAUER)
Indian writer Anita Desai
(photo credit: JERRY BAUER)
The annual Writers’ Festival is almost upon us once again. The fifth edition of one of the country’s premier international literary get-togethers will take place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem from May 25 to 28.
Leading men and women of letters from around the world will rub shoulders with our own leading literary figures.
The foreign contingent includes the likes of award-winning Indian mother and daughter writers Anita and Kiran Desai; Chinese novelist Mai Jia; Soviet-born American- bred Jewish satirist Gary Shteyngart; and celebrated New York-based Irish émigré Colum McCann.
Artists often cite confluences or clashes as oxymoronic touch paper igniters of their literary paths. Like most of the overseas VIPs at the festival who feed off variegated cultural baggage, McCann sees parallels between the country of his birth and Israel.
“We share a lot. First of all, there’s Leopold Bloom, the Irish-Hungarian Jew and one of the great characters of Irish literature,” he notes, referring to the protagonist of one of the seminal works of Irish writing, James Joyce’s Ulysses. There are also real-life parallels. “As you know, your former president Haim Herzog was born in Belfast and was raised in Dublin.”
Both countries have a similar turbulent past, which, says McCann, has spawned an inherent gift of the gab. “Both the Irish and the Jews have been through great traumas throughout history, and both have emerged as vibrant, storytelling cultures.”
McCann is no slouch at spinning a yarn or two himself, as evidenced by the National Book Award he landed in 2009 for Let the World Spin, followed by the well-received TransAtlantic, which came out in 2013. To date, Dublin-born and bred McCann has published six novels and three collections of stories, accruing an impressive list of official kudos in the process, including Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, Best Foreign Novel Award in China and an Oscar nomination for the script of Everything in This Country Must, about the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Like fellow Emerald Isle émigré (albeit from a previous generation) Frank McCourt, McCann has fed off his adopted surroundings not only to fuel his creative output but also, possibly, to take a more objective look at “the old country” across the Pond. McCann feels that even after more than a quarter of a century in America, he still has both feet firmly planted in his homeland across the sea. He also takes a different view from Joyce – himself a long-term ex-pat – on the way prolonged absence informs one’s homeland imagery.
“James Joyce once said, ‘I have been so long out of Ireland that I all at once hear her voice in everything.’ I understand this, but I have never considered myself an exile or even an emigrant. I left Ireland in the 1980s, but I return at least three or four times every year, sometimes more. I feel more like a commuter than an emigrant. I stay in touch. I keep my feet on the ground. Although I hold two passports, I remain fiercely Irish.”
McCann had writing in his genes and began to put words together for public consumption very early on.
“I started out as a sports journalist at the age of 12. I reported local soccer matches for The Irish Press, the newspaper where my father worked as a features editor. I continued publishing, and at 17 I had my own page in a national newspaper,” he recalls. That looks like pretty good going for a teenager, but McCann says that a bona fide literary career was still some way off.
“Sounds impressive, but it wasn’t, to be honest. It was fairly light fare – rock bands and cheap gossip, mostly.”
A radical move was the order of the day in a physical and cultural sense. McCann duly relocated westward, although he says success was a long time coming, and it was quite a while before he related to himself as a full-blown person of letters.
“I ‘escaped’ at age 21 and went the US to try to write a novel. I failed at that, too. I didn’t start publishing fiction until my mid-20s, which I suppose is quite young, but I thought I was ancient. Even at that stage, I didn’t call myself a writer. In fact, I wasn’t brave enough to call myself a writer until my third book or so, but there are still days when I doubt the term. To be a writer is always to live on the cusp of failure.”
More specifically, the Stateside move was prompted by a desire to get a better handle on some of the underground writing endeavor of the 1950s.
McCann says he relocated “out of curiosity. I had read a lot of Beat Generation literature and wanted to see what this Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti world was all about.”
Like Kerouac, whose bestknown book, the 1957 On the Road, is considered a landmark work of the post-WWII counterculture generations, McCann also felt he had to get out there – to borrow a line from Paul Simon – “to look for America.” While Kerouac made his way across the continent with a motley bunch of roaming characters in freight train cars, McCann zigzagged hither and thither from 1986 to 1988 under his own steam by bicycle.
“It was an incredible journey.
I did about 12,000 kilometers. I came across all sorts of wonderful people and places,” he says, adding that it was a real eye-opener for him and an experience that laid the foundations for his humanist approach to depicting the lives of others.
“I learned about the democracy of storytelling. Everyone has a story to tell, no matter what the background. And that’s important to me, politically and emotionally. We must learn to listen to the stories of others.”
That came across strongly in McCann’s debut offering, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, a collection of stories published in 1994 in which the Irishman unfurls a wide and rich swathe of characters. Each has his own troubled baggage, many are on a quest for internal peace, and all feed off the seemingly mundane, with McCann bringing out the minutiae of everyday living, which we tend to skim over on our way to our next objective.
Curiously, for someone who “rode the range” to meet life head-on and fuel his incipient literary bent, when he gets down to brass tacks, McCann shuts away – physically – from outside life. He puts fingers to keyboard sitting with his laptop, hemmed in on the floor of a cupboard. That sounds antipodal to his formative cycling trip and more than a little claustrophobia-inducing.
While admitting that it is not good for his posture, McCann says the default working position helps to keep him focused.
“It was an accident, really. I built a wrap-around desk in my office, and it closed off access to a cupboard. One afternoon I sat on the desk and slid into the cupboard and found that it was a good, quiet place to write. It’s crazy, really. It’s not very good for me. I get very stiff, since I sit there for long hours, testing out my imagination, knocking down the walls and going elsewhere.”
McCann says he is looking forward to being in Jerusalem and is hoping to glean some inspiration from the jaunt and put his extrinsic insight to good use.
“Call me crazy, but I would like to write about your part of the world – Israel and the West Bank,” he says. “I’m not sure if I have any right to do so, but I would like to try to make sense of the political and emotional landscape for myself. Of course, it has already been done beautifully by writers like David Grossman and Amos Oz and younger writers like Assaf Gavron and Alona Kimchi, but I’d like to come at it from the point of view of an outsider. I’d like to try to discover that territory for myself. [English art critic, novelist, painter and poet] John Berger says, ‘Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.’ I’m not sure if I can do it, but perhaps one day...” 
For more information about the Writers’ Festival: mishkenot.org.il/writersfestival