Chat with Joyce Carol Oates: Jerusalem Writers Festival

Joyce Carol Oates, who characterizes her upcoming appearance at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Writers Festival as ‘a high point of my life as a writer – perhaps the high point’

AMERICAN WRITER Joyce Carol Oates. In her upcoming acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize, she plans to note, ‘The Jerusalem Prize crystallizes these obligations [of a morally righteous society] for me even as it celebrates the enduring art of literature.’ (photo credit: NANCY CRAMPTON)
AMERICAN WRITER Joyce Carol Oates. In her upcoming acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize, she plans to note, ‘The Jerusalem Prize crystallizes these obligations [of a morally righteous society] for me even as it celebrates the enduring art of literature.’
(photo credit: NANCY CRAMPTON)
Ahead of the Writers Festival in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood next week, the Magazine spoke with esteemed American author Joyce Carol Oates, who since 1964 has published 58 novels – her first at the tender age of 26 – as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. Among the Sylvia Plath fan’s famous books are Oprah Book Club pick We Were the Mulvaneys and the short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? dedicated to Bob Dylan.
Close to home, Hakkibutz Publishing  will be translating and publishing her bestseller The Falls later in the year.
At the festival, Oates will be awarded the Jerusalem Prize by Mayor Moshe Lion – a lifetime achievement award granted to an author whose work expresses and promotes the idea of the freedom of individual in society – and will discuss “Hazards of the Writing Journey” in conversation with Israeli author, poet and theater director Michal Govrin.
Many people are intrigued by what you have suggested are your “Jewish roots.” You have written that your paternal grandmother Blanche was, or might have been, Jewish, and that your mother was “of Hungarian descent” – and may have been Jewish. What have you discovered about your roots? How has this affected you?
Moreover, according to your Wikipedia bio, you were raised (in upstate New York) as a Catholic, but you are “now an atheist.” What is your position today? Do you believe in God? Do you consider yourself Jewish? What does ‘being Jewish’ mean to you?

Yes, my grandmother Blanche Morgenstern was Jewish, but not my mother, Carolina Bush, who was Hungarian/Catholic, though not an avid or devout Catholic – not at all.
My grandmother did not acknowledge her ancestry or her roots – that was not a topic ever discussed, at least in the hearing of my brother and myself. Ours was a thoroughly secular family, though for a few years my parents attended a local Catholic church after my Hungarian grandfather died suddenly and he was buried in that cemetery.
My grandmother was the most influential person in my life, as I look back upon it.
In my acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, I plan to speak at some length about Blanche Morgenstern and the tradition of Jewish respect for books and culture.
[A preview of the speech includes this quote:] It seems that the Morgensterns did not identify as Jewish; my grandmother never spoke of her origins, if she knew of them; great swaths of her life remained unnamed, unacknowledged. What an abyss, such silence! It fills me with sorrow that I know so little of this person who figured so monumentally in my life; it’s as if I struggle to open a door – and beyond is a wall, blank and unyielding.
This is your first trip to Israel. Did you get any criticism for coming to Israel and accepting the Jerusalem Prize?
No, not at all. I did receive many congratulations from a diversity of people. I have writer-friends who visit Israel often and some who have lived there for extended periods of time – Mark Danner and Nathan Englander, to name two.
The latest anti-Israel BDS resolution at Princeton was barely rejected (52% to 47%). What was the position of faculty? Do people understand that BDS is a form of antisemitism?

I am afraid that I have very little to do with Princeton University politics. I am professor emerita, which means that I am retired from full-time faculty – though in fact, in the fall, I have been teaching one course to undergraduates in the creative writing program. I have no idea what BDS even means.
Do you feel affected by antisemitism?
Yes, it is terrifying and dismaying. It is disgusting, like all forms of bigotry, and especially bigotry that seems to be urging punishment and violence.

Why is antisemitism growing – especially in democratic countries like America?
I have often asked this question. It is utterly perplexing to me. One can see why bigotry might arise when there are terrorist acts against the US, and the threat of these attacks causes bigotry. But, there are no terrorist acts or threats to the US from any Jewish quarters or organizations, and there have never been. There should be no history of antisemitism in the US at all.
Have literary figures done enough to combat antisemitism?
It would be hard to calculate what “enough” would be... one expects our elected leaders to step up prominently and deal with this situation. Poetry may be beautiful, but poets are not elected to protect us, and that should not be their role. Literary figures tend to be liberal-minded – political movements tend to be spurred by strong leaders, and sometimes demagogues. The US may be suffering a dearth of strong moral leadership. Another US president would totally condemn antisemitism in any form and severely punish its manifestations – he would insist upon protecting Jews and other minorities from any and all kind of “white nationalist” violence.
How do you feel about the recently published antisemitic and anti-Israel cartoon in ‘The New York Times’ – and the newspaper’s pro-Palestinian coverage?
I am sorry to say that I do not read The New York Times frequently any longer. I did hear about a notorious cartoon via Twitter, but did not seek it out.
Do you follow archaeological discoveries in Israel?
No, but I am interested.
You have said, “To be Jewish is to be identified with a history.” You and the Jewish people? A ‘leap of faith?’
This is true, to a degree. Though I have known Jews who are totally secular and do not seem to identify with their history.
Why do you write by hand rather than a computer?
Many poets write “by hand” – it is the more elemental and intimate way of expression.
How do you feel about taking part in this festival in Israel?

This will be a high point of my life as a writer – perhaps the high point.

What inspires you as a writer?

I am inspired by storytelling, and by the great phantasmagoria of human personality all about me. It is limitless – the range of the human experience – and the hope of the human imagination to express it.
I have been reading Israeli literature. Longtime favorite has been Amos Oz, whom I’d met at Princeton years ago when Oz was visiting here, and more recently the brash and exuberant Etgar Keret, [and] longtime favorite poet Yehuda Amichai. And there is the very special – dreamlike – astonishing – Aaron Appelfeld, whom I’d first read years ago and reviewed for The New York Times Book Review.
I have also seen Israeli films over the years – most recently, the excellent if quite violent TV series Fauda, which is quite a hit here in the US. My late husband, Charlie Gross, who had particularly looked forward to the Jerusalem Prize events and the book festival, was very impressed with this powerfully presented series.
Erica Schachne contributed to this article.
The Seventh International Writers Festival will take place in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim on May 12 to 16.