Jerusalem Writers Festival to be held online with esteemed lineup

There are intriguing sessions right across the four-day online agenda.

WRITER-DIRECTOR Gon Ben Ari’s Literature and the Expansion of Consciousness session focuses on his forthcoming new novel, ‘SWIM,’ his work with the genre-hopping Zulat Choir and sound therapy (photo credit: ARIEL EFRON)
WRITER-DIRECTOR Gon Ben Ari’s Literature and the Expansion of Consciousness session focuses on his forthcoming new novel, ‘SWIM,’ his work with the genre-hopping Zulat Choir and sound therapy
(photo credit: ARIEL EFRON)
Boundaries have been on the political and sociopolitical agenda for eons. While there is, naturally, no certifiable documentation attesting to the very first occasion, some prehistoric cave dweller cautioned other Homo sapiens in their vicinity not to venture past some rock or bush, or face dire retribution, demarcation lines seem to have been with us for a long time. Then again, the advent of the European Union, and other such multinational collectives, has tended to mitigate clearly defined geographic limits.
These days, in case we needed any painful reminders, artificial barriers to movement are currently passé. But there are other areas of life, besides the one that sparked off this crazy lockdown period, in which man-made impediments and stop signs are simply redundant. The topic that will be discussed by a distinguished international triad at this year’s Jerusalem Writers Festival, the forthcoming digital edition of which will take place May 10-13, neatly connects with that notion.
The festival has been held, under the auspices of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, for the past seven years with stellar casts of literary figures annually descending on the Jerusalem institution from the four corners of the world. This year no one will be jetting, or driving, in – with, of course, concomitant saving on flight- and car-produced pollution – but the organizers have still managed to put together a highly creditable lineup for the eighth episode of the acclaimed event.
There are intriguing sessions right across the four-day online agenda with the likes of Jewish-American novelist Nicole Krauss and compatriot coreligionist Michael Pollan, who focuses on intersections between nature and culture, German crime writer Leonie Swann and Burundi-born French author, songwriter and hip-hop artist Gaël Faye also due to feature in discussions, workshops and various virtual encounters.
The three-way conversation between Prof. Evan Fallenberg, Ayelet Tsabari and Matti Friedman, which occupies the 8:30 p.m. slot on May 10, offers all sorts of possibilities. The tantalizing title of the session – “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off” – certainly suggests a lip-smacker is on the cards. Considering the global pandemic developments over the past month or two, that is a fully understandable titular sentiment. The festival blurb sets out the trilateral thematic stall, saying that the writers will address “the absurd reality in which we are now living and writing,” adding that they will discuss “the existence of Jewish and Israeli ‘literary citizenship’ at a time when borders are closed, passports have become superfluous, and only language remains without borders.”
All three are eminently qualified to talk, in English, about the corresponding sides of the cultural and linguistic divide. Cleveland, Ohio born-Fallenberg made aliyah around 35 years ago, the 42-year-old Friedman hails from Toronto and has lived here since the age of 17, while Tsabari, the Israeli-born member of the panel, has been a resident of Canada for more than two decades and writes in Hebrew and English.
Both Friedman and Tsabari are recipients of the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which is also supporting the session, while Fallenberg is a member of the award jury. The latter also has three tomes to his name – a fourth is currently in the making – and has translated numerous books from Hebrew to English, and also teaches creative writing and literary translation at Bar-Ilan University.
Fallenberg, like the rest of us, is painfully aware of the coronavirus fallout and says that, willy-nilly, it is impacting, and will continue to impact, on the way he and his fellow artists go about their creative business. “It seems that is the only thing people are capable of talking about these days,” he observes. “It feels so refreshing, sometimes, to move away from it. But, on the other hand, what do you do about that, this is the absurd new reality?” The official constraints on freedom of movement have also made inroads into Fallenberg’s professional continuum. “I have just started work on a new novel and I have realized that it has to be positioned before, during or after corona. There’s no avoiding it. That’s part of the absurd reality.”
There are other peripheral logistics. “We also have to look at how we deal with our time,” Fallenberg continues. “For some of us it is a boon, to have this writing time. I should have been spending the month in Iceland, in a sort of writer’s retreat. Instead of which I am here getting into some pretty deep writing,” he laughs. But there are others who find themselves in a very different predicament, which involves a delicate time-frame juggling act. “You have someone like Ayelet, who is a young mother, or Matti who has four children. I can’t imagine they are getting much writing done right now. People’s reality is shifting.”
BESIDES A shared passion for the written word, Fallenberg notes that all three also connect through the Sami Rohr Prize. In addition to the official feather in the cap and, yes, a degree of ego-massaging, which most of us need, the financial support on offer – the first place comes with the hefty award of $100,000 – can go a long way to freeing a writer from the shackles of quotidian monetary concerns. Fallenberg says that street-level element will come up in the Writers Festival virtual meet. “I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking to them about the meaning of prizes, in the life of a writer. Certainly the Rohr Prize is set up to really make a difference, to bring someone to greater attention and to give them the circumstances to succeed.”
Friedman won the prize in 2014 for his detective thriller The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, which relates how the Aleppo codex, one of the world’s oldest extant Bibles, was saved from destruction during the 1947 pogrom in Syria. Tsabari placed first the following year, with her debut collection of short stories called The Best Place on Earth. Her work also fed off Middle Eastern culture and sociopolitics, looking at the lives of Mizrahi Jews in Israeli, particularly those of Yemeni descent, like Tsabari herself.
The central themes of both works are eminently suited to one of the stated anchors of the May 10 discourse interface. That goes for the moderator too. “Literary citizenship is something I have become very interested in over the past couple of years,” says Fallenberg, “what it means to be a literary citizen. I’d like to take a couple of minutes to define that, and talk to these writers about what they think literary citizenship is all about, and where they find themselves in that. There’s going to be a lot to cover in just about half an hour,” he laughs.
Fallenberg’s translator cap may also work its way into the May 10 online proceedings. After all, while a writer may spin out their story in their own inimitable style, proffering their own ideas and take on life in the process, at the end of the day if you are not conversant with the original language, you have no choice other than to rely on the skills of the translator for your understanding and appreciation of the source work.
Fallenberg says he is palpably conscious of the professional and moral obligation to represent the author’s efforts in as an accurate and loyal a manner as possible, while tailoring the translated version to the potential readers’ linguistic and cultural milieu. “That’s a huge responsibility,” he concurs. “I call a translation an act of cultural eavesdropping, because it’s listening to a conversation that we carry on with our tribe that speaks our language, whatever our language is. Suddenly that conversation gets broadcast. It’s almost like airing your dirty laundry sometimes.”
With that in mind, the translator has to be sensitive, not only to the various innuendo and vagaries of the source language and the language into which he or she is translating, but also has to be aware of how the printed end result may be received, and understood, by the reader. That goes double with regard to consumers of translated Hebrew literature.
“When you are talking about a place like Israel it’s particularly striking, because there are so many layers. There’s a beautiful short story written by Yonatan Fein, which a friend of mine was translating. There are things that culturally – culturally, ethnically and politically – are so complex that they really need a glossary, they really need an explanation, so the story is not completely misunderstood. I suppose there are so many instances of those. It’s not unique to translating from Hebrew, but it’s certainly part and parcel of the complexity of translating from Hebrew that you get these issues all the time.”
Fallenberg says that awareness is front and center whenever he takes on the responsibility of conveying the words and sentiments crafted by an Israeli author in Hebrew to English-speaking readership. “I am very aware of how things are going to be perceived. I can think of several books I have worked on where I began to get worried about what kind of perception was going to be coming out of this book, because words can be misunderstood.” That, apparently, is a given. “I have no doubt that, no matter what I did, it could be misconstrued and then you, the translator, are part of the issue.” Such is the nature of [the] political minefield beast.
He endeavors to spread that crucially important message down the line. “I tell my students that a translator has to know everything about everything but, actually, none of us does,” Fallenberg notes wryly. “We have to cover our tracks as best we can, and do as much research as we can. We have to make sure that everything we put on the page makes sense.”
The new social distancing reality pervades numerous areas of next week’s festival. The program takes a look at the technological advances that are transforming the face of society, in relation to language, identity and being “a refugee” in a world that has closed its borders, and on the impact of all of these on literature. In addition, the festival will address the future of literature in light of its complex relationships between television and cinema, especially now, when digital media has become more relevant than ever.
Other promising English-language discussions over the four days include “The Responsible Adult,” with Oscar-nominated American author and screenwriter Tom Perrotta and internationally renowned Israeli author and scriptwriter Etgar Keret talking to Haaretz journalist Gili Izikovich about the adaptation of their work for television and cinema, and about the author as the “responsible adult” in an increasingly unfettered world. Meanwhile, “Writing Mad Men” sees hugely successful American writer, producer, director, actor and author Matthew Weiner, best known as the creator of the television series Mad Men and The Romanoffs, in conversation with award-winning Israeli-American author and screenwriter Ron Leshem about the changing climate of literature and how the current crisis will affect the ways in which we tell stories and the relationship between literature and television.
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