Writers Festival: Safran Foer analyzes identify, art and influence

Safran Foer was something of a wunderkind, bursting onto the global literary stage in 2002, at the tender age of 25 with his well-received debut offering, Everything Is Illuminated.

(photo credit: JEFF MERMELSTEIN)
 Does the writer write the book, or does the book create the writer? That’s just one of the questions that run through Jonathan Safran Foer’s mind as he considers his craft.
Safran Foer is one of the main draws of the upcoming Writers Festival which takes place at its regular berth of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and also across the global virtual domain, May 3-6.
This year’s program takes in an eclectic range of talks, workshops, musical spots, tours of various historical, literary and even culinary ilks, and some quirky-leaning spots that feature many of the regular local literary suspects, the likes of Meir Shalev, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and Zeruya Shalev, while the glittering foreign contingent includes, in addition to the aforementioned acclaimed American Jewish author, Linn Ullmann from Norway, Salman Rushdie, young US-born Dubai resident writer Avni Doshi, best-selling American author and advice columnist Harlan Cohen, French publisher, writer and film director Vanessa Springora, and celebrated 78-year-old Italian writer, screenwriter and journalist Domenico Starnone.
RENOWNED AUTHOR David Grossman joins feted British writer Salman Rushdie to discuss freedom of expression. (Photo credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz)RENOWNED AUTHOR David Grossman joins feted British writer Salman Rushdie to discuss freedom of expression. (Photo credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz)
Safran Foer’s contribution to next week’s four-dayer (May 5, 8:30 p.m.) is a Facebook session in which he and international Israeli rock star Asaf Avidan join forces, with journalist Anna Burd moderating, to discuss the ins and outs of friendship. Safran Foer and Avidan’s paths crossed some years ago when the writer was in Israel and Avidan asked him along to one of his gigs.
ROCK STAR Asaf Avidan chats with award-winning US author Jonathan Safran Foer. (Photo credit: Paolo Santambrogio)ROCK STAR Asaf Avidan chats with award-winning US author Jonathan Safran Foer. (Photo credit: Paolo Santambrogio)
The English-language event goes by the name of “To Love One Another” and feeds off a short story written by Safran Foer to go with Avidan’s latest album Anagnorisis. The album title is defined as a sudden turn of events in a play, a novel or other literary work when a leading character comes across a critical recognition or discovery regarding another character’s real identity or the true nature of their own circumstances.
The background to the author’s input to Avidan’s album is nothing short of dramatic. It references a horrific incident in which the musician was attacked by a wolfdog he had adopted. During the hour-long digital meet up, the pair will run their rule over their own friendship, the reciprocal influences on their art, and examine the poetic connection between music and literature. The tête-à-tête closes with Avidan performing a number he recorded especially for the festival.
Safran Foer was something of a wunderkind, bursting onto the global literary stage in 2002, at the tender age of 25 with his well-received debut offering, Everything Is Illuminated. The book, which was later turned into a movie starring Elijah Wood, was inspired by the writer’s own Holocaust backdrop, and a trip he made to the Ukraine in an effort to piece together the remnants of the Jewish shtetl of Trochenbrod where his maternal grandfather was born.
Considering his youthfulness at the time, one might have expected Safran Foer to ply a different plot direction, and stamp his own burgeoning identity on the literary world by trying to escape his weighty familial baggage. But, even at such a young age, he was aware of the impact his grandfather’s trying early life circumstances had on his own pathway.
THAT MAY be the case but Safran Foer says it was not a premeditated choice, particularly because of his rawness and resultant incipient self-awareness. “It is hard to answer a question like that honestly, especially in the sense of not knowing oneself or one’s motivations fully,” he notes, adding that, by definition, novel writing is a complex business. “I am thinking about what to write, which is often very naïve, then there’s the contemplating if you’ve made a good decision which is very self-conscious, and then there’s the rethinking. There are so many parts that at different times I felt different things.”
In fact, the theme that gradually crystallized came as a surprise to the writer himself, in all sorts of respects. “I can say that, before I started, I never would have thought that I would write a book that had anything to do with the war.” He wryly admits that it wasn’t exactly a rose garden career curtain raiser. “If someone had read me a description of my first book I don’t know that I would have wanted to even read it. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, just in the sense of what I felt I was interested in.”
The latter, naturally, has become clearer as the now 44-year-old father of two has wended his meandering course around life’s potholes and through its joys. He observes that his chosen profession helps him along the voyage of self-discovery. “One of the great things about writing is that it sometimes corrects self-image. We think there are things we are interested in, that move us, attract us. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re not. After having written that [first] book, whatever I might have said about myself, it was plainly obvious that the war, Jewish history, my family’s history were very important to me.”
Thus, it follows, that the person who completed the book was not exactly the same as the one who began it. While it may not quite have reached epiphanous proportions, presumably he knew more about himself, and had externalized some of the things he had been mulling over, possibly unconsciously, and eventually there they were staring him in the face, from the book’s pages.
Safran Foer goes along with that, and posits that there is give and take between the artist and the end product of his or her art. “For sure. The writer creates the book, and the book creates the writer. It happens in both directions. The fact is I was really like a child when I started the book,” he chuckles. “I grew up a lot in the process of writing it. I self-actualized.” He says the creative road he took confronted him with himself and his self-worth. “Writing a book begs the question, what do you have to share? I don’t know whether I’d ever asked myself that question before.”
That helped to set the maturation ball rolling, and helped him to carve his niche as a highly successful and bona fide member of the literary world.
Since he took his authorship bow he has produced three more novels and a couple of important non-fiction tomes that address climate change and what we can, and must, do to save the planet. In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, he addresses the challenging topic of the aftermath of 9/11 on an individual level, while Here I Am feeds off Safran Foer’s familial storyline as one of three brothers growing up in Washington, DC. His 2010 work, Tree of Codes is a very different and more esoteric affair and represents a venture into the world of the plastic arts while physically-sculpturally revisiting one of his favorite literary works, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who was murdered in the Holocaust.
Four years after he published his multi award-winning sophomore effort, Safran Foer launched himself into the maelstrom of environmental matters. In Eating Animals he takes a no-nonsense look at how our dietary habits are impacting global warming. The book formed the basis for an eponymous documentary on which the writer collaborated with filmmaker Christopher Dillon Quinn and Jerusalem-born American actress Natalie Portman who is, herself, a vegan. The chilling film reveals some of the incredible cruelty meted out to animals in the factory farming system.
In a 2018 appearance on the BUILD live interview series, along with Dillon Quinn, Safran Foer talks about the things he witnessed personally, including at factory farms he broke into together with environmental activist groups. “I think there is a difference between knowing things intellectually and knowing it in your heart,” he said at the time. “There is a difference between being informed and being activated or inspired. It’s very, very tricky to be activated. I think about it all the time with regard to the environment.”
Happily, Safran Foer has an excellent medium for conveying those thoughts, and presenting the public with some cold hard facts in the ground, noting that we all need to reduce our meat and animal product intake by 90 percent and 60 percent respectively if we are going to leave a planet for our descendants to live on.
HE SAYS he simply had no choice other than to unfurl, if not unleash, the truth about how our way of living is fundamentally unsustainable. “I wrote that book because I felt like I had crossed a sort of line in my own life.” It is, he declares, very much a matter of taking individual responsibility for our own actions, and the detrimental effect that they can have on everyone around us.
Eating Animals became an inevitable next literary step. “I didn’t really want to write a non-fiction book. I didn’t really want to write about climate change. But I felt like I had reached a breaking point.” Then again, even though he puts in a fair shift in spreading the word about the ecology, he says he tries not to engage in finger wagging. It is, for him, about taking a leaf of Mahatma Gandhi’s book who is reputed to have intoned, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” 
“This was not in terms of looking at other people and what they were doing, but looking at myself and what I was doing and not doing, and just revealing that it was intolerable,” says Safran Foer. “I knew too much, and the distance between my rhetoric and my attitude and my actions was intolerable.” And so Eating Animals came to be. “I am lucky. As a writer I have something to do with those feelings.”
Safran Foer’s second non-fiction work came out in 2019, and developed on the global warming theme. We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast addresses the enormous, and potentially cataclysmic, greenhouse gas emission levels generated by the livestock sector of agriculture. In all the Safran Foer interviews I watched on YouTube, and there are quite a few, he comes across as forthright, erudite and eloquent while never losing his cool. I suggested that, were he an Israeli, his intonation would probably have gone up a couple of notches and several decibels. I also wondered whether his seeming equanimity is due to the fact that he feels that ruffling too many feathers might prove to be counterproductive in his quest to open people’s eyes regarding the existential perils of our lifestyle.
His response to that cultural divide observation begins with reference to his latest novel. “I kind of wrote a little bit about that in Here I Am, the differences between how American Jews and Israeli Jews let their opinions be known. I don’t feel like I make efforts not to antagonize people. One could say that writing two books about vegetarianism is not designed to antagonize people, but risks antagonizing people. I think I do my best not to get into situations with people I don’t respect. When you respect somebody it is not about antagonizing them. It is talking and disagreeing productively.”
Although he believes in each of us giving the matter immersive thought, and considering what we can do, as individuals, to mend our ways, Safran Foer is convinced that the political route is the most important way to go. “I wrote, in We Are The Weather, about the mistake of focusing on the example rather than on the system. Focusing on examples can sometimes inspire big emotions in us but it doesn’t inspire big changes in the world. Individuals cannot solve the climate crisis. That absolutely requires systemic change and legislative change, and changes at the level of governments and corporations.”
Either way, it is clearly high time for change, for each and every one of us. As 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Confucius is noted for saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
For more information about the Writers Festival: fest.mishkenot.org.il