Crystal clear

Dania Shumaf, the first Circassian novelist to take part in Hebrew Book Week, says she received wide support from her male-dominated village.

Dania Shumaf 521 (photo credit: courtesy Ofir-Bikurim)
Dania Shumaf 521
(photo credit: courtesy Ofir-Bikurim)
One of the more surprising items of this year’s Hebrew Book Week, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, is the appearance of The Crystal Stones, in Hebrew – the first book by a Circassian writer to be published in this country.
Making the book even more noteworthy is that it’s a debut offering and that the author, Dania Shumaf from the Galilee village of Rehania, is all of 21 years old.
A fantasy tale about an ambitious king who goes to the end of the world to track down four magic stones, the story contains plenty of suspense, danger, love, compassion, heroism, and a modicum of cruelty. One of the central figures is a powerful matriarchal figure called Princess Alin – and considering the largely male-dominated nature of the Circassian community here, Shumaf appears to be making a statement.
“You must not underestimate the power of women,” she declares. “Women are just like men, and they are no weaker than them. I have always believed that, since I was a little girl. The man also has to help out at home.”
That’s stirring stuff from a young Circassian woman. However, despite her no-nonsense stand on the subject, Shumaf says she has not suffered from any adverse reactions from the community; quite the opposite: “I have received lots of support from people in my village and also from Kfar Kana, the other Circassian village. A lot of the positive responses have come from older men. That has been very surprising and very encouraging.”
Shumaf started work on The Crystal Stones during some post-high-school down time.
“I had a few months when I was mostly at home and I didn’t do much,” she recalls. “I had this idea for a story and I just started writing.”
Shumaf, though, is far from a bookworm herself.
“I hardly read books,” she says. “I watch movies and I get a lot of ideas from them.”
Naturally the few tomes she has picked up to date include the Harry Potter series.
“I am very interested in fantasy worlds, and I have read all the Harry Potter books. I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I have seen all the movies.”
She shares at least one part of her work ethic with Potter author J.K. Rowling – both started out writing longhand before making the transition to a computer.
It has often been said that fantasy writers create imaginary worlds to escape some unpleasant realities of their day-today lives. That is not entirely the case with Shumaf.
“It is partly due to that, but also because I am naturally drawn to the rich imagery that fantasy worlds offer,” she says. “I have a good life, so I am not really running away from anything.”
The young writer says she didn’t work too hard on her first book, and was never really sure where the venture would take her.
“I am not one of those writers who steadfastly sit in front of the computer screen every day until they connect with the muses. There were days when I didn’t write anything because I just wasn’t inspired. And I didn’t think about an ending. I just went with the flow and the storyline evolved.”
Shumaf says it was only when she completed the writing that she began to consider trying her luck with the publishers.
“I never really thought of turning it into a real, tangible book, but when I finished it, I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’” After six months of her setting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard, The Crystal Stones manuscript was ready for dispatch to a prospective publisher.
While there are thousands of sad stories of budding authors whose initial enthusiasm is squeezed out of them by endless rejection notes, Shumaf says that here, too, she did not have to work too hard.
“I know people send off a text and wait months just to get some acknowledgement that a publisher has received the manuscript. But I just surfed to the Ofir Publishers website because they specialize in first-time books,” she explains.
The response was swift and gratifying: “They got back to me after two weeks and said they would publish the book.”
This year's Hebrew Book Week, which runs from June 15-25, features a host of cultural and entertainment slots in its 10- day program, including panel discussions with the likes of octogenarian writer-painter Yoram Kaniuk, rock musicians Hemi Rudner and Yali Sobol, Israeli Arab author and columnist Sayed Kashua, award-winning film director Amos Gitai and actress Yael Abecassis.
In Tel Aviv, there will be entertainment courtesy of the Israeli Opera, and in Modi’in, there will be storytelling sessions and shows – as well as a session with author Eshkol Nevo, who will talk about the machinations of getting a book together and about his new novel, Neuland. The centenary of iconic writer Lea Goldberg has been front and center for some months now, and the Hebrew Book Week also features a show based on some of Goldberg’s poems, starring Galit Giat and Muli Shapira, among others.
Shumaf says she was spurred on by the chance of becoming the local Circassian community’s first published author.
“I thought that might be fun,” she says with a smile. “In a way I feel like a sort of representative of the community, and I’d like to take that role abroad, too. I wouldn’t mind living somewhere else for a while, maybe Germany or some other country in Europe, but I wouldn’t run away.”
For now, she is looking to study visual media at a college in Ramat Hasharon, but says she will not get lost in any adopted fantasy world.
“I feel at home in my community and my village,” she says. “This is where I belong.”