The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 8, 2015 by

Found in the Lilith Slush Pile

snafuOver a decade ago, Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough received a story called “Roadkill,” submitted unsolicited. The story dealt with the plight of Ella, a 30-ish Israeli woman who accidently hits a dog while driving. The dog’s last moments and subsequent death are woven in with other losses, and other sorrows; altogether it was a haunting, powerful work that appeared in the Spring 2003 issue. Ever since then, McDonough has followed the career of the story’s author. Now spelling her first name with a “y,” Miryam Sivan lives in the Galilee but writes in English. Sivan’s new collection, Snafu, contains “Roadkill,” “City of Refuge” (which appeared in the Spring 2011 issue), and 10 other bristling, animated and highly intelligent stories. McDonough recently caught up with Sivan, who was happy to share her thoughts on “street Hebrew,” the role of dogs in our lives, and the tricky, shifting dance—or sometimes battle—between the sexes.

YZM: Tell me about living in Hebrew and writing in English.

MS: I just gave a talk about this…. it’s not a simple phenomenon for a number of reasons. When a Jew moves to Israel, she returns not only to her people’s ancient homeland, replete with many wonderful and seriously challenging dimensions, but she also “returns” to Hebrew. Since I don’t write in Hebrew, I experience myself as an artist-outsider.  And this creates a kind of dissonance, since I am a Jew in Israel. I belong and don’t belong, simultaneously.

Years ago a German colleague of mine asked me if I was an Israeli writer or an American one. I honestly didn’t know how to answer. Finally I asked him why I had to choose…. why couldn’t I be both? A hybrid — an American writer who writes about Israel, an Israeli writer who writes in English?

And then there’s my love affair with English, which only adds to the complexity. Even if I could write more than a grocery list in Hebrew (and I can barely do that), would I want to? I adore English. I inhabit it, I know it so well, and feel it expresses the me I know best. Who would I be without English as my vessel of creativity?

Over the years I’ve come to realize that I like the tension between living in Hebrew and writing in English. It contains me, a built in bubble where my imagination roams free. I experience my creativity and scholarship in English. Hebrew on the street. English at my desk.

YZM: Are your stories translated into Hebrew and if so, are you involved in the process?

MS: When my stories are translated into Hebrew I fully engage in the choices the translator makes. Just this morning, for example, I took a translated short story of mine and cut it down for a contest. I made some language changes as well (small changes…. each one looked up in the dictionary to make sure I didn’t misspell….) and reorganized it some. It was as close to writing prose in Hebrew as I might get.

On the other hand, I have written dialogue in Hebrew and was told by a good friend who is a theater director that my ‘untainted’ street Hebrew is excellent for theater and film. Nu? On my To-Do List is a screenplay. Two couples in Tel Aviv. All in Hebrew. I hope to get to it this year.

YZM: Several of the stories feature dogs in a prominent way and not all of them come to a good end.  Can you say more about the way you have integrated them into your stories?

MS: Dogs for me are just another kind of human being. I see them as occupying a similar role as children – vulnerable to the wiles of society, at the mercy of the individuals who are charged with their care, sources of love and affection, litmus test for ethical behavior. In “real life” I adore dogs. I adore cats as well. I adore most animals. So on the pshat level (the simplest interpretation) — it is totally natural for me to write dogs into the plot as integral threads in the tapestries of my characters’ lives. On a deeper interpretive level, the drash (more complex intepretation) so to speak, there is a strong identification with them and their plight. As Kika says in the story “Silhouette”: Who wasn’t a stray?

YZM: Many of the stories deal with a tension—even hostility—between men and women. Care to comment?

MS: Indeed…. the stories in SNAFU span almost three decades of writing, though most of them were written in the last 10 years. For years, as a single woman and then as a married woman, I struggled with the complex emotional politics that are so often a part of the romantic landscape. The subtitle of Grace Paley’s first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, is “Stories of Men and Women at Love.” Her use of the preposition “at” and not “in” says volumes. Her characters are “at war” at the same time that they are in love. I see a similar engagement in my stories.

YZM: You are also a novelist. ­What are some of the differences in writing one form versus the other?

MS: The differences between the novel and short story are obvious and vast. Length first and foremost. Plotting. Poetry. Time and patience. I love writing both and conceive of my narratives as one or the other from the start. I love the containment of a story, the precision the length demands, the opportunity to have lacunae in the text – as in poetry – that speak volumes. There is no demand to show as much. Blank spaces are integral in a way that they are not in novels. Simultaneously, I love the long journey of writing a novel. They usually take me years to write. And while I compose and fret, stories pop up here and there. With everything I write, I am an obsessive reviser. I may be able to get a full first draft of a story down in a few days, but then I spend months–if not years–working over the language. The feeling of satisfaction though, of getting the complete work down on paper within a short amount of time helps me during the longer process of writing a novel. It bolsters the patience needed to see a novel through.

YZM: What are you working on now?

MS: Right now I am actively postponing writing another novel. It is a story that has been living with me for a number of years and is anxious to see the light of day, but I do not want to commit to it just yet. I want to write shorter pieces. I want to engage in other genres, as I mentioned above, screenplays, and not just one. I have two festering in the filing cabinet of my mind.

Right now I am writing a couple of short journalistic articles and I am also writing song lyrics. My daughter Erez is a musician, and her first album is due to come out in March 2015.  I wrote the lyrics to two of the songs on that album and co-wrote the lyrics to one more with her. She has begun working on the songs for her second album, and I am also working on lyrics alone and with her. And I love it. There is a magic to hearing words being set to music, becoming music. There was a brief moment there when I wondered if I could ever return to being satisfied just with text on the page. But it was just a moment. Because for me writing is always and all about sound and rhythm and cadence – whether in lyrics, a short story, or a novel.

For more information on Miryam Sivan, follow her Facebook page at or purchase her book at