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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

April 17, 2019 Yona Zeldis McDonough

The Story of a Storyteller

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Longtime Lilith readers may remember Miryam Sivan’s name; her story Roadkill appeared in the magazine in 2003 and City of Refuge was featured in 2011.

Now she’s back with her debut novel, Make It Concrete, which is set in contemporary Israel and follows a woman who transcribes Holocaust stories. Sivan talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how the past shapes and even defines the present. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: Like your character Isabel, you were raised in NYC and moved to Israel as an adult; can you say more about your decision and how it has shaped you? 

Miryam Sivan: Isabel actually took the more common route which is to come to Israel as a young adult. She came at 22 right after college. I came in my mid-30s, already married with a child. This made all the difference since a child plunges you right into educational and social frameworks (in our case, a Kibbutz framework which we loved), which helped me connect. Unlike Isabel I was raised in New York with Israeli parents and so moving here was a kind of returning home, since I spent so much of my childhood in Tel Aviv. That feeling of being anchored in a place has been a tremendous boon to me. I am in love with the Israeli landscape (I lived in/near the Galilee for 20 years—where Isabel lives!) and feel a profound sense of belonging that I never did in New York, though I was happy there for most of my life. Until I wasn’t.

YZM: What’s it like to live in Hebrew and write in English?

MS: There is a certain kind of power writing about Israel in English. It guarantees an outsider status that of course has challenges but also rewards. I wish I weren’t so in love with English so I could commit myself to reading and writing in Hebrew, for Hebrew is an amazing language. But my creative, intellectual and literary consciousness has been shaped by English and I don’t know myself as a writer in any other language. I also love the wider frame I inhabit living in more than one language, which also means more than one culture. I think my sense of belonging would be more fraught if I couldn’t speak Hebrew well. If I were really ‘outside’ the society. But I do speak well and am part of what is going on, but when I sit at my desk I am in my world of English, which anchors me as well.

YZM: Isabel’s mother and lover feel the weight of the past is dragging her down; do you mean this larger statement about how our collective memories or experience of the Holocaust can cast a pall on the present?

MS: In Isabel’s case it’s not so much the collective memories as much as the very personal stories she is scribing for survivors. Her mother’s untold story also weighs on her. But casting out from the personal to the collective, I think the stories and traumas of the past are very much with us today, they inform many lives, and emotional and political landscapes. Unfortunately in today’s world any illusion that anti-Semitism is a phenomenon of the past has been destroyed. This hatred and other forms of racism are alive and well and actually collective memory can help motivate us to become activists in countering these negative forces.

YZM: Isabel enjoys sex with several men and is refreshingly guilt-free about her desires; care to elaborate? 

MS: Ha! Yes Isabel is liberated from the sexist notions of what is proper and improper for a woman in the way she enjoys the pleasures of her body. She was married and monogamous for almost 20 years and with her divorce came a sense of adventure. In the course of the novel she also realizes how her need for sex is tied in to the traumas of the past. I don’t want to give too much away, but even when she reflects on the psychological motivations of her sex life, it is not through a filter of guilt or shame.  

YZM: Can you talk about the role Isabel’s children—she has three—play in the novel? 

MS: Isabel’s children are her anchor, the core of her life. Through them she experiences and learns about Israeli society (like I did). For example, Isabel never did the army because she married right after she moved here and was exempt, but when her two daughters are drafted and serve, she becomes familiar with this central Israeli institution. The novel begins and ends with grammar school ceremonies that she takes part in with her seven-year-old son, Uri. The children are a window into Israeli society for Isabel and for the novel’s non-Israeli readers. The family’s closeness is not atypical of Israeli families. Parents and children see one another all the time. This is partly the influence of Judaism and the traditional Friday night dinner—whether one is observant or secular—and it is also part of Middle Eastern society where family units are the core building block of identity.

 YZM: Let’s talk about the title and its multiple meanings. 

MS: Make it Concrete is firstly about making concrete the untold stories of Holocaust experiences. It is a reference to her ghostwriting. Along with that there is the frustration of not being able to bring the page her mother’s Holocaust story. On another level, Isabel also has a love of concrete—the grey building material—used prolifically in Israel. Once upon a time in the 1950s when the country was building housing stock like mad to accommodate the millions of immigrants arriving from the camps in Europe and Arab countries, concrete was seen as playing an integral part of ‘kibbutz galuyot’ or the ingathering of Jews from the Diaspora. For Isabel it also symbolizes this new non-American chapter in her life, but it excites her as well on a literal level. When she built her own home and when she visits one of her lovers on his building sites, she is uplifted by this alternate form of construction. She who builds narratives out of words and brings joy and solace to Holocaust survivors, sees in concrete physical structures in which people will live and ‘write’ the stories of their lives. She loves how the swirling grey mass hardens into structures which will later be called home.  

YZM: What’s next for you? 

MS: Excellent question. I have a novel called Love Match which is just about ready to be sent out into the world… looking for its forever home. And my new writing project is not prose but a screenplay—wish me luck—based on the life of a woman who like me, like Isabel, lived her life in more than one country, in more than one language. Europe, America, German, Yiddish, English—the themes of transnationalism and displacement that I always seem to write about are here as well.  

 

 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.