Friday, 8 January 2021

My 'issue' book, by Keren David

 I have written an 'issue' book, and it is being published on January 21.


Normally, I'd do anything rather than describe it as such. I'd talk about 'themes' and 'ideas' and insist that story, characters and plot matter far more than anything else, no matter how weighty the topics discussed.  I know, you see, that 'issue' books are often mentioned in a less than respectful tone. I know that many in the world of children's literature prefer books which are escapist and imaginative, in which information about our world is prettily disguised in fairy costumes, universal truths are spoken by talking dogs and there's a hopeful, happy ending in which the shy, bookish child finds a trusty friend. 



Not this time. Not this subject. Not this week.  I have written an issue book, and although I have furnished it with (I hope) engaging characters and an exciting plot, I do not care about those half as much as I care about the issue I am writing about. 

My book is about antisemitism -  my 'issue'. It's about an ancient hatred that murdered my great-grandfather and all his family, including a little girl that my grandmother told me about when I was a child. They'd visited my great-grandfather in Warsaw, in the 1930s, and they were begged to take the girl home with them to Wales. They refused: 'How could we take her?' She had no papers to come to Britain,' my grandmother explained, still haunted decades later by the sure knowledge of that child's fate. 

This is a picture of my great-grandfather, with his first wife, and his two daughters (taken in about 1913, we think).By 1940 the women had all died, and he was an old man. His sons lived in Wales  and he had married again and had a new family. Step-children and step-grandchildren and maybe even step-great-grandchildren.  They all died, murdered for being Jewish. I used to think their stories were far away in the past. Now it feels horribly close.  His name was Abraham Buznic. I can only hope that he died before he reached Auschwitz. 

There are many children's books about the Holocaust (and one famous one that shamefully buries its truth in a 'fable'), but my book is about modern day antisemitism as well. About hate that flows through the open sewer that social media can become. About nasty girls making snotty, hurtful remarks about their classmates. About tropes and fantasy and denial, conspiracy theories and lies. And bricks through windows, assaults in the street and  attempts to murder Jews in Jewish places.   

When I was thinking about the book, I wondered if I could find enough to write about. I sat and made a list of all the ways that antisemitism could affect my characters and their friends. I didn't lack examples. I ended up leaving things out. 
 
For two chapters towards the end of the book, I commit the ultimate crime against fiction of handing over to a real person, telling her absolute truth. Mala Tribich, who is now 90,  shared her story with me, a story of hiding, of surviving again and again against all the odds, of the terrible murders of her mother and little sister, of what it was like to be a child slave labourer, and to arrive in Belsen, where bodies lay in piles all around and the air smelled of rotting flesh. 

I'm possibly not selling my book very well, so let me assure you, there are plenty of laughs as well, because comedy is a time-honoured way that Jews deal with the trauma of generations of persecution. And Mala and I would break off our conversations and talk about haircuts and clothes, families and friends, because everyday life is the best antidote to hatred and murder. It's no accident that the traditional Jewish toast is 'l'chaim' -  'to life'. 

It was not easy, writing this issue book. It was not easy because antisemitism is not an issue to me, it is my greatest fear, the monster in the forest in my worst nightmares, the subject that for most of my life I have tried to avoid thinking about. To write this book-  What We're Scared Of - I asked myself again and again, what are we scared of? And I tried to answer it, as best I could. 

People sometimes try and separate different sorts of antisemitism.  There's 'left' antisemitism, and  'right' antisemitism. There's 'mild' antisemitism and 'serious' antisemitism and then there's anti Zionism, which some people love to assure me is not antisemitism at all. But for me -  and for many Jewish people -  there is really very little to choose from in the toxic chocolate box of hate. The flavours may be different but the poison is the same. 

Among the mob that charged through the Capitol yesterday was a man wearing a shirt that read 'Camp Auschwitz' . Another was a podcaster infamous for Holocaust denial. America's alt right hates Jews alongside Black people. (Of course, you can be Black and Jewish). It's absolutely no surprise to see Jew haters among the fascists that assaulted American democracy this week. 'The Jews will not replace us' the white supremacists chanted at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Neo-Nazis are on the rise across the world, and the shocking scenes at the Capitol were part of that narrative. But there are other sorts of fascists as well as white supremacists, and frankly, I am scared of all of them. 

Normally, I hold back from the hard sell when it comes to my books. I have proper British reserve, I don't like to push myself forward (Actually, forget British reserve, I have a  cringing, choking fear that you're going to think I'm pushy and greedy and money-grubbing, because that's what internalised racism does to you) But this time I am forcing myself. This time I am giving you a link, (HERE, or, if you are not in the UK HERE ) and I am asking you to please, buy or borrow my book. Read it yourself, give it to young people, give it to old people, tell people about it.  Review it, teach it in your classrooms, hand sell it in your shops. The 'issue' is pressing and important, and urgent and terrifying.  The book may help people understand why antisemitism is frightening and wrong. It's tragic that I need to say that, but I do. 

My hope is that this 'issue' book will help young Jews feel proud and strong. That it will create allies in the fight against hate. That it will help people think about fear and the part it plays in fueling prejudice, anger and anxiety. That it will combat racism of all sorts, against all groups. And then I will feel that I have done something to  -  as Mala puts it - 'not be a bystander'. 

Perhaps next time I will write a book about an enchanted prince and his talking bear. Perhaps I will clothe my imaginings in fantastical garb. But this time, I could not. I wrote an issue book, and all I want from you is that you read it. 






14 comments:

Susan Price said...

More power to you, Keren!

Elspeth Scott said...

What a powerful post. Thank you.

Helen Larder said...

Thanks, Keren. I'm looking forward to reading this with my daughter. My family were luckier. My mother was Austrian and escaped on the Kinder transport. My grandfather escaped too and served in the British army against Hitler. Many good wishes for your book xxxx

Natalie Yates said...

Brilliant post! I love issue based books and can't write anything else - my brain just can't do imaginary worlds. I always find it so sickening that people can dispute the holocaust :( anyway, have clicked on you link and going to oder. :)

Paul May said...

Brilliant post, thank you.

Nicky said...

Great post and may the book fly off shelves and into people's consciousness.

LuWrites said...

Can't wait to read this, Keren - ordering immediately! ❤️

Penny Dolan said...

Wishing your book every success, Keren. Great post.

Keren David said...

Thanks all!

[email protected] said...

Thank you. Have put this on my list. We must never forget.

Unknown said...

Right on keren well said always.

Sophia Bennett said...

Beautifully put, Keren. Thank you. I personally can't wait to read your issue book.

Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Keren! I've just ordered your book, and look forward to reading it.

Holly Race said...

Amazing post, Keren. I've pre-ordered my copy. There's nothing wrong with 'issue' books and I find it utterly bizarre that some people look down on them.