Showing posts with label Jewish. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jewish. Show all posts

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. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Feel the Fear, continued. By Keren David

A couple of days ago Cecilia Busby wrote an excellent post on diversity in children's literature.  I hope she will not mind if I pick up her post and write about the fear involved in writing about a minority group even when you happen to belong to it.

In my up-coming book, This is Not a Love Story, there is a diverse cast. There is an African-American  girl, and a bisexual boy.  The mixing of cultures, the judging and the misunderstanding and the lack of comprehension that can arise is one of the themes of the book.

I was not especially worried about imagining my way into the heads of these characters. For me, they were individuals, with their own histories, as easy to imagine as any other person.  I hope that I have got them right. I do not have great worries about having tried to imagine what it is like to be them.  I want all my books to reflect the diverse world in which I live.

I've posted before about why I decided to write about Jewish teenagers in this book. I was not expecting to find it so difficult. Suddenly I had a load of new fears and worries to deal with, that I'd never had to grapple with before.

Here are some of the questions that I thought about.

 -  How to get the voices right - without my characters explaining words and concepts to themselves that they'd know, but their readers may not.
 -  How to show a range of experiences which all fit into the general heading 'Jewish' -  to go against the impression given in school RE lessons that  Jews 'believe' certain things, and are defined by those beliefs.
 - How to show frustration with tradition, anger within a family, the flaws of a community  without falling into stereotypes, self-deprecation, disrespect and, at the worst, anti-semitism.
 -  How to talk about the Holocaust -  difficult enough in real life, let alone a book. 
 -  How to portray the London Jewish community and some of the kids within it, without generalising too much.
 -  Was there a danger of being labelled as a Jewish writer?
 - Were my thoughts and experiences in any way representative? Did that matter? 
 -  Should I write about Israel, even though it was not very relevant to my characters? Should I write about antisemitism? (The bulk of the book was written before the summer of 2014, otherwise my answers to these questions might have been different)
 - How to do all of this without upsetting a) my mother b) my kids c) the wider Jewish community.

It took forever to find the voices of my narrators, partly because of these questions. In despair, I sent some early chapters to my brother (he has a PhD in English Literature from Oxford University, and occasionally can be helpful) 'Lose the Jewish stuff,' he said.  I persevered, and showed an early draft to my mother. 'Well,' she said, 'You're obviously very disturbed.'  (She relented once she read the final version)  Later drafts were showed to some Jewish friends. They demanded: 'Why are you using words like 'frummer'? No one will understand!'  I carried on, regardless.

There is a lot of talk about anti-semitism around at the moment. I'm curious to see if there's any hostility to my book as a result. Jewish people, unlike many other minority groups, can often hide their difference. Our fear is often about being visible. And so, like Cecilia, I am feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

Oh, and my kids haven't read it yet.

This is Not a Love Story is published by Atom on May 7. 

Friday, 8 August 2014

Becoming Visible by Keren David

A few years ago, I was interviewed by Madelyn Cohen Travis as part of her PhD study of Jews and Jewishness in British children’s literature. Why, she asked me, as a writer who is Jewish, did I not write about Jewish themes and characters?

My answer was that my first two books concerned themselves with a boy in witness protection, struggling with his sense of self when taking on a new identity. Making him Jewish would have added huge complications to the plot, while distancing him from the experience of ordinary readers. I wanted teenagers to feel that this could happen to them, so it was important that he was an ‘ordinary’ boy - whatever that is. 

 I was, however, quite happy to make him a Roman Catholic, and delighted in using Catholic concepts and imagery, although  the underlying themes -  running from danger, changing one's name, starting again, are really very Jewish.

There were other reasons why I didn’t  create Jewish characters. First, I very much didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in any way as a Jewish or even ethnic writer, as I consider myself equally British and Jewish.  Second, there’s a very British Jewish thing about keeping one’s head down, not being ‘too Jewish’ which I had learned from a very early age. Third, I was well aware of anti-Semitic tropes. My third book is about a girl who wins a lot of money. I wasn’t going to put anything Jewish into a book like that, because the only overt anti-Semitism I had experienced in Britain, up until a few weeks ago, was based on the myth that Jewish are rich and mean.

Thinking about it, though, I became aware that one day I wanted to write a book about British Jewish teenagers. Partly because, as Madelyn’s excellent research proved, there are almost no books being written today about British Jewish teens, and in the past many Jewish characters were offensive stereotypes. Even Beatrix Potter created a greedy starling called Ikey Shepster. 

If Jews appear in more recent British children's books generally they are victims (mainly historical) or villains (mainly Israeli). Or they are only vaguely Jewish  (there's a boy called Goldstein in the Harry Potter who has no personality, let alone a Jewish identity). Or sometimes they are Jewish  but completely secular and  keen to prove it, a bit like Ed Miliband, munching his bacon sandwich.  Of course there are many secular Jews, and many tangentially sort-of Jews in Britain. But the Jewish kids I know, the ones who go to synagogue at least occasionally, who might go to Jewish schools or youth groups, who know how to play Jewish Geography, who have friends called Rafi or Zak or Ariella: I never see them in books. 

 I am passionate about diversity in YA literature. My books have characters who just happen to be Muslim, black and mixed race. I feel it is important to reflect the world I see around me, and to put the teenagers that I meet at schools into the books they read. Shazia, in my book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, is a Muslim girl inspired by some of the lovely girls I met at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, voracious readers with open minds and a lot to say for themselves. They deserve to see themselves in books, and it doesn't happen enough. 

Miranda West with a parcel for a friend
One of the reasons that I am so passionate about  this is that I almost never saw anyone like me in any book that I read when I was growing up. Antonia Forest’s Marlow family books were one  shining exception, with a character Miranda West who was British and Jewish, who suffered from mild occasional anti-Semitism, and general ignorance about who she was and what she might believe, but mostly got on with life without her Jewishness getting in the way. Although Miranda was different from me in most ways, we had enough in common to make me feel less odd, different and invisible.

So, I have just finished writing a book, entitled This is Not a Love Story. It  is a book about falling in and out of love, with the problems, passion and anguish that can bring. It is set in Amsterdam, but two of the teenagers are Jewish and British, and I based them on kids that I know and love.

My characters don't talk much about Israel and Palestine -  hardly at all in fact. For Theo Israel is a central part of his identity, somewhere where he’s visited often on holiday and on youth group trips, somewhere where he has close family. For Kitty, it’s somewhere she hasn’t visited and doesn’t feel especially close to, partly because her mother thinks it has too much ‘negative energy.’ In some ways her distant relationship with Israel reflects her feeling of being an outsider in the Jewish community in London. .

They only talk about this in passing, because I didn’t want the book to be swamped with earnest discussions about Zionism  and I didn’t want readers to judge  Theo and Kitty on the basis of  their ideas about Israel and Zionism.  One of the disquieting things about the last few weeks has been the feeling that one is judged as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Jew – by some  people on how much you are prepared to condemn Israel, and by some other people on how much you are backing its government’s strategy. In private many of us have  admitted feeling scared to say anything at all.  I am scared to post this blog, I have to admit. 

Writing the book, I was happy with the decisions I made, because in my experience most Jewish teenagers didn’t tend to sit around debating the Middle East. Until now. For the last few weeks the Jewish teenagers that I know best have been busily educating themselves about the past and present history of the Middle East. They are watching the news, reading newspapers, looking at YouTube. They are asking big questions. They are scared, curious and passionate. ‘Why,’ one asked me, ‘are people being anti-Semitic on my Instagram feed, when I have nothing to do with Israel? Why don't they care about the children dying in Syria as much as they do about Gaza?'   Another told me proudly that when a few Jewish boys he knew said unacceptable things about Arabs, ‘I put them right,’ but when another Jewish friend condemned Israel utterly  ‘I put him right as well.’

My book is finished (pending editorial notes) and I am hoping that the world will become normal again, that our blundering leaders will find a way towards peace, and more than peace, find a way to happy lives, free from fear and oppression, not just for Israel and Palestine, but for all the many places  in the world where people are dying and under threat of death.  I hope that some of the frightening anti-Semitism I have witnessed recently signifies nothing more than ignorance. I hope that yet again my characters will become typical in not feeling very connected to world affairs, in their assumption that dangerous anti-Semitism mostly lives in the past. 

My book is only a very tiny part of any bigger picture. But my hope is that by writing about Jewish kids I can fight prejudice and stereotypes in my own small way.