I went to see the film Defiance last night, which is excellent, I found it very moving. I find most Holocaust-themed works moving, very personal. It's most definitely worth seeing. But before that I sat in the cinema's cafe, having something to eat, and was struck by a kind of revelation which is both quite upsetting and also makes so much sense. I will try and describe it:
I emigrated to Israel from England in 1994. I was 24, had just finished university (including two graduate degrees). I wasn't someone who had grown up in a Jewish family that was very attached to Israel; we were secular, not that interested. But I came here during the summer of 1993 and knew when I touched down that I wanted to move here. It felt like a kind of calling, a gut feeling.
Why? I couldn't have told you at the time, couldn't have explained it. But looking back, I was searching for something, a sense of community, a belonging that I didn't feel in London. And I found it here. For years I was thrilled every morning waking up in Jerusalem. I learned the language quickly, I found work as a science and technology journalist, and I loved my job. I went around the country and interviewed entrepreneurs who had set up little technology start-ups, amazing technologies, excited interviewees who were delighted to speak to me. It was fun! And I was good at it, I loved being freelance, I learned how to make contacts, to get my articles in magazines around the world.
But. But. After a few years that little nagging voice in my head: what about short stories? what about fiction? And slowly I started getting back to it, including a nine-month stint in England to do an MA in Creative Writing which turned me from wannabe writer into pretty-serious-about-this writer. For a long time I tried to do both: journalism and short stories. But then, a week-long Arvon short story course in England with one of my favourite writers, and she says what you always hope an idol will say: You can do this. You're a writer. Give up journalism and do this full time.
Scary. I was terrified. Stepping off into the abyss. It took a year, and then I did it. A few months later (very very quickly!) Salt offered to publish The White Road and Other Stories, and things have never been the same since.
What I realised yesterday was that when I stopped being a journalist, I started withdrawing from the society around me. There was no more reason professionally for me to be "out there", no-one to meet in order to write fiction. It is just me, in my little room. And as I withdrew from society, as this major shift occurred, my "absorption", the word Israelis use for the process a new immigrant goes through, has been slowly reversing. Until the point where I am sitting in a cafe, 15 years later, and I am unsure of my Hebrew. I was fluent. I was totally happy in the language. I felt Israeli. Now I sit here, surrounded by Hebrew-speakers and I feel different. I feel other. I don't feel like I fit in anymore.
I feel like I have re-Britishized myself. After years of trying desperately to be as Israeli as I could - I'm English again. All that effort: gone. And this is a condition particular to someone in a situation like mine: writing in English in a non-English speaking country, without a community of fellow English-speaking authors around me. Hence: immigrant writer's identity crisis.
No wonder I have been anxious. When they say "crisis", it really can be a crisis. Realising what was happening makes me terribly sad. I so wanted to be here, to be part of this society. But something stronger was at work. And I can't write in Hebrew. That's not who I am.
I don't believe that this is the writer's lot wherever she or he is. If I was in an English-speaking country, I would be "out" as a writer as well as "in". I would be out at readings, out teaching fiction, out meeting other writers, others doing what I do.
How ironic that coming here in a search for community has led me, 15 years later, almost right back to where I started, culturally-speaking. I am certainly not going backwards, I am in an entirely different place personally, professionally, in all respects. But I feel as though I have passed through something and have come out the other end and I am not where I expected to be.