INTERVIEW / ORLY CASTEL BLOOM / WRITING IS A STRUGGLE AGAINST FEARS
Orly Castel-Bloom published her first collection of stories in 1987 and has been a leading voice in Hebrew literature ever since, constantly expanding the boundaries of the Hebrew language as well as of narrative style. She has published novels, collections of short stories, and a book for children. Her postmodern classic, Dolly City, has been included in UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works, and was nominated in 2007 one of the ten most important books since the creation of the State of Israel. In 2013, it was also listed by Tablet Magazine as one of the 101 Great Jewish Books in English translation.Castel-Bloom’s books have been published in 14 languages. The French newspaper Le Monde has likened her to Kafka, and in Israel she is treated as the greatest Israeli fiction writer of her time.
1 / Readers in Serbia got to know you through the story of obsessive mother who is the protagonist in Dolly City who swallows antidepressants 20 at a time, administers herself electroshock treatments and carves the map of Israel into her infant son’s back. How it was to deal with all the controversies that this book produced exactly 30 years ago and probably still does?
It’s very radical book. I wrote it when I was 30 – it’s not an excuse! I had to write it, as a mother in Israel, with the entire situation that was happening here and all the fears. When it was published, people thought I’m crazy. So, I had to make an act, I became pregnant immediately with the second child. Because pregnant woman is not as violent as they thought. And this act did effect. I remember I was interviewed by The Sunday Times, and this journalist wrote at the beginning: who could believe that this tiny, pregnant, woman in a simple shirt is Orly Castel Bloom. I don’t know what she expected, punk girl, tattoos, green hair…And yes, people had a certain opinion which wasn’t nice. My mother was very ashamed, because in the bank where she was working, people were coming to her asking: Mrs. Castel, what was happening in your house, when this woman was a child? She was answering constantly: Everything was normal, we were very normal people, very normal parents and family. The reactions were almost similar in every country that the book was published. When I arrived to Sweden in 1996, the first question that I was asked was a question that I was never been asked about any other book: Why did you write this book? So I wanted to be smart and I gave a smart answer: Because I wanted to take a walk on the wild side!
2 / And now honestly, after all these years: why did you write it?
At some point this book reflects how I became a writer. I studied cinema in Tel Aviv University and theater at the Beit Zvi School in Ramat Gan. But after one year I was kicked out from this other school and I was very affected by that. I was insulted. How did you dare? But they dared. Almost at the same time my father got cancer, so I wanted to show him that there is something getting out from his daughter. And the only thing I could do was to get married quickly and get pregnant. But he died. And two days before his death, I started to write a short stories and it allowed me to look at all from the side so it wasn’t so painful. So, Dolly City reflects that contradiction between my father’s death and my pregnancy. And another trigger happened when my daughter was 3 months old and I was alone with her in a family house. My husband went somewhere by his car, and we had no phone. Suddenly, I saw my baby started to suffocate, I’ve panicked because nothing what I did wasn’t helping. I knocked on the neighbor’s door and she told me to run to the hospital. I remember myself running in the street, stopping cars to take me there. I succeeded and she was saved. But from that moment, next two, three years that episode was in my mind and something very weird was happening acknowledging the facts that I’m not so good mother. Every time any small thing happened, baby got fever, or just coughed, I took her to emergency.
3 / But the theme wasn’t the only controversial thing about Dolly City, it was also your writing style and the language, with the very important fact that the main character in the book was a woman which wasn’t very often in Israeli literature till then?
My first book of short stories, which I was writing after my father’s death, even during the Shiva, and in every story someone dies, was published in 1987. and everybody here were shocked by this young woman who dares to write in a normal language, the normal Hebrew, Hebrew of every day’s life, because Hebrew that was used in Israeli literature till that time was always very high, like in the Bible. So there was a big discussion about that spare, discontinuous style which led older critics to dismiss my ”thin language,” a term many of the young writers in turn adopted as a badge of honor. It was a wave. It started in some way in that period, you have Judith Katzir and many other female writers who started its careers during the end of the 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s. As a women, here in Israel, we always had a democracy and general rights, like the right to vote, but the state was very chauvinistic, because of the army. For me, for example, army was terrible experience. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the fact that I have to obey. My duties were some kind of a social worker, I was helping soldiers with problems to get out.
4 / What do you think about political correctness? What effect does political correctness have on the writers, globally or in the Israel?
I’ve heard that political correctness is very strong in USA, here it is also. Sometimes its exaggerated, and sometimes it is justified. It brings a new way of thinking. People, and also writers, should be much more restrained. It’s not what it used to be. You have to take into concentration, because the reader of today is not the reader that it used to be before. The reader of today can check you on the web and check all the things you said, and find mistakes. So, you have to accurate in what you say or write.
5 / What do you think about USA and globalization generally?
To be honest, I’m not so excited about USA. I was there for three months in 2007. There was snow everywhere, -30. But it wasn’t only the weather that surprised me, it was the culture, very strange culture. I saw racism in Boston. But above all, I think Americans are very correct people. To be honest now I’m afraid to get into trouble in tree countries Russia, Turkey and USA. Law there is above everything, it’s above personality. It’s very frightening for me.
6 / You have witnessed so much terroristic acts, and terrorism is a motif in lot of your books, even in Dolly City, but particularly it’s the main theme in your book about second Intifada Human Parts who has earned accolades from Israeli critics and you wrote it right during Intifada, how did it happened?
That was really the hard period which I thought I have to document. It seems terrible. I told my daughter who was in high school not to take buses, or I will take her, or she’ll take a taxi to school and I had to show my son, who was younger, how to drop to the floor when a terrorist begins shooting. While I was writing this book, there was an attack every day or two, and, God forbid, it gave one a kind of inspiration. To contribute my point of view, to use my capacity as a writer to describe this epoch. History became so invasive that I had to stick with reality. Again, I was fighting with fears, so I had to write. Even though hero of my book is very complicated person whom he become after he lost his family in one of these terroristic bombing attacks. It was also complicated to deal with such a person, from the right, and I didn’t want him to become a placate, superficies. So, I worked on this book for 6 years and I titled it Human parts.
7 / Since that you witnessed so many things what’s your opinion on ending this crisis, will it ever happen?
It’s a problem and it won’t disappear, Palestinians are here, it is a fact, that can’t be ignored. These people exist. One day we’ll have to make a peace with them, and I could just hope that’s going to happened in my life though I’m not very optimistic about that. I’m not sure I’ll see the end of it, nor my daughter, nor my grandchildren. Because The Right is very strong in Israel, but we must say that there is so many radical opinions on both sides. Once I was in Eastern Jerusalem, and I took the wrong road, not that road 1 which is OK, but that terrible road 443 where you see walls and barbed wire, and that’s very depressing. I’ll had to pass by Arab villages, and I saw the look in their eyes, and I thought, my God thank you I am not an Arab, because it’s a terrible situation.
8 / Your last book The Egyptian Novel was also described as “radical”. It’s about Egyptian Jewish family and is written in a mixture of historical and biographical facts. Can you tell us more about it?
An Egyptian Novel was more difficult to write than my other books. It took me five years to research the book and to master the book’s structure which moves from past to future. I read works from the Middle Ages to be able to use Hebrew inflected with the archaic language of that time period. Each chapter was like an archaeological dig. I needed time. It is a very historic story, which was very difficult to write. Especially because it’s about my family who came from Egypt, because the Israelis state was established but also because they were kicked out from there, in 1952. They came to a kibbutz, they were very happy, but very radical to the left. They believed in Stalin, before 1956. So, one day there was a vote in the kibbutz, and they voted against something, I know what it was, but it’s difficult to explain – the kind of a vote against the state of Israel. They were accused of being communists and expelled, with 80 other Egyptian Jews. They came to Tel Aviv, with a little bit of money and the shock that they were kicked out. And also they saw racism because they came from Egypt, different culture, and people were ignorant. In that period there were strong differences between European Jews and Jews that came from the Egypt, like my family did. In nowadays those differences aren’t so visible, but in that time they were. My father worked in El Al an avio company and my mother worked all of her life in a bank. So, what I tried in this book was to document the history of Egyptian Jews and my family as a part of it. The earliest story in it is about a Jew who did not hear what Moses had to say to the rest of the people and stayed in Egypt. Another part of the family, the Kastils, left Castilla in Spain in 1492. Other parts of the book take place on a kibbutz and in Tel Aviv.
9 / Were your family proud after this book, your mother who is still alive particularly, since you said that se was ashamed after Dolly City?
I gave her French translation, and wrote “to my beloved mother” and something like that. She read three pages and she called me and asked: Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? She yelled at me why I wrote that her teeth were not properly threatened. After that I went back and stole the book. But, above that funny situation, I know she is proud, but from the distance. And most importantly, she helped me during all those years. I must say when there is a writer in the family, there is a huge problem. First, he’s going to write about the family, and on the other hand the family will have to support him, financially, and sometimes they will not like what you wrote about them.
10 / Is it difficult for writer to earn enough money for living in Israel?
Of course it is. This is why I teach. I am teaching creative writing to art students at the Bezalel School in Jerusalem and in other places. Tel Aviv is pretty expensive. Especially, after corona pandemic. Tel Aviv is not what it used to be. It’s not that place anymore. Some new buildings are rising so quickly. They are everywhere. At some places they destroy old buildings and build the new ones, bigger, and of course more expensive. Tel Aviv is becoming place for the reach people.
11 / What can you tell us about that new book?
I’ve finished it one year ago, but it will be published this year, in November and is also very radical book. It’s called Biotop and it’s all about this crowd and reach area of Tel Aviv where I live, so to call “reach” but where also some strange things are happening with drugs and all other underground things. The book shows that other sides of that, so to call reach part of Tel Aviv. The main character pays attention to that other side, on the people that nobody pays attention to. He lives in my apartment and he sees all the things that people don’t see usually. At the beginning of the book he is fired from the University where he worked as a lecturer, and that changes he’s whole life and he makes a lot of foolish mistakes. The book is documentary of this region, the middle of Tel Aviv, but also about Israel even though some of things take a place in Normandy, France. This is my first book that the main hero is male, and that I wrote it from his perspective. It was very difficult to think like a man. I consulted my best male friend a lot. It took me six and a half years to write this book. I’ve finished it right before corona.
15 / There is an opinion generally that the essence of literature is to be a mirror that reflects the writer’s inner voice. Above all 15 books that you wrote which one has the strongest reflection of your inner voice?
Dolly City, definitely. But this new book, too. It concludes Dolly City. Every book I published after it some people told me: It’s nice, very good, but it’s not the Dolly City. In fact, that was happening ‘till The Egyptian novel. Then they stopped. Maybe because I got a big prize for it, they shut up for a while. And now after this new book I hope that they will really, really shut up.
Tel Aviv / october 2022
interview by Bogdan Petrović
published by NIN magazine
Orly Castel-Bloom (Hebrew: אורלי קסטל-בלום) is an Israeli author. She was born in north Tel Aviv in 1960, to a family of Egyptian Jews. Until the age of three, she had French nannies and spoke only French. She studied film at the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts in Ramat Gan.
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