From My Bookshelf: “Helpful to Israel and the Jewish People”–An Interview with Nora Gold
Dr. Nora Gold’s Fields of Exile has been described as the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus, and it has received enthusiastic advance praise from Phyllis Chesler, Thane Rosenbaum, Steve Stern, and others. Gold is also the author of the acclaimed Marrow and Other Stories, which won a Canadian Jewish Book Award, as well as praise from Alice Munro, who – after reading the title story – wrote Gold: “Bravo!”
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto-based Gold and her work since reading that collection. And I’ve also had work published in Jewish Fiction.net, an online journal that Gold founded and edits. When I discovered that Fields of Exile was slated for a May 2014 release, I knew that I’d be eager to read it (and I said so in a piece for The Forward‘s Arty Semite blog at the beginning of the year). As I noted then, the new novel seems all-too-timely to anyone following news accounts about the vilification of Israel in academia. According to the novel’s publisher, Dundurn, this novel is “about love, betrayal, and the courage to stand up for what one believes as well as a searing indictment of the hypocrisy and intellectual sloth that threatens the integrity of our society.”
Gold is also a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, and the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education (CWSE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. Gold holds both Canadian and Israeli citizenship.
Please welcome Nora Gold!
Erika Dreifus (ED): What inspired you to write Fields of Exile?
Nora Gold (NG): For quite some time, like many Jews who love Israel, I’ve been very disturbed by the increasing anti-Israelism in both the academe and the world at large. I’ve been concerned about the most overt manifestations of anti-Israelism, like Israel Apartheid Week, but also about the gradual normalization of Israel-bashing in classes, in faculty meetings, and at conferences. Over the past two decades, I responded to this phenomenon by conducting academic research on antisemitism and anti-Israelism and by engaging in pro-Israel activism (which ultimately resulted in a new organization, JSpaceCanada). At a certain point, though, marinating as I was in anti-Israelism during both my days at work and my evenings as a volunteer, I began writing a novel about it, too. Perhaps this was inevitable. The pain I felt because of what was happening around me was like having a fish hook in my stomach. I tried moving this way and that, but whatever I did, it was still there. So at some stage I guess I figured that the only way to get it out of me was to write it out.
ED: You’ve recently commented: “Life does imitate art. BDS on campus now is straight out of my new novel.” I’m trying to imagine what it is like to be following this news as you prepare to launch the book. Please give us a sense of that.
NG: It’s very strange when “real life” so closely parallels one’s fiction, but I’m almost used to it now because this is the way it’s been ever since I started writing Fields of Exile. During these years, I’ve vacillated between avoiding the news as much as possible, and voraciously devouring every news item I could find about anti-Israelism on campus, and even becoming something of an expert. Occasionally, too, an anti-Israel event would occur that served in a way as fuel for Fields of Exile. Not in terms of providing content for the novel, but by reminding me that what I was writing about was real, and important. Keep going, these incidents told me. Finish this book so people can see what anti-Israelism is really like.
Now that the book is finished, though, the feeling I most often get when yet another BDS incident takes place is: Here we go again. It’s just like Fields of Exile.
ED: You’re a scholar as well as a fiction writer. Please tell us a bit about the scholarly research you’ve conducted into anti-Israelism on college/university campuses.
NG: I’ve conducted three research projects dealing with the subject of anti-Israelism, with one of them focused specifically on anti-Israelism on campuses. The first two projects (both funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada) were a nation-wide study of Canadian Jewish women’s experiences of antisemitism and sexism and a longitudinal study of Canadian Jewish girls’ experiences of antisemitism and sexism. (The research on girls was made into a short documentary film, Jewish Girl Power.) In both these studies, anti-Israelism featured prominently in the discussions of antisemitism, and it was quite distressing to hear about the anti-Israelism experienced by these women and girls.
The third study was one that I initiated on the topic of anti-Israelism on campus, and it was funded by the Canadian Jewish community’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA owns the final report of this research). I conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 80 Jewish tenured professors from four Canadian universities, who represented 28 different disciplines. The purpose of this research was to learn about these professors’ experiences of anti-Israelism on their campuses, and what, if anything, they had done in response or felt they could do in future. These interviews were very interesting but reinforced my concern about what was happening on Canadian campuses and my conviction that it was crucial to engage pro-Israel professors in the fight against anti-Israelism.
ED: What was the greatest challenge you encountered in writing Fields of Exile?
NG: This novel posed a unique challenge that I didn’t face with either my story collection or the novel I’ve completed since finishing Fields of Exile (The Dead Man, now under consideration with publishers). The reason for this is that Fields of Exile, as some have already observed, is “a novel of ideas.” In terms of the ideas in Fields of Exile, these stand on solid footing because of the research on antisemitism and anti-Israelism I’d conducted before starting to write this novel, and having that background knowledge was very helpful for dealing with the complex issues in Fields of Exile – for instance, the question: “Where does legitimate criticism of Israel end and antisemitism begin?” With a novel of ideas, though, there’s always the possibility of the intellectual content overpowering the story itself (the plot, characters, and emotional and narrative flow). So this was the greatest challenge I encountered in writing Fields of Exile. I had to find ways to balance the intellectual content with all the other components that give a novel its life, and it took seven years till I was satisfied that I’d found this balance.
ED: What advice would you offer fiction writers who aspire to write “political novels”? Which novels–apart from Fields of Exile, of course–would you recommend that they read and learn from?
NG: It’s interesting to me that Fields of Exile is often referred to as a “political” novel, because when I was writing it, I never thought about it this way. Reflecting briefly now on what gets a novel the label “political,” I suppose it’s when a novel’s background context (such as a war) is as much a part of the story you’re telling as the foreground is (the plot, characters, etc.). Looking at it from this point of view, my advice to fiction writers who aspire to write “political novels” would be: Make sure you’re really writing a novel, and not just a polemic dressed up as a novel. Also, as I mentioned earlier, beware that the background to your novel doesn’t overshadow the foreground, or weaken the whole work literarily.
As for recommendations of novels to learn from, I’d suggest browsing through Jewish Fiction .net, the free online journal I edit which publishes first-rate Jewish fiction from around the world. Here you can explore and savour excerpts from about a hundred novels – almost all of these containing politics of one kind or another – and see how different writers have approached the above issues and challenges, and resolved them successfully, though each in his or her own unique way. [ED note: It’s also where you can find an excerpt from Fields of Exile.]
ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?
NG: It may be unfashionable to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: I hope Fields of Exile does some good. Obviously Fields of Exile is first and foremost a literary work. But it can also be used, I think, as a weapon against those who seek to destroy Israel. I know, of course, that Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless,” and that many writers believe that for their books to be real art, they must be useless in terms of their effect on “the real world.” But I don’t agree. Nothing would make me happier than if Fields of Exile, even in the smallest way, were helpful to Israel and the Jewish people.
My thanks to Nora for the time and care she devoted to this Q&A. Thanks also to her publisher for the complimentary advance reading copy of Fields of Exile.