Sometimes I marvel over the literary connections that the Internet has brought into my life–and the many pages of beautiful, important writing to which they’ve led me. Case in point: I have yet to meet Faye Rapoport DesPres face-to-face. But I feel as though I know her, in part through our social-media exchanges, and in part through her memoiristic writing.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Faye’s memoir-in-essays, Message from a Blue Jay: Love, Loss, and One Writer’s Journey Home (Buddhapuss Ink). The book, available this month, includes one essay that I wanted to spotlight for My Machberet‘s readers. I’m delighted that Faye agreed to answer my questions (especially since she also took the time to participate in another interview about the broader collection; that Q&A will appear in the next issue of The Practicing Writer).
Faye Rapoport DesPres was born in New York City, and over the years she has lived in upstate New York, Colorado, England, Israel, and Massachusetts. Early in her career, Faye worked as a writer for environmental organizations that focused on protecting wildlife and natural resources. In 1999, after switching to journalism, she won a Colorado Press Association award as a staff writer for a Denver weekly newspaper, where she wrote news stories, features, and interviews. Faye’s freelance work has since appeared in The New York Times, Animal Life, Trail and Timberline, and a number of other publications.
In 2010, Faye earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College’s Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program, where she studied creative nonfiction. Her personal essays, fiction, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Eleven Eleven, Fourth Genre, Hamilton Stone Review, Necessary Fiction, Platte Valley Review, Prime Number Magazine, Superstition Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle.
Faye currently lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jean-Paul DesPres, and their four rescued cats. She is an Adjunct Professor of English at Lasell College.
Please welcome Faye Rapoport DesPres.
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Faye, many of the essays in Message from a Blue Jay are rooted in travel experiences. As you know, I was particularly moved by the essay titled “The Hope,” which uses travel to/in Israel as a starting-point for reflections on your relationship with that country. Please tell us a bit about how you came to write this essay.
FAYE RAPOPORT DESPRES (FRD): I visited Israel for the first time when I was 23, lived there for a year when I was 28, and visited again five years after that. Thirteen years passed before I returned again in 2011. At that point, I had more relatives in Israel than in the United States (including several American cousins who had made aliyah). I knew before I went that I wanted to write about the experience. My travels have inspired a number of my essays, and when I returned to Israel I knew I would be exploring some of the thematic issues that were coming up as I worked on my collection—issues related to a life-long feeling of displacement and a desire to find “home.”
ED: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this essay for you?
FRD: I find every essay challenging to write! In this essay, however, I felt I had to be so careful about accuracy because of the heightened emotions about Israel and its political situation. I did feel myself being more careful about what I said and how I said it than I am when I write about other places (of course, I’m always careful). I did some research and double-checked facts. I asked a cousin’s husband, who is a Canadian-born Israeli tour guide, to review a few paragraphs. I also asked two Israeli cousins to read the piece before it was in its final form. I found that I was very concerned about how my Israeli relatives would feel about my experience. One of my cousins once said to me that she can’t understand how a Jewish person can feel that any place besides Israel is “home.” I honor and understand that perspective, and culturally when I am in Israel I do feel “at home.” Yet I still feel that I am an American, and as hard as I try, I don’t feel as if Israel is “home” in the same way that my cousins who have made aliyah do. They moved there in their twenties or thirties and raised their families there. I tried to find that same desire, and it didn’t happen for me. The reasons are complicated. My father is a Holocaust survivor from Poland who found a new home in America, for example, and that plays into my feelings. I also developed a serious illness when I lived in Israel at 28 and had to return to the States for treatment. The whole issue still confuses me, and that confusion had to be expressed in my essay in a way that I felt comfortable with, in a way that honored those who feel absolutely that Israel is “home,” whether they were born there or not…yet also accurately reflected my realization that I didn’t share that feeling. In some ways, I do share it. But in some ways, I don’t.
ED: The essay acknowledges the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians “to live and prosper.” At the same time, the essay notes that most of what you’ve encountered about Israel in the Western media “has not matched [your] personal experience of the country’s situation of accurately reflected the desire for peace that [you] have seen pulsing through the Israeli people.” Please tell us more.
FRD: That short paragraph was one of the hardest paragraphs for me to write. I re-wrote it quite a few times, and for a time it was longer than it is now. I’m very aware that there are people out there who might wonder—as I described the attacks against Israel that occurred while I was there and how it felt to be with an Israeli family when they happened—why I didn’t talk about the other side of the story. That is an unusual experience for me. It didn’t feel fair that I had to be so much more careful about how I wrote about Israel than about other countries I described. Somehow it felt as if I couldn’t just write about Israel as a beautiful place, or describe my experiences there the same way I would describe experiences traveling in any other country. I thought, why can’t I talk about the people there whom I love without wondering if someone will think, “Okay, but…” I felt torn by that realization. I knew I had to express the very real truth that there are human beings on the other side of the conflict I was describing, and that they do have a right to “live and prosper.” I truly believe that. I am not blind to the situation, and I respect different perspectives. However, every Israeli I have ever spoken to wishes that Israelis and Palestinians could co-exist in peace. They pray for peace. Yes, many Israelis are jaded after years of attacks, years in the army, years of attempts at peace that haven’t worked. But when I was with my cousin in Tel Aviv, an Israeli Arab pharmacist helped me buy medicine for a cold sore. My cousins have Arab colleagues. I have one Israeli cousin who came to the States to be a counselor at a special summer camp for both Palestinian and Israeli children designed to build the chance for coexistence. And the western media doesn’t show this. The concept of “Israeli Apartheid” is absurd. I swam in the Dead Sea next to Arab families; there was a car with a Palestinian license plate parked on the road above the beach. When I shopped for bread in Tel Aviv I stood in line behind Arab women. So, as I said in the essay, I am not blind to the fact that there are issues, or that there is another side to the conflict. But I have never experienced an Israel like the one portrayed in the western media.
ED: You mentioned discussing the essay with your Israeli cousins. Please tell us more about their response.
FRD: Yes, I asked Hagit, the cousin I stayed with during the trip described in the essay, to read it, and she showed it to her sister Anat. We haven’t had a long conversation about it, but I told her I was concerned about whether anything in the essay would bother her, and she didn’t bring up anything that did. I am sure they are a little puzzled about why I don’t feel as if Israel is home, especially since three of our mutual cousins have made aliyah from the United States. But they are probably not as preoccupied with such thoughts as I am. We have spoken many times since, and Hagit has never brought it up. So if there was anything in the essay that bothered them, it didn’t bother them much. Israelis have much thicker skins than we do—they have bigger things to worry about.
FRD: In many ways, the memoir recounts a time when I was reflecting on why my life had been, up to that point, unusually nomadic. I had been living in Colorado for several years when I started writing the pieces that ended up as part of the memoir-in-essays. Then I returned to the Boston area, where I had spent my college years. I took trips back to upstate New York, where I was raised after my family moved out of New York City. I realized, as I wrote these essays, that place played a huge role in my life—or perhaps, a lack of place. I re-visited a number of countries that I had traveled to in my younger years. My husband and I took a trip to Bermuda, an island I had traveled to with my family as a child. I returned to England—where I spent my junior year of college abroad—traveling with a friend I met when we were students there. And of course, I returned to Israel. I was exploring the conflicting feelings I had of being more alive when I was away from the States, and yet constantly yearning to return to the States. “The Hope” really brings all of this together, because I think some people whose families who were displaced during World War II have come to realize that they can never go “home.” Although this is sad, it also creates, strangely, a capacity to adapt and love certain things about many places.
Birds as symbols recur throughout the collection, and “The Hope” begins as I am recording the sounds of the birds outside my cousin’s bedroom window in Tel Aviv. Perhaps I feel somewhat like a bird, one who builds a nest only to abandon it, and who flies across borders and boundaries. Both my Yiddish name, “Faygeleh,” and my Hebrew name, “Tsiporah” mean “bird” or “little bird.” I never explain this in the book. There, you’ve gotten a secret out of me!
ED: Well, that pleases me! Anything else you’d like to say about this essay or what you “hope” readers may take from the experience of reading it?
FRD: I “hope” readers who have never been to Israel can read the essay and have an opportunity to experience it as a fascinating place with interesting, wonderful, real people—to get a feel for what it is like to walk down the street in Givatayim, sit in a coffee shop, eat in an Arab restaurant in Jerusalem, listen to the birds sing on the rooftops above Tel Aviv. I hope they get a chance to imagine something different from what is inspired by the images and stories they might see in the western media. And I hope they will gain some insight, with the help of other essays in the book, about the trickle down effect of World War II that still, decades later, haunts many families. Finally, maybe they’ll find something in the essay that relates to their own search, whether or not it is at all similar, for a place to call home.
ED: Faye, thank you so much for these very thoughtful comments.
Note: This was the fourth stop on Faye Rapoport DesPres’s Virtual Book Tour. You can visit the next stop on May at Fonts and Fiction. In the meantime, Faye’s publisher is offering a personalized, signed copy of Message from a Blue Jay plus “swag” to the winner of a Virtual Tour Giveaway. You’re invited to leave a comment below to enter. For more chances to enter, please visit the Buddhapuss Ink or Message from a Blue Jay Facebook pages and click on the Giveaway Tab.