INTERVIEW WITH KAREN ALKALAY-GUT
BY AUGUST HIGHLAND
You were born in London. How old were you when you moved from London to the USA? Why did you move to the states? Where did you live in the US? What did you do while you were here?
I have to go way back further to explain this. My father got arrested in Lithuania when he was a teenager. He was caught hanging up an ad for a communist party meeting and sentenced to 2 years in jail. When he got out, as an excon he was considered a noncitizen - not allowed to work, get a passport, leave the country. He snuck out with my mother to the international city of Danzig and they spend a few years there trying to get out to some safe land. In 1939 they got fake passports to Palestine but when they got there someone had ratted on them and they got sent back to Danzig - when it was clear that Hitler was going to invade and they would be killed. The night of Hitler's invasion they got agricultural visas to England. It was made clear that they were been given a haven, not being invited to live there permanently, so after the war was over, they had to find somewhere else that would take them in. It emerged that my mother had one aunt (out of 5) who survived the Holocaust. She was living in Rochester, New York. So we went there. We lived with her, and then gradually my parents got themselves education, money, and a home there. I went to school, taught at the State University at Geneseo, and got all my degrees including my doctorate at the University of Rochester.
AH: When did you move to Tel Aviv? What university are you teaching at in Tel Aviv?
KAG: I was 26 when I moved to Israel - and I thought I could be helpful in building a new and peaceful society… I teach at Tel Aviv University.
AH: When I read your work I am impressed by these elements: your sexual identity, your jewish identity, your sensitivity to the inter-relationship of all living beings, your intimate relationship with death as though you and death well-acquainted and that death was more afraid of you than you were of death. Are any of my impressions close to the mark?
KAG: All of those issues are all interconnected - Because I am the child of Holocaust survivors, and many of those they loved were lost, I am acutely aware of the miracle of survival. My mother lost at least 30 siblings and their spouses on one day in Lida when they were stood up in the market place and shot, and she was the only survivor. My father was beaten frequently when they lived in Danzig - because he was Jewish and because he'd been a communist - and he remained strangely fragile and frightened for the rest of his life. I have never told any one this before - not even myself - but I am constantly aware that something terrible could happen to my children or my partner or my other loved ones at any given moment. At the same time it is such a wonderful thing - life - that why fuck it up with worrying about death. Not a day goes by when I do not think about how great life is. There have been times this year when I sat at my son's sidewalk café and reveled in how beautiful it was and how good the food was and how sexy the people were around me. And at the same time I knew that at any moment someone could blow the whole thing up.
As for Jewish culture - I am very Jewish, but most of the cultures I've encountered and most of the peoples I've met excite me. Sound like too vast a subject? Let me narrow it down. Take dance for example. I've never seen or danced a dance I didn't like: belly dancing, waltz, hora, samba, trance.
And sex, well sex is an incredible miracle. And it demands and increases the sensitivity to inter-relationships.
AH: What about the vision of the unity of all life and the defiance in your work? Does living in Israel have anything to do with this? Or do you think it can be partly attributed to your parents and the way you grew up?
KAG: Huh? Before I visited Israel for the first time I thought it would be a monolithic country, with one culture, Jewish. As soon as I arrived I began meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds. I'm less open than I used to be but I keep meeting amazing people from all kinds of perspectives. What am I saying? It's not so much the cultures, but the people who live in them. They are the interesting ones. And by the way, I've never met an Arab I didn't like.
AH: What is your writing practice like? Are you a sit-down-and-write-everyday-writer?
KAG: Whenever I get a deep and profound urge to write I go and lie down until it passes. If it doesn't go away, I sit down and write. Writing is very wrenching for me. It costs.
AH: Does your writing and/or teaching involve traveling or do you like to stay in one place and avoid moving around the globe in planes and trains?
KAG: I don't have much of a tourist mentality - but I do love going places and meeting people and going to museums and shops. Sometimes it makes me want to write. Sometimes it's the opposite.
AH: Could you please speak a little about the books you have written and when they were published?
KAG: I see you're going to make me do all the work here.
I know I've written about 20 books - but I have no real memory for the things I've written except when they are relevant right now. But in general, I write a variant of scholarly literary criticism, have written a biography of Adelaide Crapsey, articles about Rock music and Victorian poetry, the decline of the waistline, and lots of other subjects. And I started out writing poetry seriously when I moved to Israel and couldn't speak Hebrew well enough to communicate my innermost thoughts - Poetry was like a secret language to myself and like a crossword puzzle at the same time, a way to understand my world and to make sense of it. My early poetry was most directly concerned with sex and individual relationships. The first book was called "Making Love: Poems." My poetry got translated very quickly to Hebrew and a book called "Butter Sculptures" came out in translation a few years after. Then we moved back to the U.S. for a few years and my books slowly became more 'proper,' and more political. Since then I've been having more fun with poetry. Sometimes I write about politics and sometimes I write about clothes. Sometimes I write magic charms to make good things happen and sometimes I write about lunch. I just wrote a few poems about the sex life of the cats in my back yard.
AH: Do you tend to have friends from all walks of life or are most of your friendships with literary people?
KAG: Let's see - I have friends who are poets, and a few more who are writers and/or critics. But my closest friends have the following professions: real estate agent, rock singer, journalist, art dealer, psychologist, accountant, hi-tech, unemployed, unemployed, unemployed.
AH: What is the literary ethos like in Israel? Are there many writers writing in Hebrew whose work you admire but are not known outside of Israel?
KAG: This place seethes with talent. Some of them get translated like Meir Shalev (prose) and some of them like Agi Mishol (poet) are really hard to translate so they don't get the kind of international recognition they deserve. Rony Sommek, Asher Reich, Raquel Halfi, Maya Bejerano, Yael Globerman, Rafi Weichert are just a few of the poets I like. There's also Moshe Ben Arroch who writes in English as well. And there are a few poets who write in English in Israel like Shirley Kaufman who are really good. And there are Arab writers who get no audience at all outside this country - Naim Araidi, for example, is a beautiful poet. Nidaa Khouri too. But it is not only a question of language. It is very hard to write in one country and acquire a readership in another country. There are many experiences that need introduction, explanation. So a lot of writers remain unknown outside Israel.
AH: What about writers in Israel who are not writing in Hebrew but in English or Arabic for example? Do you follow the literary work that is being produced in Israel by Israelis who are not writing in Hebrew?
KAG: I have done a lot of research on writers who write in other languages - even though I don't know all the languages that literature gets written in here. There are at least three hundred Arab writers, the same number of Russian writers, Georgian, Hungarian, French, German, Polish, Spanish, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Yiddish etc. I know because I am the vice-chair of the Federation of Writers Unions in Israel, an umbrella organization for all the different language writers' groups. And the variety is incredible, and beyond my comprehension.
AH: Has there been a period in your life when you were less productive and why do you think that was? Conversely, has there been a period in your life when creative productivity was at its highest and if so what were the factors contributing to this?
AH: I have seen a picture of your eyes which you sent me by email. I know what i see in your eyes. What do you see in them?
KAG: Is this a trick question?
Well I'll take it seriously. My mother used to sing me Otshi tshornýe, the Russian folk song, "Dark Eyes" and quote that line about "as much as I love your eyes I am afraid of them." (kak lublyu ya vas, kak bayus ya vas!)
The thing is, though, I was (and remain) on the inside of my eyes, so all I know about them is what other people say about them, and how they react to them.
AH: What are you like in person? For example do you like to listen or talk more? Some people talk and talk about themselves and don't listen. Some people listen and listen to others and don't talk about themselves. Where do you fall between these two extremes?
KAG: I only talk about myself when someone like you asks pointed questions. Otherwise I'm usually a listener, don't tell stories about myself very well. It's like with my eyes - I'm on the inside.
AH: What kind of people do you like? What do you look for in a man or woman? Is it their intelligence or their heart? Is it something undefinable?
KAG: I like most people. Period. Unless they are trying to impress or bullshit me. I have a slow but certain bullshit detector and can't compromise easily about that. What do I look for in people? Genuine warmth, curiosity, devotion. It helps if they like me first. As for intelligence - you have to know how to elicit intelligence from people. Intelligence is also a function of dialogue. I find that there are not too many stupid people in the world, and they're usually in politics.
AH: What is the most marked change you have made as a person over say the last ten years? Has there been a particular time or in your life when an experience created a very strong change or development in yourself as an individual and what was that experience and how did it change you?
KAG: All my life I've been jolting from crisis to crisis, from discovery to discovery. I think I'm taking the jolts more easily now, but I'm not sure. It's like when I asked my mother at the age of eighty, "When do you stop having sex?" And she said, "Ask me in another ten years."