Geula Geurts: In your lyric essay FOREIGN BODY EAR you write: “My presence as an actual foreign body in the city, not born or raised here, nor having ever managed to put down any roots.”
Being bilingual, do you sometimes feel not only foreign to Jerusalem, but foreign to yourself? How does this present itself in your writing? Do you express yourself better in English or in Hebrew creatively?
Amital Stern: When I moved to Israel at age seventeen, it was clear to me I wouldn’t be able to write creatively in Hebrew. But writing in English felt out of place too. It felt irrelevant, so I didn’t write at all. You can say this alienated me from my creative self for a while. Then later, after I took an acting class and wrote a monologue in Hebrew, I realized that was something I can do.
GG: Because your Hebrew speech was becoming controlled.
AS: Yes. Hebrew dialog became safer for me, so theatrical writing, and later screenwriting in Hebrew became safe and even natural at a certain point. I realized this is a form I can use in Hebrew. It allowed me to play with spoken Hebrew on paper.
GG: But your prose, your lyric nonfiction is written in English.
AS: I’m not sure if to call English my mother tongue, but it still is the strongest and most creative vehicle of my prosaic expression.
GG: Does your background in screenwriting influence your lyric nonfiction, your prose?
AS: At a certain point I felt that the strict set of rules of screenwriting was stifling my creative voice. Writing for film is something I will return to, but I did feel a deep need to break free from the rules of that form. I’m not sure what to call the genre of my prose, but it’s definitely hybrid animal. It combines many aspects: cultures, language, myth, academic nonfiction, memoir, fiction and even theater. I felt a strong desire to combine all these aspects of my life into my writing life. Actually, my “Mifletzet” series of lyric essays is driven by the idea to create a play about the female monster that is Jerusalem. I’m writing the essays to figure out what such a play will look like, whether it’s a play I could write and perform. This is one of the things driving me in the series.
GG: That’s exactly what you do in the end of the piece “I feel like vomiting the mother.” You force the reader to imagine this play with you. So perhaps it’s a new genre all together. We can call it meta-theatrical lyric essay!
AS: Ha! I guess it really is hard to define.
GG: Who are your mentors in these forms? Which writers inspire your own writing?
AS: When I started to combine different aspects into prosaic writing, I became interested in reading more hybrid forms. One writer I’m influenced by is Dodie Bellamy, a New Narrative writer from San Francisco. Also, experimental theater I was exposed to is very hybrid. I was always a child who read a lot, so when I was young, Modernists like James Joyce, T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf spoke to me. Their writing is essentially hybrid, that’s what they’re doing. Lidia Yuknavitch, who created the space for the Mifletzet column, is a giant of the hybrid form, in her own writing and as a facilitator who helps writers allow themselves to experiment. I also grew up very religious, so I was often exposed to biblical literature, midrash, rabbinical commentary. There are so many levels of storytelling when it comes to Jewish literature. There is a lot of intertextuality, so through absorbing this at a young age, I learned to combine different forms of texts.
GG: That’s fascinating. I guess the Bible really is hybrid. There are parts of mythology, and sections with lists of laws.
AS: Yes, and even songs, and poetry. It’s wild.
GG: It’s an understatement to say that you are heavily obsessed with the notion of Jerusalem as a female character, a female monster. Do you think good writing needs to be driven by obsession? Is obsession itself monstrous? Is writing monstrous? In what way are you monstrous?
AS: Well, yes, in a sense I do feel like a monster. So often women are described as objects of both desire and disgust. These two opposing aspects are what make us monstrous. I want to know if this marriage between desire and disgust is possible to live with. As a woman, I’m trying to get to my own understanding of this. Of course I’m driven by obsession. I want to know everything about it, so my writing is drawing from research, personal experience, myth and imagination. It’s turning into a monster itself.
GG: You write about Jerusalem appearing in biblical mythology as a wife, virgin, widow and whore. You question whether the actual women living in Jerusalem become objects of these mythic projections. Do you write and research to find a certain answer, or are you driven by something beyond?
AS: I’m definitely driven by something more than a search for an academic answer. Perhaps I’m looking to purge myself from these myths through my writing. The myths themselves are monsters that claim the individual woman. I feel a deep need to write my own myth, to set myself, as a woman, free from the existing myths and see what else exists.
GG: You write: “MY LIFE HAD STOOD – A LOADED GUN: wrote Emily Dickinson. Maybe life holds so much possibility, still. Maybe my warm gun is this pen.” So, would you call yourself a literary activist?
AS: I think my writing started as subconscious “feminism.” I didn’t realize that what I was doing was feminist. It came about naturally. Lately, I try to push myself to be clearer about what I’m trying to say and express, instead of keeping my intentions vague. In my nature, I don’t like demonstrations, but there are a lot of issues that bother me. My writing is a way for me to discuss these issues with myself, and with the reader.
GG: I’ve noticed you have a small online presence. You don’t have a Facebook account. Could you say “hiding” is a part of your writing self, too?
AS: Not being on Facebook is a very conscious decision. I deleted my account two years ago. This is very much connected to my writing life, to create a vacuum for myself to write. I also started feeling physically ill about social media. It’s like an alternative world. I remembered my life before, and it was fine. I decided to leave the alternative world online, also as an experiment. I wondered if people would still know me, whether I’d still exist for them if I exited that realm. I know there’s a price that I pay, when it comes to keeping up with contacts and professional presence online. But I do think my writing, and my face to face relationships, are enriched by this choice.
GG: You’re working on your first novel now.
AS: Yes. I’d say it’s also a hybrid monster, but it has a dramatic structure, a narrative arc. There are a lot of different voices: supernatural, mystical. It’s an exciting and scary endeavor, and I feel strongly about writing it.
GG: I look forward to reading it! And of course hearing you read your work on February sixth.
AS: Thank you. So do I!