Liat and Himli meet in a New York City coffee shop. Liat is an Israeli on a Fulbright scholarship. Himli, a Palestinian, is an artist, wild in hair and spirit, and the two are instantly attracted.
As they grow closer, and as Liat’s visa comes closer to expiration, so does their relationship, for meeting back in Palestine or Israel seems as impossible as the fate that brought them together. When the unthinkable occurs, Liat is left to tell the story.
This book is the center of great controversy, as the Israeli Ministry of Education has banned the book in schools in Israel, but it has also become an international bestseller. The author, Dorit Rabinyan, and I left the controversy behind for a bit and discussed the heart of the book, humanity.
Interview with Dorit Rabinyan:
Christine Thomas Alderman, Book Club Advisor: As the morning sun begins to bead Houston, Texas with sweat, the day is winding down in Tel Aviv, Israel. Through the wonders of modern technology, the lovely Dorit Rabinyan shows me the light across the world still in the sky from her open window. Ms. Rabinyan and I are going to discuss her shatteringly beautiful, life-giving, and multi-layered novel, All the Rivers. An international bestseller, translated into twenty-four languages, All the Rivers is a story particular to a place and time, and yet known to any heart who has fallen in love and been told that is not the way it should done.
Let’s begin by talking about one of my favorite images in the book. When Liat first goes to Himli’s apartment, it is a typical New York artist flat, smelly in the bathroom, cramped and little more than a squat. But when he lets her in his bedroom, she is spellbound. Laundry lines crisscross the ceiling and dozens of sketches are clipped up on the string, all of a boy suspended in clouds and sky, and the author mentions they evoke Chagall. I felt Himli’s feeling of homelessness, rootlessness, but wondered why Ms. Rabinyan mentioned Chagall, rather than just describe the drawings, or choose another artist.
Dorit Rabinyan: Wonderful, this is an element in the story I’m not really questioned about. It is marvelous to talk about the book away from the controversy and conflict and get to the heart of the novel.
Chagall has to do with the residence that Liat carries with her, her Hebrew heritage. It is also a reflection of Himli and it brings together the feeling and the reality that the neighborhood in New York City in which they meet illuminates both their cultural content and baggage and parallel elements of their identity in sharp relief. Their experiences echo each other, even though the details are quite different.
CTA: With that in mind, why does Liat not ask about the art, does she assume she knows what it means, feel known by it, or is there guilt involved?
DR: For Himli it serves as personalization of his choices as an artist. To reflect himself as rootless, as hovering and stateless, begin a person with a dreamy quality, he chooses this space of dreamlike reality. It is so interesting you ask this as there was a version of this book where I wrote of him experimenting with trapping clouds in train cars, and then I found there is an artist in Scandinavia, who traps artificial clouds, that someone else in the world had also had envisioned this felt like a connection through time and space.
There is always a danger to being tedious when one artist describes another type of art, it is not easy for literature to express visual art. I was lucky enough to have my editor, he helped me when I described Himli’s art, to be aware that the reader’s eye cannot bear too much of description of paintings. There must be some sort of original view, picturesque visions. Some hints about the metaphors that will send the reader to his own dreamscapes, to get the sense of it, it doesn’t have to be accurate or detailed.
Nevertheless, another reason for the Chagall association was that I found it to be very complimentary. If you know enough of the Chagall work, when you add the Arab to Chagall it becomes interesting.
So, in terms of Liat asking about it, I didn’t find any need for an interpretation in dialogue. The art is quiet and that is the effect that I find to be sacred, not the talking. We spend years trying to capture with so many words, with so much sweat, painters effect must be shown with few words, no verbal impulse. Vikram Seth, in An Equal Music writes of the feeling that the music achieves in the human heart. Literature is the acoustics of one heart that may allow us to hear the political mess that my novel became a part of in a different way as it is echoes and sings a different song to the sounds of my city squares and Ministries that are so contradictory to the intimacy that my novel suggests.
CTA: Liat herself is a translator, on a Fulbright scholarship, why does she not consider herself to be an artist? I read a lot of books in translation, and am always in awe in the way that a translator must not just translate the words, but translate the culture and context in a way that makes sense in another language and place.
DR: She translates more scientific articles because I wanted her to be more relational and level-headed to be contradictory to Himli’s dreamy artist qualities. I found it to be important that female characters would be rational. (laughter) But when you talk about translation transforming my work into something new, I have 24 translators for 24 languages and I consider each of them to be my absolute partners, I appreciate what they do. I do believe they are rewriting my novel in their language. In fact, Jessica Cohen (my English translator) and David Grossman were both awarded the Booker together. Jessica shared Grossman’s prize money for the award. The Booker is wonderful in that it recognizes the effort and collaboration of translation.
So, I am so grateful for Ms. Cohen for singing All the Rivers in English for me, she rewrote my Hebrew poetry with her poetic English. And then came you, I wrote it in Hebrew, and Jessica translated it, and then to you, my English reader, it has come such a long way, it must feel elegant and smooth, so that your imagination can engineer the flower it originally was. When your goodwill combined with the gorgeous translation revives the flower with your own life experience and imagination, it is a miracle, a miracle of identification.
CTA: And it did! Even though the situation is one that is culturally specific I found echoes of my own feelings and life, and found it applied to myself as well as stretching my psyche to allow in more of the world.
DR: Wonderful. If I could give one good tip for writer in a creative writing class, it would be the common axiom, what you just described, the more private you go, the more universal you get. The more specific and detailed and local your story goes, in a very miraculous way, it gains the ability to cross languages, humans, and cultures, because it says something about human behavior.
CTA: I was very curious, upon Himli’s return to Palestine, why does he stop painting at the end of the novel? Has he found his resting place? Although he feels at home, he still longs for the sea. I was both surprised and ecstatic for him when he turned to the earth instead of the canvas.
DR: You stop by original points in the novel, it is very refreshing. He chooses being over reflecting or expressing, or aspiring to more than the actual moment of just being. That is pure joy when being someone who Freud might call neurotic, you have so many reflections and memories of what you need and what you want, but the moment when you are so Zen you are satisfied by a portion of air running through your air and lungs, you find this restful, mindful place.
I enjoyed writing these pages so much. I rarely experience this satisfaction, I always need a good interpretation, to find a good name for this or that specific feeling, I always need dialogue and a partner to reflect and be creative and innovative, this is the taste life going through my intellectual being. But when I do taste those sweet moments of just being, I am such much more grateful.
CTA: Without giving away too much, do you think Himli would have gone back to painting? Do you think of your characters when they are gone?
DR: No, he’s not gone, I find that too black and white. I think Liat has a need to tell their story because of her urge to compensate her guilt, but also the impulse to save him, to keep this conversation going. In telling their story, she keeps this partnership alive takes responsibility for their limited destiny together. In a way, she is pulling him out of the water with her words, with her Hebrew words, the language which had determined his life, not for best. But her Hebrew words are capable of resurrecting him, his art, and his memory.
CTA: Indeed, I was so drawn into her telling of their relationship, that it was easy to forget that this novel takes place in the past tense. I wanted them to be okay, I loved them both.
DR: Yes, she mentions that briefly in the opening of the novel, how can I let go of everything I know now and let go of him to be fresh in these sensation of meeting him? How can you go back to the sketch after you have all those colors of the painting? Also, a political echo, one of my favorite philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas, teaches us our ability to specify the face of the other, and to really go through the features, is how we find salvation for the multitudes, to truly see a face is to save him and rescue him from the generalization of all those unexamined faces, all those numbers that crush us down, and nationalize our personal, our most private human identities, that swirl within the crowd.
CTA: Interesting. In reading Representative John Lewis’s recent memoir series March, he spoke of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s being trained to look into the faces of the policeman who attacked them. The riders were told that it would be harder for the policeman to hurt them if they looked them in the eyes and the policemen were face to face with their humanness, their humanity.
DR: Yes! This is it, our ability to acknowledge humanity, we’re entitled to our humanity only once we acknowledge the humanity of another. In recognizing the personal behind the uniforms, behind the race, behind the conflict, the ethnic conflict, to see the one particular person.
CTA: Like you mentioned the sketch at the beginning of the novel. Once you begin to fill in the colors and shapes and personhood of the sketch of a person, it is very hard to go back to seeing them as just one of a crowd.
DR: Yes, it unfolds our gaze, our gaze that has been blinded by superstition and suspicions and generations of hostility and animosity. This acknowledgement of humanity pulls one another out of these “facts” we use to generalize, that trap all Palestinians and Israelis. What you said about a policeman, it is overcoming our tribal instinct.
CTA: Which is so interesting, because my background in is working with people who have been through trauma, and to a certain extent, tribalism can be survival. It is always a dance of identification and acceptance.
DR: The way I interpret the signs of the times, the crisis in Syria, and Brexit, and Trump, the liberal ethos was that we were focusing on our individual quest, for the past two decades, and neglecting this instinct. The rise of tribalism is a reaction to this rejection. It should be appreciated and taken into account why we are drawn towards tribalism.
CTA: This is so difficult. I remember recently stunning my friends when I said that I had empathy for Trump. Not that I believe he should be in charge, not that I think he has not done wrong, but that as a person, I can see how things are difficult for him as well. All his life things have been easy and he has gotten his way with ease. People are not venerating him as the king he’d like to be. It is such a difficult dance of empathy for humanity and not accepting wrong actions.
DR: I think this is what makes the keen eye and ear of an author, the ability to cross the membrane of your identity and dip into the identity of someone you logically resent, but because of your writing skills you can empathize. When we read, Lolita, we go under the skin and wear the gaze of a pedophile, we taste his thoughts and feelings. When we read Crime and Punishment, we experience what it is to be a murderer. Part of your ability to cross identities, even if you despise the other, comes through in your telling, that knowing the other from within, even if he is your enemy, it gives you a much broader perspective, it does not allow you to simplify reality. In fact, you will be surprised by the outcome, you need this perspective to decipher the world to its maximum dimensions.
What made this novel to be considered a danger by the Ministry of Education that echoes many conservatives and those who are right wing, and many religious, is that it offers young millennial readers a perspective that is denied. They work so hard to convince this generation that there is no partner in Palestine, that the other does not exist, to demonize the other, and I suggested something else, to acknowledge that the ability to maintain a dialogue exists. To see the other as equal is the beginning of a seeing a relatable neighbor, all by offering a dual perspective.
CTA: You did this beautifully. When reading the novel, it doesn’t feel like there is a message. It feels as though you are slipping in and out of Liat and Himli’s skin and experiencing the world through them, and in that experience, you feel their struggles and their ideas for repairing that which would keep them apart, and their depression in that which is keeping them separate.
DR: (laughs) Wonderful! If I did simply have a message I wouldn’t have spent six years writing to this extent, I would have written a status on Facebook! I would become a politician. I don’t have a message, I have a story. I have a need to capture my thoughts and order them to give the most precise names to my feelings.
CTA: This makes me think of the American playwright, Kia Corthron, who always examines social issues in her plays. However, she says if you have a message, feel free to write it first, but then write and rewrite it until you can no longer find it your work. I love that idea. I think for writers we often don’t know what our message is, the writing is the finding out. And conversely, when we think we know our message, in the writing we find out that we may have been wrong, or we find out things that surprise us.
DR: Yes, I love this. We don’t know what we’re writing to begin with. We have a motivation that is more emotional and we need this generator to keep us going up and down this hill every day with this rock. If you don’t have a necessity that attaches you to the story you wouldn’t be able to bear the journey. You are not always fundamentally aware of what it is you are exploring, you have guesses, and you have hints and you follow them, and if you’re lucky, they present themselves across the course of writing. Sometimes they don’t and you come back.
It is very exciting when the piece of work begins to resonate with your own daily reality, far before editors and other readers, but when the reality around you responds to your little monster grown within your computer and you find more and more elements that speak or converse with your yet unpublished story. That is when the manuscript becomes solid and starts walking on its own, and that is its beautiful way of reassuring you that you are doing well. These messages from the elements you are living and the ones you are writing begin to converse and that is the best part, that is golden.
CTA: At this point, I realized we had been talking for an hour, and though I was enjoying it thoroughly, I wanted to honor Ms. Rabinyan’s time. She thanked me for questions she does not often receive and we talked of hopefully meeting someday in person.
Ms. Rabinyan is erudite, grounded, and a gorgeous poetic speaker of both English as well as Hebrew. I am so honored that she spent her time with me.
All the Rivers is a book that is forever in my mind in the way I think about love, art, philosophy, Israel and Palestine, and all the places in the world in which we need to take the part of the other so that we may see we are all human, and in doing so, earn our humanity.