When I began to think seriously of writing it was always the most intricate, internal dynamics of characters that kept me coming back to create my fiction, even when I faced having to describe actual geography, and larger themes of war and relationships. Many people asked me why smells meant so much in my fiction, along with tastes and tactile impressions. It seems I perpetually hung on to the minutia of sensory details and desire — sexuality and sensuality — and explored the edges of all sensations passionately. Marcel Proust became my favorite writer early on — his long rhapsodies about longing and loss, his almost clinical scientific inquiry into human behavior, and the precision with which he captured the scents and sense of nature. Like him, I wanted to capture quiet private moments in time — our associations, dreams, and half-sleep.
There was a long time in my life when my immersion in all this and in psychoanalytic ideas seemed natural, clichéd in fact, as so many from my generation basked, too, in luminous definitions of the “soul” according to inner energies, freed of all sorts of religiosity and concerns about national and ethnic identity.
In the 1960s and 1970s, (the time of my early twenties), it was quite usual and normal to think of humankind as a combustive engine of desires and sensations. I grew up in an age of primal screams, tales of orgone boxes, and R. D. Laing.
What puzzled me later was: as all my friends outgrew the splendor and pitfalls of the ’60s and ’70s I remained so attached to some of the era’s ideas. If they were wrenched from me, replaced by concerns about national or ethic identity, or economic status, I was terrified I might lose my grip on my true identity, my real self-definition. But not until I wrote Edges: O Israel, O Palestine did I really understand the reason for these fears in myself. And only then could I let up on chastising myself for such self-indulgences and seemingly self-centered fascinations.
My mother grew up in the war-torn, divisive, boundary-less lands of Israel and Palestine. She was born in the ancient city of Jerusalem in the early 1920s in a Palestine not yet damaged irrevocably by war and terror. Her first language was Hebrew but she knew at least seven European languages as well as English. Later, my mother was required to identify herself only as an “Israeli,” despite her more innocent moments as a young girl in a wildly sensual and exciting early, multicultural Jerusalem, long before Israel became a nation. The world of her childhood was presented to me in unusual, variegated impressions and allusions, a cacophony of language sounds, and a series of stories about interrupted, dislocated lives.
As I tried to write about her, and about my own biography (which had to include many trips to Israel as a child), I felt a terrible pressure from others to write only about political things, about “Jewish” things, about everything but what was real to me — the universality of feelings and memories that had nothing to do with politics but which made me feel a part of a larger world, a universal humanity.
So, unlike many writers, embracing my “ethnic self-definition” wasn’t any kind of liberation at all, it was imprisoning, horrendously limiting.
Where do we go, what do think when the outside world demands we define ourselves only by fading borders and fragile, ambiguous nationalities? How to write about what actually matters to us — love and daily life, desire and non-political feelings (like maybe towards a sibling, or a parent, not just an “enemy” in the news)? What, in the end, is real freedom and true cherished land? For me, it is inside us, those very sensory details, smells, touches. Writing Edges: O Israel, O Palestine (which focused on family conflicts, on people simply thrown into the maelstrom of war without any real purpose for being there except by birth) showed me a way to make my own peace with the problems of self-definition, and how to transcend those literal borders, the burdens of a prescribed “nationality.” It was a terrific journey. And now, when people ask me why I spent so much time describing the details and smells of fig trees, limestone, and pine needles instead of the politics of the land, I feel I can say: “Because they are part of me, they are me, where I really lived.”
This post originally published by Powell’s Books. Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Hystera. The Story Plant will be republishing Edges in Fall 2014. You can learn more about Leora at our website.