….“But since, for us, writing is an enterprise; since writers are alive before being dead; since we think that we must try to be as right as we can in our books; and since, even if the centuries show us to be in the wrong, this is no reason to show in advance that we are wrong; since we think that the writer should engage himself completely in his works, and not as an abject passivity by putting forward his vices, his misfortunes, and his weaknesses, but as a resolute will and as a choice, as this total enterprise of living that each one of us is, it is then proper that we take up this problem at its beginning and that we, in our turn, ask ourselves: “Why does one write?”
Sartre wrote these words a long time ago. He was answering critics who accused him of having too many political and philosophical “messages” in his writing, in writing a novel with meanings that engages the reader in the problems of the world as well of the personal self of the writer. Since I am sure I have none of his genius, I was less sure that I didn’t catch his passion, not as one catches an illness but as one catches the love of fully engaging oneself in problems larger than the personal destiny of one’s life. I grew up half in Israel, half in the United States so it was, honestly, more natural to try to write about Israel and Palestine no matter how daunting the task. But I was also very intimidated. How does one write about war, about heritage and these large things without becoming more polemical and political than literary, without too many “messages.” Sartre offered me a way out here. He posed quite a few years ago that the writer engage fully with their material; that is, rather than dealing in distance, in symbolic experiences, one could throw themselves into the chaos in a personal, immediate way, where one is no longer just using words to merely signify and judge but allowing one’s psyche—one’s turmoil, pain, and conflict—to merge with the outside world. War then became for me a frame to the war inside myself. My coming of age merged with the nations Israel and Palestine coming of age. I knew I was taking on such enormous, lofty themes, but I brought them to myself the same as any adolescent wrestling with identity, personal identity, sexuality, relationships. Then the issues of personal boundaries, of confusions and questions joined up with that larger entirely baffling and overwhelming canvas of war, and its seemingly impenetrable mysteries. It is when, Sartre also later points in the same essay, we see people no longer as good or bad, that we involve the personal self, that crippling moral judgements are given up for embracing elusive but essential human truths. Even writing about war can become human, accessible, and that was cathartic for me. The war itself was a character in the book. The noisiness of political points of views were silenced; there was only the release of more truthful existence of this is what it is. At the end of the book, my character says to herself, “If only then I was not wrapped up in my own survival, I could have done more.” But in truth it was the fight for personal survival and for the preservation of her historical identity, her striving for self-definition, that most closely mirrored the war in Israel/Palestine. Just some thoughts in this book being republished, with a huge difference and luxury in looking back at writing it. I think if I consciously thought I was taking on war and peace and such lofty themes I would never have found the courage to write it. But luckily, I didn’t. A child of Israel and Palestine as it was growing up just like me, released the fear I might be, and probably was, “wrong” in that sense we all err; that’s not the point. Writing fiction enables the self to become embroiled, to become inseparable from the conflicts of their outside world and it is that sudden loss of distance and cognitive intelligence that makes writing, for me, so vital, and exciting. What prevails isn’t a chronicle with distant judgements but a participation with all of one’s senses, like making love and intimacy, detachment is dissolved, and that can be equally frightening and exhilirating. Why write? For me, it’s finding how much my internal chaos, (from which I want to run but decide instead to stay) transforms into story and theme and writing then becomes a choice, and a call to action both in their way. It reassures me that the unbearable violence and dislocation of war can at least be confronted; we stay dumb and vulnerable, even if in a few years, as Sartre says, one finds out one was wrong…my ideas and my feelings proved to be inadequate, I can tell myself, as Sartre supposes, there was no reason to believe so in advance! If any illumination of the greater issues at hand becomes within my reach and through my choice to write this way, within the reach of readers, I can’t think of anything more gratifying.
Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Hystera and her debut novel Edges will be republished in September.