Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Q&A with Nora Gold




Nora Gold is the editor of the new anthology 18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languages. Her other books include the novel Fields of Exile, and she is the founder and editor of the literary journal Jewish Fiction .net


Q: In your new book’s introduction, you talk about why you decided to create this anthology. Can you tell us about that?


A: This book grew out of the literary journal I founded in 2010 and edit, Jewish Fiction .net, which publishes Jewish-themed fiction that was either written in English or translated into English from 20 languages, but not previously published in English.


To date we’ve published 575 works of fiction, almost 30 percent of which are translations. Although I love all the stories in this journal, I’ve always felt the translated works provided a special spice to the stew.


Still, it took me a few years to fully appreciate the treasure trove we’d amassed, and to recognize that these translated works were not only a source of pride for Jewish Fiction .net, but something of real significance.


By then I knew from many of our readers whose first language was English – and even some of my colleagues – that until they’d started reading our journal, they’d never encountered Jewish fiction in translation (other than, perhaps, from Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino).


This is not only sad but ironic, because – related to Jews having lived for 2,000 years among other nations and having written literature in the languages of these nations – one of the key features of Jewish fiction is its multilingualism.


Jewish Fiction .net has readers in 140 countries, and some of these readers, from different locations, urged me over the years to publish a collection of stories (including translated ones) from our journal. Until two years ago, I ignored these requests. I was too busy with my own writing, including my two novellas coming out this spring.


Then something changed. I suddenly felt that the ignorance about, and misconception of, Jewish fiction was a serious problem, and one that I could help to address by sharing some of the amazing translated works from Jewish Fiction .net. This felt to me now like an important, even an urgent, project. So I took it on.


Q: How did you choose the stories to include, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear?


A: In a few cases, choosing which story to include was easy because we had published in Jewish Fiction .net only one story translated from that language.


For most of the stories, though, the decision was challenging because we’d published multiple works translated from the same language so we had many options. I considered a number of variables while making my selections for this anthology, but ultimately I picked stories that I loved.


As for the order in which the stories would appear, this was the first anthology I’d ever done so I’d never thought about this question before. I knew that I wanted variation in emotional tone (for example, not five sad stories in a row) and theme (not all the Holocaust stories bunched together). Beyond that, though, I had no idea how to order the stories.

As I began weighing different possibilities, I realized how complex this process is, so I did some reading, and it turns out there is a whole science, even an art, to ordering the works in an anthology.


Once I understood this, I began playing around with alternatives, sticking Post-it notes (one per story) on a large Bristol board, and moving around their positions until it felt right. Doing this, I learned certain things about these stories that I hadn’t known before. It was a surprisingly complex process, but fun.


Q: What do you see as the most common perceptions and misconceptions about “Jewish fiction”?


A: Many people whose first language is English hear the phrase “Jewish fiction” and think only of Jewish fiction written in English, and generally only American – not Canadian, British, Australian, or South African Jewish fiction, much less what has been written in other languages.


This narrow and erroneous perception of Jewish fiction implies that this literature is monolithic, which it is not.


Q: The writer Joseph Kertes said of the book, “One thing is for certain: whether winners of the Nobel Prize or secret scribblers in remote Eastern European shtetls (or both), these writers have clung to their Judaism as if to their very being. Yet, ironically, it is this clinging to identity which makes this collection so universal.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think what Kertes is saying is that being committed to one’s cultural, religious, or national identity is not just a Jewish phenomenon but a universal one, and something with which readers of all backgrounds can identify.


Kertes’ comment also implies there are different ways to “cling to Judaism,” and that this one’s Judaism (or Jewish identity) is not necessarily something simple or unambivalent.


A number of the stories in this anthology capture very well the complexity of a protagonist’s relationship to Judaism, and certain ways that our tradition can be challenging as well as admirable.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am on a novellas roll! I’m now working on a new novella, the fourth in a row. The first two will be published on March 1, 2024.


In Sickness and In Health is about a woman who had epilepsy as a child, so her most cherished goal has always been to be “normal”; but just when things are going right for her (with her family, friends, and artistic career), some cartoons she drew threaten to reveal her secret medical past and destroy the life she’s worked so hard to build.


In Yom Kippur in a Gym, five strangers at a Yom Kippur service in a gym are each struggling with an intense personal crisis, when a medical emergency unexpectedly throws them together, and in one hour all their lives are changed in ways they would never have believed possible.


The third novella, which will be published in 2026, is called Doubles. Set in 1968 in an institution for troubled youth, it is told from the perspective of a brilliant, spunky, 12-year-old girl who is obsessed with math. I love novellas because they have such power and range, and at the same time they are so concise and intimate.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I feel incredibly lucky that I am able to live my life as a writer, doing every day what I feel I was born to do.  Not everyone gets to spend their time doing what they love most and what makes them feel most alive. I am very grateful.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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