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Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments

Interview with oznik's own Oz Shelach, on the publication of his first book, Picnic Grounds : A Novel in Fragments, out from City Lights Books, SF

10 Jan. 2003

Q. Hello Oz… is this the right way to pronounce your name?

A. Hi, thank you. It is, but few people here manage it. The short O doesn't exist here, one could say it’s an un-American vowel, so mostly people here pronounce it as in The Wizard of, or diphthong it, as in Oak. I have met some people who actually managed the short O by recalling the way it sounds in Spanish, but then the switch was complete and they called me Os. You said it just right, but I’m not too particular about it anymore, so long as you say it nicely, which you did.

Q. I’m glad you felt that. What do you do first thing in the morning?

A. Usually I rush to the computer to check the headlines on Israeli papers and the mail. It’s a little strange, having been in the States for four years I am much more informed on current events, trends, even gossip from Israel/Palestine than on most things that take place outside my window. There’s a gap between where I am physically and where my mind is. It’s an old exile theme, of course, with a global village twist, you know, I listen to Israeli radio live all the time. So a lot of the time I am (dis)located, my window looks out on 1st Avenue in New York, and my radio sings in Hebrew, playing songs like “I have no other country.”

Q. Did you write this book from this (dis)location?

A. I actually wrote the bulk of the book in Israel/Palestine, during my weekly trips between Jerusalem and Dheisheh refugee camp, outside Bethlehem. This was the summer of 2000, a brief moment before the Intifada, when service taxis could still travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and back (on the condition that the license plate was Israeli). Taking the taxi van was an eye opener for me, because I had not noticed this segregated transportation system before, run down vans carrying mostly Palestinians, and the odd international passenger, stopped for ID inspection by soldiers on the way to Jerusalem. It felt like entering a space that had been invisible to me, and from which I could see some things in a richer perspective.

Q. So you, an Israeli, would sit in the Arab taxi and write in English.

A. Visits to Dheisheh taught me to be careful about using Hebrew. This was five years after the army withdrew from Bethlehem, five years after Dheisheh refugee camp residents tore down an 18 feet tall barbed wire fence that enclosed their tiny overcrowded camp, but graffiti in Hebrew was still visible on some walls, left there by Israeli soldiers. For the children I worked with the sound of Hebrew had one unmistakable meaning: a brutal military occupation. They were very hospitable, and they were traumatized by soldiers who spoke my mother tongue. I needed to step out of it.

Q. Is that why you wrote the book in English?

A. I did want to break out of the boundaries of Hebrew, its built-in ideologisms and political context, but I also wanted to write in an international language, to communicate directly to other writers who do not necessarily read Hebrew. I have been fascinated by literature in English that’s written by non-native speakers. Arguably, if English is the international language, it belongs to us as much as to any “native speaker.” I have been reading a lot of writing by non-native English writers, I even have a course/writing workshop proposal on Writing in The Step Mother Tongue, but so far no one would hire me to teach it.

Q. So is this English literature, or Hebrew literature? Are you an Israeli writer, or an American writer?

A. I’m surprised that you of all people should ask this annoying question; Its’s upsetting how people are obsessed with tags. But I’ll try to answer. Hebrew literature and Israeli literature are almost synonymous, so one way to think of this book is as Hebrew literature written in English. I was brought up to love Hebrew and cherish it, and I do love Hebrew. I have worked as a journalist and editor in Hebrew for more than half my short life, and I have a strong sense of knowing what I’m doing when I write in Hebrew, a feeling that can not be recreated in any other language. I am not entirely comfortable in English. I adopted it, in a sense, and in another sense it has co-opts me. I mean, if globalization is not to work simply in one direction, “globalized” people may at least try to reclaim some global space.

Q. OK, OK, but these are very local specific materials.

A. They are. They come from my very local specific experience, growing up on the ruins of an indigenous people, going to picnics on the ruins of depopulated villages and thinking one is out in nature, seeing and not seeing. I think this story is not quite unique to Israel/Palestine, and in this way the materials are also global.

Q. What’s with the form, is this a novel, or are they fragments?

A. For me it’s a novel. I have attended quite a few writing workshops in recent years, and Picnic Grounds got the best responses in a poetry workshop, where it was pronounced to be sequence of prose poems. I’m not sure what it is, is that important?

Q. Were you influenced by other writers.

A. Of course.

Q. Such as...

A. One book that helped me more than any other to write this book, or just to realize what I was writing may be a book, is The Voice Impersonator by Thomas Bernhard, the early English translation by Craig Kinosian. It’s a collection of short short stories, funny, angry, philosophical, critical of the society from within which it is written, and the voice in this translation is graceful, though it may seem awkward, it’s not exactly English, you hear the German when you read it. But this book is also informed by Israeli travel books and picnic guides, by Walid Khalidi’s geographical lexicon All That Remains, by fiction from Martinique, from England and Ireland and from Brooklyn, by poetry from Paris and Beirut and the San Francisco Bay area, by essays from Harlem, by nationalist pop music…

Q. I’d like to invite you to choose a song to end this interview, if you like.

A. Why thank you! I’ll choose “Text Politi” by a West Jerusalem rock band that was big when I was in my twenties, The Top Hat Carriers.

[fade in music]

Together: Thank YOU very much.