Nora Gold is the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women’s Studies, OISE/University of Toronto; the editor of the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction.net; the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and an activist. Her recently-published Fields of Exile received enthusiastic praise and excellent reviews in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., and Israel, and her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award as well as praise from Alice Munro.
Here’s an excerpt of recent interview Nora did with Tracy Kyncl of The Puritan, (reprinted with permission). Opinions expressed are the interview participants’ own.
Interviewer’s Note: Nora Gold’s debut novel Fields of Exile, published by Dundurn in April, 2014, looks at the preponderance of anti-Semitism, in the form of anti-Israelism, in academia. Dr. Gold’s novel artfully examines the necessary costs and risks of activism.
Tracy Kyncl: Your novel Fields of Exile outwardly critiques anti-Israelism in academia, and there are many professional similarities between you and your protagonist (working in Israel with developmentally challenged youth and returning to Canada to complete a master’s degree). Could you elaborate on the motivations behind writing this book?
Nora: In the early stages of this book, if you’d asked me what it was about, I would have said I was writing a satire about academic life. It was only as this novel evolved that the hypocrisy and intellectual sloth I was describing became increasingly focused on the issue of anti-Israelism. Let me define straight off what I mean by anti-Israelism. Anti-Israelism is not just criticizing Israel. As I make clear in Fields of Exile, it is obviously entirely legitimate to criticize Israel’s government or policies, just as one would critique the government or policies of any other country. But anti-Israelism is something else. Anti-Israelism (otherwise known as “the new anti-Semitism”) is a form of anti-Semitism where hatred of Jews masquerades as legitimate criticism of Israel. One can see examples of this wherever criticisms of Israel are interlaced with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, such as, “All Jews are rich and powerful, they control the banks and the media, they’re plotting world dominion, etc.”
Anyway, as I said, I didn’t set out to write a novel about anti-Israelism in academia. But in retrospect, it probably wasn’t surprising that this is what I ended up doing. For over a decade before starting this novel, I—like many Jews—had been very disturbed by the increasing anti-Israelism in both academia and the world at large. I was concerned about the most overt manifestations of anti-Israelism, like the rallies that later morphed into Israel Apartheid Week, but also about the gradual normalization of Israel-bashing in classes, in faculty meetings, and at conferences.
I responded to this phenomenon, in the years before beginning this novel, by conducting academic research on anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism and by engaging in pro-Israel activism (one part of which ultimately resulted in a new Toronto-based organization, JSpaceCanada). At a certain point, though, because I was so distressed about anti-Israelism, I also began writing a novel about it. The pain I felt because of what was happening around me was like having a fishhook in my stomach. I tried moving this way and that, but whatever I did, it was still there. So at some stage, I figured that the only way to get it out of me was to write it out.
TK: In light of recent debates surrounding the lack of minority representation in Canadian publishing, do you think that writers could do more to stay politically informed and motivated when writing?
NG: Yes, definitely. I recently had a very surprising experience. An intelligent and quite well-known Canadian writer told me that until reading Fields of Exile, he hadn’t known about either anti-oppression or anti-Israelism. I could hardly believe it. To not know about anti-Israelism is one thing, but to not even know about anti-oppression seemed extreme.
From my point of view, I feel obligated, even though I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—or maybe because I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—to educate myself about racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and more. I see it as the responsibility of all Canadians—including writers—to do the same, and as part of this, to educate themselves about anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Israelism. It really isn’t difficult. One can make serious headway on this in just one day of reading. One place to start is my novel, Fields of Exile, which lays out all the main issues. Alternatively, there are hundreds of essays and articles on this topic.
In terms of writers being well-informed politically, I can always tell, when reading a book, whether or not the writer who wrote it has political/social awareness. It’s like that saying about love in a marriage: If it’s there you can’t hide it, and if it’s not there, you can’t fake it so it looks like it is. When a writer has social/political consciousness, it’s palpable in her or his work. And when it’s absent, this is just as palpable. I hope that in the next few years we will all see much more of the first kind of writing from our Canadian writers.
TK: Do you believe that writers have an obligation to engage with political discourse?
NG: Yes I do, if you mean “political discourse” in the broadest sense. I think that writers have an obligation to engage with the issues of their time and place, and to be aware of—and struggle against—the injustices and oppressions in their society. This obligation applies, of course, to all Canadians, but I think there is a particular onus on Canadian writers. We are privileged. Unlike writers in many other parts of the world, we are free to write whatever we want, safe from the risk of imprisonment or worse. As such, we have the potential, as public intellectuals, to help shape both Canadian society and the world around us. We must use, and not waste, this power.
TK: I often get the nagging feeling that our culture suffers from unwillingness or a lack of desire to engage. Do you think writers and readers have stopped believing in the power of literature to inspire real social change?
NG: I think many have. One of the responses to my novel, from the well-known American Jewish writer, Thane Rosenbaum, was very flattering but also surprising to me. He wrote that Fields of Exile restored his faith in the possibilities of the novel. I think this implies that he and many others have lost faith in the possibilities of the novel. They no longer believe that literature can accomplish anything in the real world. In fact, many writers actually believe that literature shouldn’t try to accomplish anything in the real world. They take the Oscar Wilde quotation, “All art is quite useless,” as a kind of credo. I don’t agree with that, of course.
TK: It seems like the definition of “engagement” has somehow been consumed by the idea of engaging somebody’s interest.
NG: Yes. You’re told to get a good opening for your story because that is what “engages” readers. Engagement as seduction, rather than participation or involvement. I think social engagement is very important. This isn’t surprising, since I’m both a writer and a social worker. I have one foot in each world. I enjoy many different kinds of writing, but I definitely respond deeply to fiction that has, at its core, some kind of social vision.
This interview is available in full in the latest issue of The Puritan, click here to read more!
Nora Gold visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Ghadeer Malek, Cathy Petch and Ray Robertson. Come early, too (6:30) for Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether’s special talk, “Anyone Can Be a Screenwriter: Here’s How”!