An Interview with Tamar Yellin
Yellin's first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, appeared
from Toby Press in 2005 and has been described by reviewers as 'stunning'
(Bookpage), 'a deeply enthralling narrative of epic spiritual
proportions' (Midwest Book Review) and 'impossible to put down'
(Booklist). It has just been shortlisted for the Wingate Prize
Her short stories have appeared in a wide variety
of journals and anthologies. Kafka in Brontėland, a collection
of thirteen of these masterfully crafted stories, has just been published
by Toby Press and has already been hailed as 'a tremendous success'
(Library Journal), a collection which 'marks Tamar Yellin out
as a short-story writer of rare distinction' (The Guardian) and
longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
Tamar lives in Yorkshire and is currently busy raising
a Jack Russell terrier puppy.
Q: Tamar, although
Kafka in Brontėland was published after The Genizah, the
stories in it were written and published while you were still at work
on your novel. How did you decide to gather them all under one roof,
as it were, and why these stories in particular?
A: That's a good question. The stories
in Kafka were written over a long period of time -- the earliest
in 1989 and the most recent only two or three years ago, during which
I must have produced several dozen others, both published and unpublished.
I was never in much doubt as to which to select for the collection,
though. They were those which I felt able to shape into a kind of narrative
arc, running from childhood through maturity and into old age, and a
thematic arc touching on those ever-present questions of identity, exile
and belonging, as well as loss and longing which are also to be found
in my novel. Glimmering through the interstices there is also detectable
the figure of the young writer -- she pops up in 'The Other Mr Perella,'
'Mrs Rubin and her Daughter,' 'A New Story for Nada' as well as in the
title story -- so the collection is as much a diary of her development
Q: I am glad that you yourself have mentioned the
themes of identity and exile. Those familiar with your writing may notice
that such motifs of weighty family bonds, consequences of living with
them and severing them, as well as the resulting guilt appear quite
often in your work. Can you tell me why this conflict between the individuals
on one side and their family and identity on the other is such a persistent
theme in your writing?
A: Well, the writer is always an outsider, in a way. From the moment
you begin to observe and then to write down your take on the world around
you, you have in a sense removed yourself from it. Indeed, without the
perspective that comes from that removal, you wouldn't be able to describe,
to write. So, then, to be a writer is to exile yourself to an extent
from your family, your clan, your society, the cultural mores you grew
up in -- there is always going to be conflict, discomfort, a degree
of alienation -- otherwise, why would you feel the desire to write in
the first place? But at the same time, there is an attachment, a longing,
a pulling back towards tradition and safety (even if that safety is
quite illusory). It's a desire for normality, basically: a wish to belong.
In my case that creative tension was especially heightened by a condition
of double exile: not only was I denaturalised by my irrational and abnormal
need to write, but by being a Jew among English Christians, and by being
the child of a Jerusalemite among English Jews. Our difference on that
count was always heavily emphasised to me when I was growing up. So,
in short, I was comfortable nowhere.
But, to be honest, I didn't want to be comfortable. I've always recoiled
against co-option into a group, with the compromises, silencings, self-abnegations
that that would require of me. The rewards of this lone-wolfishness
are my writing and my creativity; the price, of course, is a certain
loneliness, displacement, and, yes, a fair degree of guilt.
This is the conflict that recurs in my fiction, whose protagonists
are perpetually seeking freedom, perpetually seeking to belong. It's
by no means an experience unique to me. In fact, these days, I would
say it is a common experience. The dichotomy between individual and
community is growing more extreme than ever in the world today; whole
generations are struggling to forge a way through it. For me, it is
only through writing that the conflict can find peace.
Q: This dichotomy is also visible in another
form: in several of your stories we see the encounter between the immigrant
(such as Mrs. Rahim and Mr. Kafka in 'Kafka in Brontėland', Nada in
'A New Story for Nada', or Emmanuella in 'An Italian Child') and the
resident, not to say 'native' of the country. How does this encounter
inform your writing, with its strong focus on identities?
A: Those encounters are always modified by the extent to which the
'natives' themselves are also outsiders. It's the outsiderhood of the
supposed native which interests me most. So, for example, in 'A
New Story for Nada', the narrator has inherited her immigrant
father's homesickness, she has a "love-hate relationship with her perfect
English," she is in the ambivalent position of both belonging and not
belonging. She's drawn to the immigrant, Nada, but she cannot entirely
identify with her. She's an in-between person, a floating person. It's
the same with the narrator, Judith, in 'Kafka in Brontėland'. She recognises
a connection between herself and the foreigner, Mr. Kafka, but she doesn't
want to acknowledge the link and align herself with him. Belonging and
not belonging; home but not home. Those are the key phrases, which refer
also to my novel. Meanwhile, on the periphery, we glimpse those true
natives who inhabit a safe unthinking world of complete and utter at-homeness.
An ideal fantasy world in which their history and lineage go back forever,
there are no questions of identity, no question but that they belong.
Does this world really exist? I can't say for certain. Perhaps to live
in it would mean to be creatively stifled. But I often think it would
be nice to be able to write fiction from such a position.
Q: After all these questions about estrangement,
loneliness and similar topics, some may mistakenly believe that your
writing is bereft of humour, whereas at times it can almost induce giggles.
This immediate and irresistible empathy between the written word and
the reader is not an easy thing to achieve. Who were your mentors in
acquiring this skill?
A: I'm so glad my writing makes you want
to laugh. Humour is essential, especially when, like me, you have a
death in nearly every story! My humour tends to be of the ironic type.
And I'm not very sparing of my characters (though I also think humour
is empty without compassion). Where does that come from? I don't think
I consciously learned it from anyone. It's more about my own attitude
to life. I'm always deflating my own drama with a vinegary phrase. It's
about having an eye for the small things, too. Life's comedy is in the
detail -- like when the bumptious uncle in 'Uncle Oswald' ends up living
in "a gleaming white-and-silver Elddis named Shangri-La."
Of course, I love the English and Jewish humourists. Jane Austen. Leo
Rosten. Jerome K. Jerome. Alan Bennett.
Q: I seem to have emphasised the thematic and stylistic
similarities between your short stories and The Genizah at the House
of Shepher. And yet, these are two drastically different forms of
the narrative, two distinctive tools for telling a story. From your
experience as a writer, how do they work?
A: I think of it this way: if a novel is a bouillabaisse, a story is
a bouillon. It's strong, concentrated. A story can contain all the flavours
of a novel but in more suggestive form.
It's commonly said that the short story is the ideal form for today's
busy lifestyle, because it doesn't demand as much of the reader. Actually,
a good short story demands more focus and concentration from a reader
because every word carries that much more weight. It may be full of
links, hints and allusions that you need to be alert and sensitive to
pick up on. I think this may be one of the reasons why short stories
are not as popular as novels. Though more rewarding in many ways, they
can be harder work.
For me as a writer, oddly enough, it's the other way round. I find
the diffuse structure of the novel extremely challenging. The tight,
economical format of the short story comes more easily to me. You can
say a great deal by saying very little.
Q: You have spent a lot of time not only perfecting
your skill, but also thinking about your writing, its nature and its
defining moments. So, for the end, I would like to ask you: what is,
according to you, the main duty of a writer?
A: I don't know that a writer has any duties as such. In fact the word
'duty' always makes me feel very tired. A writer shouldn't feel a sense
of duty, only of desire. A desire to be free and able to express.
But if you ask what is my aspiration in this age of literalism, it
is to achieve through fiction what only fiction can do: to weave together
the many threads of life into something whole, and through that to discover
meaning out of chaos. And to do so in language that is both true and
Tamar Yellin's website can be visited at www.tamaryellin.com.
For further details on both her books from Toby
Press, please visit www.tobypress.com/books/yellin.htm.
© Vanda Ivanovic 2006.
Vanda Ivanovic has published two of her
short stories in the Devil in Brisbane anthology published by
Prime Books in 2005. Her first novel, The Monster Throne, is
being published by Prime Books. Vanda lives in Auckland, Aotearoa/New
Tamar Yellin's first collection Kafka in Brontëland
and Other Stories was published in February 2006 by Toby Press;
ISBN: 1592641539. Tamar's first novel The Genizah at the House of
Shepher was published in February 2005 by Toby Press; ISBN: 1592640850.
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...Kafka in Brontëland and Other Stories from Amazon.com
...The Genizah at the House of Shepher from Amazon.com
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