Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Nora Gold

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Nora Gold

Nora Gold is the author of Fields of Exile (Dundurn), which tells the story of a Canadian graduate student who finds herself at odds with her classmates and professors over matters of country, politics and ideology.

Nora speaks to Open Book today about delving into hot button political issues in fiction, her essential ingredients for a good day of writing and her own favourite reads on the themes of controversy and conflict.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Fields of Exile.

Nora Gold:

Fields of Exile tells the story of Judith, a young Canadian woman who lived in Israel for ten years, returned temporarily to Canada because her father was dying, and has now stayed on to get a one-year Masters degree. In Israel Judith was a member of the peace camp and is anything but a simple-minded defender of all things Israeli. She is stunned, however, by the anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism at her school, and especially shocked that this phenomenon is most prevalent on the left, where she feels she belongs: in the anti-oppression/human rights/social justice community. When her committee selects for its keynote speaker on Anti-Oppression Day a “human rights activist” who supports the use of terrorist attacks not only against Israeli military targets, but also against Israeli civilians and Jews around the world, Judith protests but is outvoted. From this point on she is marginalized and labeled “pro-Israel,” which is professionally and socially the kiss of death.


Were you nervous at all about engaging in discussions about Israel in this book? Was this a chance to challenge assumptions that are made about Israel?


The first time I felt nervous about engaging in discussions about Israel through my novel was when it was about to be published. Prior to that, I was too immersed in the intensity of writing Fields of Exile, and in the anger and pain I felt about anti-Israelism, to feel much else. I was aware, though, the whole time, that one purpose of this novel was to challenge the prevailing anti-Israelism on campuses. I wanted (and want) people to understand that it is entirely legitimate to criticize Israel’s government or policies, just as one would critique the government or policies of any other country, but this is not what anti-Israelism is. 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. Wherever anti-Israelism is present, it is recognizable because the criticisms made of Israel are interlaced with classic anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes, such as: All Jews are rich and powerful, Jews control the banks and the media, Jews are plotting world dominion, etc. One of my hopes in writing Fields of Exile was that, by laying all this out for people, I might help generate a much-needed and important conversation about Israel that hasn’t yet happened.


There's also an aspect of peer pressure, groupthink and the difficulty of standing up against the popular opinion of a community in the book. How did you go about crafting the social and psychological aspects of Judith's experience?


I don’t have any memory of consciously crafting anything. I did know clearly, though, the atmosphere I wanted to convey. In addition, I was aware from research I had conducted (a national study on Canadian Jewish women’s experiences of anti-Semitism and sexism) that serious emotional and psychological damage can result from “dripping tap” incidents of oppression or abuse — in other words, from the accumulation of many supposedly “small” hate-filled events. I wanted to create this sort of reality in Judith’s life, and I’m sure this helped shape the development of this novel’s plot.


Do you have any writing habits, rituals or talismans that are a part of your process?


I need to write alone in a space where there is silence and no chance of my being interrupted. I know some writers like writing in public spaces like cafés, but for me, writing is a solitary activity, so I require solitude to engage in it.


What was your approach when you hit rough patches while writing?


Part of what made writing this novel rough was how painful the background subject matter — anti-Israelism — is for me, and how “real life” anti-Israelism kept intervening during the process of writing this book. For example, I’d be writing a scene about boycotting Israel, and I’d open the newspaper and see that that same day some university was holding a vote on whether or not to boycott Israel. It was salt in an open wound, and it was also confusing in terms of holding the boundary between fiction and reality, so at times while writing Fields of Exile, I avoided all news of Israel and of anti-Israelism. Also, because there was so much other darkness in my book, as well (interpersonal hatred, betrayal, etc.), I made a conscious effort while writing this novel to engage with the beauty (including the beauty of nature) and the goodness in the world. I’m lucky that I have a good support network: my husband, my son, and my friends, and this helped a lot to ground me.


You don't shy away from difficult and complex subject matter in this book. What are some books tackling complicated or controversial topics that you've enjoyed as a reader?


It’s funny you should ask this, because lately I’ve been thinking about the first novels I read that dealt with controversial social issues, and how much these have influenced me and my writing. When I was in grade nine (at St. George’s School in Montreal), everything we read in our English class that year related to the theme of prejudice or social injustice. We read Cry The Beloved Country, Black Like Me, Earth and High Heaven, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, More Joy in Heaven, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Tin Flute, and more. These books, individually and collectively, have had an enormous impact on me.


What are you working on now?


My first book was a story collection, Marrow and Other Stories. After that I wrote Fields of Exile, and then I completed a second novel, The Dead Man (currently seeking a publisher). Now I’m returning to writing stories, and I’m enjoying this very much.

Nora Gold is the author of Fields of Exile, the first novel about anti-Israelism in the academe. It was chosen by The Forward as one of “The 5 Jewish Books To Read in 2014,” and it was selected by Chapters/Indigo as a “Heather’s Pick” book. Gold is also the author of the acclaimed Marrow and Other Stories, the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal Jewish, a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at CSWE/OISE/University of Toronto, the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and a community activist.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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