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An Interview with Tamar Yellin

by Vanda Ivanovic

Kafka in Bronteland and other stories by Tamar YellinTamar 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 for Fiction.

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the most recent only two or three years ago, during which I must have produced several dozen others, both published and unpublished.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 as anything.

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 beautiful.

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 Zealand.

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.
Kafka in Bronteland and other stories by Tamar Yellin The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin

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