It’s paperback publication day for one of our favourite debuts of 2014, Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj. Find out more about this beautiful and timely novel in today’s blog from the author.
“Of the many extraordinary things happened after this book escaped into the great wide world – the one that haunts me most came through an unexpected letter. It arrived on my computer one evening. And even though it came via email it was still very much a letter – an old woman’s thoughts precisely set down in careful paragraphs, framed with a polite greeting and a sad farewell.
It wasn’t a review. I suppose it was an appeal of sorts, a cry of protest from someone I’d never met or even known existed – but whom I’d hurt nonetheless and who now demanded an explanation.
She wrote from Israel, the home of her girlhood and her old age. There, she told me, decades ago, when she still wore stockings to school and put on lipstick at the weekends, she had known my father. They were classmates in Jaffa in the 1950’s, a few short years after Palestine’s fall and Israel’s birth. A Jew who loved her country, and a Palestinian Arab who’d lost his. She sent a picture of them beaming out from a crowd of friends – the only picture I’ve ever seen of my father in his teens. He’s crouching shyly, she has a beehive hairstyle and arms flung around her girlfriends. At their backs the schoolyard stretches away full of laughing children in sepia tones.
Why was she writing? She said she’d seen an interview with me on the BBC and recognized an image of my father. Thrilled to rediscover an old friend and curious to read a story inspired by his experiences she’d bought my book. And what she read devastated her. Her letter to me was hurt and puzzled. I can’t believe that the character of Salim in your book at the boy I knew are the same person, she protested. I can’t believe this was really how he was feeling all along. We were all friends, us Jews and Arabs here in Jaffa. I can’t believe he grew up with this pain, and to hold these prejudices.
Ah, the difficulties of separating threads of fact from fiction – and when you write fiction woven out of fact, it’s an even more tangled knot to unpick.
When I set out to capture the sweeping story of my two families through a tale about a boy and his orange trees, an author friend asked me why I didn’t simply write a memoir. My answer was instinctive. When we try to pin histories down, we risk twisting and changing them. How can any of us be sure we know exactly what happened and when? Memories change, pictures fade, documents get lost. The history we think we know is part fact, part imagination.
Salim, Jude and the generations of characters in my novel were shaped in part from family memories – from my childhood, from my parents and their stories spun out Russia and Palestine, from the violence of Europe and the intoxication of Beirut. But every new word I wrote gave the Al-Ishmaeli and Gold households a fresh spirit unlike my mother’s and father’s, filling them with colour and purpose of their own. I used to sit at my computer and imagine how it must have felt for writers in the age of the pen – watching ink infuse into the page like blood into a vein, creating life with its own unique alchemy.
Facts matter in historical novels, of course – and I wanted to get mine right. I spent hours, days, months researching how much train tickets cost in turn of the century Russia, or where to buy a handful of sherbets in Jaffa’s forgotten souqs. I needed to know how to drive the dangerous routes to the Shatila refugee camp in the days before civil war turned Beirut’s roads to rubble, and how to get a visa if you wanted to escape to London. I researched so much I had to remove half of what I’d learned in the editing process. It still hurts to remember those tiny pieces of hard-won knowledge pooling oh-so-reluctantly on the cutting-room floor.
But facts are not truth. Truth is a much fiercer crucible for narratives – and Arabs and Jews have not one truth but many. I searched for the truths about my family experience through empathy rather documentary. I wanted to translate the emotions of one side for the other, to allow both to feel each other’s joys and sorrows. And even though only some of events of the book are a “factual” part of my particular family story – I believe the book is true to our experience. And it is true to the broader experience of two peoples locked together in a sorrowful history of war, migration and loss.
I did write back to my father’s old school friend, and gave her the best comfort I could. She wasn’t deluded and she hadn’t been deceived. The shy and openhearted boy she’d cared for was no less or more real than the conflicted man in my novel. They can both occupy the same soul, the same human story, the same place in history. They are both fact and both fiction. We all change in the telling and as we grow older – not just who we are in the present, but who we were in the past. That’s what Ishmael’s Oranges is all about, in the end.
In many ways, this book is above all a confession. I live in Lebanon, a country still at war with Israel, where a woman with a Palestinian surname would never admit to a Jewish heritage. Launching this book during the last Gaza conflict, I felt like I knew what it was like to be gay, coming out to a disapproving society. The world felt more exposed and less certain. I needed courage to face my friends here, with the “truth” about me all over the press. And they were more hesitant, as if they had to get to know me all over again – part as friend, part as foe.
If you’re planning to read my story – and I so hope you are – then please write when you’ve finished and tell me if any of this reminds me of your own. This is the great age of migration and movement, after all. Few of us will end up where we started – geographically or otherwise. Our lives and histories are all connected – and who knows, you may even meet a person like yourself or someone you love along the way. And if you do, I’m waiting to hear. Shalom salaam, Claire”