Reading & Writing Diversity: An Interview with Poet Marcela Sulak

I think it is safe to say that the world is quite large. We have never each been to all the places, neither have we each met all the people. Ourselves included. It is less safe to say that we have never seen our own faces, since it is something we think we see every day.

But, in fact, we never have – I mean this in the literal sense. Even a mirror is a mere reflection, a trick of the light that inverts how we really look. And photographs, tagged or untagged, filtered or not, tell a different story.

I also mean it in the figurative sense. The older we get, the more sides of ourselves we find (That is not to say age is a prerequisite, but a tendency). Yesterday we woke up and felt the contours of our face and found a nose. Today lips. Perhaps tomorrow we will be the left eye.

And we might find that we have a diversity within us, much more without. Only others really see our faces, so perhaps it’s only through their eyes that we see our own. Maybe that is the point of writing: to experience and show the different sides of who we are and who we could be. If not to relate, then to learn. Surely, we are capable. We do, after all, “contain multitudes.”

The topic of diversity is certainly an interesting one, especially as discussed in the United States, as well as how it plays into writing, so I reached out to poet Marcela Sulak to get some perspective. Sulak is the director of the Creative Writing program at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, and an editor (poetry and non-fiction) of the international online literary journal The Ilanot Review, the latest issue of which came out Nov. 3[1].

Born and raised on a farm in south Texas, she has worked and taught in various parts of the world, including South America, West and Central Europe, and now Israel. Apart from writing, teaching, and editing, she also translates works from six different languages[2]. Having also taught in the United States, and understanding how diversity has been discussed in the publishing sphere, I thought she might have some insight into the issue. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation regarding diversity in reading and writing.

INTERVIEWER

What brought you to Israel? And, with regards to literature and poetry, are there any differences in atmosphere or attitude between the people you’ve encountered in Israel and those in the United States?

MARCELA SULAK

Chance brought me to Israel. After my first semester at my first tenure-track job at American University in Washington, DC, fresh out of graduate school, I spent a month in Jerusalem, and there I encountered the chair of the Department where I now work, who invited me to apply for a Fulbright. At American University, I found my position challenging and rich – but I was also a single mother, and I was working 80-100 hour weeks in the publish-or-perish race.

I took my research leave in Israel, and there I was teaching in my areas of expertise – American literature, creative writing (poetry), but I was also single-parenting an infant while studying Hebrew intensely. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t felt alive in America, though I am sure it was due, in part, to the general sense of heightened awareness that always comes from living abroad. But there was another dimension. In America, I had been the only pre-tenure woman with a child. In Israel, I was the only pre-tenure woman with only one child. I felt the life in Israel called for me to be a human being in all its dimensions, rather than in a single, highly professionalized manner. My Israeli graduate students, too, though initially not as professionally-prepared as my American students, had mighty learning curves and much more worldly experience that translated into their academic and creative pursuits.  I felt Israel was a better fit for me, though I took a pay cut to come here. I was offered a tenure-track position, and I accepted.

Which brings me to your second question – the differences in attitude between Americans and Israelis. Basically, I would say there is more nuance in how people understand the world in Israel than in America. In Israel, the idea that there are “two sides to every story” is laughable. It’s a country the geographic size of New Jersey with as many political parties as there are letters in the alphabet. There are 3-20 sides to every story. And at least 10 opinions about what the story under debate is, and even if it is a story.

I would say there is also a deeper understanding of the fragility of life and human circumstances, and a deeper connection to one another in Israel, and to those who are suffering in the world. Israelis can’t believe America does not have universal healthcare coverage, for example, free or accessible quality education, or that fire arms are not regulated. A result of this “care” is that everyone is in your business all the time, and there is much shouting in the streets and many more arguments.

Most Americans don’t have an understanding of Israel, seeing it more as metaphor (for religious salvation, for conflict). I’m not sure if most people realize it’s got two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, and of the three-quarters of the population that are Jewish, more than half are Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews (who originate from Israel or Arab states from which they were expelled after 1948). And of the fact that the Arab population contains Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouin, and that there are other sizable minorities.

In graduate school, there are fewer minorities in creative writing, but even here, they span an interesting range. For example, one student is a feminist, speaking out against the patriarchy of the Arab nations. A Peace Now Jewish student informed her she isn’t allowed to say such racist things. And we all laughed. Another student is a devout Muslim who writes beautiful, spiritual poems, but whose mother speaks Hebrew in West Bank markets while shopping during Ramadan.

While this diversity may exist in America, it isn’t given the narrative space that I find in my classroom. Also, in my Israeli classroom, I find students with varying degrees of religious observance, political and linguistic affiliation, and economic background. We are all united around Israel’s right to exist, but the means of existence are incredibly diverse and passionately argued. At the end of the day, we have to get along, somehow. The country is too small and property too expensive to get away from anyone.  So, in a sense, after all the arguing, we have to come home to one another.

INTERVIEWER

It seems that what you’re saying is from an outside perspective looking in, it’s a lot more obvious that the American perspective pays so much attention to itself that it even has to define, say, issues of diversity, as opposed to a more global Israeli perspective that already takes ‘diversity’ as a given. Where a classroom of Israeli students would laugh ironically at their different backgrounds and perspectives, in an American classroom, a comment of “such racist things” might result in a conversation about political correctness. (Not that political correctness is necessarily bad, but just to contrast between accepting difference with laughter and erasing difference with language.) There seems to be a general understanding in Israel that issues of diversity aren’t resolved with stable agreements, but the acceptance of a reality that is continuously unstable, one where we must continuously, as you say, come home to one another.

You mention that this “worldly experience [translates] into their academic and creative pursuits.” One question that I have, then, is how you think these perspectives of assumed diversity translate into their writing. In other words, do they write about different issues? Or perhaps in different ways?

Also, since it is voting season, I can’t help but tangent toward the current political situation in the United States and the relevance of your comment regarding how “two sides to every story” is oversimplified. This ‘caricature’ is, of course, literally represented by our bipartisan system. On the other hand, you say an Israeli perspective tends to see “3-20 sides to every story.” How does this translate to how they write their own stories, be it in fiction, poetry, memoir, etc?

SULAK

A very short answer to your question is “a sense of self irony.” I see it as a characteristic of the best writing of our best Israeli students – also, when I worked in Central Europe, I noticed this quality in artists and storytellers there. A sense of self irony, I think, means the ability to note the limits of one’s belief systems, and not to discount what lies outside of one’s ken. It means writing with an understanding of oneself as participating in a conversation, rather than acting as a mediator between “gods and men.” Of course, this is simply basic good writing – writing to discover, not to teach.

But maybe I see much greater use of hybrid forms here among my students in Israel – lyric essay, poetic memoir, flash, mixed genre works. Three of my recent graduate students have published or are about to publish such hybrid works. I think hybridity is interesting – it is a way of writing, of being in the world, that realizes there is no ready-made stage; that realizes for what it wants to say there are no pre-given rules or expectations.

I also see a willingness among my students to write other points of view – ones that directly contradict one’s own statements and beliefs.

INTERVIEWER

That’s very interesting: a sense of self irony. That makes sense in that it would come through in writing more implicitly, the mindset of the writer being one of many voices rather than trying to be the voice – this is probably easier said than done since the writing/publishing industry is so competitive in either looking for or being the voice. It seems, then, that this sense of self irony is somewhat contradictory to the publishing culture in general.

If I’m understanding correctly, a sense of self irony manifests in writing in terms of content by writing varying points of view. In terms of form, then, does a sense of self irony show in breaking out of conventional forms (i.e. belief systems) by experimenting with hybrid forms?

In this case, do you think a sense of self irony can be taught? If so, how do you teach your creative writing classes with this in mind? Also, as poetry editor of the Ilanot Review, how does this factor into your reading process?

SULAK

Perhaps when one is writing from a small country about which the international community has a lot to say, it is a given that you are always writing (when you write in English here) against other opinions, and from a lived experience. So much of what is written about Israel from non-Israelis is not lived first hand – I’m speaking here of polemical poetry – or it attempts to convince. But work that enters politics or philosophy slant-wise (by focusing on grocery shopping, garbage collection, riding public transportation, or any mundane activity) can engage in political or philosophical discourse, as well as personal.  I favor the “no ideas but in things” approach. And yes to your first question above.

I teach a course on documentary poetics, in which we write from research as well as lived experience, and this creates a dialogue. I’m not sure I ever consciously focus on “teaching” a sense of self irony, but I do use, as models, works that exhibit extreme curiosity about things outside ourselves. Everyone contains contradictions, and the contradictions are often the most interesting parts.

Hybrid forms allow us to examine outside materials in real time – perhaps poems more often encourage us to examine and conclude first, and then write (not always); but there is often a sense of conclusion at the end of a poem. In a hybrid work, however, the question is often unresolved. That is, of course, to put it simplistically.

Speaking as an editor of The Ilanot Review, we do favor hybrid works. But we also favor works that show curiosity about the world (rather than answers). We look for voices that express lived experience that we’ve not previously given voice to. Obviously, we also appreciate great craft – understanding how syntax, forms, and punctuation work, so that the rules can be violated or used subversively – that’s exciting.

[1] Check it out at http://www.ilanotreview.com! It will contain the work of writers from Nigeria, Vietnam, Israel, and the United States, among other parts of the world.

[2] Her full bio can be found at http://www.marcelasulak.com


Czander Tan does not own any cats, dogs, or books on post-fluxus philosophy; he also does not like leg-jigglers.

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