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Monday, February 21, 2005

Human Anguish in a Manly World / Ma'ariv, September 3, 2004

"I was thinking: So many books, so many women writers, Who are they?" asks Corinna in her words on the back cover of Noffey Haneffesh ("Intimate Landscapes").

Noffey Haneffesh (Once She Was A Child), written as in answer to this question, is a collection of intimate conversations with women writers, linked by the author's journal and responses as she follows their tales with her own.

"Women Writers". Is there an unifying element to help us define "Female Writing"? Had Corinna meant to describe here an entity of "Female Experience"?

The writers whose life story fragments are disclosed to us are so different, almost all over. In "Once She Was A Child" you'll find Barbara Frishmuth from Austria; Amelie Nothomb - A Belgian born and raised up in several Asian countries; Leila Sebbar - born in Alger to an Algerian father and a French mother; the Israeli Karen Alkalay-Gut, the Dutch Marion Bloom, Leena Lander in Finland, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Amina Said and Michelle Grangaud in France and Hanne Marie Svendson in Denmark. They mostly relay the story of their childhood, yet do talk also about their youth and adult life.

Those are memories' glimpses of women who on the surface seem to have nothing in common - and yet they share so many similar facets.

The most prominent one is Absence - an experience of emptiness, of want. Many times this experience appears linked to a father's disappearance: Barbara Frishmuth's father was killed in the 2nd World War - she remembers nothing of him; Svetlana Vasilenko's father (Russia) never married her mother - he comes and goes, leaving behind him a trail made of big holes.

Sometimes the origin of the spatial emptiness is different, as in the death of a child, Dacia Maraini's (Italy) - whose death is mentioned in passing, in just one sentence, almost unsaid.

Many things are left unsaid. They are absent from the book's pages, yet exist in-between the lines, in the space the writing itself opens - paralleling life's story.

In total apposition appear and reappear in the book experiences of brutal intrusions and invasions. Such is the breaking into Anisa Darwish's house at Ramallah 2002 and the doubled helplessness she feels while facing the Israeli governing powers as well as while facing her Israeli friends, to whom she cannot describe her lot in their language - the language of occupation; or the helplessness expressed in the story of the penetration into Karen Alkalay Gut's body, doubled by the inability to talk about rape in a Men's World and in a language whose meanings and borders are defined by a male's worldview.

Other themes, such as the relation to one's name or to one's native place, resurge throughout the book, linking the diverse stories - as if hinting to us in Corinna's name: These are the matters which being female build.

All throughout the stories the book links strongly to the Israeli existence. Two major Israeli narratives correspond with each other: One is the Holocaust, which keeps popping up in the first part of the book - the voyage to Europe and the conversations with European writers. Yet in the second part of the book, that of writers from the Arab world, where the Holocaust seemingly disappears entirely, the Holocaust is present in it's denial and oblivion. When this denial becomes outspoken (in the Egyptian Niam El Baz's narrative), Corinna, via her travel journal, brings us back in time, to her childhood in Romania of the 2nd World War.
As if she meant to say: It really happened.

But maybe she wants to create a link to that other Israeli narrative - our relations with the Palestinians, the "Peace" and, mainly, the war. When the memories from Romania emerge - military governing, soldiers entering home at midnight to search for her fugitive father, the home confiscation , the wire barbed camp of imprisoned refugees in Cyprus - there echo pictures as if taken from Anisa Darwish's story of her life in Ramallah. There is no explicit statement on the relation between the two narratives, but the way they engage and disengage opens to the reader a new vista enabling re-consideration of the various links between them.

Slowly the book has invaded me. So much strength it contains. Women's strength to confront traditions, religion, Man's World Laws - and yet, so much pain and anguish. Female anguish and human one as well. Not always I am able to discern between the two, between what might constitute a human experience and what is unique to women's life in a world run according to Men's Laws.

This pain cuts through especially when it surfaces repeatedly in attempts to find happy memories. It's just then, when it steals its way through the back door, stubbornly re-affirming its presence in the lives of those women, it is then that it presents itself, eternal, compelling with the utmost power.

Hagar Kotef-Sekund
The Literary Supplement, Maariv 3.9.04

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read it in Polish...in Hungarian...

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