Excerpted from Martyrs' Crossing by Amy Wilentz. Copyright © 2002 by Amy Wilentz. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Amy Wilentz
Kate Manning and Amy Wilentz have known each other since 1980 when Amy was an editor at The Nation magazine and Kate was a lowly intern, a fact Amy never let Kate forget. However, when Kate was offered the "job" of housesitting an old French farmhouse outside Avignon, Amy suddenly became Kate's best friend, and came along. While in France, Manning and Wilentz wrote many beginnings of novels, countless short stories, and they began the practice of reading and editing each other's work. The two writers still trade chapters, now using their children-- who, incredibly, are friends and classmates--as couriers.
Kate Manning: People familiar with your work before Martyrs' Crossing know you as a journalist, a chronicler of Haitian life and politics, an essayist for The New Yorker on the Middle East, and writer of trenchant commentary on many subjects. But I happen to know you've always been a closet fiction writer. Why did you choose fiction to tell this particular story?
Amy Wilentz: For practical and probably mundane reasons. My first book about Haiti was about a place that American readers really don't know about. The Mideast was different. I was new there, and relatively unsophisticated. I was not immersed in an academic way. I didn't have the proper credentials to write a good non-fiction book. There are already lots of very bad non-fiction books about the Middle East, and only a few great ones. No one needed another factual tome on the conflict there. And you're right, I've always wanted to write novels.
KM: Martyrs' Crossing is your first one, and over the course of the three years it took you to finish, it often seemed to some of your friends and family that it was excruciating and difficult for you to write. Was it?
AW: I really loved writing it. Loved it.
AW: I loved it in retrospect of course. During the writing it was often painful. You think: How in the world do I get Doron out of this mess? Or you think: What would a husband possibly plausibly say to his wife in this situation? And it seems so daunting, day after day, answering these questions and doing it with some verve. The key to writing a novel is to create at least one character whom everyone will love, so that when he is not there, you want him back. Once I had Doron and George and Ahmed and Marina living and breathing, it became easier. Now I'd like to write the book all over again. I loved my characters so much and I feel lost without them. I don't know where to go now without them.
KM: At the risk of sounding like girls choosing their favorite Beatle, who is your favorite character?
AW: Ahmed. He's self-centered and self-important and smart and so easy to write because of that. I understood him. He didn't have a soft side, so he was flatter and easier to write. He's based loosely--very loosely-- on a real person, a former PLO fighter who is now a Bethlehem political figure, and who really was camping up on a mountain, in a tent, protecting the area from Israeli occupation. But in vain. Eventually he left, and the place is now an Israeli settlement. John Le Carre used him in Little Drummer Girl, too, I'm told.
KM: Who was the hardest character for you to write?
AW: Marina was the hardest. The write-what-you-know theory in fiction is that the closer a character comes to yourself or your situation the easier it is to write. Marina is supposedly me, in that she's a woman with a child, roughly my age. But my tendency is not toward self-disclosure. Marina had been through a terrible trauma and it's difficult to portray a mother going through that without lapsing into melodrama. So, I concentrated on the physical details. You don't write her thinking, I am so sad, you concentrate on her folding the laundry and wondering Why am I so incompetent at doing the very things which only yesterday were automatic? It's hard to stay away from cliche when writing about mourning or jealousy or anger.
KM: Or love. Or happiness.
AW: Ugh. Love. Happiness. Happiness should be banned. It's too hard to write it well.
KM: How did you make such good fiction out of a political situation that confounds most people?
AW: You have to be very careful not to put too much politics in it. You write around the politics and write instead about people. You put the politics in the characters' situations. The plot of Martyrs' Crossing is based on political circumstances. This story could not happen without the conflict and pain of the Middle East being what it is. So in that sense the politics are unavoidable. In fact, the politics gives you a firm structure to hang your plot on. The inherent conflict makes the plot go. And I didn't set out to write some apology or some allegory or some heroic fable of good triumphing over evil. For example, people ask me: Why did Doron want to make restitution to the Palestinian mother? He wanted to because that was the kind of man he was, that I made him be. His character is tested by the political situation. I made Doron someone who cared because that made him interesting. He should care. Anyone who watches a child suffer would care--should care. People have argued with me about this, saying, Why should he be so guilty? He was just doing a job. He's acting on orders. He is an instrument of the state. But of course, soldiers do care, and I wanted to show how the soldier--this soldier, anyway--is human.
The problem--anywhere that politics is so violently felt--is that the human is divided from the political. This is the schizophrenia of politics: that the Tutsi is as human as the Hutu, the Palestinian as human as the Israeli. Some readers have come away with the idea that Doron is going crazy, dressing up in Palestinian clothes, searching out Marina in Ramallah; but I think he's normal. To me he's the only sane one. He comes to see the other side as human and that's what leads him to his suicidal situation in the end.
Both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, have told me that there is no soldier like Doron in real life. Israelis are so tough they can't admit that one of theirs could have guilty feelings, which they see as a sign of weakness. Palestinians, on the other hand, see Doron as an attempt to humanize an unfeeling occupying force. But really, I think he does exist. And Martyrs' Crossing is, after all, a novel, not an attempt to progandize, fix, find a solution, to lay blame. It's just a novel. A story about real people in a real place.
KM: Do you protest too much? Your book is quite political, in its own way. Doesn't fiction have power? What can fiction do that non-fiction cannot?
AW: It can create a soldier like Doron. It can marry the personal and the political.
KM: So he's one of the martyrs of the title--human beings sacrificed--or used--for a political purpose, as George muses so painfully and amusingly, too, at his grandson's funeral: "The Palestinian People . . . He could always predict when The Palestinian People would enter the speeches of Palestinians." He's tired of the idea that somehow the death of a child is a noble thing. It's quite funny, the way George thinks, and I like how he uses his sense of humor as armor against pain.
AW: It's fun, figuring out how to have humor in a book that's not about a humorous subject, such as George's cynicism and his sense of the absurd--waving at the upside down goldfish in his hotel fish tank, being somehow pleased at the discomfort of his protege. George's scenes with Marina were fun for me to write since they were based on personal experience. Especially because my own father died some years ago and I miss him terribly, it was a pleasure to put parts of him in a character, teasing him.
KM: And I notice you conveniently made him a widower, so you didn't have to write a wife/mother character. Do I remember correctly that in the first draft, George had a living breathing wife? Explain some of the wrong turns you took and why you made changes.
AW: Yes, George had a wife, but I offed her. She got in the way of his interior monologues. She was extraneous. Also, Doron had a girlfriend. She was first called Becky, and then she was called Noa. I liked her. The scenes I wrote between her and Doron gave the novel glimpses of secular Israeli life; non-military and non-religious, the way life is led by most young people in Israel. Doron and Noa were watching TV and having a pizza party and listening to trance dancing music, smoking cigarettes, having sex. But I cut her because she interrupted the plot. She was a pointless female who was only there to be had sex with and it was bad for her! She wasn't enjoying her role, or the sex, and she felt used, so I offed her. Almost all my sex scenes got cut, thankfully. I also had a character, a Palestinian guy from the refugee camps, who was a suicide bomber. But he was way too stereotypical, and he evolved into the grimy lawyer, Sheukhi.
KM: You left Jerusalem when you were only halfway through the book. Was this liberating, or did it make your task more difficult?
AW: There is a kind of nostalgia and an elegaic feeling that I had after leavingJerusalem that contributed to my writing in a way I like. Sitting here in my New York apartment with the construction next door and the sounds of the subway made me long to get away to the world I had left. You're building a world when you're writing, and when you're far away, you're not constrained by reality. There's a tendency among readers who know a place to say Oh, there's no such thing there! She should know that! But that irritates me because in fiction, as long as it's credible, there should be license.
For example, I don't think there really is an Army headquarters in Jerusalem, and it's certainly not called The Building, as it is in my book. But who cares? My fiction needed it. It could exist. Still, there are some bad things writers do, such as describing a place as a city of broad avenues when in fact it's a warren of narrow streets. You do need a certain degree of faithfulness to reality, and since I was writing for a large population of people who've been to Jerusalem and who would love to see it on the page and read about it, I put lots of things in the book to amuse them. But some people have hated it, me writing about dirty playgrounds that smell of dog shit and are full of trash. They saw this as an attack on Israel. They're the ones who only go to the Western Wall and stay in their hotels and never get a feel for the rest of Israeli life. My friends, the moms in the smelly playgrounds and the people in offices with rusting desks, loved those parts, because those parts felt real.
KM: What are you going to write next?
AW: I'm waffling between a novel that would be more personal, with a first-person narrator, set here in the US, or something set abroad, more like this book. I feel more comfortable with this kind of book. Can we talk about boy and girl fiction?
KM: It seems to me most of our conversations are about boy and girl fictions of one kind or another. So explain what you mean.
AW: What I mean is: Martyrs' Crossing is very much a guy's novel. It's full of history and politics and explosions and what, I'm told, is a rather ripping plot, amazingly enough, since plot is something I hate thinking about. So for me, the idea of writing a so-called girlish memoir/ confession about family life is not entirely appealing. A coming-of-age book? How hateful. I say: skip writing entirely when we are coming of age. I am so glad I missed that. There is one side of my personality that is drawn to things I think of as girl subjects: love, domesticity, family encounters, growing up--but I think plot lies elsewhere. The novelists I love are capable of finding plot anywhere--Trollope, for example, George Eliot. But they write against a broader background than many novelists today.
KM: There's so much navel-gazing and self-help-group fiction around.
AW: The navel-staring is so alienating to me. Aesthetically. Although I love Proust, who wrote one long navel-staring story but made it into a broad social and political portrait. The reason I really dislike most modern self-regarding fiction comes from a moral feeling I have that it often results in a kind of narcissism, a selfishness, and ultimately, who cares???
KM: Right, who cares? Why do readers like it, except to confirm some banal truth about themselves?
AW: Yes, but plenty of Americans will look at a book set in Jerusalem or any other place that's not here, and say: Who cares what happens there? You remember how I used to describe Martyrs' Crossing as a "comic sex romp through the Middle East?" That was a joke about making people care. It's my job to make them care. The way to do that is to write good characters, strong plotting and a lot of steamy, seedy atmosphere. Sex scenes would help, too. I'm saving them all for my next book.
KATE MANNING's first novel, Whitegirl, a story of race, identity, and love, will be published by the Dial Press in March 2002. She is a two-time Emmy-award-winning producer, writer and reporter of television documentaries made for WNET, the public television station in New York. She graduated from Yale University in 1979, and lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
1. Who are the martyrs of the title? How does the author use the idea of martyrdom--dying for a cause--throughout the interwoven stories of her characters? What is the author's attitude toward such martyrdom?
2. Who are the heroes of Martyrs' Crossing? Discuss how Yizhar, Ahmed, Shuekhi, Zvili, Doron, George Raad and Hassan, too, each act according to (or in spite of) personal codes of honor, morality, and patriotism. In a conversation between Yizhar and Doron, Yizhar says, "I despise heroes . . . Heroes act, and other people suffer." Which character comes closest to the author's idea of a hero? What constitutes a hero for our time?
3. As Marina is crossing the checkpoint with masses of Palestinians, she thinks They were her own people, standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament. She had always thought she wanted to. Is Marina a certain kind of American naif? Or is she politically committed in a way her father is not? Is her marriage to Hassan the result of naivete? In what ways has her American upbringing left her unprepared to return to her people? Do Americans romanticize the struggles of disenfranchised people? Do Americans romanticize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why do you think the author chose to give Marina an American past?
4. Underlying the stories in Martyrs' Crossing are the twin questions of what constitutes home, and, what is the meaning of home? George thinks of his friend Ahmed, (Chapter 10 p. 113) "It had been decades since they leaned against each other in this familiar way, not considering politics and the oceans that divided them. Possibly, George thought, this is the meaning of home." Hassan (p. 153) has been teaching Marina about her homeland, saying "You call yourself a Palestinian?" How is the idea of home different for the various characters in this story? What is your idea of home?
5. In this story, people who are ostensibly on the same side do not appear to trust each other. Allies are enemies and foes might be friends. Doron and Marina, for example, seem to understand that in other circumstances they might have more in common than not. George and Ahmed are described as friends in the early part of the book, and by the end, George is described as Ahmed's "greatest enemy," because of differences in what they believe. Doron thinks: I am the enemy, I am the enemy, and he asks Yizhar, "So are we enemies now?" (p. 195) Which characters seem to you to be worthy of the term "enemy"? Which characters seem truly at cross purposes? Which are truly dangerous, and to whom? Who is worthy of trust, and for whom?
6. What are the different ways in which the death of Ibrahim becomes fodder for both the Palestinian and Israeli political machines? Discuss the uses of human tragedy for political purpose. Is this inevitable? Justifiable? How does this kind of propagandizing escalate or ease tension?
7. Discuss George's relationship with Ahmed. Throughout the book, George dwells on his childhood friendship with Ahmed. After Ibrahim's death, George thinks, "If Ahmed was insincere under these circumstances, then Palestine was lost to George." (p. 56) How does their friendship evolve over the course of the book? Do the two men have the same goal? The same beliefs?
8. Examine Yizhar's brand of loyalty to Israel. He spins the death of Ibrahim in the press, (p. 72) and Wilentz writes, "Yizhar felt no remorse. His version of the story was not a lie." Is Yizhar lying? Should he feel remorse? In Yizhar's job, where is the line between good and evil? Discuss the differences between Yizhar and Doron.
9. Is there a particular politics or ideology underlying the story in Martyrs' Crossing? Is the book more sympathetic to one side or the other?
10. "Our little Ibrahim was not a brave Palestinian freedom fighter," George says at his grandson's funeral. (p. 178) "If you want to place blame for my grandson's death, look in the mirror as well. Look at yourself and the Authority." Because of that speech, the lawyer Sheukhi believes George Raad to be a traitor. Sheukhi has one rule, (on p. 185) "Never criticize a fellow Palestinian in public." Yizhar, too, seems to have a similar rule about his fellow Israelis. What are the uses of loyalty in a political conflict? Is this unwillingness to criticize one's own a good impulse, or a bad one? What other examples--say, in police departments--of this unwillingness to criticize one's own can you think of? Discuss the characters' choices in terms of moral absolutism and moral relativism. Is George a traitor to his people? Is Doron a traitor to his?
11. Sheukhi makes a choice. Doron makes a different kind of choice. Both men feel a need to act. Contrast their choices.
12. James Baldwin wrote, "We are trapped in history, and history is trapped in us." How are the characters in Martyrs' Crossing trapped in history? How is it trapped in them? Do you believe human beings can escape the trap of history? If so, how? Who in this story comes closest to escaping? What historical traps have a grip on Americans?