Event Reports

Passive Observer of Reality or Active Participant?

by Michael Mertes, Palina Kedem

The writer’s roles and responsibilities in an era of political change

KAS Israel contributed to this year’s “International Writers Festival” in Jerusalem (May 18-23, 2014) by co-organizing the panel: “Passive Observer of Reality or Active Participant? The writer’s roles and responsibilities in an era of political change” on May 19. A numerous audience of visitors interested in literature as well as in politics had been attracted by the top-class composition of the panel and a positive preview in Ha’aretz.

Over the past decade, the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem has developed into an internationally appreciated meeting point for writers from all over the globe. In order to be invited, at least one of your books has to be published in Hebrew. This is of course true for Israelis authors, but it also applies to writers from abroad who have achieved interbational reputation.

The panel consited of (in alphabetical order):

  • Oudeh Bisharat, an Arab-Israeli journalist and writer. Currently, Bisharat is an op-ed columnist for both Ha’aretz and Al-Atikhad newspapers. His first novel “The Streets of Zatunia” has been published both in Arabic and in Hebrew. It was very well received: “A charming first novel ... extremely funny, flowing, superrealistic with a dash of satire. It becomes the genuine voice of Arab life in Israel.” To quote from another review: “A fascinating satire about Arab society that is not tainted by Orientalism.”

  • Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian writer, who won, among other important awards, the Dylan Thomas Prize for his book “The Boat”, a collection of short stories. “The Boat” has been translated into fourteen languages and its stories widely anthologised. He is the fiction editor of the Harvard Review. Nam Le came to Australia from Vietnam with his parents, when he was less than a year old, as a boat refugee. His stories have been published in many places including Best Australian Stories and Best New American Voices. He divides his time between Australia and abroad.

  • Marilynne Robinson, an American novelist and essayist. She received several outstanding awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and the 2012 National Humanities Medal. The Medal Citation says that “With moral strength and lyrical clarity, Dr. Robinson’s novels and nonfiction have traced our ethical connections to people in our lives, explored the world we inhabit, and defined universal truths about what it means to be human.” She has written three highly acclaimed novels: “Housekeeping” (1980), “Gilead” (2004) and “Home” (2008). “Housekeeping” was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, “Gilead” was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer, and “Home” received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. This fall, she will release “Lila,” a follow-up to “Gilead” and “Home”. Marilynne Robinson is also the author of non-fiction works, and has written articles, essays and reviews for Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review. In 2010, she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

  • Jan-Philipp Sendker, a German author an former journalist. From 1990 to 1995, he was the American correspondent of „stern“ magazine, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. After a second stay in the U.S. he returned to Germany. He settled in the city of Potsdam and became a successful novelist. So far, he has published the reportage “Cracks in the Great Wall” (2000) and four novels: “The Art of hearing Heartbeats” (2004), “The Whispering Shadows” (2007), “Dragon Games” (2009), and “A Well-Tempered Heart” (2012). He is currently working on a the film version of “The Art of hearing Heartbeats”. A reviewer said about “The Whispering Shadows”: Sendker “develops an impressive case for trust and love, without ever drifting off to kitsch or sentimentality. His book is a must for all readers who are interested in China and not confined to non-fiction.”

The panel was moderated by Michael Mertes director of KAS Israel. He started by quoting from or mentioning three poems where the question of the writer’s responsibility is addressed from different angles: The writer as a political activist, writing a manifesto in the form of a poem; the writer reflecting on the necessity to speak out in a specific situation; and the writer reflecting on his right not to speak out when everybody expects him to take sides.

The first example was Günter Grass’s prose poem “What Must Be Said”, published in 2012. It is about the writer’s fears that Germany’s delivery to Israel of a sixth Dolphin class submarine might facilitate an eventual Israeli nuclear attack on Iran. The poem was passionately discussed in Israel, not least due to the fact that Grass had been in the Waffen-SS as of late 1944. The second example was a line taken from Bertolt Brecht’s “To Posterity”, written as a response to the Nazi terror in the 1930s: “What times are these / When a talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence on so many wrongs!” The third example was taken from Salman Masalha’s poem “On Artistic Freedom in the Nationalist Era”, published in 2011: “… As I am not a fatalist / or member of an underground, / building churches, mosques and synagogues / in the hearts of children … / as I have no government, / with or without a premier, / and there is no chairman sitting on my head, / I can under such extenuating circumstances / sometimes allow myself to be human, / to be a bit free.”

Currently, the full report is only available in German.

English media response

  • David B. Green: Feast your eyes: Jerusalem International Writers Festival about to kick, Ha’aretz online, May 16, 2014: “A more international perspective on a similar question (i.e. the role of the fiction writer as political and social critic, and whether that role is or should be changing) should be evident in a discussion – ‘The Writer’s Role and Responsibilities in the Era of Political Change’ – to be led by the Adenauer Foundation’s Israel director Michael Mertes (Monday, 4:30 P.M., with free admission on advance registration). Mertes, himself a lawyer and a literary translator, will speak with Palestinian-Israeli Odeh Bisharat, who among other things is a columnist for this paper; Jewish-Israeli novelist Gail Hareven; Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer who arrived in Australia as a baby; and Jan-Philipp Sendker, a German journalist who has published two novels whose action alternates between the U.S. and Burma. Speaking with Haaretz the week before the session, Mertes said he had just had an email exchange with one of his panelists about the question of the writer’s ‘responsibility.’ His correspondent, he says, proclaimed that ‘My answer will be that the writer’s responsibility is to write good books, full stop. As far as political responsibility is concerned, it’s no different for a lorry driver, or dentist, or any other citizen.’”

  • Felice Miryam Kahn Zisken: Gained In Translation, The Jewish Weekly online, May 30, 2014: “‘What does it mean to you to be published in Israel?’ moderator Michael Mertes, of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, asked a panel of writers. Vietnamese-Australian novelist Nam Le (‘The Boat’) responded, ‘Gravy, more people reading my work, audience.’ Israeli-Arab author Oudeh Basharat (‘The Streets of Zatunia’) answered, ‘People aspire to live in peace; our climate and our language unite us. When my book was translated, I was very satisfied.’ American author Marilynne Robinson (‘Gilead’) observed, ‘The first translation of my book was into Hebrew. It makes me fond of the place! Hebrew-language readers were so quickly responsive.’ German author Jan-Philip Sendker (‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’) wondered why Israelis like his books with their Far East setting.”