Anglos from America: Writing an Expatriate Novel of Jerusalem

By JOAN LEEGANT

In May of 2002, while visiting my son, who was on a high school program in Jerusalem, a novel set in that city came and grabbed me by the throat. It was not my first visit. I’d lived in Jerusalem for three years, in the late '70s and early '80s, and before 2002 had made five or six other trips back. The throat-grabbing was both a surprise and not a surprise; for nearly two years I’d been slaving over a novel that wasn’t working, a story about a recluse in New York City. Each day, I’d go to my rented room near my current home in suburban Massachusetts—the room was a former dental office attached to someone else’s house—and try to coax the characters to talk. It was like pulling teeth, a slow painful extraction, and I’d imagined that the office rental was some sort of cruel metaphor about the intractable nature of my book.

So for the few days remaining of my 2002 visit to my son, I wrote feverishly in my room in a little guest house—it was actually called Little House—in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. I wrote 30 pages, 50, 70, all in a barely readable scrawl written on loose pages of cheap lined paper found in some dusty Jerusalem stationery shop because I certainly wasn’t going to bring writing pads on my much-needed break from my recalcitrant novel. The story was coming in a rush, every writer’s dream: a distinctive voice that amused me, intrigued me, and best of all, assured me that with every overflowing page, there was plenty more where that came from, set in a place whose bracing air I’d not been able to get out of my nostrils for 22 years. I hardly had to leave my room that week for the city to come at me with nearly overwhelming force. At the end of the visit, I got on the plane back to Boston exhilarated, relieved—the recluse was gone!—eager.

And terrified. Because the one person this noisy voice/character most resembled was me. But I was in the fiction-writing business precisely not to write about myself. If I wanted to write about myself, I reasoned, I’d write non-fiction. Personal essays. Memoir. A book about the writing process. Sure, I knew the whole litany about how much the writer is always in the fiction, how the feelings, perceptions, views are the writer’s even if the characters seem to be, or in fact are, from Mars. I even knew about the clever bit where some writers—Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer—name characters after themselves. But that was their game, not mine. I was not interested in coming out from behind the curtain.

Yet here it was. A Jerusalem novel with a main character who, in too many ways, evoked myself during my Jerusalem years. Three or five years earlier, if a character or story line of this sort had come to me, I’d have fled in the opposite direction. In fact, I’d once done precisely that, briefly begun and quickly abandoned a novel that was veering too close to the personal. But now, given what awaited me in my dental office back home (the recluse was patient and loyal, if nothing else), I hardly had a choice. And my Jerusalem novel was a clever vixen indeed; it knew it had to bide its time and wait me out, let me suffer for a few years in the wrong territory, and then I’d relent.

Because the fear isn’t just about autobiography. As any American or, more accurately, Anglo, that peculiar Israeli word for native English-speaker, who lives in Israel for any length of time will tell you (if they’re telling the truth), leaving Israel is fraught. You feel guilty. You feel lost—you’ve got to start up your life again in your English-speaking country, Canada or Australia or Britain, say, a life whose ties you may not have severed but certainly stretched. And you feel bereft. You loved Israel; that’s why you went there, why you stayed. It did something for you that nothing else has ever done. You were moved in ways you didn’t think you could be. And then, for reasons that are as numerous and predictable as the sands—money, exhaustion, loneliness, illness—you left, and always with a heavy heart. I didn’t return to Israel for 14 years after my initial three-year stay. I couldn’t. I had to remake my life in America, and that required, for a while, pretending that that other life didn’t exist.

Yet here it was, that life, before me, on the ink-scrawled page. Oh sure, it wasn’t my life, exactly. My character wasn’t entirely me—the real me was spread out among three or four different characters—and the things that happened to her didn’t happen to me. Some, of course, I wished had; then maybe I wouldn’t have left.

And there’s the seduction. The elixir. I am not the first fiction writer to say that one reason to write fiction is to rewrite the past. Make for a happier ending. Or a different one, anyway.  A writer friend of mine, who now lives in Michigan but who’s lived in half a dozen countries for long periods of time, says writing novels enables her to return, if not in body then in mind, to the faraway places she loves. In the course of producing a book, she can live there for six, seven, eight years. For some of us, when the real life didn’t work out, making up another one is the best we’ll be able to do. It’s not everything, but it’s something. And that is good enough.