Author Explores Both Sides of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

April 6, 2007 at 3:40 PM EDT
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Author and peace advocate David Grossman has become one of his Israel's leading writers exploring the toll that war and occupation have taken on both Israelis and Palestinians. Jeffrey Brown talks with Grossman about being a writer amid the conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Jerusalem, holy to three religions, echoes of the distant past are all around, but for those who live here, more recent echoes abound, as well.

As we watched on a beautiful afternoon on Ben Yehuda Street, a popular pedestrian way, people walked, shopped, enjoyed ice cream. Just a few years ago, this street was the scene of several suicide bombings.

How do people live amid this? How does a writer capture this human drama? In a series of novels that explore the inner lives of Israelis caught up in a very public conflict, David Grossman has become one of his nation’s leading writers.

Last summer, as Israel waged war in Lebanon, the mix of the public and private struck Grossman directly. As a well-known peace advocate, he spoke out against the Israeli incursion. A few days later, he suffered the personal grief of war when his 20-year-old son, Uri, was killed while serving with a tank unit.

I spoke with David Grossman recently near his home in Jerusalem. He requested that we not discuss the death of his son.

'A wonderful place for a writer'

JEFFREY BROWN: I wanted to talk about the relationship between being a writer and this conflict. Has it ever been possible for you to separate the two?

DAVID GROSSMAN, Israeli Writer: It becomes more and more difficult for me to separate the two. I take my reality or the reality that I'm living in a very serious and personal way. And I try both to document it as precisely as I can and sometimes maybe even to change what can be changed.

It's a wonderful place for a writer to live in.


DAVID GROSSMAN: It's much harder for a normal person.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's harder for a normal person and wonderful for a writer?

DAVID GROSSMAN: Yes, because writers are intrigued by extreme situations, by strong and extreme dilemmas, by moral questions, existential situations. You have them all here. Just pick and choose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just walk down the streets?

DAVID GROSSMAN: Yes. You know, our everydayness, so to say, consists of so many crucial questions that, in other places, probably are studied in universities, in departments of philosophy, in courses of morality, all the things that we struggle with when we have to raise our children, when we have to make all kinds of, you know, everyday decisions.

So, of course, it's very tempting to write about it, to turn it into a novel. It's unbearable to live in that.

Using non-fiction

JEFFREY BROWN: Grossman has also written nonfiction, in order, he says, to speak more directly to people. His essays and books explore the toll that war and occupation have taken on both Israelis and Palestinians, the barriers, both real and imagined, that he thinks writers can help address.

DAVID GROSSMAN: When I write journalism, I am more aware of the fact that people are going to read it; even more so, I want people to read it. I want to approach people.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean you're writing the journalism to address people?


JEFFREY BROWN: But in a way that's different from when you're writing novels?

DAVID GROSSMAN: Yes, I think writing novel is very egocentric and private deed. When I write it, I really don't want to remember that there are people on the other side of the page.

Now, don't get me wrong. I lost my virginity some years ago. I know that people are going to read it. But I really gradually try to forget it. It's a very intimate act, writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: It has struck me since being here that words carry such great weight, more than in other places.

DAVID GROSSMAN: You can see, in such distorted situations, like ours, how the language serves as a buffer between the human being or the society and the situation, between the individual and the politics of his or her government. And I think exactly here is the place where writers can change something in this situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what can you change?

DAVID GROSSMAN: Call things by the right name. I mean, call a freedom fighter a freedom fighter, and call him a terrorist when he's a terrorist. And call the wall a wall, when it needs, and call it only a fence, a defense fence, in other places.

Both sides are trapped in this situation, and both sides are making horrible mistakes. I think being a writer here, which is for me being someone who is willing to expose himself totally to all the contradiction in the situation, to all the places where you actually meet the most ugly and tormented parts within yourself or within your own people.

Writing during the Second Intifada

JEFFREY BROWN: Most interesting, perhaps, is the way these contradictions creep into and affect Grossman's writing in unexpected ways. In 2001 and '02, during the height of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, when citizens were blown up in buses and shops on Jerusalem streets, Grossman wrote a novel called "Her Body Knows."

DAVID GROSSMAN: It was quite a terrifying period here in Israel. You never knew if you were going to get your family members back at the end of the day when you send them in the morning to school, you know. And I sat and, for two years, I wrote a story about jealousy, a man who is absolutely jealous of his wife, and then he creates this jealousy as a gigantic tool to love her in another way.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in the middle of bombs going off, the worst of the violence, you wrote a very internal, private story.

DAVID GROSSMAN: Yes, because I feel we are so deprived of this intimacy, of tenderness, of the delicacy of nuances, of feelings, of relationship between man and woman, parent and his child. There's no time and energy for all these things when violence roars around us.

You know, I always have this metaphor that, for so many years, we sent all our energies and creativity and blood and money and whatever to the borders of our being, the borders that separate and protect between us and the enemy, that we are now at a danger of becoming like a suit of armor, but without the knight inside, without the human being inside. Writing about all these things is to revitalize the human being inside.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Grossman, thank you for talking to us.