Major Sephardic Novelists: The Risks They Take
Guest Editor, Jane
Would a writer want to jeopardize the great demanding work of writing a novel by taking risks? In fact, the right question is: if you’re not taking risks, why would you want to write a novel?
I had been presenting at Modern Language Association Sephardic Forum panels on and off since 2003, and as chair in 2015 in charge of selecting a topic for its panel at the next MLA annual convention, I was experiencing some intense emotions. On the one hand I had memories of panels year after year that picked up appealing and glittering Sephardic fragments and splinters, shards and remnants in poetry, film, theatre, and memoir. At the same time, I jealously recalled something hugely important in my life as an English major at Cornell. I was a Jew, descended from Turkish Jews, with awareness of a great steamship in the waters of my literary consciousness: The Major English Novel. For the 2016 panel, it took me a week to hone in on exactly what I wanted. I knew I wanted to focus on the powerful genre of the novel (I had just completed my own novel, which it turned out would appear the month after the MLA convention). And then I got it: Major Sephardic Novelists, as big in its way as Major English Novelists. It wasn’t that we had a George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, and people didn’t know about them, but that proposing the specific genre of the novel would liberate us to focus on that great form. I needed that effort personally to find my way as a novelist and for Sephardic literature to be recognized at a new level. As a young woman writer I’d needed to major in English novelists. Now as a Sephardic writer I needed to find the context, the vast pulse of ambition that I was writing in, the rich sources, what the fire is, the hunger, the lunacy, the passion, and the art in my own tradition.
The MLA has thirty-six Literature, Language, and Culture forums, each focused on a particular cultural group. While many of the forums focus on one language (e.g. Yiddish) or one country (Mexico) or one era (19th-century Latin American), the Sephardic Forum embraces literature written in many different languages, countries, and eras, reflecting Spanish Jewish origins in Iberia before 1492, and afterwards in the Levant, Western Europe, Africa, and the Americas. As it turned out, the five panelists I selected focused on distinguished novels of the last sixty-five years. The public may not even be aware that these novelists are Sephardic. The presenters discussed the novels of the 2014 French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano (who writes in French), the Tunisian Albert Memmi (who also writes in French), the Israeli A.B. Yehoshua (who writes in Hebrew), the Mexican Rosa Nissán (who writes in Spanish and Judeo-Spanish) and the Egyptian Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (who wrote in English).
Great artists take risks. It’s illuminating to consider what risks these novelists have taken to make the public think deeply about character and culture, about artistic, religious, or nationalistic assumptions. Yehoshua’s novel Mr. Mani questions the sacrifice of Isaac story. Kahanoff, Memmi, and Nissán, risk offending their audience through daring criticism or demanding novelistic techniques. It’s my pleasure to present four of the five papers; the fifth one, on Patrick Modiano, we expect to appear in a future issue.
* Jane Mushabac is the author of several books, including a novel published this year, professor of English at City Tech, CUNY, and a member of the Sephardic Horizons editorial board.