Saturday, September 15, 2012
Michelle Cohen Corasanti's book is out!
Just got notice that one of the writers I coach on their novels just had the book I worked with her on come out. Michelle Cohen Corasanti was nice enough to send me the essay her publisher—Garnet Publishing, a UK publisher—asked her to write for their website and Michelle gave me permission to post it here. In it, she relates her journey to publication and I think the writers here will find it very interesting. I’m delighted to report that I also helped her secure her agent. After playing a bit of a role in her success, I was delighted she didn’t forget the “little people” like moi.
Without further ado, here’s what Michelle had to say:
WHY DID I WRITE THE ALMOND TREE?
I never wanted to be a writer. Well, you might wonder, then why did I you write a novel? All I can say is that I witnessed something, over twenty years ago, that affected me so deeply that despite all my best efforts, I could no longer repress it. I remember the exact moment it happened. I had just started reading Khaleed Hosseni’s book, The Kite Runner. I was lying on a lounge chair, by the pool, at the Setai hotel, in South Beach, sipping a cosmopolitan. I was on vacation with my husband and twins. I didn’t have a care in the world until Amir, the protagonist, said that the past can’t be buried, that it finds the means to claw its way out. And like Amir, my past found a way to call me. And there I was face-to-face with my worst nightmares and my greatest failures. One might say a defining moment. And I decided, that I wanted my children to know, that I had seen injustice and I that I would try to do something about it. And so I wrote the story that had been inside of me for so long.
WHAT IS MY FAMILY BACKGROUND?
I grew up in a Jewish home in which German cars were boycotted and Israeli bonds were plentiful. Other than the blue-and-white tin Jewish National Fund sedakah box my family kept in the kitchen and the money we would give to plant trees in Israel, all I knew was that after the Holocaust, the Jews found a land without a people for a people without a land.
I went to public school until third grade and then attended the Hillel Yeshiva. There were two students in my sixth grade graduating class. I returned to public school for seventh grade, stopped wearing skirts with pants underneath and re-befriended my former best-friend whom I had lost touch with during my yeshiva years. Her father had since died, her mother turned into a raging alcoholic and her older brothers spent most of their time in their bedrooms listening to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in a state I still was too young to recognize. She lived without rules as she had no supervision. Just what every teenage girl wants and what every parent doesn’t.
Being the oldest and the only daughter in the family, my parents' strictness suffocated me. I decided I wanted to study abroad in Paris in order to get distance from my parental-choke-hold. My Zionist parents rejected that idea and sent me to Israel to study Judaism and Hebrew with the Rabbi’s perfectly well-behaved and obedient daughter Miriam. I was sixteen-years-old and the year was 1982.
WHAT WAS MY INITIAL EXPERIENCE IN ISRAEL LIKE?
Despite having come from Utica, New York, the transition to the Ben Shemen Boarding School was effortless. I soon had an Israeli boyfriend. When he told me he was a Kahanist, I had no idea what he was talking about. “I believe in transfer,” he told me. “There are 21 Arab countries, the Palestinians must choose one of them. We don’t want them in this country.” And who was I to question him? I thought Palestinian was a synonym for Israeli. I had been taught, after all, that Israel was a land without a people. I had never met a Palestinian.
As it turned out, my socializing helped advance my Hebrew more than the flash cards Miriam was constantly reviewing in our room. I had become a top student. Of course I decided to stay.
When I graduated from high school, I enrolled in the preparatory program at the Rothberg International School to improve my Hebrew in order to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My boyfriend was unhappy. “There are too many Arabs in Jerusalem.” He was in the military by then and would come to visit me with his loaded M-16, as required by law.
My parents, in an attempt to break-up my relationship with the Kahanist, sent me to Paris for the summer to study French. There I met a girl from Beverly Hills and we spent most of our nights in exclusive clubs filled with rich, educated Lebanese men. Those were the first Arabs I had ever met. They had quite a different version of Israel than the one I had learned. With my eyes opened, I returned to Israel.
WHEN DID MY OPINION ABOUT ISRAEL CHANGE?
I returned to Israel, dropped the Kahanist, and enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies program at the Hebrew University. I was the only American in my department. The rest of the students were Israeli Jews and “Arab Israelis.” After my experience in Paris, I befriended the latter, but they were nothing like the elite Lebanese I had met. They were poor, second-class citizens and I had to hide my friendship with them out of fear I might be failed-out—a very real fear, I might add.
At the start, I was the only one in the department who didn’t know who Mohammad was. Come to find out, both the “Arab Israelis” and I had no knowledge of the version of Islam and Middle Eastern History that was being taught at my department. It was forbidden to write Palestine because it never existed. Before 1948 there was the empty land of Israel and afterwards there was Israel. It is true what they say that history is written by the victors. I was quickly learning another history from my “Arab-Israeli” friends. Plus, I witnessed first-hand how they were treated.
When I told my parents, they refused to believe me. My parents, who are liberal democrats, who were the first to support Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the civil rights legislation that followed his marches and were opposed to the Apartheid in South Africa ,didn’t want to hear and refused to believe what I was saying. In fact, none of the American Jews I knew believed or wanted to hear what I was saying. I had never witnessed such racism and discrimination in my life. In fact, I was mystified to observe how the same group of people could be vehemently opposed to oppression and racism of blacks in the US and around the world, could support a similar form of discrimination and oppression of Palestinians. It was then that I realized how I differed from the other American Jews I knew. The lessons I learned from the Holocaust were that we can never be bystanders to human suffering whether it be Jewish or non-Jewish. The lessons the other Jews learned was the Berlin Wall. We can only rely on ourselves. We must do whatever it takes so that we can have an as close to an ethno-religiously pure Jewish country as we can in case it’s needed and we will achieve that goal regardless of what we have to do to the non-Jewish natives. I felt like I was pitted against the rest. At that time, I didn’t know anyone else who took my position. I had never heard of Amira Hass or Ilan Pappe at that point in my life.
The last year I was there, the intifada broke out. Things went from horrible to unbearable. Something needed to be done and I was determined to help bring it about.
WHAT WERE MY PLANS TO HELP BRING ABOUT A JUST PEACE BETWEEN THE PALESTINIANS AND THE ISRAELIS?
I returned to the United States to pursue my master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. I was determined to devote myself to achieving a just peace in the Middle East and defending the oppressed. I devoted my every breath to that goal. While at Harvard, I won a Foreign Language & Area Studies fellowship to pursue Arabic at Middlebury College’s summer total immersion program. As I had already studied Arabic for four years, I entered at the advanced level.
When I finished the program, I went with a classmate to Walden Pond and we were speaking in Modern Standard Arabic when three Arabs approached us. One spoke to me in colloquial Palestinian. He, who I’ll call Hasan, told me I spoke like Nagib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate.
Hasan had completed his PhD in Chemical Physics at the Hebrew University and was doing his post-doctorate with a Nobel Prize winner at Harvard. We knew the same people, had lived in the same dorm and had the same birthday. I learned his father had gone to prison when he was young and wasn’t released until Hasan was in graduate school. Hasan’s father had helped a refugee bury arms. Hasan, being the oldest son of nine children with an illiterate mother, had to work to support his family from a very young age. Due to circumstances, Hasan was only able to attend school on occasion. But because he was brilliant in math and science, he didn’t need more. He eventually won a scholarship to the university. There, the Israelis recognized his genius and embraced him. He grew up in a mud brick one room house. They didn’t get electricity until he left for college. I was going to make up for everything he had suffered.
HOW DID IT HAPPEN THAT INSTEAD OF MAKING HASSAN’S DREAMS COME TRUE, I BECAME HIS WORST NIGHTMARE?
I graduated from the master’s program at Harvard and started law school (I was going to be an international human rights lawyer) and my PhD at Harvard at the same time. The Middle Eastern studies program had been easy for me, but law school was a different story. I should have read Scott Turow’s One L before I started. I was studying twenty hours a day. I never went out while Hasan tried to find a professorship. Since I spoke to him in Arabic, I hadn’t realized that his English was practically non-existent and so I had to spend many evenings translating and listening to his lectures in Chemical Physics.
When I met Hasan I didn’t realize that getting an academic position would be harder than achieving peace in the Middle East, with up to a thousand top candidates applying for the seven or eight positions that opened up each year. I told him it was fine for his mentor, a Nobel Prize winner, to take risks, but he was at the start of his career. Little did I know that he was at the forefront of nanotechnology. With the pressure from my studies and his job search I crumbled.
I decided to do an internship my last semester in law school with my father’s law firm in my hometown. There, I met my husband who had recently returned home from Los Angeles and never looked back. I had wanted to save the Palestinians and in the end I only saved myself.
HOW DID I FIND MY WAY TO BE GOOD AGAIN?
The Kite Runner forced me to deal with my past, but it also gave me a way to be good again. I realized that when I read the passage about how history and religion weren’t easy to overcome and in the end Amir was a Pashtun and Hasan a Hazara— I knew I was finally ready to tell the story that had been inside me for twenty years. I would show how such obstacles between Israelis and Palestinians could be transcended for I had seen it with my own eyes.
For five years, while my friends shopped, I slaved over this novel because I had found a different way to achieve my dream. While a human rights lawyer can save a few, a writer can reach into the hearts of many and affect them forever. Even if I make a ripple, I will have succeeded.
This story is fiction and the characters are straight from my imagination, but it has a sound and accurate base in reality.
May the battles we fight be for the advancement of the human race.
HOW DOES A NON-WRITER WRITE A STORY?
Well, I told myself, if a medical doctor could write The Kite Runner, then surely you could write a novel as well. After all, weren’t lawyers trained to write? I knew I had the seed for a story, but that was all. I decided that I would completely fictionalized the story. I chose to write about a boy that was born in 1948 and grew up under Israeli military rule which had similar laws to the ones used in the occupied territories today.
In my first draft, I wrote about how the Palestinian boy, Ichmad, helped a refugee bury arms and his father insisted on paying the price. His only request was that Ichmad forget about politics and make something out of his life. I then wrote about how an Israeli professor recognized Ichmad’s ability and together they achieved something great. And, of course, Ichmad falls for the perfect Jewish American human rights activist on the planet.
I wrote it in essay form. No dialogue. No hooks. No cliff hangers. No rise and fall of tension. Completely flat characters. I knew I needed help. I rarely ever read fiction and had no idea how to turn this into a story. I began to take courses at Writers’ Digest online. Two years and twenty-one courses later, my novel was still in rough shape.
WHY WOULD A JEWISH AMERICAN WOMAN CHOSE TO WRITE IN THE VOICE OF A PALESTINIAN MUSLIM MALE?
I began to write my story in first person in the voice of Ichmad because it felt natural. Yes, I know that it is somewhat strange that a Jewish American woman felt most comfortable writing in the voice of a Palestinian Muslim. Believe it or not, out of all the characters I created, I felt he was the easiest for me to be. I think that’s because I saw the situation through the experiences and eyes of mainly Palestinian Muslim males. I felt their pain. Ironically, my Hasan rarely ever talked about his past. Almost all the stories I heard were from men that went to school with me or events I witnessed myself. I didn’t meet Hasan and then become interested in the Palestinian plight. Quite the contrary, I was deeply affected by the situation when I met him and had already seen too much not to have my own opinions.
Surprisingly, the most difficult character for me to write was Nora, the Jewish American human rights activist. Maybe that was because I had never met any. Maybe it was because I had failed so completely at that task, abandoning the cause before I even started. When I initially wrote the story, Nora was a much bigger part of it. I think, subconsciously and with the help of hindsight, I tried to make her into everything I wished I could have been. No one who read the earliest drafts of my book (No joke I think there were over 500) liked her. She had no flaws. Readers like characters with flaws. I found it virtually impossible to get into her head. I eventually had to limit her role and then kill her off.
HOW DID I CHOOSE THE BEGINNING?
When I initially wrote the novel, I began with Ichmad on a bus to visit his father in prison. Ichmad had already helped the refugee bury arms and he was on his way to confess his crime to his father. During one of the writing courses I took, another student asked why should he sympathize with Ichmad? He was helping bury weapons to kill Jews. I began to re-evaluate the beginning. I definitely didn’t want to start out with a Palestinian doing what Palestinians are believed to do. I wanted to start with an innocent boy and show why he’d help the refugee.
I signed up for Les Edgerton’s class, Hooked, how to write the first five pages. All we focused on in the book was the first five pages. I explained to Les the situation and decided to rewrite the beginning of my novel. Seven-year-old Ichmad discovers his little sister is not in her room. She had run outside into the devil’s field and was blown up by an Israeli planted land mine. I got that idea from my excellent Jewish editor Pamela Lane (more on her later). Les was harsher than any other teacher was with my work. He ripped it apart. When the course was over, I immediately tried to hire him to edit my book. I wasn’t looking for someone to pat me on the back. I had a crucial message to get out. Unbeknownst to me, Les was an ardent supporter of Israel. Notice I stressed the was. I will let his blurb tell his side of the story. I’d like to add that Les was an amazing editor and he really helped this book become a reality.
WHAT DID LES EDGERTON, MY EDITOR, HAVE TO SAY ABOUT MY BOOK?
The Almond Tree
from Les Edgerton
Many months ago, Michelle Cohen-Corasanti enrolled in one of my Writer’s Digest creative writing courses on story beginnings. The novel she worked on in class was The Almond Tree. It was clear immediately that this was a writer of uncommon talent and promise. The problem—for me—was her subject material. She was writing what seemed to be a pro-Palestinian book. All my life, I’ve been pro-Israeli. A political stand derived from my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian home, where we were taught from an early age that the Jewish people were God’s “chosen people,” and Israel, a God-favored state. I was taught (and firmly believed) that as long as the U.S. was an ally of Israel, that we were also a nation under the grace of God. A pro-Palestinian novel simply went against all of my core beliefs. But, I consider myself a professional and I also fervently believe in freedom of expression. So, while I disagreed with the theme of her novel, she was never aware of my personal beliefs which I never revealed and I simply worked with her in addressing her craft. And then… she asked if she could hire me after class to coach her on her final rewrite. Now, I had a moral quandary. Could I, in good conscience, help someone in a work that was fundamentally opposed to everything I believe in? I asked several Jewish friends for their advice. I got differing views. Some said, I shouldn’t lend my name and whatever editing expertise I had to the project if I disagreed with the politics. That wasn’t censorship, they argued, and I agreed. Others said that this was a professional matter and that my personal politics and beliefs shouldn’t be the deciding factors. After much soul-searching, I agreed with the latter. At no time during the process did Michelle know of my beliefs. I pride myself that I’ve never revealed to any of my students or writing clients my personal and political views nor let those views influence the way I worked with them. The few who’ve learned of them have always been surprised, assuming I shared their own views. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve remained neutral when working with writers.
We began to work together. At no time during this process was Michelle aware of how I felt about Palestinians and Israel. My only guide was to always treat her material in a professional way and only look at it with the goal of helping her make it the best novel she was capable of writing. It was only when she had finished, that I revealed my personal feelings about Israel and Palestine to her. And that her novel had changed my mind…What’s important about this lengthy preamble to what I have to say about Michelle Cohen and her novel, The Almond Tree, is that this novel—the intensely gripping story of a Palestinian boy and his family and their suffering under Israeli occupation—convinced me with surety that my beliefs about this conflict were severely flawed and had been formed from a one-sided awareness. Her truly beautiful novel showed clearly that there are always two sides to a question, something I’d forgotten. In other words, Michelle wrote a novel which changed my mind about something important. That is the mark of a great work of art.
It was easy to see Michelle has talent—what convinced me that this will be a book that will achieve substantial sales and be nominated for prestigious awards—was that the story she created converted me from what I had assumed to be a committed and unyielding position to one in which I now see the Palestinian people as belonging to the community of mankind every bit as much as any other group, including the Israelis.
Some will be tempted to compare The Almond Tree to The Kite Runner, but to do so unfairly places the two books in some sort of presumed ranking. Both of these books are brilliant and powerful accounts and deserve to stand tall on their own merits, irrespective of the other.
Ichmad’s story is a big-hearted story of a small Palestinian boy who learns to survive in a brutal environment and doesn’t simply endure, but emerges from the fire with the wisdom gleaned from the example of a father who has taught him that all men have value, even their enemies. A tale of innocence moving through a vicious world, compassion learned against an environment of daily horrors, and wisdom forged through a boy’s journey through a life we would never wish upon our own children. Michelle Cohen’s The Almond Tree is one of those rarest of books—a fiction that rings with authenticity and integrity to reveal the wonder of what it really is to be human.
If ever peace is to become a reality between Israel and Palestine, it will be because of the influence of books such as this. I am proud to have been allowed by Michelle Cohen to have played a very tiny role in the development of this novel. This is a book that I think will endure and resonate forever in the souls of all who read it. I know it will in mine. Some books have the power to change us profoundly; this is one of those books.
Author of The Death of Tarpons, Monday’s Meal, Hooked and others.
WAS LES YOUR ONLY EDITOR WITH POSSIBLY PRECONCIEVED VIEWS ON THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN SITUATION?
Through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I was assigned the successful novelist Marcy Dermansky to be my writing coach. I was leery when I found out that Marcy was Jewish. All the Jews I knew had the Berlin Wall mentality. I knew my novel was pro-peace, but I wasn’t sure she’d see it that way. My novel was about a Palestinian and an Israel who are able to rise above race and religion, find a common ground and achieve what others only dream of. My message was clear, we need to work together to advance humanity. I knew that in my story, the Israelis gave Ichmad a scholarship, put aside their differences and embraced him, but I didn’t sugar-coat Ichmad’s suffering. Reality is reality after all.
Marcy was editing my novel during the time of either the war or the siege on Gaza (the novel writing did last years after all and between the classes and the editors, it all seems to have blurred together). She suggested I incorporate Gaza into my novel. I was skeptical. Unlike the rest of the material, I’d never been to Gaza. I immersed myself in relentless research about Gaza which probably wasn’t the best thing for me. I was horrified at my findings, but Marcy helped me give shape to my ideas. When I finally finished the final draft of my novel, a couple years later, I sent it to Marcy to read and she had the following to say:
Prepare yourself: The Almond Tree may very well move you to tears. Michelle Corsanti's profound and finely crafted debut novel tells the story of one man, Ichmad Hamid, from his humble beginnings as a scared and helpless child in an occupied village through to his inspirational rise to power and influence. His intimate tale of love and loss and awareness shines a greater understanding of the personal toll of the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
-- Marcy Dermansky, author of Bad Marie
After Marcy, the talented Pamela Lane, another Jewish editor, helped take my novel to the next level and along the way, she told me that I changed the way she viewed the conflict. She could now see both sides. She even wrote letters of protest against the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla.
WHY ARE SOME REVIEWERS DESCRIBING YOUR NOVEL AS THE STORY ABOUT TWO BROTHERS?
My intention was to write a book about an Israel and a Palestinian who rise above religion, race and politics and together achieve greatness. Somewhere along the way, the story began to take on a life of its own and all I could do was to go with it. Nora’s role shrunk and Abbas’ grew. For whatever reason, I was able to get into his head and become him. Abbas began as Ichmad’s younger brother who an Israeli cripples. When I decided to add Gaza, I need to find a way to get Ichmad to Gaza. And so angry Abbas goes underground only to emerge in Gaza as a Hamas leader.
Nathan Stock, an advisor on Palestine at the Carter Center, really helped me with all the details about Gaza. He suggested that I make Abbas more charismatic. And so I did. Abbas became the angry brother filled with hatred while Ichmad’s ability to forgive allows him to succeed. In the end, both brothers reach a common ground. And somehow, along the way, the focus of my book, for some readers, became less on Professor Sharon and Ichmad and more about two brothers.
And there you have it. It’s a remarkable novel and I think it’s going to win some prestigious literary prizes and acclaim. You can order your copy from Amazon here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008XM0AZM