Gaza, Goats, and the Art of Patience: A Conversation with Jeff Talarigo
Jeff Talarigo is the author of the award-winning novel, The Pearl Diver, which won the 2005 American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Foundation Award and was named a 2005 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. His second novel, The Ginseng Hunter, noted as one of the “Best Books of 2008” by NPR and an American Library Association “Notable Book for 2009,” was released in paperback in April 2009. Talarigo lives in Boston with his wife and son, where he is working on a novel about twentieth-century Gaza.
Jeff Talarigo: On my second trip to the Gaza Strip, back in 1993, I went with the mindset of a journalist, but I returned with the desire to be a novelist. What happened was, one May afternoon, I was sitting outside along School Street in Jabaliya camp, where I was living with a Palestinian family, and I saw two boys with an injured bird and a piece of string tied around its neck. The boys would toss the bird into the air and the bird would flap its wings and fly a few feet until the string ran out and the bird would be yanked back. Watching this, I thought that it was a striking, almost prophetic image. As a journalist I could write about it just as I have told you, but by a novelist, so much more could be done. I jotted in my notebook—Bird on a string—and I carried this image with me for nearly a year before I wrote a story about it. This was my first published piece of fiction.
JD: The story’s narrator is responsible for taking care of Ghassan Abu Majed’s last remaining goat every night during curfew. Ghassan calls his precious goat “the last link to the land.” Yet Ghassan’s wife says, “the link has long been severed.” In what ways are they both right?
JT: For the most part the refugees in the Gaza Strip have been there since 1948. Most, and for many years, believed that someday they would return to the over 400 towns and villages that they fled in 1948. I believe that the large majority of those in the Gaza Strip have become resigned to the fact that this “return,” which they have held onto so dearly, will never happen; that Gaza is where they will die. Still, the Palestinians, like all of us really, cling to these “links” or “connections” to the past. Many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza still have the keys to their homes, the deeds to their land, and in my story, a goat.
JD: When writing the story, how did the talking goat surface? What, if any, were some of the technical challenges in this choice?
JT: For a long time now, since my first trip to Gaza back in 1990, I have been writing folktales—stories that I create, not Palestinian folktales retold—and these often have talking animals in them: mountain lions, jackals, birds, sheep. For quite a while I was carrying around the image of a goat in Gaza, one that’s a man’s last link to his family’s land. I carry these images for months, years even, before the story writes itself. This, for me, is the sacredness of writing, those magical moments when you create something and you really don’t know where it came from. Rarely, other than editing and fine tuning, do I touch these stories, these scenes.
As for the technical challenges, I don’t find it all that difficult. In a story like this, where you are asking a reader to believe that a goat can talk, or a bird can write, I think that from the beginning of the story, or book, you must sell the reader on the idea that, okay, this goat can talk, this bird can write. This is done, I believe, through language and tone. Just like when you read the opening sentence of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” immediately the reader knows they are in for something very different.
Also, in order to make things a little more believable, I observe animals and also do a lot of research trying to pick up on little idiosyncrasies, such as a goat standing on its hind legs, its front legs braced against a wall nibbling a low hanging leaf or flower. I saw this happen many times in Gaza. What I like most about the animal stories is that they give me some distance to tell a very complex, extremely divisive story, in a different way. The brilliant writer, John Berger, says it best: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”
JD: While reading the story, certain phrases stood out—”a humbling reminder of what once was and never will be again” and “somewhere in the abyss between trying to forget what happened to my people and trying never to forget.” Because a large portion of the story takes place at night, during curfew in the camp, I wondered how this setting was a metaphor for the larger themes in the story, in history?
JT: For me, while living in Jabaliya Camp, there was this constant sense, this taunting that you are trapped. I felt this in my short stay of about half a year, and for me the thing that kept me sane was the fact that I would be going home, going back to my wonderful lifestyle in Japan, where I lived for fifteen years. But for the people in Gaza, particularly those in the eight refugee camps, there isn’t this light at the end of the tunnel—only darkness. During the decades of occupation, there were nightly curfews, the ever-present footsteps of soldiers in the alleyways at night, the watchtowers looking down on the camps, the endless checkpoints, the soldiers checking your identification papers, the closing of schools, the relentless feeling of humiliation—all of these things echoing that you have no control over your life. This is an exhausting way to live one’s life.
JD: Going back to the “bird on a string” phrase that you scribbled in your notebook in 1993, I’m interested in the way in which you sat with that phrase for a year before using it. It shows a tremendous amount of patience, discipline even, to allow the image to marinate in your mind. What else do you believe is essential for a writer to understand whether setting stories in Boston or Palestine or anywhere in between?
Jennifer De Leon‘s work has appeared in Ms., Poets & Writers, Guernica, Solstice, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize, she has also been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Hedgebrook Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of a collection of essays, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education, and is at work on a novel. (2/2012)