Living in Hebrew; Writing in English

By Gila Green

Artwork by Bradley Wind

I’m unattractive, unwanted and often uninvited. Geographically speaking that is. I write in English, but live in Israel, where the main language of culture is Hebrew. The hardship is double-barreled. I am far from English-speaking audiences and the pool of English-language publishers is strictly for wading and is, if anything, shrinking. I have encountered countless sites for agents, publishers and literary magazines that read: no international queries at the bottom of their guidelines.

Let’s face it. New York publishing houses aren’t funding book tours by locals anymore, unless you already have an established audience; who would dream of flying someone in from overseas today for a meeting or a book tour? And could most writers really jump on a plane with ease for an interview?

As far as that Jewish niche goes, English-speaking Jews in Israel have no voice as a minority. Who needs them in literature? There’s plenty of North American Jewish writers in the backyards of most publishing houses from Los Angeles to New York to Toronto. It can be isolating, frustrating and discouraging.

Sometimes I go to the small gatherings of English writers around Israel, but it’s mostly the same faces over and over again, all with the same facial expressions: help!

The only significant difference that I can see is whether or not the crowd is aimed at religious English-speaking or non-religious English speaking writers (these circles rarely cross, but that’s a different article). Either way, both circles attract audiences that fit nicely into a classroom-sized café and mostly consist of other writers.

I believe this is an ex-patriot phenomenon, not limited to Israel. There are probably thousands of us ex-pats writing in English in cafes from Tokyo to Cairo, gazing at the locals every few lines, unable even to explain what it is they are writing about.

I’ve often had the experience of meeting a woman in an exercise class or at a business networking meeting whose eyes light up when I mention I’m a writer only to darken soon after. What publications do you publish in? Oh. I’ve never heard of those. Do you ever write in Hebrew? Order a falafel in Hebrew? Yes. Argue with the phone company in Hebrew? Sure. Send an email? A short one. But write a short story or an essay in a foreign language? No.

Has the situation for ex-pat writers improved in the last decade? Yes. There are new opportunities that would not have been possible even five years ago. The internet has eliminated some barriers in terms of online publishing and at least connecting with print publishers. But an ocean still divides Israel and the big New York publishing houses.

A brighter light is the increasing acceptance of self-publishing, now that self-publishing is no longer seen strictly as “desperate” publishing. Progress is slow and certainly easier if you have a non-fiction niche. For literary fiction just the idea of self-publishing in print and dealing with shipping and marketing costs is enough to send shivers through my bank account. Electronic readers are easing that barrier, if only marginally, and may one day even offer an advantage over locals writing in Hebrew as a far easier way to penetrate the much larger English-language audience. At least we won’t have those huge translation costs to fork out.

Still, for the vast majority, self-publishing is more like placing a mountain in front of the ocean you want to cross. Since fighting geography is remarkably like banging your head against the side of a mountain, perhaps the only headache tablet big enough to swallow is to invest in a stronger helmet; if you’re truly determined to publish, good writing will eventually bob its way across the ocean.

Gila Green moved from Canada to Israel in 1994. Her short fiction has been published in tens of anthologies and literary magazines and short-listed for seven international awards, including the Doris Bakwin Literary Award for her first collection White Zion. An excerpt from her futuristic satire King of the Class earned her a fellowship to the  Summer Literary Seminar (Montreal 2011). She is a freelance writer and editor, as well as a creative writing teacher. Visit Gila

King of the Class to be released in April:


Marcus Speh said...

great post. i write in english and live in germany (actually, it's more complicated: english also isn't my mother tongue). "good writing will eventually bob its way across the ocean" is absolutely true, or at least i must believe it. in berlin, i have a writers group which provides necessary support, and even before self publishing any book, a blog or participation in communities such as fictionaut or red lemonade can help bridge the gap and break through the systemic isolation of the ex-pat writer. good luck with the life & writing abroad!

Anonymous said...

Great article. I feel deprived of the wonderful writings of such people like Gila Green as I am sure there are many in the world.
Keep writing!

Litchick said...

Remember that "New Yorker" cover that showed everything beyond NYC as a thin irrelevant "beyond"? Here in California we're on the edge of the cover page. I guess you're not even on it.

Just goes to show the importance of independent literary publishing! Lots of brilliance there, check it out, send to independents, etc. Your work is great, Gila, so I'm sure your efforts will work out.