FEBRUARY 7, 2015
THE CHARACTERS IN Shelly Oria’s debut collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, don’t always obey the laws of time and space. Under Oria’s wry and watchful gaze, they transcend borders between countries, identities, even realities — one discovers she has the ability to stop time; another finds herself living with a partner who abruptly switches gender. But even when their experiences verge on the fantastic, her protagonists remain grounded by their desire for true communion with one another, and insight into their own unruly selves.
Oria, who was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Tel Aviv, and earned her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, now spends most of her time in New York. As a teacher for the Pratt Institute and a creativity coach, she guides aspiring artists toward embracing their vulnerability and finding their voices. Oria’s voice, across this thematically and structurally wide-ranging book, is at once wise and receptive, fascinated by the spectrum of human behavior and eager to explore the intricacies of people’s inner lives.
ALANNA SCHUBACH: What draws you to the short story?
SHELLY ORIA: I guess that in the literary discourse, the short story is not the default, but for me it always has been. Speaking as a teacher, too, you do need to teach short form in order to have the kind of discussion in class that you want to have. And it’s the way the literary scene is structured as well, because literary magazines are the gatekeepers. They sometimes do publish novel excerpts, but even for that to work for the audience, the pieces also have to function as short stories.
So in a way, it’s how you start as a writer. But if I’m being honest, I remember back when I was still writing in Hebrew and living in Tel Aviv, I was mainly writing short stories. So I think that what attracts me to the short form and what attracts me to writing in general is kind of synonymous.
Before you moved to New York and enrolled in the Sarah Lawrence MFA program, you were living in Israel and writing in Hebrew. How was it coming to a new country and making the switch to English?
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Hebrew is my first language, and I grew up writing in Hebrew. I moved to New York in 2003 and spent about a year just translating my work. I was writing for theater back then, so I was translating plays and short stories, and just doing that was hell. I applied to MFA programs — primarily playwriting ones, since that was my focus then — and honestly, fiction was a fallback. Playwriting programs usually take only two or three people a year, so the acceptance rates are even more insane than what we have for fiction. So I applied to fiction programs too, in case I didn’t make it.
I had to translate 10 stories just to figure out what to submit. It was so hard to know, looking at the original Hebrew, what was going to work. I was working three jobs at that time, and it was my first year in New York, which is such a bitch to people who don’t know her. I always think of New York as a very particular kind of woman. It’s a woman who, if you get to know her, she’s cool, exactly the kind of woman you want to be friends with. She’s fiercely loyal if you’re friends, but she doesn’t need any more friends. I felt like I had to fight for her attention.
Then I got in to one playwriting program, but by the time I did, I had already been accepted to Sarah Lawrence. That letter was my first acceptance, and something happened in that moment when I opened it. It just felt right. But even once I got in, I still didn’t fully understand that I would have to write in English, as stupid as that sounds. I would have these conversations where people would say, “Oh, so you write in English?” And I would not understand what they were asking me. I think it was the hugest thing I ever had to do, and if I let myself realize the enormity of it, I wouldn’t have done it. We were in school when it finally dawned on me.
The first semester, I was thinking about dropping out. I was behind on everything — people would talk about writers like Denis Johnson or Alice Munro and I would take notes, because I had never read them before. But then in my second semester I began to feel it wasn’t impossible, and I started writing in English for the first time. My professors introduced me to a lot of different writers, which helped me find the voice I had in Hebrew and use it in English.
Several of the stories in your book are not what I’d call traditional, narrative realism. Some of them incorporate elements of science fiction or fantasy, and a few of them are in the first-person plural. What attracts you to more unconventional forms?
It does connect to my starting to write in a second language. Because of how hard that time was, it was also significant in terms of its influence on me. It’s something that I don’t know can happen anymore — I was so receptive then. I think who I am and will be as a writer forever was shaped by the authors we were reading — writers like Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Diaz, Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz. And Nelly Reifler, who was one of my professors. Both Nelly and David Hollander, another professor I studied with, really emphasized alternative writing rather than straight realism. I was very excited by it.
I could already tell I was a different writer in English than I was in Hebrew, and I was looking for ways to help that person find her voice. So I was, in a way, easily influenced. But you respond to what you respond to; even with writers who wrote straight realism, I responded to the work that challenged me. At the same time, I think realism, when done well, can do things that experimental work can’t. The metaphor that comes to mind for me is alternative medicine versus Western medicine. Alternative medicine can’t really exist on its own, but Western medicine can. And for that reason, most people don’t stop to think that it does have flaws. It’s the same with realism — many people feel, “That’s just what writing is.” So the sweet spot for me as a reader and a writer is bringing the two together and not feeling like I have to choose one or the other — even within a given piece, but certainly within a body of work over the years.
You’re describing what sounds like a fluidity between forms, which is also something many of your characters experience — particularly a sexual and cultural fluidity. In the title story, the narrator thinks of herself as having a Me #1 and a Me #2 — one is American, one Israeli.
I remember that the pitch for the book in the early days was, “It’s where nationality meets sexuality.” It felt right to me at the time, but I did want to put that idea aside because I was still writing, and I didn’t want to be too limited by that notion. By the time we actually had a full manuscript and were sending it out, we had a different idea, which is that it was about the fluidity of three elements: nationality, sexuality, and reality. In the last stage, I was very much revising and editing with that in mind, and we ordered the stories to create this motion between the three ideas. I looked at each story to see how the fluidity of at least one, preferably two, and often all three existed within each.
The title story, for example, is pretty straight realism, but there’s a character that Zoe meets and then this inexplicable thing happens, which we learn at the very end of the story, where he shows up again in the middle of the night and tells her to go home. So there is a playing with reality that can exist within realism — things happening that can’t be fully explained.
I think those things are inherently connected. Binationality and bisexuality have that same kind of flow that allows a certain perspective as a human and as an artist.
I felt in many of the stories a real sense of yearning. There is often a character in love with someone who is unreachable or drifting away from them, and I was curious about where that came from.
I think, for me, a lot of it comes from losing my grandmother, who I dedicated the book to. She helped raise me and was like a parent to me. She died very quickly — she got sick and died in five days, and she had been 65, totally healthy before that. So that loss at that early age, and the way it happened, I think has shaped me in many ways forever. No matter how safe I feel in any situation, it’s always a given to me that it can all go away in a second. That’s not something I think I can shake. I think that is there on the page, too.
The other thing is something I go back to in teaching a lot: vulnerability. I think that not only in literature but in all forms, vulnerability marks the difference between good and great art. When you feel that vulnerability, you become engaged in a way that then shapes you, and to me that’s what great art is supposed to do. That’s what I try to push myself to do as a writer. And the most vulnerable thing is to want someone who doesn’t want you, or who wants you but not as much as you want them. Or is there, but not fully accessible to you. So I think I intuitively gravitate toward that kind of experience on the page, because it’s the best way to expose my characters to vulnerability.
In the story “The Disneyland of Albany,” the main character, Avner, is a painter who finds himself in an awkward situation. A potential buyer expects him to be an Israeli artist in a particular way, and he has to play along with that. Is that something you’ve ever experienced — have you felt pigeonholed as an Israeli-American?
Definitely — we could talk just about that for five hours. In a way, though, I think that sometimes it has been of my own doing. Talking about Israel was one of my greatest fears going into publishing the book. It’s a little bit like how you’d feel if you wrote a memoir about growing up in a family where there was something horrible going on, and now everyone’s going to talk about it. It makes you feel like, this does need to be talked about, but also, it’s my parents. It’s a kind of sickness, what’s going on in Israel. When you look at Israeli society, you see the symptoms. I know my views, and I’m to the left of the left in terms of politics. Over there, I have no problem, but over here, you have no idea who you’re talking to. At the same time, I do also feel weirdly protective of Israel.
One of the first interviews I did was at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and it was the first time I had to deal with questions about Israel in a live format, in front of an audience. There was this one event where the moderator happened to be Jewish, and the other writer there was Jewish. So I assumed it was a very Jewish crowd, and I was asked something directly about Israel. And I wasn’t going to betray my beliefs, but I was also really being careful, apologizing and qualifying a lot. Later, I talked to the person who had interviewed me, as well as a few audience members, and everyone thanked me for saying what I did. I got the feeling post-interview that I had pigeonholed myself. Especially in the last few years, a lot of Jews, not just in New York, are more critical of the Israeli government and military, and I get the sense that we all need to be just a little bit more vocal and less afraid.
That’s interesting, the difference between American Jews and Israeli Jews.
It’s so different — they are two entirely different identities. When I first moved here, I would have stereotypes thrown at me that I didn’t even understand. It was just so foreign to me — it’s a whole other experience. So that could be very frustrating.
Another thing that was interesting to me in your book was how New Yorkers, from the Israeli perspective, are comparatively softer and more innocent — you almost never see New Yorkers characterized that way.
It has always been so funny to me how within American culture, New Yorkers are considered aggressive. I did feel it when I would visit my family in Los Angeles and then come back here. I would think, “Oh, people are rude here.” But if I come from Tel Aviv to New York, the feeling is more, “Aww… people are so nice here.” They open the door for me, they smile at me. In Israel, if you lock eyes with someone on the street and smile, they’re going to think you’re coming on to them. It’s just not something you do. No one holds the door. It’s not considered rude there. When I’m there now, for the first couple days I’ll experience this as rude, but pretty quickly I go back to experiencing it as an Israeli and it feels okay.
In Poets & Writers, you wrote about what you call the “Inner Asshole,” the voice artists have in their heads that’s self-doubting and self-critical. You mentioned the importance of responding to that voice with kindness and gentleness. Is that something you learned to do over the course of writing this book?
Well, I also work as a creativity coach, so that recommendation mainly comes from that place. Most of what I do as a coach comes down to that — teaching writers not to be assholes to themselves, to practice kindness and love instead. It’s something that is really hard for us to do. That’s definitely true for the creative process, and it’s also true for the human process. A basic principle is to notice your internal dialogue and think, would I ever say that to my sister or my best friend? Why do I think it’s okay to say that to myself? It’s amazing to see what happens to people when they abandon that harsh approach. In a way, it’s counterintuitive, because we have this belief in our culture that if we just yell at ourselves, it will make us more productive. It maybe can work for two minutes or two days, but it’s not long-lasting or effective. It backfires in the long run. And once you let that dissipate, you’re left with the core of something you really want to do.
Do you think that’s something women tend to do more — be so harsh with themselves?
Oh, definitely. That’s a learned cultural behavior for sure. Like the apologizing thing that women do — I did a scholarship program in Bulgaria, and at some point we noticed with the women fellows how much we kept apologizing. So we said, let’s decide that we’re not going to say we’re sorry for anything. And within less than two minutes, someone said sorry. We were all aware of it, but we couldn’t stop it.
Even women who are not mothers are still affected by the construct of our age, which is that women are supposed to have both successful careers and be great mothers, and that is a kind of pressure that isn’t put on men to the same degree. And many men do both, but it’s such a different experience — they’re seen as amazing people. And for us it’s the other way around. The burden of proof is reversed. It’s assumed you have to do both, and if you don’t, you’re kind of a fuck-up. So I think that’s part of it too, of why we’re so hard on ourselves.
That makes me think about your story “Fully Zipped,” and that experience of being a woman in a fitting room, trying on clothes and deciding what kind of self to present to the world.
Yeah, it’s an experience most women know quite well. Pretty early on, I figured out that I was looking at gender identity, and clothes as a metaphor for self. But then something was still not quite there. I spoke about it with Elizabeth Reichert, who is my best writing friend — she’s the one who knows what I’m trying to do before it’s even on the page. She was the one to say, yes, it is about all these things — gender, how we present in the world — but it’s also just about loneliness, in the deepest sense. So that’s when I developed the later part of the story where you can see that the narrator is trying to connect to this particular woman. And then in the last section, the story ends on that question: “Do you need anything?”