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"Bilingual, Multicultural, and Variously-Housed-and-Homed": An Interview with Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Printer's Row, Joyland Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Hobart, and more. She is also the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring the work and voices of new, emerging, and struggling fiction writers. She tweets a lot: @ilanaslightly.

Her story, "In Re", appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Ilana Masad talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about metafiction, revising flash, and being an Israeli-American.

Although your story “In Re” is published as fiction, it reads much like nonfiction, written in first person with a sometimes anecdotal voice. Is any part of this story based on real events? How much does your work blend fiction and nonfiction?

“In Re” is one of my weirdest stories, and yes, it’s very much based on a real and inconsequential evening during which I was chatting to a friend at a real place called Re:Bar and the same man seemed to be going up (or down) the escalator nearby several times. But this was an absolute outlier for me. I rarely blend nonfiction into my fiction work, though the first “proper” short story I wrote was apparently so convincing that my creative writing teacher at the time (this was in college) thought that it was entirely autobiographical. I wasn’t sure at the time whether to be insulted or flattered, but I think I’ve decided that it was flattering. I had an editor later accuse me of the same thing, saying that it was an interesting blend of fiction and non-fiction. I had to tell the editor that it was 100% fictional, and I never heard back from him.

But back to “In Re,” the point is that it was a weird thing for me to do. But I was trying out metafiction for the first time and taking the idea quite literally, and this was the result.

This story contains a few parenthetical, observational digressions, two of which showcase wordplay. In the first of these, you write, “It would have made us look so witty, inserting puns into our conversations so casually. I don't want you to think we aren't funny girls, because we are. We just didn't think of it at the time.” Why devote these moments to the narrator’s esprit d'escalier? How much of your writing process involves play with language?

There are two questions here, and both are fascinating, but let me answer them in order. As to the first—why devote these moments etc.—it was, I think, my attempt at creating what I thought metafiction was all about. It was me trying to observe a moment from the outside, in hindsight, and create a story out of it that was also social commentary, because when it comes to the country I spent most of my life in (I’ll be able to say that until I’m in my mid-30s), it’s impossible to discuss it or anything about it without addressing the problematic nature of its whole existence, from the fact that it gets so much money from Christian fundamentalists who are waiting for the Second Coming (which I’ve always found a strangely dirty phrase) to the fact that there are occupied territories that are contested on a daily basis, to the fact that the Holocaust happened and Jews really did need a place to go and feel safe in after that. There is so much to talk about there that keeping those parentheticals as short as they are was a struggle. But I was trying to be somewhat glib and definitely concise, so that’s how I managed to address Israeli-ness and Israel-ness and Hebrew-speaking; through (parentheticals).

The second part—about language—is so interesting to think about, because at the time that I first wrote this, language play was not on my radar at all. It happened here because of the literal language play—writing a story in English about an event that was transpiring in Hebrew, in a Hebrew-speaking country. The interplay of the two languages themselves were what led to the language (inter)play. See, there I go again. Language is very much in my lexicon, so to speak, nowadays. But it’s strange; some of my work has absolutely nothing to do with language and everything to do with character and attempts at plot, whereas some of my stories and one of my novels are consumed with language to the point where some people see them as “avant-garde” (this was the very obviously unflattering phrase an agent used about that novel).

Israel is discussed in two paragraphs of this story, both times as a seeming non sequitur, especially toward the beginning, when the reader has been introduced to a man holding a briefcase and two characters sitting at a nearby bar, when suddenly: “Israel reinstated itself after millennia of persecution,” a jarring transition apparently fitting into the proceedings only by virtue of the “re” in “reinstated.” How did you decide this story would follow such associative thinking rather than a more chronological approach? Why make statements about Israel and a pink, fruity drink share the stage in such a brief story?

Because as someone bilingual, multicultural, and variously-housed-and-homed, there is no way for me to think about anything that happens in Israel without thinking about what it means that it happened there. As I mentioned before, I spent most of my life in Israel, and while I lived there, I could still think about it simply, just as home, even if it was a home that did terrible things to people, even if it was a home where I feared for my father’s life when he took buses every day but also didn’t entirely fault the people blowing up those buses because of the circumstances they came from and the way violence and persecution begets more violence. I didn’t have words for all this at the time, but it was very much felt and understood.

Going to college in the United States though—well, that opened up a whole big can of worms, because suddenly I was the Israeli girl and that meant that I was either an overzealous Zionist nut-job (and the word Zionism is far more complicated than I’m making it seem here) or I was a self-hating Arab-lover. There seemed no room for nuance in the public perception of what I was. But nuance is there. Just recently, I had a dear friend call me out on language I used regarding the West Bank, and I was extremely offended and pissed off because she spent all of ten days there while I spent my life in the country that has occupied the Palestinian territories, and disregarding any nuance on either side of the conflict is impossible if there is to be any sort of understanding, ever (a prospect which I have very little belief in, by the by; I’m a bit of a nihilist when it comes to both my home countries in that sense).

SO. To answer the original question. Why bring Israel into it? Because anything that happened to me in Israel or that I wanted to write about Israel after I’d begun to see myself for the first time as a minority (an atheist Jew) and a stereotype (of one of the kinds of Israeli stereotypes above) had to include something involving the complexities and mind-bending one has to endure living there as a left-wing individual.

Plus, the point is partially that even in such a complex, nuanced place things like pink fruity drinks exist. Frivolity exists everywhere, in some ways, and especially in a country that is as Americanized as Israel is. Normal life goes on, even as atrocities and terrible things (and men with brown briefcases) keep on going in an endless loop.

Can you describe your revision process for this story and others like it? How many drafts does a story of this length go through? How much addition and subtraction must you perform from the first draft to the final?

The revision process for this story is particular and different than any other story because the revision became part of the story itself—the question I ask my friend about which word to use? That was real. I called her up while typing the story and asked her about it. So in that way, I folded revision into the very nature of this story.

In general, though… well, there isn’t an “in general,” I guess. I taught a class on Skillshare about flash fiction recently where I think I talked quite a bit about how different stories of this length come about. Some are flash fiction in the sense that they truly come out in a flash of inspiration and barely anything changes between the original draft and when I’m finished with the story. In general, though, I’m a rather impatient writer when it comes to editing my shortest stories, and I’ll often send them out before they’re ready, almost as if I need the rejections to tell me that I need to revise them. And maybe I do.

More recently I’ve become far more concerned with editing though, and so maybe now my process is a little different with such short work. I often put pieces away after I write the first draft, which I usually think is utter crap, and then open it up a week or two months or a year later and realize that there’s maybe something here, that there’s something I can work on here. And then I take the metaphorical fine-toothed comb to the sentences and tweak a word here or delete a sentence or phrase there until I feel like I’ve tinkered enough.

What writing projects are you working on now?

So, so, so many. I have a new writing group where I’m responding to prompts, which is excellent for me. But otherwise, I have one project that’s my main focus—editing a novel I wrote about five years ago—and everything else is on hold. The on hold includes a novel I need to complete, another novel I need to heavily revise, a novel/collection of interlinked short stories (not sure how to classify that quite yet) that also needs revision but very carefully because all the stories are the same exact length (including title) and I want to keep that going, and short story ideas constantly running through my head as sentences. There’s also a historical novel that I will write one day because I know who and what it’s about and they haven’t been written about yet in their own novel and they deserve to be.

Plus, I’m a freelance writer so I’m constantly working on articles, book reviews, blog posts, etc. I’m a bit of a workhorse.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Almost everything I’ve read recently I’d like to recommend. Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls; Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You; Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night; Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours… The list could go on and on and on.

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