Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Story Teller: Ruth Knafo Setton

Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel The Road to Fez. Born in Safi Morocco, she is the recipient of literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and PEN. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Ruth is the Writer-in-Residence for the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University. She is working on a new novel and a collection of poetry. Ruth’s story “Living Between Question Marks” and poem “My Father Eats Figs” appear in the Bibliotekos collection, Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration.
            Every night for the past thousand years, under moon and stars in the Djma el Fnaa, the fabled square of Marrakech, a man tells a story. Wearing a white turban and djellabah, he stands in the center of a circle of people. Wide-eyed and rapt, they lean forward to catch his every word and see his every gesture. He is competing with the human circus in all its barbaric grandeur. Crowds stream past, drums pound, people dance, steam rises from food stalls, beggars wail, the snake charmer lures his six-foot python from a basket, the Berber pharmacist spreads his cures on a blanket, the henna woman tries to embroider your arms and hands with henna scrolls. Surrounding the magic circle of the storyteller are voices, a multitude of voices—beggars, vendors, the muezzin, singers, musicians, snake charmer, the crowd—yet his voice stands out.
I have watched the storyteller for hours as he weaves a web of magic around his audience. You don’t have to understand the language he is speaking to understand the power of story. All you have to do is listen to his voice, watch his eloquent gestures and you find yourself responding to the rhythm of his words, the dramatic pauses, the sense of tension and suspense he creates. Story is the answer and it is also the question.
Who are we? Why are we? What are we? Why do we want what we want? What is truth? What is true?
Story is you and me. Story connects us to each other and to the world.
            I am a storyteller. I tell stories to my students, I tell them to my children, I tell them with my pen—and in my daily life. When I write poetry I tell a story that pulses with images. At night I dream in story. When I see strangers I imagine stories. For me, always and forever, it comes down to our most ancient, necessary need: story.
            For my ninth birthday I received my first diary. The first words I wrote: “I want to be a writer.” This was the first time I articulated what I must have always known. It was always about words—and story—for me.
            When I was three, we left Morocco, where I was born, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. In America I received a hand-made gift: a picture book of the alphabet with an object illustrating each letter. A = Apple. B = Boat. C = Cat. That was the beginning of my love affair with English, a passionate love that has never waned.
            At age four, I sat on my mother’s lap as we puzzled through the first American picture book I brought home from the school library. We trembled as we opened the book to the first page. Flicka, Ricka and Dicka, pretty blonde triplets, smiled back at us, beckoning us into their black-bordered world where nothing evil could enter, no djnoun or rampaging mobs, no shrieking nightmare figures or serpents with human heads. For the moment, we were safe. What my mother didn’t know, what I already kept secret, was that I was not simply pointing out words, I was pressing and digging my index finger into the illustration, trying to penetrate the black borders of the story world and find the doorway that led from this world to the other world.
            That desire has never changed. Okay, so my finger wasn’t powerful enough to transport me from one world into another, but my imagination did the job with ease. I’ve always tried to bridge the world in which I live and the world in which I dream—with my reading and my writing.
            As I grew up, books were my food and air, their authors my earthly and spiritual guides. I read indiscriminately, haunting old book fairs, cracking open dusty volumes with inscriptions that offered glimpses into other lives—and connected me with people of other times and places. My fourteenth summer, in particular, was an orgy of passionate encounters. By day I flirted with neighborhood boys as I rode my bike, swam in the local pool, sneaked cigarettes in the evening and chased fireflies. By night I huddled under the cover with a flashlight (not to wake my sister) and let Colette, Isak Dinesen, Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Halliburton and the Brothers Grimm wrap their winged arms around me and fly me to lands that made me tremble and cry. Afterwards I collapsed in bed, shut my eyes and dreamed. My dreams were mini-series (the budding novelist) and cliff-hangers, sagas of adventure, mystery and romance. In the morning I awoke, dazed, reddened and exhausted. Like the twelve dancing princesses, I felt like I’d danced all night in an otherworldly kingdom. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but that summer I decided I wanted to create magic with my pen. I wanted to transport my readers to a dream-land they never wanted to leave. 
            I read constantly, hundreds of books a year. Words are still my sustenance. This past year I’ve discovered the gorgeous world of contemporary young adult fiction. I’ve been on a reading binge … loving the dark bittersweet chocolate of The Hunger Games trilogy; the tart lemon of Incarceron, and the even tarter, almost sour sequel Sapphique; the gorgeously imagined Graceling and Fire; the spicy cider of Jellicoe Road; the lush Hush, Hush; the coolly frightening worlds of Matched and Across the Universe, and so many more…. It’s a cornucopia of riches, a feast. Reading them, I am fourteen again, dreaming of a world of infinite possibility, enchanted gardens of unimaginable beauty and horror, love so passionate it transcends death. I’m also teaching a young adult literature course this spring, which allows me to read more.
And yes, I’m writing a new novel that can be called young adult. It explores the power of myth in modern-day life, particularly myths of female power, through the eyes of a sixteen year-old girl. This new novel is profoundly inspired by a recent Mediterranean voyage during which I sailed and taught on a ship that stopped in Athens, Rome, Naples, Istanbul and Casablanca, among other ports. The experience of wandering through ancient-new cities while feeling the weight and timeless presence of history and myth was very moving on many levels. I was returning to my roots, retracing the voyage my parents made when they sailed from Tangiers through the Strait of Gibraltar, and across the Atlantic to New York City. This new book is set in contemporary America, but it goes back to our most ancient stories, myths, rituals, human dreams and yearnings.
I’m also working on a collection of poetry, several memoir-like essays, and the revision of my novel, Darktown Blues.
            While raising three children and working fulltime, I trained myself to write while changing diapers, packing lunches, helping with homework, doing private tutoring, and teaching in elementary schools and universities. Like Hamlet, I learned to find “eternity in a nutshell.” When people ask me, ‘How could you write with three children?” I tell them, “I couldn’t have written without them.” My children—and my family—taught me not only to be disciplined in the pursuit of my goal, but also to discern between what is important in my life, and what can fall by the wayside.
            It took me nearly seventeen years to write and publish my first novel, The Road to Fez. A coming-of-age novel that explores the interweaving lives of two Moroccan-Jewish girls, one fictional and the other, the legendary Suleika. A beautiful seventeen year-old Moroccan-Jewish martyr, Suleika refused to renounce her faith and was beheaded in Fez in 1834. In over 300 versions of her story, Suleika represents the shifting mirror of the Jew, particularly the Jewish woman, in the imagination of Muslims in pre-colonial Morocco and European Romantics. Spaniards and Frenchmen wrote plays about her tragic, mysterious life. Jews and Arabs prayed side by side at her tomb in the Jewish cemetery of Fez. As I pieced together the puzzle of her life, I realized she was a figurehead who stood on the border between Africa and Europe, Judaism and Islam, tradition and modernity, women and men, sacred and profane. Who was this girl who bridged so many worlds? And why would a young girl choose death over life? To me the subject was profoundly fascinating and disturbing with no easy answers, exactly what one hopes for from literature.
I rewrote the novel at least five times, trying to squeeze Suleika’s life into a semi-coherent narrative, the way I tried to squeeze mine, eliminating the hyphens and inconsistencies in my own identity, immigrant memories, dreams and longings that made no rational sense, the search for a home that didn’t seem to exist in daylight, the key that unlocked my grandparents’ house in Morocco, and even earlier, the house we had abandoned in Spain during the Inquisition. In my search for Suleika I discovered my own family: rabbis, Kabbalists and philosophers—and a grandfather who composed poetry in Classical Arabic and played his oud on a roof terrace against the sea wind. I faced constant discouragement and received enough rejection letters to wallpaper my room, including one so painful it was almost funny—yet it paralyzed me for several years: “You write well. Next time try writing about the real Jews.”
But I picked up my pen and notebook and soldiered on. There was no other way.
I write every morning, a cup of coffee in one hand, pen in the other. I write by hand in sketch books—no lined pages, no computer screen—nothing but my pen painting the white pages. The act of writing is intensely physical and sensual, and deeply personal as well. I hug this private world I’ve created between the covers of my notebook and keep it intimate and mine for as long as I can—until the story threatens to burst from the notebook. Then I type it up. That’s the movement from personal to public. That’s when I can edit, see clearly (at least more clearly), and share it with the world.
I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Poetry has taught me the importance of each word and how to speak in the language of images: a wreath of yellow butterflies, a killer jewel, a sunken stone library, a block of ice colliding with the Old World…. Fiction, on the other hand, knows that the image, no matter how breathtaking, is never enough: we need the story. We crave narrative momentum, suspense, desire. When I write, my poetic and fictional impulses collide, struggle, interweave. My nonfiction attempts to see the pattern, to discern the method in the madness.
As I write I am like a detective searching for clues. I don’t know the solution, I don’t even know exactly what the mystery is about, but I do recognize a clue when I stumble over it. I pick it up and examine it in the light. And that leads me to the next clue. A detective groping in the dark, bumbling and blind, yet given moments of grace: a door blows open, light shines on a hidden path, a whispered word lures me around the corner. I have no idea where it will lead but I’m up for the adventure.
Every morning you can find me, pen in hand, working on a story or poem or essay. The shadows of palm trees sway over the pages of my notebook, even though I may be writing in wintry Pennsylvania. I hear the storyteller’s resonant voice, see his gestures and watch the enchanted faces of the audience. With the power of his story he has drawn a black border that guards and protects: the magic circle Scheherazade drew night after night for a thousand and one nights. The sounds, smells, sights of the frenzied, chaotic Djma el Fna’a recede. Time holds still.
Once upon a time … and they lived happily ever after. What a story lies between those words! Listen.
Text and Images Copyright c. 2011 by Ruth Knafo Setton