Depending on dinner

Here is something I wrote for submission to a journal, and which was not subsequently accepted. It’s about horror; in the everyday: at mealtimes, in fact. If you’ve read my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have seen that I was sometimes terrified by food as a child. Because of the spirit in which it was cooked and the hands which served it. Sometimes that food was plain terrifying – as in my paternal grandmother’s pickles in the pantry. She disliked most people, had very big hands and once burned all my father’s books; parents think kids don’t notice or overhear, but they do: I was scared of the big hands and the eyeball pickled eggs because I knew those hands were book burning tools. At home, the most beautiful cakes; but the hands that made them were brutal as well as pretty.

Don’t think I’m frightened of food. I’m not. I cook a great deal and for lots of people; I might eat out. But then sometimes up comes a thought – eros, thanatos, trifle, we’ll call it. And yes, it’s scary.

Have a look at this strange little piece and tell me what you think about its content.

cherry

Depending on Dinner

‘What an awful thing life is, isn’t it? It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nonetheless.’

Gustave Flaubert

Boy-child went out for dinner with Mother; a bonding exercise. Childhoods don’t come around every day, though gluttony does and he thought of that like a disease; like something his family couldn’t help. Shovelling it in; nibbling and tasting. He remembered his parents holding mangoes up to the light, comparing the (what was it?) Dussehri mango with the Sindhri. Are they ripe, just so. Oh darling, let me cut you off a sliver.

Ugh. She fed it to him, that amber worm.

Oh. Perfect.

The boy had been repelled as he heard them snaffling and laughing like reptiles in the undergrowth for bugs. Or city foxes tearing at the bins and triumphant over a carcass.

Imperfect. Disgusting.

Now he read to her. Flaubert. Darling, listen. Large platters of cream, that trembled at the slightest jarring of the table. Oh yes, oh yes. Do you remember our wedding feast, my own Madame Bovary. He heard them making that reptile or city fox noise again, though it sounded this time as though they were on the floor.

So.

His parents were disgusting. They were good people. But they were disgusting. So were his grandparents. All gluttons, Shovelling it in. Salivating and all gross in their delight.

Now here he was, out with Mother on a gustatory bonding exercise. It was said to be a cosy little place. Novel, Thai Tapas they called it. Which meant small portions of Thai food. Novel. But  the boy was not excited to go in. He was scared, too. He’d not tried Thai food and thought tapas sounded Spanish and, he recalled now, all his experience of Spanish food was an omelette heavy with vegetables and a slice of manchego cheese that his turophile grandmother had made him try with olives. Now, the hybrid seemed mysterious, if not just a touch menacing. Menacing began to overtake mysterious and the boy quaked.

But still, brave boy, a glimmer of courage in there, too. Thank you Mother.

But what could there be to lose? Memories, now vaunting, were uncomfortable.

            At Grandmother’s house, as the affineur had swept forward bearing an old wooden board with little bits on it, he’d worried. That was because Grandmother expected him to try and he didn’t always want to; he didn’t want to disappoint her. The olives he’d liked; the cheese tasted of saddle and the hair of beasts in heat. He shuddered at this memory. Now how, he wondered, have they combined such things with Thai food? Thai food, Mother had explained, was sweet and sour and you couldn’t taste the anchovies in the fish sauce, but you did get whacked by a deep savoury flavour. And there was a smack of chillies. It was a flavour which could quickly become addictive. On, she went, as mothers do, about the aniseed taste of Thai basil and the lovely lemony smack you got too. And the boy’s anxiety began, surely and slowly, to increase. With it, a sense that he was becoming a man, or something, big and old too soon. His childhood slipping from him with smacks of rude taste.

Hot beasts in heat.

Crumbly white cheese.

Some sort of omelette.

Things lemony that whacked you and things that could be addictive

Aniseed. Wasn’t that like liquorice?

Another horrid memory. He felt ill, poor boy, but who to tell? His father had been cooking steak, waiting on his mother. He had a book open and read as he fried. The boy could smell the tang of black peppercorns and he knew the blood would be seeping soon onto the plates. Darling. Barthes on steak. Do you remember Mythologies from university? Rare steak is said to be saignant (when it calls the arterial flow from the animal’s throat. Oh yes, I remember. You read it over a steak dinner then. Steak tartare. My first time. I was a tartare virgin and you’d showed me the way. Oh. The clash of the pan had subsided. Yes my love. The germinating states of matter…a magic spell he says. The blood mash and the glair of eggs.

They were on the floor again. Thrashing. Beasts in heat.

He tried to think of bland foods. A boiled egg, Porridge and a banana. Plain toast.

Thai Tapas. The boy was trembling, but he was compelled to plod on.

Mash. Glair. Sweet. Sour. A sauce made of old fish but they’d disguised the fish because you could always taste fish and surely that was not trustworthy? It was a deception. What else was in there that added flavour, but which you couldn’t clearly identify? His other (slightly kinder) grandmother spoke sometimes about her love of offal, which disgusted him. Wobbly things; glands; greasy things. Hearts with the ends of tubes still visible; things you weed through. Stuff that boiled and fried and fugged up your kitchen with animal stench. Was it all chopped up, or milked and puréed and added to the Thai Tapas? Tripe like a wet blanket you could do nothing but die screaming in.

They tried squid.

Little prawn toasts.

Wriggling, once alive things.

I feel ill. There is something seriously wrong with me and no-one will come.

Things like ammonites. No more fossil collecting. Now that is disgusting too.

This restaurant. Very expensive for tiny things no bigger than the smallest paper bag of pocket money sweets you could imbibe for seventy pence, but costing six pounds and more, He felt he had to eat. The squid: texture of shoe. The prawn toast: where it hadn’t crackled in the frying, there was bread mush, looking like his baby sister’s fat toe skins after bath: mushy baby toes. He wanted to cry out. Boiled skin; flayed stuff. Jesus lashed. Mary crying. How? Why? And no-one will come.

Now he remembered the nightimes. Sometimes I am afraid to close my eyes at night for fear of falling. I shall fall and fall and not get up and it must be like dying or not dying and everyone thinking you had but you could not say. If I swallow, I can die. And I will fall. I’ve seen the pipes and the tubes of a human body and they are not well organised and choking could happen to anybody because nobody always knows what to do. A madness, a laughing illness could happen to you, however brave or clever or so well that you defeated a big illness. But he must not show his mother. And what if all this got back to Grandmother? She would be disappointed and trace it back to the wooden board when she had swept in, Maître Fromager, and make me tell her I did not like the manchego cheese.

He thought again of bloody steak, mango slivers, rolling parents. Laughing, oblivious, quoting.. And on and on. And when the pad thai came, again in tapas portions, he ate a mouthful and went rigid, aghast also at the thought he might expectorate six pounds eighty’s worth of noodles. Time was money and money was time, his dad said.

I need to go home.

Why? Don’t be ridiculous. Also people are looking.

I am going to choke.

You’ll be fine.

What if I die?

Of course you won’t die.

Why not? People definitely die of choking or it wouldn’t be on the telly.

Well…

So you can’t say it never happens.

Listen darling you must stop being so odd and understand that food is one of the great pleasures of life. A normal thing. What on earth has made you so uptight? You’re really not like anyone else in the family. I just don’t understand.

And he was also thinking, Take me back, I want to stay a child. Please let me. And, I hate you. You don’t see it, rolling on the floor and frying and slavering and your horrid mango slivers like a yellow corpse slip up to the light. I hate you. You don’t, you cannot understand me and you won’t try.

            More food came.

            And what is in here? In the Spanish-Thai muddle? All the things they might have mixed in or used to flavour it. Spanish omelette and heart and that nasty cheese that’s like beasts in heat and melting straw and rotting things and you said there were anchovies in it and things that tasted of lemon, but you didn’t say they were lemon. I can’t trust any of it.

And the boy ran.

Mother caught him, as mothers do. Admonishing, saying she simply could not see what the problem was. It wasn’t as though he was ill. Sighed and paid the bill, apologising to the manager. Over forty pounds for tiny things and indistinguishables and babies’ bath toes and bits of organ and weird cheese. And the memory of his grandmother looking disappointed in that way she had. He wasn’t like her friend’s grandson who would try anything and like it, too. Dear, dear. Boys today and I blame the mothers and if she had been my daughter I would have taught her how to raise a braver son.

And on and on. Crying into the storm all the journey home. Frightened to sleep for a death crevasse, all littered with manchego and nasty odoriferous hauntings, which opened beneath his feet with each falling to sleep jump. Rigid then until overcome, at four a.m. and too tired, too immutable with fright, to go to school the next day. And still scrambled egg arrived. This will make you strong. Like hell it will, viscous nasty thing made by the hands of beasts in heat.

Keep it quiet. Keep the house battened down. It’s hard to explain, this multi-layered suffering. If you took a food metaphor to deconstruct it—and you may know that planked or slated deconstructed food is all the rage just now—you could envision it like a trifle. On the bottom, there’s the sponge and that’s feeling guilty about being born and being a burden to your mother; the sherry soaked into the sponge is the shame drenched on you by (worst) grandmother because you’re not brave, not a trier, not pleasing or (alongside it) masculine enough like other grandsons. Then you’ve fruit. The fruit, first of all, depends on your poshness. Posh folk add kiwi fruit; the chavs, tinned strawberries—that’s what he’d heard them say about other people’s parents—no matter, though, the metaphor works either way: the pieces of fruit are the odds and ends of bad dreams and chunks of scorn and the lumber of certain failures, past and to come. The custard: cannot get out from the fruit: it’s viscous, like aortic blood in a bloody steak, or the gloop they drain out from the corpses before they flush; it’s death, being trapped. Ah, the cream, now what is that? It’s claustrophobia. You’re in a classroom, with the popular kids, and they’re pelting you on the back of your neck with the contents of their pencil cases and you don’t turn round. You’re told this won’t last forever, but you’re not sure because you were also reassured that choking wouldn’t happen and it did to that man on the telly and you know your mum was bullied in school and she still hates the school run with your primary age brother because of the cool girls she isn’t. So the cream. Gloop. Look, a swamp. It’s going to get you. Or is it quicksand, or the worst sort of snow or pus and infection and it’s seeping into you and you’re boy in bits but no-one knows. And there, in bed at night, or in the classroom being pelted on the back of the neck with fine-liners and protractors and somebody’s foul tooth-marked mouth-guard, that’s all there is.

Trifle kills. So do Thai Tapas. And Grandma, affineur, with her hateful tidbits. And when you fall to sleep, there’s the crevasse. And that’s what loss is. Going mad. Disease. Eventually disease will make you ill. And then there’s stuff you’re clawing at; can’t catch. Abhorrent  taste in your mouth all the while.

The boy sat sat rigid all night, for two nights: didn’t go to school. The doctor was called, but the boy wasn’t an emergency just yet. He gagged on egg and full fat carbonated and little tiny bites and even milky things that Mother was taught to get into him, somehow. And on the third day, overcome again by the tiredness, he slept and slept all day and half the night and when, at last he woke, he sipped with a straw and would never thereafter eat anything. Though he drank and gagged, but drank because he had to. No good toast, or pizza or roast or pasta things. Just fluid, with his straw, under control and bland, so no beasts on heat and that was that. And he wasn’t a child any more, though he looked like one.

His parents weren’t letting up on their own feasts.

Darling, look. Let’s make a salad. Do you remember Dido in The Aeneid? Yes, how could I forget? You were the one who read it to me, lulled me to sleep. She spoke about the lettuce and the long huge-bellied gourd. They were laughing as they crushed the foul garlic in the pestle and mortar, wrenching parsley from the ground and foul red onions. Laughing.

And on. And on. Slurp. Sip. What is wrong with him? Wrong until he was taller man-boy, then old man, being pumped and drained, too late to chew or bite; all gone. Anyway, childhood gone; all swallowed up by the fear-thing. The fear-thing you see out of the corner of your eye. That you try not to see. So you have a bun; a consoling cup of tea; a chat. And you hope it all, life—like this tale, really—is a metaphor for something greater, then discover it isn’t.

Yes, there were cups of tea, he could manage tea, but still he went toes up. Ill, mad, eyes not seeing and no-one came. He wasn’t dry for lack of fluid but his gums were violet and teeth pretty for lack of use; deep gorges around his lips for sucking life through straws.

At the wake, the glacé cherries winked from the top of the trifle, adorning the cream, custard, fruit and sherry-soaked sponge; a late addition for festivity’s sake. It wasn’t a kind wink. For cherries are little ruby fucker-devils; you could suffocate in a sponge; if the gin-poor had had more money, they’d have been expunged by sherry; custard and cream: get your foot wrong, and slurp, like a swamp and you’re under.

That poor boy.

Oh well, we tried, said his even older mother to his even older father. But he was nothing like us, was he? In the end, it was like a disease in our family, so I had to turn away, for my own preservation. Your own sweet preservation, darling. I must say—and I’m quoting Kierkegaard though obviously you’d know that—that it’s a shame how some men’s lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. Oh I know, my love. That was him.

Now parcel up the rest of the food. You and I will have a midnight feast.

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Raising Sparks: an interview with Ariel Kahn about his debut novel

 Here is an interview with Dr Ariel Kahn. His book, Raising Sparks, published with Bluemoose yesterday. I read a proof copy some time and loved it. I’ve asked quite a range of questions here – not too many spoilers – and you’ll see that I’ve also asked him a little about the publisher and about indie presses. Both are close to my heart because over the past few years I’ve taken so much delight in making much of my own reading from small presses and writing for them. Also, my third novel, Saving Lucia, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020.  And my goodness they are doing well: amongst other things, author Ben Myers just won the Sir Walter Scott prize for The Gallows Pole. (Read now; the press bookshop is on the website listed at bottom!)

But back to you, Ariel. Congratulations and on with the questions.

Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa, where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.

RAISING SPARKS reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East. (From the publisher.)

raising sparks

For those who are about to read your book, tell me about its title and the beautiful illustration on the cover. It’s a tree which looks to be reflected and also part blooming, part aflame.

Hi Anna! Thanks for these very leading questions. So Raising Sparks is a concept in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which really resonated with me. It comes from an alternative creation myth expounded by Isaac Luria, the 13th century “Lion of Safed” from who I’m descended. The sections of my novel correspond to the stages that Luria describes, and articulate the journey of my protagonist. He argued that when the world was created, God held back to allow it to form – contraction, withdrawal – “Tzimtzum” in Hebrew. Divine light then poured into creation, but the vessels that were meant to hold that light shattered, scattering fragments of light throughout creation. This stage is known as “Shevirat Hakelim”, or the breaking of the vessels. Rather than a pessimistic portrayal of a flawed creation, Luria’s myth suggests that humanity are co-creators with the Divine – we are responsible for the Raising of the Sparks, and for healing of the shattered world, known as “Tikkun”. How? As one of my characters puts it:

“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”

The Tree on the gorgeous cover (designed by Stuart Brill) is the Tree of Life, a key symbol in Kabbalistic texts of the connection between the human and Divine. This always made sense to me, as trees are extraordinary beings, making food out of light, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching up to heaven. The tree is sometimes portrayed upside down, with its roots in heaven, reaching down to earth – suggesting that the trees we see are mirror or reflections of the Divine reaching down to us, or through us. So on the back cover of Raising Sparks, the tree is inverted.

Malka, my protagonist, is a young female kabbalist in contemporary Israel. She experiences this tree at several points in the novel, and it is bound up with her identity. As she changes, so does her perspective on the tree. Her own abilities initially terrify her, and the flame suggests the power of the repressed rage and sense of entrapment she has felt. Working through that, she reaches a more whole place, effecting “Tikkun” in herself and others. She flowers.

Malka; Moshe. Is there any significance to those names? And what about the black cat that leads one to the other and to the room and to the tree?

Indeed there is! Malka means queen in Hebrew – her full name is Malka Sabbatto, or the Sabbath Queen. An aspect of Kabbalistic writing that really resonated with me was the notion that the reason the world is in such a state is because the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Divine is in hiding, in exile – when we raise the sparks, we help return her to her Beloved.  Another One of Luria’s followers, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a deeply erotic poem to the Sabbath Queen which is still sung on Friday nights in synagogues around the world to welcome the Sabbath. Malka channels this feminist Divine energy, and challenges and disrupts the patriarchal structures she encounters.

Moshe, Malka’s would-be lover, is the Hebrew name for the biblical Moses – though it is fact an Egyptian name, given to him by the princess who pulls him out of the Nile. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and then must flee when he kills a slave driver after identifying with the Hebrew slaves on whom their wealth was based.  So the name is bound up with saving, being saved, and the challenges of displacement and loss. My character is a Russian immigrant to Israel, who has come with his mother after the breakdown of their family, the effect of a tragic loss which Moshe believes he is implicated in. Like his namesake, water plays an important part in his story.

I can tell you’ve read the proof version of my novel, as the cat changes colour and becomes a smoky grey in the final version. Thereby hangs a tale. When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we went to a cottage in Suffolk for a few days to write. A black cat walked along the wall, and suddenly I had the image of a young girl pursuing this cat through the crowded food market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. My wonderful editor at Bluemoose, Lin Webb, is a cat lover, and realised that there wouldn’t be a black cat in Jerusalem. So something was gained in transplantation.

What can you tell me about how this book came to publication? I have to say a few things first. One (and I haven’t told Ariel this yet) I was already aware of the book through a piece drawn from its manuscript which appeared in ‘The Arab Israeli Book Review blog’ and two that my own third book will be published by Bluemoose in 2020 and so we will be in the same stable.

The journey of Raising Sparks to publication had some surprising twists. I wrote it as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Roehampton, where I teach, supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. Then I had lots of rejections by agents. I was just ready to give up and put it away in a drawer, when Leone posted on Facebook that there was a competition for debut novelists based on Pop Idol. Called Pulp Idol, it was run by Wowfest, based in Liverpool, and had heats in cities all over the country. The heats were all on Saturdays, which as an Observant Jew, meant I couldn’t attend one. Then I saw on their website that if you were not able to make the heats, you could record a short YouTube video instead, reading a few minutes of the opening chapter and answering a series of questions. My kids were not yet up, so I sat down, recorded the video, sent it, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, Wowfest got in touch to say that I’d been put through the heats and was one of the national finalists for the final in Liverpool. A was more than delighted. All ten finalists would have our first chapters edited and collected in a hard copy which would be sent around agents and publisher, so I already felt like a winner. The local Jewish community hosted me for meals, and the the Wowfest team led by Mike Morris made me feel at home. The final was in the Black-E, a converted church now a theatre space on the edge of Chinatown. We were each meant to read from our first chapters, before a panel of judges and a live audience. I read first, and Kevin Duffy, now my publisher, was one of the judges. I came runner-up out of the ten (writers, publishers, agents do check out the other finalists in Pulp Idol 2018, available as an ebook and in hard copy – they were all amazing). He liked what he heard, and asked me to send a hard copy to Lin, his editor. She liked it too, and on my birthday last year, Kevin wrote to say they were publishing me. I danced.

I love the rich evocative detail of the book. The pizza, water, tea, the cooking of fish, the doughnuts for the street boys and the layered sensual elements of the way in which you describe the bakery. Not just the smells, but the textures, processes, the pantry…Tell me about food in the book. Why there is so much emphasis on it? I was very taken with the glass of water which Moshe offers Malka so early on because it seemed so much more than the sum of its parts. With the bowl of peas remembered by Mahmoud that carries such resonance and recalls, for him, both beauty and intense pain. I’d quite like a recipe, too. How about something mentioned in the book?

Delighted that this sensory element speaks to you. One of the few written teachings of Isaac Luria is to do with raising sparks through cooking and eating, that this too can be a spiritual experience, which led to mystic pizza in my novel! I think cooking is an everyday kind of creativity, which we can do either mindfully or mindlessly. It feels very akin to writing in the way we combine ingredients which can become something more than the sum of their parts. Food encodes personal and cultural histories, and their mingling and development. Helen Goldrein, a friend of mine is a food blogger, and interviewed me about this element of the novel. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I said:

“Food creates community. It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.”

For more on food in the novel, see the full interview at: https://family-friends-food.com/raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

I’m so glad you connected to the glass of water, and the “Middle Eastern Peas” in Mahmoud’s coming-out story. I think our relationship to food is symbolic of how we see ourselves, and is full of personal symbolism. Both of these very simple foods have layers of meaning, both for the characters, and hopefully, in the novel. Much of the first draft was written in notebooks while sitting in a garden hammock, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, right next to the herb garden belonging to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents.  I love his food and approach to cultural connection in his restaurants, set up with his Palestinian Business partner, Sami Tamimi. I’m hoping the reader of Raising Sparks will experience the way words and foods combine in my novel to similarly transformative effect.

You asked for a recipe, something mentioned in the book. How about this? A brief extract from Raising Sparks about Jerusalem Kugel, then my translation of a recipe for it from Sherry Ansky’s brilliant cookbook, Food, which we often use at home (my wife Noga is Israeli and a brilliant cook – how people feel about food is an indicator for me about how they are about people too, and she’s the biggest-hearted person I know).

‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’

‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’

From Raising Sparks p.247 Copyright Bluemoose Books

Jerusalem Kugel from Sherry Ansky’s Food, Keter, Jerusalem 2003, p. 144

Translated by Ariel Kahn

Ansky always tells a personal story about each of her recipes. Here she writes:

One of my sweet childhood memories is the kugel which I would eat on Shabbat morning at synagogue. Close to the end of prayers, an Ultra-orthodox woman would appear at the corner of the road, pushing an old baby buggy at great speed, almost running. It contained aluminium pots full of giant kugel, covered in wool blankets, which she would distribute in the synagogues of the city. I would push through the congregants and watch in amazement how her giant pots were upended over trays, and with the help of string, cut into slices. The caramelised kugel was sweet and oily, but crucially, spicy.   In one hand I would hold Kugel, in the other a pickled cucumber, chewing, sweating from the pain of the spiciness, and from the pleasure of the taste. From the silence that prevailed in those sweet moments in the synagogue there arose only the cries of pleasure from the kugel devourers.

Recipe:

Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick

One cup of corn or sunflower oil

One cup sugar

6 eggs

Three teaspoons of ground black pepper

Salt

Baking parchment

Method:

  1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
  3. Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
  4. Heat the oven to 90-100 C. Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. If you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.  Eat with pickled cucumbers.

Tell me about the significance of the sea and of water more broadly in the book? Even the title of the restaurant where Malka comes to work is of the sea – ‘The Leviathan’ (which you can also comment on if you like!)

When I was studying to be a Rabbi I was in an all-male bubble six days a week, studying from early morning to late evening. So on Fridays, which is the day off in Israel, I would head for the Tel Aviv beach whenever I could. Only an hour away by bus from Jerusalem, but a different world. The contrast was eye-watering. Then I started to notice little rituals in this supposedly secular space, and thought that maybe Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv were not so far apart. I loved the sea, and found its rhythm, colour and scent magical. Malka longs for water – she’s grown up in arid Jerusalem – while Moshe, with his traumatic history involving the sea, fears it. Water is also a bridge between them – he offers her a glass of water when they first meet, and she uses an ice cube in a key scene in the novel too. The Leviathan is my adaptation of a real restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith (after the mythic story of Adam’s first wife – there are two creation stories in the Bible – in the first man and woman are created equal, in the second Eve is subservient. The first woman becomes Lilith in Jewish folklore, challenges Adam, and becomes a kind of femme fatale for the rabbinic tradition – the dangerous, empowered woman  –  this fed into Malka’s identity too)  which trains street kids of all faiths and ethnicities to work in the restaurant trade, a lot like Jamie Oliver’s place in Devon. I decided to combine this with my love of Ottolenghi – only flip it so I had a Palestinian chef and an Israeli backer. The Leviathan is of course the great sea beast mentioned in the Bible, and Malka has some striking experiences in and around the sea. It is also the medium through which Moshe confronts his fears. Water is an agent of “Tikkun” or healing in the novel.

Now, do you have anything you could share on specific stimuli for events in the text or inspiration for any of the characters? If you would like, do explain for readers the significance of the book’s inscription?

Well, I’ve spoken about the black cat that inspired the opening sequence in the novel. After I had this image, I wanted to find out more about who this girl was. I was wrestling with the nature of Malka’s character and gifts. Growing up in a patriarchal family with four sisters, I was fascinated by the thought-experiment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as he was. While staying in my sister in law’s home in Nataf near Jerusalem, I had a dream in which I was Malka, in which she goes down to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, now a bit of a political football. In the dream, all of the prayers which people write and press into the cracks between the stones started to pulse like hearts, or sea anemones, and cry aloud the words written on them.  Malka could hear them. She could hear the music behind speech, the longing that underpins it. She would understand the language of silence. I realised Malka would be a mystic, a kabbalist, someone who could release these charged presences to powerful effect.

As well as a space to question and explore a feminist spirituality, Raising Sparks is also an act of remembrance. When I trained to be a rabbi in Israel, I discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. I up a writing group in yeshiva (theological seminary) with Matt Eisenfeld, my chavruta (study partner – texts are learned together, through discussion, to tease out their multiplicity of voices). Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. This tragedy had a traumatic effect on me, and made me realise I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I came back to the UK and looked for answers in literature instead, gradually growing towards a different kind of engagement with my faith, one which stressed the more universal, mystical elements, while seeing ritual as a kind of embodied poetry, waiting to be filled with personal meaning, a way of expanding my experience of the other. If each person or situation I encountered contained a spark of light, how might I liberate that? The ultimate other is the Divine, which means so many different things to each of us through our lives. I wanted to write a novel that explored the nature and meaning of faith in the modern world, from a range of perspectives, something I had often discussed with Matt. I was determined that the love and vision Matt and Sara shared would not perish with them. Their relationship is the seed of the love story in my novel. It was also behind the formation of the Arab Israeli Book Club, which I set up in London, on the basis thatthat fiction is an empathy machine, enabling us to experience all kinds of “Other” without fear or prejudice, and wanting readers to have the opportunity to go deeper than the headlines. The Guardian called it “a roaring success”. Brief plug: This book club is relaunching as The Middle Eastern Book Review at Daunt Books Hampstead on September 28th, when I will be interviewed about Raising Sparks by Ian Black, the Guardian Middle East Editor. All are welcome!

The epigraph, taken from Job, is all about the way these sparks sometimes seem like trouble and distress, but are often the inciting incident to a different, deeper life. Job is also a great questioner of God, like Abraham and Moses –which is why God calls him his true servant. Faith is never about certainty. It is about asking the right questions, challenging authority.

While the book does not shy away from pain, unpleasant events, intolerance, brutality and violence, please will you talk a little about the ways in which it is a resolutely hopeful book? I do believe it is. I’ve told you that at a difficult time in my life, I have personally found it consoling and inspiring.

That’s moving to hear. Books have always been a consolation and a tool for engaging more deeply with myself and others, for feeling the things which connect rather than divide us. Faith is all about doubt for me, not in a debilitating way, but in a way that constantly enlarges our frame of reference and understanding, something which good fiction and art in general do too. Malka is a deeply optimistic person, despite everything she goes through. She believes in a shared humanity, in the ways in which all of us are connected. She tries to use her gifts as a tool for positive change, standing up to the forces of oppression and domination which seek to limit and define her. She questions received truths, and suggests that it is precisely by listening to the silenced other within and around us that we become most fully ourselves. She is a wise person but at the same time extremely naïve due to her sheltered upbringing – the modern world crashes in on her full force, so she uses religious myth to critique and engage with it, and create a new, personal kind of fusion/integration between them in the process.

Hard one. Define magical realism. You’ve used it about your book so go on then…

I’ve always loved the kinds of book crammed in under this label, from Rushdie and Marquez to Borges and Bashevis Singer. For me, it means books that enclose multiple ways of seeing, from the mythic to the modern, side by side, and often show how congruent they are. We live by myths – the challenge is to make them the best ones we can, open, fluid and welcoming.

Do you – and I appreciate this might be hard because you made it – have a favourite part of the book?

That is a tough one. I like the hard-earned moment of rest Malka has on the beach in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. That quiet moment was one in which she reached a new self-understanding and accommodation. It feels like a turning point in the story, and the challenge for me, as for Malka, is to make these quieter moments speak as powerfully as the more dramatic ones. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Beyond the book: where next for Dr Ariel Kahn?

Well, I love teaching, cooking, and writing, so hoping to do more of all of those. I’ve got the seed of a new novel with a historical strand calling to me – looking forward to having the headspace to heed that call.

Independent presses have had a stunning few days, haven’t they? Three prizes for three brilliant authors. Might you comment on this in any way? 

With significant recognition like the Walter Scott Prize for Ben Myers outstanding The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose and the Indie scene are having a renaissance. They publish edgy and interesting things mainstream presses are wary of. They work together, in constructive groups like the Northern Alliance of publishers. Bluemoose have a close, nurturing relationship with their authors – Kevin talks about the Bluemoose family, (note from Anna: as you know, Ariel, my own third book, Saving Lucia, is going to be with Bluemoose and Kevin sent me a note when I signed my contract: it said, ‘Welcome to the Bluemoose family’: loved that) and it is more than a phrase, it is something I’ve experienced, with the way other authors within the imprint support one another. As a debut author, the care and attention to detail Bluemoose have lavished on my book, and my inclusion in every aspect of the process including choosing the cover have made this an empowering and pleasurable experience.

And finally…tell me about your reading. Any recently published books you’d particularly like to recommend, say? Or could you name a few favourite authors or books?

I love David Grossman. He’s been a huge inspiration, as a novelist and a deeply ethical person engaging with his own trauma, the loss of his son, while remaining present and powerful in his use of writing as an empathy machine. Given my love of trees and their significance, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Overstory by Richard Powers (Heinemann), which looks at humanity from the perspective of nature on a compelling and moving way. I love comics and graphic novels – the way they blend the visual and the verbal fees deeply true to my experience of the world, and stimulates my own prose, which often starts with a visual image. Recently, I’ve enjoyed two amazing graphic novels. Tumult by John Dunning and Michael Kennedy (Selfmade Hero) is a deeply unsettling noir about a woman with multiple personalities, beautifully rendered, subtle and teasing. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) is a tour de force – ostensibly a journal by a young girl who sees herself as a monster and investigate the strange death of an upstairs neighbour, it expands into a mediation on the saving power of art, human resilience in the face of tragedy, and the long shadow of World War Two. Finally, as I mentioned my wife writes YA. She introduced me to the amazing writer Philip Reeve, who writes Steampunk SF and is an incredible world-builder.  He writes strong feisty heroines which you root for, and a fascinating engagement with the meaning of technology and culture for our individual and collective identity. I’ve just finished his Railhead trilogy, a future where people travel between galaxies on sentient trains. It is also a moving love story and a meditation on difference and choice. The first novel in his Mortal Engines series is being released a film shortly and that should bring him tons of well-deserved new fans.

MOOSEKETEERS! Thank you Ariel, and I hope you take a good deal of pleasure in interacting with readers of your book over the coming weeks and months and good luck with Raising Sparks events.

Here are some first reviews. .

https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/book-review-raising-sparks-1.466439

http://www.skylightrain.com/book-review-raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)

https://www.waterstones.com/events/raising-sparks-book-launch-with-ariel-kahn/liverpool

This is the Daunt Books event Ariel mentioned above: https://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/product/ariel-kahn/

And you might like to read this, too. Ariel’s book is part of this survey.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/sneak-preview-independent-publishers-top-reads-for-2018-1.3357461

https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Follow Ariel Kahn on twitter http.//www.twitter.com/ArielKahn2 and the press http://www.twitter.com/ofmooseandmen

 

A Tale Of Tripe (for Elizabeth David)

(Contains a swear word. There might be more than one.)  This is something I wrote for a food something a while ago. I had rather forgotten about it. But I am taking a little time to clear up old pieces as I wait on my second novel (novella, really) and finish my third.

So.

Elizabeth David. My favourite food writer ever. That’s her in the picture and here is something for her. If you have read my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have met some pretty scary food at Paternal Grandmother’s House at The Hill. Tripe, slapping and boiling; pickles in a dark store cupboard that frightened me with its eyeball pickled eggs. This was a house of morbid fascinations; of desolate proportions: they talked about terrible deaths over tea, I felt I knew so much more that I should about ways to die, horribly and publicly; on the wall there was a picture of Jesus and underneath that one of kittens: in the damp hallway outside, a terrifying dead great aunt with nasty rat teeth glared from a picture on the wall. But ah yes: the food. It was hearty, but I have not revisited it. Not quite. I feel compelled to gussy up its ingredients so it isn’t so redolent of…well, of horrible deaths. In came Elizabeth David with a blast of sunshine and a tray of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Obviously, this story and partial account of my formative years is not just about the food and not purely literal.

My grandfather taught all his cats – who were called mostly after Old Testament folk – to wipe their feet on the way in. It is true. I have no idea why he did this. My grandmother seemed to loathe everyone beyond The Hill (oh whoops – the book says it’s a work of fiction; well, some of it is, then…) and was good with a gun and at arm wrestling. She had big knuckles and terrifying elbows. I imagined that she killed people she didn’t like. She was full of curses and liked to frighten small kids by telling them that Jesus was looking at them with his beady eye. And not just from the wall.

The days, I will eat tripe, but only in a hot spiced Chinese dish, or with chorizo as a friend from Buenos Aires showed me how to do. Or in ‘E.D.’s’ recipe, below. it is actually rather lovely.

Anyway, my paternal grandmother was the inspiration for this story. Tripe, yes: but a fresh start. New day; new life; new love; new recipe.

They were as strange as all fuck, weren’t they – at The Hill?

A TALE OF TRIPE

Waking in the violet early morning, bathed in sweat and troubled by a night both eerie and vivid, Catherine searched her thoughts: ‘What must I have been dreaming about?’

It didn’t take long, of course: it was the tripe – that and the matriarchs who washed it, handled it with such vigour and presented it with an expectant, nasty gleam in their eyes. Such sweet, creative fiends: mother and grandmother. In Mother’s case, just dressing the tripe would have exhausted her for the day; sent her desperate to the fainting couch. In grandmother’s case, such dressing was simply a prompt to her killing another cow with the large-knuckled hands that terrified the grandchild so much.

Catherine winced: ‘Grandmother and her man hands; downy arms – all wicked with a rolling pin and guarding the old stove with a vicious possessiveness’, thus,

Let no man come near my domain: I will slaughter them – smother them under the blanket of the beautiful tripe.’

That was it. That was the most disquieting image in the nightmare: Grandmother like Moloch waiting for a sacrifice over the fire; Mother’s eyes dancing approval.

Yes yes yes! Feed it to her! Now, now, now!’

I’m so ashamed. I want a normal family and not to feel like this – waking, tripe-terrified.’

Mother and Grandmother were dead, but they found that no excuse. So they visited Catherine regularly, sleeves rolled up, ready to cook.

To rid herself of the present dreamscape, there was nothing for it: go downstairs and find a better image. Tea in a favourite mug was a good start, but Catherine found that her thoughts were leaping from vivid hue – the reddest of pickled cabbage – to dull, cloudy jars in which might have been preserved the innards of an unwanted relative. In grandmother’s pantry there was a hecatomb of conserves; the fruits of the season, incongruously presented in a chamber of horrors. There were pots of umber sludge, eyeball pickled eggs in heavily sedimented jars: damp flagstones underfoot; a smell of sour, crawling mould. There were aprons hanging up, the prettiness of their floral decoration gone to hell in this place of condiments, good housekeeping and no hope. This was a room revisited on other troubled nights for Catherine; she could not let its scents and shapes leave her head and the argot of this poky grey room whispered, ‘Grandmother knows – just as we all know – and she and Mother will come for you.’

Here was a place of extinction – of annihilation, the meaning of such things terrifying in a dream but still only faintly, inchoately understood.

This must be the worst combination: to know that someone is coming for you, but not to understand why, when or how. Or really what that has to do with pickles. Or tripe!’

Ah: the tripe – huge winding sheets of it. It smelled like death. When Catherine’s nights were not punctuated by morbid pickles, siren-calling her to embrace their victim in death, she had nightmares of being cosseted in its velvet crushing embrace. The silky surface was puckered and hollowed. Somewhere else and in some other time, it might have been pretty; like a creamy-white mosaic you would want to touch. But in the nights, and when grandmother or mother served it up as punishment so triumphantly, the tripe blinked at her and writhed in its nasty pool of white sauce, encircled by effulgent lumps of onion. On its surface – its face or was it its back? – were sucker pads like those on the arms of an octopus or some kind of strange sea plant that would caress and then swallow you whole, whispering of a lifetime of sin to you – just to compound the unpleasantness of this particular way to go.

Matriarchs hovering, the tripe came billowing clouds of vapour; it was cooked in a milky broth, all one at first, before you realised the unpleasantness of the discrete parts and sucky stomach-feet turned your (own) stomach. Between the two women, the silent challenge between mother and grandmother, it was a point of honour to make sure that the flour was never properly cooked off; thus, it lurked congealed in tiny mounds – but you didn’t see it in the unmapped viscosity of the sauce. Didn’t see the horrid little tumescence until you began to ingest it. Powder scattered in your mouth when the lump dissected. In a way, this was the worst horror:

And the dust in my mouth as I sat between Scylla and Charibdys. Oh, a fine supper.’

Catherine had always blamed herself for the meals – for why they fed her so. For the spiteful sheets of tripe, served up like victory in chintz.

My childhood looked so tidy from the outside; mother and grandmother were pillars of the community: first for cake in the village show; outstanding for a lemon curd; doyennes of the church flower rota. They prayed hard at the altar, shark eyes squeezed shut. I always thought it was me – it had to be me.’

Send her out to the pantry, in the semi darkness. Those eggs will frighten her a treat – make her more obedient. The mould on her hands! Ha!’

Mother – that’s the way to do it.’

But say these homes must have been full of spite, hurt and venom to make mother and grandmother cook like that? Say it was THEM and I didn’t deserve the tripe? Say it was wrong to shut me in there when I gagged on the tripe and onions and spat out the floury lumps without meaning to and they put me in the pantry like Jane Eyre in the Red Room?’

Catherine was not usually so bold: what was happening now that was different?

Something was coming from the bookshelf.

A small, dry but nonetheless beguiling voice: ‘Come here and open me up, Catherine.’

Now, Catherine was used to having a litter of imaginary friends. When your strange landlocked, emptied-out family surrounds you; when your nearest and dearest seem to close in on you with, “Bad, bad, bad – everyone knows about you” then don’t you need to tell someone? You can’t tell real people because no-one else seems to have a family as peculiar as yours.

And how would I ever explain cooking as a way of throttling or suffocating an unwanted child?’

In the bad dreams, Catherine tended to see her relatives, mother and grandmother predominant, amassed, like the preserves, in a hecatomb. They tumbled out curses at her at home; aligned in neat rows and pretty as pie when out in the cold world which welcomed their jam making, their manners and determined smiles. Who would believe Catherine about Mother and Grandmother? And how would she explain the chamber of soused horrors or the tripe? But here came a friend now; you might know her. To Catherine, she was ED; to the outside world, Elizabeth David.

ED wasn’t the warmest sort, but her books smelled of spice and sunshine; of lemons and emerald parsley. Catherine took French Provincial Cooking from her shelf; it was from this that ED had been speaking to her. Catherine adored ED and all her books; could tell you about the “pale rose pinks of the langoustines” which their author enjoyed, with a fresh and sparkling appetite, alongside a bottle of Muscadet by the Seine. ED relished good butter, radishes with their leaves left on as God had made them; saw the poetry and potency of a flat plate of Arles sausage and black olives.

And the colour, ED: look at the colour of the things you ate and knew how to make! See the lovely creams and greys of shrimp; sunset-glow carrots. For you, even the dark things – the winkles and the cork stuck with pins; things that were muted or pebbly – those things became beautiful. Beautiful – flanking the colour; like a gentle relief. I want to eat like that and I’d like to live like that. Embracing the darkness, yet knowing of its loving, numinous companion.’

ED, not one for a hug, and not particularly fond of metaphor, said, Well, do you have a sharp knife, a hot grill and a will of your own? I’m assuming you have a mandoline, some good bowls – and I will not share my kitchen with a garlic press: I must be firm about that.’

Of course not; I know your feelings on garlic presses. I’m not sure I have a mandoline, I do have plenty of bowls, but some of them are chipped.’ Catherine began to cry.

ED prodded her firmly in the back, coughed demonstratively and said, ‘Chipped is fine, as long as we have at least a few white-lined brown dishes.’

Why do we need these dishes – why must they be as you describe?’

Silence. A sigh. Then:

Fresh contrast. Now, it’s time you stopped thinking about tripe. We are going shopping.’

ED: I am dog tired.’

That is no excuse. Not when we are going to compose hors-d’oeuvres.’

Hurrying to dress, Catherine sighed disappointedly at the drawn face and sad clothes; shuddered at the lingering dreams. Still, ED at least knew about the tripe, so they wouldn’t be cooking that. They would grace a table with red tomatoes, yellow mayonnaise, sea salt and olive oil; a beautiful salad of grated carrot. And could it be celeriac that ED meant for the mandoline – all cut into the thinnest strips and highly seasoned with mustard, plenty of vinegar and a voluptuous thick mayonnaise?

Out they went, Catherine chatting silently to ED and now lighter of foot on their way to the wonderful market. But two shadowy figures watched her, curses dribbling from their lips with the last lappings of morning tea and vulgar gulps of toast with ochre marmalade. And inside Catherine’s house, gently, timorously now, was a faint smell of the sea, a distant grating of nutmeg and a fresh twist of black pepper.

Sacrilege. I smell no wash day smell! I hear no slap of tripe against the pot!’ cursed grey Grandmother and Mother.

Afloat, through thought, in Catherine’s house now was the peaceful aroma of potage bonne femme: of cream, chervil, softly cooked potatoes and leeks, bathed in sweet butter. The shadowy figures cursed more, spitting unkind crumbs.

Pain grillé aux anchois? Salade au chapon? Get the little bitch. Boil up the tripe, Mother. And bring out the ammunition from the pantry.’

Catherine and ED, silently communing over their purchases, bought a mandoline and the requisite dishes, great bunches of green things for the salade de saison, dimpled lemons, celery, celeriac, lumpy tomatoes – things that promised succour. And life.

But on returning to the house, dull wafts of tripe waited for her, as the shadowy figures took their joyful and vindictive hold of the kitchen. Garish red cabbage with a sweet, cloying smell sat with the cruel eggs on the worktop. Amuse-bouches of the sort you serve if you hate your guests; starters gussied up a little with hard bread, sea-foam milky tea and a cucumber cut into behemoth chunks. And the boiling tripe hissed milky sap.

No matter’ said ED, walking briskly right through the shadowy figures, rolling up her sleeves and assembling a work station next to the eyeball eggs.

The eggs leered as ED tasked Catherine with slicing the celeriac on the mandoline, concocting a highly seasoned dressing for its matchstick strips; Arles sausage was laid out on a large flat white plate, its fat coin slices overlapping; in the centre, a carefully built mound of black olives. Both glistened and invited. The tripe spat on, onions twisting and squirming round it, as ED and Catherine cut tomatoes and sprinkled them with gently snipped chervil – the dressing to be added “absolutely” said ED “only when the diner wants to eat.” Catherine could feel on her pulse the metallic, penny-tasting lure of a proper, fine misshapen tomato. They grated carrots almost, “Almost I said!” to a purée, seasoning them carefully; made a wobbling heap of mayonnaise with fresh eggs and olive oil from the first pressing. There was bread with a shiny, crackling crust, butter and some best quality anchovies.

It is no shame to leave them in their tins if they are high class brands’, barked ED. Catherine hurried to place back those she had already decanted.

The table of hors d’oeuvres, for a twelve o’ clock lunch, was almost set. Almost. ED revealed a surprise. Out from a white plastic bag, secreted in the depths of ED’s basket, came a single slithering sheet of tripe. ‘For you.’

Tears pricked Catherine’s eyes. ‘No, not you too – please not you Elizabeth. Don’t make me cook it!’

From the room and the world all around came the laughter; the delighted grey shapes of mother and grandmother.

Boil up the tripe, there’s a good girl! Choke choke choke on the nuggets of flour!’

So ED was one with them, then.

It had to be me, didn’t it? I deserved what I got: a lock up in the pantry; a stifling sheet of tripe and the unlovely curlicues of onions; gallons of white sauce and curses.’

The spectres grinned; the jarred eggs hummed, if ever a jarred egg could.

Now do be quiet. Our lunch à deux first, then I shall teach you something new. You will have to boil the tripe briefly, but then you will grill it to a sizzling crispness, with a coating of egg and breadcrumbs and serve it with a sauce tartare. A revelation, I think, It is called tablier de sapeur – or fireman’s apron.’

I can’t.’

You will.’

Lunch. The fierce, seductive rasp of the anchovy, crunch of good bread and the delicacy of finely cut celeriac, There were draughts of wine; ED passed knife and salad servers through the spectres of matriarchs: it was a celebration. Then lost sleep came and took her pupil. On waking, ED had gone, but Catherine obligingly boiled the slice of tripe, cutting it with a certain passion into a neater rectangle. She basted it with egg, coated it with crumbs and grilled it until it was golden and the edges had caught on the flame. She ate the robust little apron with the sauce tartare that ED must have made for her, left with an uncommonly sweet note nearby:

See off the spectres; try something new – tablier de sapeur: adieu; adieu.’

Hmmm. She almost liked the fireman’s apron.

It’s not my favourite thing, but then neither is it the stuff of nightmares, thrust back to the sound of laughter into the dark pantry. Ha! “Grill to a sizzling crispness” ED had said. A dynamic phrase; a confident one.’

Catherine threw wide the curtains, welcomed in the vestiges of the day and scattered the grey tripe boilers and pickle hoarders into pieces.

Try something new. Mother; Grandmother. Keep being dead now. Adieu; adieu!’

That night, Catherine dreamed only of the next chapters in her life: ‘Soups and Eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre.