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.)
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.
½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick
One cup of corn or sunflower oil
One cup sugar
Three teaspoons of ground black pepper
- Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. .
And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)
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.