A Privileged Source of Information

Nava Semel on literature, the creative process, the relationship between literature and lyric opera, on editing and deleting

Eldad Stobezki


Tel Aviv, December. Europe is snowed in, but here the sun shines and it is quite warm. The coffee shops are open everywhere and it is difficult to find a place at the tables that crowd the pavements. The country is in a pre-election fever. But then Israel is always finding itself in the grip of events that seem destined to decide its future. Everything feels so fateful. When you arrive from Europe, it seems like everyone here is in a hurry, everyone speaks so loudly, as if they were charged with electricity. Yet people find the time to meet in coffee shops and the restaurants are full of diners. The initial impression is that in Israel people live more intensely, one has to make the best out of every minute because it might be your last. The sun is hotter, the coffee is stronger, the heap of whipped cream on the strudel is higher.

In a few minutes I will meet Nava Semel, the successful writer whom I call an “ambassador of cultures”. I aggressively defend two seats in a popular coffee shop in the north of Tel Aviv. Nava grew up here; her childhood was shaped by these streets. Once an immigrant settlement, this area is now a pleasant and rather fashionable quarter of Tel Aviv. Nava was born into a family of Jeckes (Yekkes), or Jews of German origin, and true to her European roots she arrives at the meeting very punctually. Not like Middle Easterners for whom being late is innate…



Nava Semel, you are a well-known writer. Many of your books have been translated. Recently you gave a series of lectures in Italy in which you spoke about Fossoli, the concentration camp from which the Jews of northern Italy were sent to the extermination camps and gas chambers of Germany and Poland.

Your book The Rat Laughs is currently experiencing great success in an adaptation for the lyric opera composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff and performed by the Israeli Chamber Orchestra and the Tel Aviv Chamber Theatre. The novel tells the story of a little girl hiding in a potato cellar during the Holocaust. She survives together with her only friend – a rat. A priest saves her from the peasants who keep her imprisoned and restores her dilapidated body and soul. The novel will be published soon in Germany.

Your latest book, IsraIsland, the story of an alternative Jewish state established on a Native American island in the United States, deals with the meeting of cultures and the question of identity, both personal and national.

This issue of This Century’s Review is dedicated to the theme of deleting, erasing, like the delete button on a computer keyboard. How do you connect to this motif?


The big challenge in writing is not the writing itself, but the erasing. People get caught up in the fact that they can fill their computer with words that can be immediately printed. But for me the process of writing starts after I’ve written, and I don’t mean just filtering out the errors.

If you consider the first draft to be the initial reflex, then the deleting and rewriting that follow create the blood circulation necessary to breathe life into the text. The initial writing is like an epidermis, it is very external, this body lacks a heart and a backbone and specifically, the lifeblood that keeps the system running. Deleting supplies the text with the inner organs – and the less text the better. Deleting creates a lively and essential tension between the words. The result I aim for is a purified, concise text that does not contain even one superfluous word and in which any additional deletion would destroy the delicate structure. Being a writer, I aspire to cleanliness, so that the page can also contain what is beyond the page. Deletion is the window through which the reader enters the text as a blind passenger. The poems in The Rat Laughs, for example, are very short. Some of them comprise only two lines. And readers react rather vehemently to these poems. They are shocking indeed. A girl is sitting alone in a dark hole, the adults have discarded her, her distorted voice expresses her topsy-turvy philosophy of life. In the poem Above Under, parents take the uppermost position whereas the children of Jewish people occupy the lowest rung of the ladder. Readers reported to me that they found these words deeply troubling, that they could not sleep at night after reading them.

Deleting considers events that are beyond the text. When I delete I try to aim the text at the emotions of the reader, to get at his most concentrated centre. I want to give the reader the freedom to be able to read the text in the context of his own personal soul map. A text full of words suffocates me. Writing is a third of the work of a writer; the rest is editing out. Editing is extremely painful because I naturally have an emotional connection to what I have written. In order to start editing things out I need to separate myself from the text so that the next time I take it up I am able to operate on it like a surgeon, or even go at it with an axe if necessary. A book that is stiflingly over-written is like a tree with dense foliage that gives too much shadow. I prefer a tree that alternates between light and shadow. When a leaf has space to move in the breeze, there is play between light and dark. Literature is at its best when it allows space for the reader, as opposed to newspapers and television which transmit all details, including the unnecessary and the negligible. I try to write literature that does not direct the reader, but rather allows the personal soul map of the reader room to move and vibrate like an accompanying musical score.

IsraIsland testifies as to how difficult it is for Israelis to depart from the familiar concept of the state of Israel. In fact, they are a product of this state, and the creation of an alternative state, even if only on paper, tears the soil out from under their feet. The disorientation that IsraIsland provokes in many readers makes me happy in a way, because this is the real philosophy of life in my opinion. We all search for a place that we can call home, but at the same time I fear becoming too settled; I see it as a danger for the free spirit. I don’t want to lose the ability to feel at home in other places, to be able to absorb what is different. So deleting is also a way to avoid repeating my own patterns. Deleting works covertly against your own text. The text has a coherent order which editing things out breaks. Deleting brings the world back into chaos. Art should also contain disorder, the fermentation and the freedom to abandon one’s own familiar patterns. I don’t shy away from this uneasy task. Deleting begins when the text lies in front of me, weighed and orderly. I start kicking and biting it. That’s how I keep the text alive for me, and hopefully for the reader as well. Deleting takes a two-dimensional text and renders it in three dimensions, and perhaps even in four or five or six dimensions. Who knows how many exist? It resembles Einstein’s Twin Paradox about the brother who returns from a week in outer space to find out that his twin died a hundred years before. In my dreamed and fictive trips as well there are no rules and regulations, just as memory does not function according to a known system. My last two books address the journey along the complex ways of memory and time. The Rat Laughs deals with private memory and IsraIsland focuses on the collective recollection of the Jewish-Israeli nation.

I do not try to flatter the reader while I am writing. The genuine addressee is the enfant terrible in me, who knows that what we see is not the real world. The text on the page is an external partition and in order to really enter it I have to shake it, like shaking a tree and making the leaves fall down. Maybe my real profession is “tree-shaker”…

That is why there is a big connection between my poetry and my prose. It is expected that poetry be economical, concise, leaving space for the unseen, the unsaid. When I am careful with my prose the result may not always agree with the reader, but on my part, I do not want to be bound to only one discipline. I want to rediscover myself anew each time. Art is a road to the unknown, to underground currents that cause upheaval in me as they do in the reader. A book is born when I get the feeling that I’ve lost my “place” or “home” and I need to get established again. I dedicate a lot of time to research, which is a process of discovery that allows me to slowly build the infrastructure of the world I am in the process of creating.

In my books for children I try to address themes that this kind of literature traditionally avoids, such as the fears and phobias in my book The Courage to be Afraid. Fears and dreams also mean concentrating time and breaking it. I cannot negate the world of the child in the text itself but I create crevices and space around the words so that the child can get used to the fact that there is another world beyond the world of the text. The poems for children are sometimes short but contain all that is necessary, and at the same time they offer these alternative worlds.

The renowned composer Ella Milch-Sheriff convinced me to transcribe The Rat Laughs into an opera. Her argument was that while she was reading it she heard it in her head. The libretto to the opera is in fact a concentrated product, like perfume. The music penetrates spaces that are beyond the words. The more I reduced the text, the more space was there for the composer to occupy. Ella Milch-Sheriff also composed music for some of my poems for children in The Courage to be Afraid and Awake in My Sleep, creating a new piece that deals with the Bible and is called I Want to Enter Genesis. I suddenly discovered that the space left around the text makes it possible for another artist to add his interpretation and his art. The beautiful gift I receive is the inspiration that other artists get from my little text and the enormous talent they add which results in a new work of art. In her vision, the composer saw the combination of all three tenses in the book, because music happens in one tense, one time. Understanding the music enriches me. The priest who saves the little girl in The Rat Laughs sings pessimistic words on stage: “A world in which it is necessary to hide small children should be destroyed and it should begin again from the beginning.” The priest lets God know that the world He created is broken and cannot be mended. As a Creator He is a failure. In this sombre text a flute starts to play and with its optimistic notes it sows the seeds for a new world, a better world, one that is created with the help of music.

I have to mention that with the computer every deletion is actually registered, it is not a void but a whole world in itself. Watching the opera in the last year was like discovering all the hidden signs. What the deletions contain came out into the light. Most people consider deleting to be banishment. For me deleting is an unseen addition, visible only to the soul.


Thank you for the interview and for your candidness.