The eighteen stories in New York 1 Tel Aviv 0, Shelly Oria’s debut collection, are beguiling, bizarre, and wise. (One of them, “My Wife, in Converse,” appeared in The Paris Review earlier this year.) Her sentences, with their clear-eyed, authoritative calm, underscore and complicate the unlikely circumstances in which her characters find themselves, and the chaos of their inner lives. Here, for example, is the narrator of “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” on her addiction to sleeping with married men:
I always look them in the eye throughout, and that can be tricky, because they mostly try to avoid the intimacy of eye contact. I wait, and then suddenly it’s there, passing through them like a wave. In that moment, their entire lives turn to air … For one brief moment, they go back in time, they make different choices, they are different men. And my body is the time-travel machine that takes them there.
Born in Los Angeles but raised in Israel, Oria moved to the United States at twenty-five, five years after finishing her compulsory military service. Though she was fluent in English, she thought—and wrote—in Hebrew; hoping to attend the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, she taught herself to write fiction in English, an experience she describes as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Her prose is both energized and measured, and perhaps this is the effect of customary Israeli volubility short-leashed by an inner translator—a tiny version of the author herself who sits at her little desk inside the brain, reading the rough transcripts as they are faxed up from the heart, and forever sending notes back down that read, Yes, but is that really exactly what you meant to say? All authors live with a version of this little demon; it just happens that Oria’s is bilingual and combat trained.
I should mention that Oria is my colleague at the Pratt Institute. She is also a life/creativity coach and hosts a reading series in the East Village. Between all of that and a book tour, she is very busy, for which reason, though we would have much preferred the pleasure of each other’s company, this interview was conducted via e-mail.
I find myself returning to the scene in the title story where Pie—who is in a three-way relationship with a woman and a man—divides herself into “Me No. 1” and “Me No. 2.” No. 1, “the Israeli who was taught that being tough and being strong are the same thing,” is ready to walk out the door on both lovers immediately. No. 2, “a woman who successfully impersonates an American” and “has a lot to prove,” wants to stay. Pie seems to think that No. 1 has the right take on the situation, but it’s No. 2’s position she adopts as her own, and I for one am hardly convinced that she’s wrong. Might you speak, then, to the risks and allures of pulling off a successful impersonation?
The thing is—and maybe this is obvious—both Pies are wrong. By which I, of course, also mean that they’re both right. And to me that’s what the story is trying to do, and what the book is trying to do, and what I’m trying to do, not only as a writer but as a human—challenge this idea of either-or, hang out a bit in the in-between space. Or really, the both space. As far as I’m concerned, that goes for nationality, for sexuality, for identity in general. We’re hardwired toward this dichotomous way of thinking about and constructing identity. It’s almost an addiction—a cultural addiction to categories.
One finds it even in those places, namely the arts, where one might have hoped to be excused from such rigidity.
Doing interviews and readings, I’ve noticed a prevalent idea in the book, of lies repeating themselves to the point of becoming truths. Big shifts in identity function that way —you lie to yourself in some small or medium-sized way until you start buying it. A successful impersonation is not only successful in that it fools the person you’re interacting with. A truly successful impersonation is the kind where the impersonator starts believing her own lie. In that moment, that lie has become, at least to some extent, true.
I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. I mean, of course it could be—it depends on how far reality is from fantasy, I suppose. But the point I was making is that the experience of an impersonation becoming more and more successful over time is the experience of integrating a new identity.
So it makes sense that in the very next scene in the story, as the three of them are making love, Pie asks herself, “Who is this person? That me who isn’t Israeli and isn’t American, isn’t gay and isn’t straight—who is she?” Pie has found—or at least found a language with which to seek—identity from the very fact of her in-betweenness.
In a way, the moment you’re referencing is a product of that “category addiction,” the culturally cultivated idea that our identity should fit neatly in a box. Which is predominantly a Western and male and white idea—by which I mean, it’s a privileged idea. That moment for Pie is a moment of inhabiting the “both” space, of saying, Oh, wait a minute, I am all these things at once. It’s her inability, or refusal, to choose or fit into one box that defines her.
You also work professionally as a life/creativity coach. Do you think your coaching work makes you more comfortable with these kinds of big questions about who we are and what we want?
Well, the kind of conversations I’m having when I coach are inherently open and flexible, sort of stretching themselves in different ways to meet the client where he or she is, and so in that sense, yes, sometimes. But mostly those conversations tend to be very specific. A person is less likely to say, You know, I’ve been wondering about the relationship between truth and lie, and more likely to say, Last night at the gala I felt like a fraud. And coaching is not about giving advice, really. It assumes the person has all the answers, but that these answers aren’t always or aren’t fully accessible. Much of the work, therefore, is in asking the right questions.
In a few of these stories, like “Victor, Changed Man” or “The Beginning of a Plan,” reality itself is dynamic and mutable—what a category addict might resort to calling magic realism—but I was reminded most strongly of the fictions of Gary Lutz, which was surprising, since at the sentence level your styles are radically different.
I discovered Gary Lutz in grad school, when I was very new to writing in English, which is my second language. I think one of the biggest gifts of reading him has been learning both to credit the reader and to trust language much more. A Gary Lutz story assumes an intelligent—arguably brilliant—and fully engaged reader. And, of course, a Gary Lutz story trusts that language in and of itself can create suspense and hold emotional weight and punch a reader in the gut—all the things we traditionally attribute to plot. So if you’re a writer who thinks about language a lot, reading Gary Lutz changes you. But I think all the writers who inspired me during that formative time in my writing life will forever be more than just influences. Their voices had a huge, long lasting effect on me. Grace Paley is another such hero. Judy Budnitz, Joy Williams, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Amy Hempel.
So many of your characters seem to want, more than anything else, to have their reality confirmed by a lover’s attention. There’s a lot of ego in that desire, but a lot of supplication, too. You’re giving someone else enormous power over you, and that person might not know what to do with it or even want it at all. Are people too quick to give away this kind of power? Is love just a form of attention?
I do think love is a form of attention, yes. It’s arguably much more, too, of course, and I think it has the power to confirm and confer not only our reality but our humanity. But at its core it’s a deep form of attention—we fall in love with the people who pay attention the right way, to whatever it is in us that most needs attention, and who let us do the same for them, no?
But then, yes, some of the people in my stories get in trouble for it. I think you’re right to use the word power, because that’s what really gets them in trouble—not wanting or needing the lover’s attention, but rather giving themselves up to it in some profound way. This can happen at any age, but I do think it’s emotionally young, the feeling that I will cease to exist if this person stops loving me. Ideally, over the years and through experience and awareness, we learn that no one really has that kind of power over us, and that when we feel as though someone does it’s actually our psyche asking for our own attention, et cetera, et cetera. But in fiction, these are the characters we want, right? Young hearts make the best mistakes on the page.
Justin Taylor’s new book, Flings, is available now.