Monday October 30, 2017

Why Alison Pick wrote a novel about Jewish pioneers in 1920s Palestine

Alison Pick's Strangers with the Same Dream is her third novel and seventh book.

Alison Pick's Strangers with the Same Dream is her third novel and seventh book. (Emma Lee/Penguin Random House Canada)

Listen 13:40

Alison Pick is an author and poet from Toronto. Her novel Far to Go was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and her memoir Between Gods was a finalist for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. 

Pick grew up as a secular Christian, but she discovered her family's hidden Jewish identity as an adult. Her latest novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, is set in 1920s Palestine and follows a band of young Jewish pioneers, as they set out to realize a utopian dream.

Using fiction to explore history

"I set out, maybe unconsciously, to try to understand the history of the Middle East and what the psyche of the Zionist was. The more I delved in, the more difficult it was to come to any conclusions or to any hard and fast statements. It's a situation that is infinitely nuanced. The job of art and fiction is to open up and deepen the questions rather than come to hard and fast answers. That's what I was trying to do."

Going beyond her own experience

"I was writing the book at a time when a battle about cultural appropriation was raging in CanLit. I was very attuned to my Palestinian characters. I knew that their story was not my story to tell — that was crystal clear to me. But at the same time, I couldn't tell this story without including their viewpoints. I don't think that we should only write about our own experiences, but I do think that the farther we get from our own experience, the more intense our responsibility is to examine our own bias, to show compassion and empathy and to make sure we get the details right. That was something I was really attuned to when I was writing."

Transforming the difficult 

"I think there is something incredibly healing about the power of telling a story. I was trying to say something bigger about the power of putting a story into words and into a form that can be read and digested by other people, by transforming things that can be very difficult. I think that's one of the redemptive powers of art. We can take things that are very difficult and, not render them not difficult, but make something beautiful out of them and make something that people can enjoy."

Alison Pick's comments have been edited and condensed.