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Lies that tell a truth – and why they’re so important

Fiction gives its readers a window into the contradictions of human nature that always trouble people, no less during these difficult times
From cover of 'Our Little Histories,' by the author.
From cover of 'Our Little Histories,' by the author.

Who has the energy to read fiction these days, when reality is taking us far beyond whatever anyone’s imagination could conjure up? And among writers, who has the energy to make up stories when such harrowing, dramatic events are unfolding in real time on our screens? Anyone familiar with nightly Israeli TV news broadcasts knows the feeling of intending to “just watch the headlines,” but then finding oneself pulled into fresh tales of horrific violence, catastrophic failure, incredible heroism, invincible love, superhuman resilience, courage that is the stuff of legends, fierce loyalty — all of it a backdrop to our generation’s participation in the ongoing story of a people rising, again and again, from the consequences of manipulative lies and irrational hatred. Life itself is almost too small to contain it all.

This is a problem that Jewish (and not only Jewish) writers are dealing with these days. “You can’t make this stuff up,” the saying goes, and really, it would be folly to even try. Which quickly gives rise to the question: why bother reading fiction, something that by definition isn’t real at all? But perhaps that isn’t the right question, or rather, maybe we ought to recognize that one needs to come to fiction with questions of a very different nature.

Here are two aphorisms by 20th century writers who tried to express something about the power of fiction: Kafka: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Camus: “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” Both hint that fiction’s gifts lie not in any specific story its telling, but in what it has the power to do. Not only does fiction show how things unfold, but it also addresses profound problems that have continue to confound humanity. Why, for example, do people behave is such contradictory ways? What are the deeper motivations that we can’t see or know? What is behind the decisions that appear irrational, the deceptions that do real damage, the cruelty that seems to be part of human nature, or, likewise, the choice to sacrifice oneself, in ways large and small, if only for the benefit of others? Fiction, with its ability to enter the psyche of a character, can take up these issues in ways so effective, and so threatening to the powers that be, that they can result in the books themselves being banned.

As a novelist, I write made up stories in order to delve into questions that have no easy answers. My novel, Our Little Histories, came out last August, when admittedly, the world looked like a different place. How, I’ve been wondering these past months, is it even relevant right now? But on Yom Ha Shoah, something just happened that has quickly and effectively offered an answer. Having lived in Israel for the past 40 years, I’m well aware that at 10:00 in the morning there will be a two minute siren, commemorating the six million murdered in the Holocaust. Yet when I sat at my kitchen table writing these words, and, predictably, at 10:00 the siren went off, my first instinct was not to stand in memory, but to grab my keys to the bomb shelter and run for the door. Yes, it’s a different siren, and yes, it was expected, but I’ve come to equate the rising tones of the siren with the missile attacks that are part of my own reality. In other words, I took the siren of commemoration for a siren of actual warning, and the two have become conflated, so as to become an almost physical connection between what we remember and what we are living through; a new iteration of Falkner’s famous claim that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

He could have been talking about the Jewish people. Not only because, apparently, the past isn’t past, but also because, for Jews, it’s never dead. “Remember” is what our tradition tells us, and so our memory is long. Without our 3000-year memory, Israeli Jews are just a bunch of people who made our way here, to Israel, for no particular reason. Only historical context can make sense of it.

Our Little Histories moves backwards, through six generations of a Jewish family. The protagonist in the first chapter, Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, is so disconnected from her Jewish roots that she needs to ask her Asian-American husband to recall the story of the Exodus to their daughter. But as the novel travels back through the stories of her mother, grandmother, and beyond, back to Europe, to Belarus, to an impoverished shtetl where Jews are so vulnerable that their children can be forcibly enlisted in the czar’s army, the incredible journey of her ancestors unfolds, and everything that happens to Jennifer gains context and meaning. She is not an isolated character in a blank landscape, but the continuation of an age-old community of women and men who made difficult choices in impossible situations.

We can’t go back in time and speak with those familiar, foreign people — our ancestors who made the choices that continue to impact us, but we can read stories that configure the times they lived in, the situations they confronted, and the ways in which they responded to those situations. We can revisit their realities through fiction — lies that, after all, tell a truth, and we can come away with a new understanding of how we can respond to our own challenges. The confusion rampant in our own moment is immense; staying grounded in historical fact can reduce that confusion.

The story of Exodus, the one that Jennifer no longer knows, instructs Jews to recall it in every generation, even hundreds of generations later. Before October 7th, it was a story that sometimes felt distant, archaic, detached from our own modern lives. But that was before October 7th.

My novels.
About the Author
Janice Weizman is the author of the award-winning historical novel, The Wayward Moon (Yotzeret, 2012), which has been reissued with Toby Press, an affiliate of Koren Publishers. Her writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Report, Lilith, World Literature Today, and other places. She served for 10 years as a Fiction editor for The Ilanot Review, and now curates the book review website, Reading Jewish Fiction. Her second novel, Our Little Histories, came out in August 2023. Born and raised in Toronto, Janice has lived in Israel for over 40 years. She is currently working on a novel about the relationship between art and power. Find out more at janiceweizman.com.
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