Aquarium, a novel by Yaara Shehori, and Deaf Republic, a collection of poems by Ilya Kaminsky, both ask us to embrace silence as our greatest weapon against oppression. Deaf Republic opens with the murder of a deaf boy named Petya during a town protest — a silencing moment of unspeakable atrocity that gives rise to an underground resistance movement in sign language. In Aquarium, Lili and Dori Ackerman, two deaf sisters who grow up in rural Israel, take divergent paths after one of them (Dori) is sent to a reformatory because she refuses to conform to the standardizing forces of language, literature, and capitalism. In the spirit of Kaminsky’s words, “[a]rt … always stands in opposition to numbness,” this conversation with the two authors demonstrates the importance of what we cannot say or signify through written and spoken words alone.
Jaclyn Gilbert: Ilya, could you talk about silence as both a lived experience and as a source of spiritual transcendence in Deaf Republic?
Ilya Kaminsky: As it happens, I’m preparing to talk to students about a great Russian novelist, Mikhail Bulgakov, who made a wonderful statement: “Manuscripts do not burn.” Bulgakov came up with this thought through his creative negotiation with silence, and it was crucial to his great novel, The Master and Margarita. And yet, of course, manuscripts do burn. Humans burn; the planet itself burns; the sun will explode, right? And after that, what? Silence. But perhaps that planetary silence isn’t empty — perhaps it is open. Or, to quote Dante, “It’s love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
As a poet, one must ask: how do we deal with that on the level of craft? Well, perhaps if the manuscript contains a kind of spark — a silence that moves us to speak — and if the manuscript incorporates the right poetic devices, that silence (or perhaps we should call it a moment of awe) can be conveyed from one human being to another by means of language.
That is, if poetic devices convey the emotional truth of the work, they become a kind of spell, and the poem becomes a talisman that readers want to keep repeating in order to carry it around with them. When that happens, perhaps the manuscript — at least for a little while — won’t burn.
JG: Yaara, can you tell me what silence means for Dori and Lili in Aquarium, particularly as they search for language in which to express their experiences? How did you approach portraying deafness in the novel?
Yaara Shehori: The family in the novel seems quiet from the outside, and it is true that during their periods of estrangement, the sisters are demonstratively silent to each other. Even then, however, their connection is full of words, signs, gestures, verses — even lies. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are not silent. They use sign language, lip-reading, vocalizations … Hearing people tend to prioritize voice and vocals, and I had to overcome that bias as a writer. Is the silence more real? Sometimes there is a tendency to think like that. But it turns out that you can lie in any language.
Hebrew is my mother tongue, the language in which I learned to read and write and define the world. The challenge for me was to imagine another mother tongue: to learn Israeli sign language, its history and its syntax — and especially its innovations, its visual beauty, its limits, the ways in which it allows one to be creative, precise, sarcastic. Sign language is used by a linguistic cultural minority to which I do not belong, even though my mother was hard of hearing. I had to try to feel the pulse of a language in which I will always be a stranger.
JG: I also wonder if you could speak to the language of the two toy mechanical birds that appear at the beginning and end of the book — and what the birds represent for Lili and Dori?
YS: The easy answer is that they are the two sisters. But the question that interests me is who hears their song, and did they somehow always hear it? I love mechanical toys; they fascinate me. I can feel the hand of the person who created them, the living and non-living essence in rattling tin toys that are both adorable and frightening. A bird is such a common image in poetry that at times I felt careless for using it, but the mechanical birds seemed like an aptly distorted version. They capture the memory of the past by a mechanism that was once a technological peak and today is a remnant of another world— almost nostalgic, a little uncanny. They lack the ability to sing as beautifully as living birds; they are a testament to a culture that cannot compete with nature. But they are also a hand reaching from the past to give the sisters a relic of who they once were, who they will always be. Something that exists even if everything else is gone.
JG: Ilya, can you talk about poetry as an act of resistance that defies the limits of genre? How does music theory or musicality inform this for you?
IK: Maybe we can start by looking at the oral tradition of poetry — and by oral tradition, I don’t mean just folklore. I mean simple, everyday things, like people talking to their children. Think, for a moment, about how when a child asks a parent to read a story, the parent needs to really make that story come alive for the child. Otherwise the child is not going to listen. The child is going to play computer games, right?
That human need for the spell of language is fulfilled in oral tradition.
Great poems are lullabies and mourning songs for humankind. They create patterns of language that convey ideas and emotions in a way that consoles and invigorates us, and that challenges us, too — wakes us up. That’s why we remember poems and share them with our children, and that’s why fairy tales have survived. Fairy tales are a great school of poetic devices. We remember lullabies for reasons that have little to do with what genre or category the music might belong to in the first place.
Great poems are lullabies and mourning songs for humankind. They create patterns of language that convey ideas and emotions in a way that consoles and invigorates us, and that challenges us, too — wakes us up.
JG: Yaara, in what ways does Aquarium critique genre labeling as a means of imposing false order or categories? How are we to interpret Lily’s autobiographical writings through this lens, and how do the paradoxes of genre speak to larger problems with mainstream narratives about Jewish society and history?
YS: The book is composed of several parts; each of them is a variation on the question of how to tell a story. Who tells it? Who has the authority? Is a first-person narrative reliable? The facts are revealed and the story is constantly revised. Lily is busy writing the “facts” because she feels attacked by the vague atmosphere of legends and lies that surround her house and family. As for the Jewish aspect, we are aware of the need to remember. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi described it, the commandment to remember reflects the ancient Jewish belief that past deeds reveal the presence of God. But there is a rift between the writing of Jewish history and Jewish collective memory.
Perhaps we can see this rift as a thread throughout contemporary Hebrew literature. In Aquarium, the sisters repeatedly discuss their family memories, trying to conjure what was never given to them. Their parents wanted to start over, but the past is rising up and bursting, as if the unconscious must return and speak.
JG: Could you pick out a guiding image or metaphor that you used to structure Aquarium? How did it come to you?
As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi described it, the commandment to remember reflects the ancient Jewish belief that past deeds reveal the presence of God. But there is a rift between the writing of Jewish history and Jewish collective memory.
YS: The main images in the novel are related to water, to an underwater world that, for us, is as indecipherable and foreign as outer space. But if you are a marine creature, say, a jellyfish or a swordfish, you won’t feel alienated in it. Hence, what also came to me was the image of an aquarium, and questions of who is watching whom and who is actually imprisoned and regulated. It also has to do with a fear of drowning that I’ve had since childhood, from a time I almost drowned. The memory became immensely meaningful, partly because I couldn’t attest to it: the experience lasted less than a minute and the children on the beach did not believe me. Maybe it really did happen only in my imagination. Nevertheless, the underwater world remained an area of danger. Writing about it was an attempt to say, I was there, I remember.
The images in the novel are meant to familiarize the unfamiliar as well. This is also how Dori tries to find her place. Images are her way of dressing up the everyday and the domesticated in beautiful costumes, even though she, too, can see through these disguises.
JG: Ilya, I was struck by how the profane seems to shape the essence of your work — or how the parts of ourselves that are unnameable become the best conduits for expressing our inner selves.
IK: Here is a memory for you: I am a fifteen-year-old boy, and a man on the public bus laughs at me when I say that I write poetry.
“Impossible! How can anyone deaf even know what poetry is?”
At home, I ask my father.
“What is poetry?”
Father does what he always does: he tells a story.
“Once, a deaf man asked his wife to sit at the piano and play the entire repertoire of Chopin as loudly as possible. And while she slapped the keys, he dropped onto his hands and knees — and bit into the piano’s wood.”
“And that — ”
My father paused. He didn’t have to go on. I understood. But he went on—
“That is poetry.”
JG: What about prayer?
IK: Sometimes talking about a prayer isn’t enough. Sometimes a middle-aged man must collect poems and stories of his past for his wife, who is battling stage three cancer. I am in the hospital parking lot, and my wife, Katie, is inside in a chemotherapy chair, watching an IV drip fluid into her veins.
Katie is asking me to tell her stories or read poems. I am no storyteller, but it’s the sixth round of chemotherapy, so anything goes.
God, I ask and ask and I hear nothing back.
“I am going crazy,” Katie says. “I feel like I have been issued ten diferent bodies. A ‘too-light-headed-to-remember-my-cat’s‑name’ body. A ‘goodenough-to-do-the-laundry’ body. A ‘can’t‑eat-anything-but-chicken-soup’ body.
“I’m trying to ride the body’s highs and lows, but I am tired,” she says eventually. “Tell me your Odessa story.”
I tell her stories. I read some stanzas.
She reaches with her hand and takes a pinch of hair of her nape as if it were a pinch of salt.
I am looking at her bald skull and she catches me looking.
“Did you forget I am bald?”
God, I am about to go wash the dishes.
“No,” she says. “Will you stay and stare at the blank wall with me?”
JG: Yaara, I love the tenderness of childhood memory in your work. Could you talk about Aquarium as the search for a private space, an inner space — or even a secret garden — that celebrates the surrealist underpinnings of a child’s imagination? To give voice and freedom to chaos rather than force it into boxes that privilege the standardization of the written word?
YS: The Israeli poet Nurit Zarchi once wrote, “Childhood is an island in the center of life.” I think she was right, and that the location of childhood has something to do with the “private space” you describe. Childhood memories are not sealed and stamped, and we shouldn’t think of ourselves as darts, always aimed at the future. To me, childhood is not a foreign land situated in the past, but an ongoing present that continues to exist alongside the need to be mature in the world.
Childhood was a stage when time seemed endless to me; an afternoon could be as long as a year. As a child, you look at a world that does not necessarily look back at you, therefore you have a great deal of time to look at paint peeling from a wall, or ants in the grass. It is the unsweetened paradise of memory that forms the foundation for everything — including writing — that will come later.
Jaclyn Gilbert earned her B.A. at Yale and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, Lit Hub, Long Reads, Post Road Magazine, and elsewhere. Late Air her first novel, released from Little A last November.