Bird, ca. 1750 – 55, Saint James’s Factory

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

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.