At the end of the first section of Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life, Sayed Kashua recounts a telephone call he received from a stranger in 2007. As a Palestinian writer living in Jerusalem, Kashua had a platform that not many Palestinians in Israel are afforded: he had a weekly column in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper.
The man on the other end of the line inquired whether Kashua was being censored from writing about politics and current affairs concerning Arabs. Kashua replied that he had the freedom to write anything he pleased. Surprised, the man on the other end replied, “All you write about is how drunk you got, about your wife and all sorts of nonsense…Don’t we have other problems right now, other than your hangovers and your conversation with your wife?”
At this point in the book — about a quarter of the way into the collection — I was wondering the same thing.
My first introduction to Kashua was his last novel, Second Person Singular, which remains one of my favorite books to this day. So perhaps I had unrealistically high expectations of this essay collection, which are completely comprised of his Haaretz columns. Second Person Singular is only a few years old, whereas the earliest columns in this book date back to 2006, and his column does find a better balance as the years progress. Following that admonishing phone call, the focus of the columns in the later sections do shift more towards identity politics.
It’s those last sections of the book, the ones that come after the international success of Second Person Singular, that got me examining my own expectations of Kashua and this collection. Kashua vents frustrations that are familiar to authors of color (and people who call for more diversity in any given industry, really). He’s annoyed about being invited to sit on panels and attend festivals as an Arab Writer, rather than just a writer. He’s annoyed that when he does sit on those panels, the other writers get asked complex questions about their craft while he gets thrown simplistic questions about identity. Even when it comes to describing Second Person Singular, he can’t just say that it’s about a jealous lawyer: people stop listening — or stop inviting him to events — if he doesn’t somehow tie the plot back to identity politics. He recounts many of those scenarios in a humorous manner, but you also can’t help but cringe.
Overall, I thought the collection was hit or miss, but I can appreciate the place Kashua was caught between during his time at Haaretz.
Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life was published on February 2, 2016 by Grove Press.