Ruth Knafo Setton: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
Ruth Knafo Setton is Writer-in-Residence at the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses on Jewish Literature and Creative Writing. Born in Safi, Morocco, Ruth is the recipient of several literary fellowships, including those provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her most recent fellowship was an international residency at an artists’ colony in Auvullar, France.
Ruth’s highly acclaimed first novel, The Road to Fez (Counterpoint Press, 2001) , has been studied in Women’s Literature, Jewish Literature, and Creative Writing courses in colleges and universities in the United States, Canada and Israel. Her fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, Wrestling with Zion, The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, and Sephardic-American Voices: Two Hundred Years of a Literary Legacy.
Her novel, The Road to Fez, tells the story of Brit, a Moroccan-born, Jewish-American young woman who visits family in Morocco. While there, she explores the nature of love as well as the mythology surrounding Suleika, a revered 19th century Jewish woman. I asked Ruth what led her to interweave the Suleika legends with Brit’s story, and how Ruth’s own life experiences influenced the creation of her novel. Ruth explains: “Suleika, a beautiful 17 year-old Jewish girl, was beheaded in Morocco in 1834 because she refused to convert to Islam. In one of the many odd notes to her tale, today she is worshipped as a saint by Jews, Muslims and Christians. There are over 300 versions of her story—paradoxical, contradictory, mythic—that agree only on the fact that she was killed, but how she got to that point varies with the teller. For me, the turning point in writing about her came when I realized two things: first, that I would never discover the one true version of her life, and second, that she is the ultimate trespasser.
“Like Suleika, Brit (my fictional character) refuses to stay where she ‘belongs.’ In her search for truth, love and her own identity, she breaks through every border, opens every locked door, explores forbidden love. I see both Suleika and Brit as hungry, wild girls, desperate for meaning and starving for connection with the other. What happened to me during the writing of the novel—a 20-year quest for my own roots—is that I had to become a trespasser myself, to penetrate every accepted truth in order to test it, to take risks in redefining love and faith. Suleika taught me that life is more than mere existence, that love (of God or another human being) requires profound courage, and that the truth about a human being is too rich and complex to be left to a single narrator. The reader of the novel becomes the writer as well: you create your own Suleika.”
Until recently, most Jewish-American literature has explored the Ashkenazic experience, that is, the experience of Jewish Americans who trace their origins to Central and Eastern Europe. How does Ruth see her work fitting with trends in contemporary Jewish-American literature? “That’s a very good question, one about which I feel strongly but am not sure I can answer briefly. I believe that the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ came later to American Jewish literature than it did to other groups. It’s only recently that Jewish literature has expanded its definition to include Sephardic-Mizrahi Jews, i.e., people like me. I used to feel exiled from the main house of Jewish literature, relegated to a side entrance (when I was allowed inside at all), and I am delighted to see that people are finally curious about the Jews of Arab lands. But even within that community, our history, experiences and traditions are so varied and different that we cannot be pigeonholed.
“And although I am a Jew born in Morocco whose writing is grounded in the experiences of being a first-generation immigrant growing up in a multilingual home, I hope that my writing transcends boundaries of gender, religion, nation. I am also a woman who writes as frequently about men as about women. For those who search for ethnic role models, I find that I am not ethnic enough! And some of the most passionate, perceptive responses to my writing have come from people who know nothing about Jews or Morocco, but who tend to be outsiders in their communities, wherever they are. I’ve gotten letters from readers in Korea, Japan, India, Lebanon, Spain and Czechoslovakia, to name a few, who have told me that The Road to Fez story is their story. So to return to what I believe you were asking: I am a writer who happens to be a Moroccan Jewish woman, but who is obsessed about who, what, why and how we love. In that world—my true world—our universal language is our desire to connect.”
Ruth is currently finishing a new novel, Improvise on Me, in which a Jewish-Moroccan immigrant family opens “a restaurant called the Couscous Caboose in a shabby neighborhood in New Jersey known as Darktown. Danny, the father, a jazz trumpet player, strives to succeed in New York while Lili, the mother, strives with equal force to keep him at home—and loyal to her. The teenaged children, Sophie and Memphis, go through their own adventures in love and identity. Weaving between World War II Morocco and America in the 1960s, the chapters shift like jazz solos from one of the four main characters to another.” Ruth adds, “I did quite a bit of research, particularly in jazz and cooking—though since I used to be a radio deejay with a blues-jazz show and since I love to cook and eat, I enjoyed every minute!”
How do her two novels compare? “I believe that like The Road to Fez, the new novel is sensually evocative, rich with history and sensory details that try to bring a vanished world to life. Fez was so complex and dense that my greatest challenge was to strip away everything but the essence. I wanted to get to the beating heart of the story, which to me was the exploration of desire. One of the greatest compliments I received was from an editor who told me, ‘There is not a wasted word in the novel.’ I am groping for the same economy with the new novel but it is definitely more inclusive and expansive. There are recipes, songs, lots of humor, and of course people falling in and out of desire and love. That’s always going to be my subject!”
When asked which authors have influenced her writing, Ruth’s first thought is of Gabriel García Marquez. “I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time on an Israeli kibbutz where I was suffering from a mysterious fever. About midway through the novel I was burning, my fever so intense I had to set down the book and go outside and remind myself that I was still in this world, the one I’d been in before I picked up the book. The moon and stars were close enough to touch, the air smelled of oranges, the turkeys cried, and I wandered, crowned by a wreath of yellow butterflies, just like the young man in the novel. García Marquez made me dizzy with the sense of possibility, of how high a writer can aim.
“Lately I’ve been rereading writers who influenced me and am thrilled to find myself as excited as when I first encountered them—Kafka, Colette, Proust, Philip Roth. There are Israeli writers I love: A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Savyon Liebrecht. I’ve been reading cookbooks and jazz biographies too.”
Readers wishing to learn more about Ruth, and to order autographed copies of The Road to Fez, can contact her through her website: http://www.RuthKnafoSetton.com