“As a kid in Israel, my dream was to become a psychoanalyst and a filmmaker,” Ofra Bloch said in a telephone interview from her home in New York City. “Later on, I became a psychoanalyst but I never dared to go to filmmaking school. So when I decided to make a film, it was sheer chutzpah because I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have any technical skills. But I knew what I wanted to see.”
Her clear vision led her to make “Afterward,” a new documentary that explores the lingering and cross-cutting trauma embedded in generations of Germans, Israelis and Palestinians. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is sponsoring two screenings at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
Six years ago, when Bloch, 69, began working on her first full length feature, she intended to center her lens on the lingering generational trauma among German non-Jews and second and third generations of decedents of Holocaust perpetrators. After the director left Germany, however, she realized she had an incomplete story.
Growing up in Israel, “you can’t avoid trauma. It’s always present,” she said. Living through wars and under the long shadow of the Holocaust, Bloch was raised to fear and hate both Germans and Palestinians. She needed to include the Palestinian account of trauma and reckoning in her film. After completing the interviews and beginning the editing process, she recognized there was one more layer to uncover: she couldn’t tell either story without embedding hers as well. The triad of viewpoints would complete the narrative.
“I connect them,” Bloch said. “There’s no way those stories can exist, floating, without the presence of the interviewer, me the Israeli. During those interviews in both places, memories started surfacing. I had recurrent dreams that were coming out of nowhere, just by the act of immersing myself in the lives of these people. [My experience] became such an integral part — the glue of the film.”
In that way, her documentary resembles “My Promised Land,” Ari Shavit’s examination of the Israeli creation story along his own family tree, with room for ruminating on the 1948 destruction of Palestinian family trees in the Lydda Valley.
“We’re not exactly in the same place ideologically but [our work] complements each other,” Bloch said of Shavit. “He’s really trying to examine the intricacies of the Israeli society, in the past and the present. It’s really a perfect pairing, in that way.” Shavit’s book won the Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize in 2014.
With such a strong personal reaction to her subjects, Bloch determined she should approach the interviews with the objectivity of a therapist.
“As a filmmaker, I had to learn to just listen to people, to do what I do in the office as a psychoanalyst,” she said. “Which means to be very present, without judgment, without necessarily agreeing with what people were saying to me. To give people the space to talk about their experience. When people are able to share that, it creates a dialogue. Without listening to the ‘other,’ without active listening, there is no movement toward any solution.”
She leaned on those therapist skills when interviewing Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin, who in 2005 co-founded Combatants for Peace, a grassroots coalition of Israeli and Palestinian activists working together to stop the violence. But two years later, his 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while she stood outside of school. Bloch marveled at Aramin’s ability to remain focused on the mission and to honor his daughter’s legacy in his non-violent work. “It taught me that pain is just pain,” she said. “It doesn’t have a nationality.”
During the interview with Aramin, they visited one of the playgrounds that Combatants for Peace built in Abir’s honor. There Bloch had her moment of reckoning.
“Even though I lived in the U.S. for 39 years, I am complicit in some way,” she said. “Being an Israeli, I am part of the problem. I believe this is the reason I made this film….Six years of work and energy and funding, because this is my little contribution toward resolution of the conflict.”
Moviegoers can watch “Afterward” at one of two screenings: Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 31 at 12:05 p.m. Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.
Leila Chatti worked six years to create Deluge, 52 poems that the esteemed Copper Canyon Press will publish next year as her first book.
Michael Wiegers, editor of the press that publishes Jericho Brown, C.D. Wright and W.S. Merwin, called Chatti in March to give her the news.
“I’ve been happy-crying for the past hour driving to the prison I teach at – I’m so very, very excited to say my first book, DELUGE, is going to be published with @CopperCanyonPrs,” Chatti tweeted. “This feels like the best dream. I am so wildly grateful. Praise to God in all things.”
Faith is a strand that weaves through her first two chapbooks and rises in Deluge. Chatti, 28, is the daughter of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. When her father heard that the Copper Canyon editor — whom his daughter has met just once at a brunch as a 22-year-old student in North Carolina — had selected her manuscript, he saw that brief introduction as fate.
“Deluge pronounced itself from the start as a book with a bold vision, unafraid to wrestle faith, myth, embodiment and multiple taboos,” Wiegers wrote in an email interview. “In several poems Chatti imagines the Virgin Mary as a mother, very physically, and painfully giving birth, and contrasts this personal elsewhere with her own body, blood, pain, and belief. It’s a sometimes startling, often vulnerable, seldom blinking debut collection that marks her as a promising talent whose artistry will continue to reveal itself.
“This is a very special book by a dedicated and talented poet. We’re thrilled to bring her poems to a larger readership.”
Chatti grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, a citizen of both the United States and Tunisia. She is midway through her two-year Anisfield-Wolf fellowship in writing and publishing at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The editing, she said, is already influencing her, liberating the form on the page of some of her newest poems.
“Deluge is the title of two poems in the manuscript,” Chatti said in an interview. “The book is about my illness in my early twenties when I had a number of uterine tumors. For about 2 ½ to three years I was dealing with that. I was dealing with oncologists. One of the first symptoms I had was hemorrhaging, and when I went to the hospital, they referred to it as a flood. This was one of the most humiliating symptoms, and I bled for almost three years. Because I was brought up in a religious household, I thought about the flood, which was used by God as punishment.
“And that was very much how I felt, that I was being punished by doing something wrong, namely living with a partner unmarried. This was my sin, a specific kind of flood. Deluge is the Biblical term for flood.”
As Wiegers mentions, several poems dwell with Mary, a central figure in both Christianity and Islam, the only woman named in Qur’an.
“I consider Mary as my co-pilot in this book,” Chatti said. “She is extremely present in this book. Several of the poems are called ‘Annunciation.’ I am very interested in Mary from birth to the moment she gives birth to Jesus, Mary as Mary, Mary as a girl of 14. When I was sick, I was thinking a lot about fertility and chastity . . . I was very interested in this idea of Mary the human, faced with this massive imposition on her body.”
When Ploughshares published “Confession,” poetry judge Marianne Boruch wrote that Chatti “managed to both honor and upset convention in a most kickass-lively way. The sheer nerve and wit of what’s said – the whole piece feels wonderfully spoken.”
Here is Confession:
“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
—Mary giving birth, The Holy Qur’an
Truth be told, I like Mary a little better
when I imagine her like this, crouched
and cursing, a boy-God pushing on
her cervix (I like remembering
she had a cervix, her body ordinary
and so like mine), girl-sweat lacing
rivulets like veins in the sand,
her small hands on her knees
not doves but hands, gripping,
a palm pressed to her spine, fronds
whispering like voyeurs overhead—
(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
in knowing you were not all
holy, that ache could undo you
like a knot)—and, suffering,
I admire this girl who cared
for a moment not about God
or His plans but her own
distinct life, this fiercer Mary who’d disappear
if it saved her, who’d howl to Hell
with salvation if it meant this pain,
the blessed adolescent who squatted
indignant in a desert, bearing His child
like a secret she never wanted to hear.
By Gabrielle Bychowski
How do we talk about racism? How do we talk about sexism? These were two of the questions that initiated the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award seminar at Case Western Reserve University.
The goal was not only to help facilitate talk about racism and sexism but also to study the ways in which this talk already occurs. Students were challenged to analyze and deconstruct the grammar and rhetoric of white supremacy: What are the images created and repeated? How are sentences structured to lead readers or listeners to certain conclusions? What are the nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives that act as dog whistles for attentive audiences?
The thesis of our seminar was that Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners could help answer the questions posed on racism and sexism. We began the semester with the 2018 award winning authors in preparation for attending the awards ceremony in late September. In those weeks, students considered how the poetry of Shane McCrae (captured in In the Language of My Captor) taught readers how language bends and twists in order to reflect the tension between hate and love, captor and captive, identity and society.
Next, the students weighed the importance of truth and hoax through Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. This text seriously engages what it means to be a “nonfiction” book in an era where various authors try to blur the line between fact and fiction, especially as it applies to the construction, exploitation and oppression of racial identities.
The fiction award winner, Sing Unburied Sing, written by Jesmyn Ward, demonstrates for students the ways that fiction can be used to speak of unspeakable traumas and embodied truths that are too often left dismissively abstract. The majority of the class attended the award ceremony, which was critical to bringing the texts alive in new ways by introducing the classroom readers to the book’s writers.
Beyond the 2018 winners, the seminar invited the class to read important Anisfield-Wolf texts that take different perspectives on the questions and language of racism. Books by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X began the analysis of the Civil Rights Movement, a scope which we expanded to consider the women of the civil rights movement as well. Books like Hidden Figures and The Gay Revolution filled in this picture in part, as well as additional texts such as This Bridge Called My Back, Sister Outsider, and the writings of Angela Davis.
These women writers gave insights into the ways that women were hard at work in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the distinct ways sexism was compounded with the racist rhetoric of white supremacy. Indeed, by adding the lens of gender, the reading of King and Malcolm X prompted students to consider how being heterosexual cisgender men of faith may have influenced the way in which these leaders encountered the world.
As a scholar and instructor of Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, I am honored to introduce students at Case Western Reserve University to the canon of books that each respond to the questions of how we talk about racism and sexism. In the last couple of years, the class has been in high demand with spots filling up quickly. There is always an extensive waitlist.
On the first day, I hear about what brings the students to the seminar and to the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award archive. Some students come already invested in social justice, racial equity, and feminism. Other students come to the class admitting that they come from places where racism and sexism is rampant but discussing either is discouraged. In each case, I take my job seriously: to meet students where they are, equip them with critical tools and books, and bring them into the ongoing discourse the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has promoted.
One student, Kami Mukenschnabl, wrote, “Reading and discussing award winners from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been extremely interesting and eye-opening. Coming into this class, I was not very familiar with cultural ideas and ideas of gender and race that differ from my own….By reading and discussing these books, I have learned how to read, reflect, and discuss the difficult, yet important, topics that these books bring up.”
By the end of the semester, I hear a myriad of ways that students now feel not only better trained to engage these conversations and activism but also feel connected to a wider community that these books have generated. For these reasons and more, I am grateful to see these students and the A-W community grow one year and one seminar at a time.
Gabrielle Bychowski is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University, teaching courses on transgender and intersex history, disability culture, racism, and medieval literature. This post originally appeared on her blog, Things Transform.
Zadie Smith, best known for her piercing comic novels, has won a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism for her essays collected in Feel Free.
She extended appreciation to her husband first, with a jaunty, “Thank you so much to Nick Laird, for sharing so much with me, willingly and unwillingly, including the title of his poetry book Feel Free, which I would also like to apologize to for stealing.”
The book is a lively, capacious and learned romp through five sections that explore freedom of language and thought: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free.” Smith, a 43-year-old Londoner, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006 for On Beauty, a witty story of an interracial family living in an American university town astraddle multiple cultural fault lines.
Critic Charles Finch, who championed the essay collection at the NBCC, praised Smith’s critical comfort with uncertainty. He wrote: “If, as the famous line from the famous book goes, personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then perhaps so is great criticism. Feel Free is a collection of essays, reviews, vignettes, and profiles by Zadie Smith, and it might so easily, like other books of its kind, ultimately feel like an arbitrary collocation of unrelated ephemera, a patchwork of unrelated scraps. Or in more cynical terms: a money grab. But it doesn’t!”
Finch praised how the essayist rotates with aplomb through the art of Jay-Z, J.G. Ballard and Justin Bieber, more appreciative than harsh.
Smith, who wore her trademark turban and trousers to the stage, ended her short acceptance remarks with an appreciation of Robert B. Silvers, the late editor at the New York Review of Books, for whom she wrote many of the essays in her book.
“He was a model of rigor, clarity and engagement,” Smith said. “He made you a better writer deletion by deletion, query by query. The first essay I ever wrote for him was about Kafka. And a line from ‘The Judgment’ always reminds me of him. It’s the bit when the father leaps up out of bed and says to his son, ‘Now you know what existed outside of you. Before you were only aware of yourself.’ Bob knew how to prompt writers, easily some of the most narcissistic people on earth.”
That line prompted a wave of slightly uncomfortable chuckles from the audience at the New School in Manhattan.
Other winners this year were Nora Krug’s provocative and searching graphic memoir, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home; Anna Burn’s Milkman, a novel set amid the Irish troubles, already crowned with a Booker prize; Christopher Bananos’ erudite biography Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous; Ada Limon’s poetry book The Carrying that celebrates her mother, and Steve Coll’s probing, definitive and multi-year investigative nonfiction, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Join us for the Cleveland premiere of “Afterward,” a 94-minute documentary from Jerusalem-born psychoanalyst Ofra Bloch that explores the lingering and cross-cutting trauma embedded in generations of Germans, Israelis and Palestinians. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is sponsoring the film at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival.
Bloch, who lives in New York City, began making the documentary intending to focus on the second and third-generation descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, her attempt to shed hostility she carried against Germans as a people.
After filming began, however, she recognized her own prejudices – especially against Palestinians, a group she was raised to hate — were preventing her from telling the full story. She expanded her scope to include sit-down interviews with Palestinian men and women, including a professor who lost his position for taking students to Auschwitz. These testimonies give viewers a perspective on generational wounds stretching back to the 1948 Nakba, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in the creation of Israel.
“The film points towards a future — an ‘afterward’ — that attempts to live with the truths of history in order to make sense of the present,” Bloch said in an interview. “My wish is that at the conclusion of ‘Afterward’ viewers will see how easy it is to move from a mindset of a victim to that of a perpetrator. ‘Evil,’ for lack of a better word, can be unearthed in each of us given the ‘right’ conditions, regardless of our religious or ethnic background.”
This documentary pairs well with Ari Shavit’s groundbreaking book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction in 2015.
Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer-winner for his investigative book “The Looming Tower,” called Bloch’s documentary “a brilliant personal exploration of the psychological obstacles to peace in the Middle East, and the tectonic plates of history that have brought two peoples to this tragic impasse.”
Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.