Michael Oren published a book of short stories - he's more worried about the future of literature than democracy
October 16, 2020
(JTA) - You may know Michael Oren as a cable news commentator on Israel and the Middle East.
You may know him as the Israeli ambassador to the United States during Barack Obama's first term, when he had the fraught task of managing a rocky American-Israeli relationship, or later as a member of Israel's Knesset. Perhaps you're acquainted with Oren as the author of three bestselling history books.
What you may not have known is that he also writes fiction. At least I didn't. I've interviewed Oren several times and read his nonfiction, and I had no idea that the American-born Israeli author and politician was a novelist and writer of short stories until this year.
Oren, 65, has just come out with his third work of fiction, a collection of short stories called "The Night Archer." It's a change from his better-known works, which were authoritative and deep Middle East histories or, in one case, a controversial diplomatic memoir. "The Night Archer" spans historical eras and settings, sometimes crossing into fantasy. Many of the stories have nothing explicitly to do with Judaism or Israel.
He's been out of government service for more than a year following a decade spent mostly as a public official. Oren lives not in Jerusalem, Washington, D.C., or New York City, but in Jaffa, the ancient sister city to Tel Aviv. He still writes op-eds and comments on the news, but in a recent phone interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he sounded relatively relaxed amid the dismal COVID-19 news in Israel.
After this book, his next project is another work of fiction, a novel set in a Jewish suburb in the early 1970s, when he grew up.
With success as a historian, ambassador and politician, is Oren now hoping to make his name as a novelist?
"People want to pigeonhole somebody in a career path, say this guy's a historian or this man's a diplomat," he said. "At the risk of wanting too much, I'd like to be known for myself. This is who I am, without characterizing it."
Oren did say that publishing fiction feels liberating in an era when, as the cliche goes, the truth is often stranger. He wrote many of these stories in the mornings during his term in Knesset, from 2015 to 2019, before heading to work as a member of a centrist party that no longer exists. Knesset members are not allowed to publish books while in office, so he had to hold onto the stories until he left public service.
If anything, Oren said nonfiction has become difficult to write in an era when facts are continually called into question. His gripe with the literary world, he said, is that the published word has become too policed. Like other thinkers and writers who advocate a broad exchange of ideas and criticize a supposed narrowing of the scope of acceptable discourse, Oren chafes at the notion that authors can only write novels based on their personal experiences and identities.
"The lines have been blurred," he said. "I feel it more as a nonfiction writer, someone who's trying to write, for example, op-eds. That makes it very difficult."
He added, "Writing is about freedom, is about imagination. Today there is tremendous pressure to limit that freedom, to say you can only write about exactly who you are and nobody else, lest you be accused of, among other things, cultural appropriation."
One thing he's less stressed about, he said, is the current political situation - despite a renewed lockdown in Israel that has raised concerns over limits to the freedom of assembly and the turbulence surrounding the upcoming American presidential election.
"I think democracy is being challenged in many different ways; I don't think it's on the verge of collapse," he said. "I think democratic institutions are stronger than that."
He added, "I have a historical perspective that leads me to be calmer about these things. Where I am not calm is the threat from public opinion as it is driven by social media. In Israel and the United States, it's not the government clamping down on artists, it's social media, and that threat is very real."
"The Night Archer" offers a rebuttal to the claim that authors can write only about who they are. The stories' protagonists range from an aide to a Spanish conquistador to a Protestant preacher's wife to a pair of lesbian schoolteachers vacationing on a beach. (In a wink at readers, the teachers reminisce about a promising but mischievous former student named "Horenstein," two letters away from Oren's original last name, Bornstein.)
There are a handful of Jewish and Israeli stories in the mix, as well as others that speak to Oren's background: In one, an aging and underappreciated Israeli archaeologist contemplates a dilemma. Another is told from the perspective of a bored teenager at an American Passover Seder, and another centers on a social-climbing couple in D.C. There's one featuring an Israeli politician.
One story narrates the life of a Holocaust survivor with unkempt hair who became an iconic writer about the Shoah in America after a period living in France. Oren said that despite the similarities in biography and appearance, it is not about Elie Wiesel specifically, but rather "a composite of several Holocaust survivors I've known."
Although they cover a broad spectrum of historical eras and settings, the stories share a motif of characters attempting to escape an oppressive situation - domestic unhappiness, a saintly public persona or the hostile estate of a foreign ruler.
Oren told JTA that he did not view his fiction writing as an escape from his public duties. He was glad to serve in those positions and to be able to write on his own time. But now, after years of speaking for a prime minister or a party, he has written a book that, at its core, is about trying to escape the bonds that limit us.
"All human beings have secrets, and all people feel constrained in certain ways," he said. "The major theme of the whole book is freedom and it's about people seeking freedom, seeking liberation and learning that freedom itself is an objective to which you can strive, but it's always going to be challenged."