Interview: Anita Diamant

Diamant gives life a shine after darkness

By Madeleine Kingsley, February 25, 2010
Diamant: a Jewish studies journey

Diamant: a Jewish studies journey

The post-Holocaust heroines of Day After Night owe their existence - absolutely and undeniably - to Boston novelist Anita Diamant. For a whole year, Diamant sat at her computer breathing character and history into Shayndel, Tedi, Leonie and Zorah, who were detained as illegal immigrants then dramatically rescued from Atlit internment camp in Israel in 1945.

But there's also a sense in which the girls owe their imaginary being to two other women. One is that melancholy mistress of Bloomsbury fiction, Virginia Woolf. Says Diamant: "It was Woolf who first challenged me to wonder about the under-told stories of women, long marginalised in literature. I read a 1920s speech in which she spoke of Shakespeare's sister, who died young, never wrote a word and of whom we know nothing. In my own writing, it became a conscious choice to make visible those people who were, historically, left out."

Diamant is the bestselling writer of The Red Tent, in which biblical bit-part player Dinah takes the lead. She introduces herself as a "normal, middle-aged, suburban lady" who, away from her desk, enjoys yoga and modern dance, movies, going to shul and walking her miniature Schnauzer.

But behind this somewhat Shakespeare's-sister version of her own biography, the defining Jewish details are that Diamant's own parents met as interned refugees in Switzerland and that she is a prime mover behind her new community mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters).

"We wanted a return to the beautiful roots of the mivkeh - of water as a source of renewal, purification and transformation, to open the door wide and make it welcoming." Diamant and her husband Jim, who converted, have made a life's journey (and in her case, several non-fiction books) of Jewish studies.

Enter the second female influence: the couple's daughter, Emilia, then 16, without whom they would not have made their first visit to Israel, sharing her high-school field trip. At Atlit, now a living museum and heritage site, Diamant had a light-bulb moment: "As our guide described how Palmachnik leaders freed 208 detainees by night - which was news to me - I thought, 'Boy, that's a novel!'"

It had as happy an ending as any Shoah story can: "I don't like books with no redemption," Diamant says. "Trauma for the girls in Day After Night is relentless, always painful. But, even in Atlit, the sun is shining; they have food to eat. They rediscover sex, they have babies… life triumphs in the end."

'Day After Night' is published by Simon &Schuster (£12.99). Anita Diamant's Jewish Book Week sessions: Purim Spiel, Sex, Lies and Regal Japes, February 27, 8.30pm; Day After Night discussion with Anne Sebba, February 27, 12.30pm

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014