The power of wisdom
Adina Hoffman, winner of the 2010 JQ/Wingate literature prize for her biography of a leading Palestinian poet — ‘My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness’ — responds to questions put to her by Rachel Lasserson
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Hoffman: writer’s duty is to remain alert and choose words with care
My Happiness reads very much like a journey of discovery. Can you say something about your own journey in writing it?
Taha Muhammad Ali's poetry was what sent me out on this trail: when I first encountered it, through my husband Peter Cole's translations, like thousands of other readers I was immediately fascinated by its humanity, wisdom, humour, vital music and rich relationship to place - a place, I should say, that both is and isn't the place I also call home.
And then we came to know Taha himself better, and I was drawn to his buoyancy, his sly wit, and - again - his wisdom. Initially, it seemed to me that the steepest challenge would be to try and account for his larger-than-life personality. As I trekked on, though, and entered deeply into Taha's language and the particulars of his biography, what had been a modest foray into one man's life and work evolved into an ocean-crossing, mountain-scaling expedition that sought to explore an entire culture from the ground up.
Taha remained at the centre of the book but, in the course of writing it, I also wound up traversing, step by step, "the Palestinian Century".
● Your book tells the story not just of Taha Muhammad Ali but also his contemporaries and, more widely, his people. I'm interested in where you came to find your own place in these histories.
My place is actually several places. As a Jew, I both wanted and felt I had to look hard at where my people's history - and actions - had intersected, often painfully, with the history and actions of Taha's people. And I appear in the book as a "character" for that reason; I'm quite upfront about my own charged and sometimes ambivalent relationship as a Jew to this saga. I didn't think I could - or wanted to - write an "objective" biography, the kind written in the booming baritone of the all-knowing offstage narrator.
At the same time, "my place" is as a fellow writer and as a fellow human being. Though their experiences have plainly been very different from mine, Taha and the other Palestinians in the book felt, in the end, closer and more familiar to me than they did strange.
● Many writers in Israel have traditionally played an active political role, either rallying behind the government or speaking out, using their novels and journalism to engage with the situation. How, in the current political climate in Israel, do you see the role of the writer?
The current political climate in Israel is dismal, and I myself have felt compelled to work in various ways to speak out against the racism, arrogance, and cultural self-absorption all around.
That said, I think it is extremely dangerous to offer prescriptions for what the writer's role should or shouldn't be. It's a recipe both for bad art and political posturing. There are all kinds of writers, and there are all kinds of ways for those writers to react to a given political situation. In the final reckoning, a writer is neither duty-bound to wave her country's flag nor to wave a placard at a protest; rather, she is obliged to remain absolutely alert to the world as she sees it and to the way she chooses her words.
Adina Hoffman's 'My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century', is published by Yale. 'So What: New & Selected Poems, 1975-2001' by Taha Muhammad Ali (trans: Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin), is published by Bloodaxe; Rachel Lasserson is the editor of the Jewish Quarterly