From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Exotic to One Person Is Commonplace to Another: Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is the winner of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize, awarded by the European Space Agency, and the author of the novella An Occupation of Angels (2005) and the linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007). His stories appeared in Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Clarkesworld Magazine and many others, and in translation in seven languages. His short story “The Integrity of the Chain” appears this week at Fantasy Magazine.

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Among the many beauties in your works exists a recurring and unflinching attention to cultural detail — one does not read Lavie Tidhar with a lazy mind. These details demand unequivocal attention and teach us something along the way. Will you share with us some of your processes in writing about different cultures?

I think it partly comes from being an outsider in too many places. The UK was a fascinatingly exotic culture to me! My own background is so muddied in some ways. I grew up on a kibbutz (a sort of socialist utopian commune) in Israel. I talk about that in some of my short stories – “Alienation and Love in the Hebrew Alphabet” or “Grandma’s Two Watches”, both about that rather strange childhood.

The kibbutz, back then, was truly communal — as kids we lived separately from our parents, in “children’s houses” — communal showers, communal work, communal dining. The main institution of the kibbutz was the dining-room, where all the kibbutz members ate together. There was no money — each member had a “budget”, as they called it, which was something like a point system. It was a self-enclosed micro-world, with the outside rarely intruding.

It was quite beautiful, too, where I grew up — forests and brooks and ancient caves. It was quite common to walk around and just pick up stone tools made fifty, a hundred thousand years ago! My grandfather was an amateur archaeologist, so he would take me looking for coins or pottery shards. You’d find Roman, Greek and Turkish pots, coins — layer upon layer of history reaching all the way back to the Stone Age. But I remember telling a friend of mine in England about how I grew up and her reacting in a sort of horrified way!

The funny thing is, I came across incredibly similar lives in the remotest places — the social structure in Vanuatu or Borneo felt a bit like home. I remember staying in a longhouse in Borneo and they had this meeting that was the exact replica of a kibbutz meeting — down to the tea and biscuits! Some of the customs are obviously different — a tattoo-covered shaman killing a chicken to bless a new-born child, for instance — we didn’t have that when I was growing up, but we had our own ways and they no doubt seemed just as strange to an outsider.

So I suppose part of my awareness of culture, as such, is about how similar in many ways people are. What seems exotic to one person is commonplace to another. The question is who do you write for? How much do you explain, how much do you let the reader infer from the text? It’s a balancing act.

Born in Israel, you’ve lived in South Africa, the UK, the South Pacific and now South East Asia. Where do you plan to go next? Are you forever the nomadic adventurer?

Actually, I’m thinking of settling down! I’ve been moving around since I was fifteen, and that’s a long time. You can become jaded, I think, which isn’t a good thing. And there’s a big difference between living in a bamboo shack on the beach when you’re eighteen as opposed to thirty-one! I think I had this fear that, unless I did something about it, I would have led the dullest life possible, so I set out to at least make it sound interesting.

In “The Integrity of the Chain,” your protagonist, Noy, a tuk-tuk driver, wants to go to the moon, but he is told that . . .

The moon is only a rock . . . [and] happiness can no more be mined on the moon than it can in Vientiane.

Noy might represent so many things: an “annoyance” to his tuk-tuk comrades, a link in his ancestry’s chain, the youth and future of his people . . . How did Noy evolve? Was there a particular impetus for his characterization?

This is actually a rare story where I can remember exactly how it came about, which, naturally, had to do with a tuk-tuk ride. I caught one to go back home from somewhere when, a couple of minutes into the ride, the whole chain just fell off. Now, I could have just hopped on the next available ride and gone home, but — the advantage of writing! — I didn’t particularly need to go there in a hurry, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the machine actually works. So I waited as the guy was fixing it, getting the chain back on and hammering it together and I thought — Aha! Then I went home and wrote “The Integrity of the Chain”.

The Integrity of the Chain” is part of several stories I’ve been trying to write that are set in South East Asia and have this mundane thing going — in the sense that they are not about science fictional concepts in particular but about the life of regular people in the future. I think Fantasy is going to run a second one in an upcoming issue.

You have published internationally, won the Clarke-Bradbury award, traveled to locations about which others can only dream. On the day that wishes come freely, what will be your perfect state of being or are you already there?

Right now, all I want is to live near a bookshop! I miss bookshops, and cinemas. Oh, and supermarkets! And also, streets where you can actually walk around, without, you know, drivers trying to kill you. Small dreams…

What developments can we expect from Lavie Tidhar in 2009/2010?

Coming up next is the Apex Book of World SF, an anthology of international SF, fantasy and horror stories from around the world. That’s from Apex Books. I’ve been running the World SF News Blog alongside it, and hope to continue doing so — I’d also love to edit a second volume, but it will depend on the first one selling enough to make it feasible!

My novella Cloud Permutations is due sometime this year from PS Publishing in the UK. There are also stories forthcoming in Interzone, Postscript, in the anthologies Interfictions II and Lovecraft Unbound — and in Fantasy, of course . . . and my short novel, The Tel Aviv Dossier, co-written with Nir Yaniv, will be officially launched this coming Worldcon.

2010 is going to very exciting, I think, but unfortunately I can’t talk too much about it yet. What is confirmed so far is another novella from PS Publishing — Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God, and a reprint of my Cold War supernatural thriller novella An Occupation of Angels by Apex Books. I’m also very excited about an upcoming novelette, “The Projected Girl”, in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City anthology. It’s about a boy in 1980s Haifa trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a magician’s assistant in the 1940s. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

Rae Bryant is a short story author, poet, columnist, assistant editor for Fantasy Magazine, on staff with Weird Tales, and a reviewer for The Fix. She is a 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers’ Prize and editor nominated for StorySouth‘s Million Writers Award. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Whidbey Writers MFA Zine, Literary Traveler, and Southern Fried Weirdness, among others. Rae is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins finishing an M.A. in Writing. She lives in a little valley just outside Washington D.C. Read more about Rae at Raebryant.com.

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