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Literature and War
Conversations with Israeli and Palestinian Writers
Runo Isaksen; translated by Kari Dickson

published 2009 • 6” x 9” • 222 pages
ISBN 9781566567305 • paperback • $18.00

“The first step toward real peace must be to get to know the other side, its culture and creativity.”
—Mahmoud Darwish

Novelist and journalist Runo Isaksen undertook these interviews with preeminent Israeli and Palestinian writers with one key question: Can literature play a role in helping one side to see the other? To answer this, he sought out acclaimed Israeli writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, Palestinian poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish, feminist writer Sahar Khalifeh, and others. In the conversations that resulted, the region’s most original voices reflect on the relationship between literature and war: their discussions transcend national boundaries and the narrow language of conflict, and allow us a new insight into the human side of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. These dialogues—urgent, humorous, despairing, and hopeful—are themselves a first step toward peace.

“Runo Isaksen’s book is unique in its ability to make us understand without judging, to connect emotionally without patronizing, and to make some sharp and lucid sense from one of the most obscure and strange regions in the world. His book should be on the reading list of any person who wants to transcend clichés and seeks to find the real people who live and ache in the Middle East.”
—Etgar Keret

Authors interviewed include:

Etgar Keret • David Grossman • Yoram Kaniuk • Amos Oz • Meir Shalev • Orly Castel-Bloom • Dorit Rabinyan • Mahmoud Shuqair • Ghassan Zaqtan • Liana Badr • Zakariyya Muhammad • Yahya Yakhlif • Sahar Khalifeh • Mahmoud Darwish • Izzat Ghazzawi • Salman Natour •

Click here to read an excerpt from this book.
Click here to read Runo Isaksen's recent interview about this book with Nextbook.


Media Reviews
"In 15 discussions with acclaimed Israeli and Palestinian writers, Norwegian novelist Isaksen looks at the intersection of art and armed conflict in the Middle East to determine whether literature can play a role in helping one side to see the other. In narrative interviews with writers including David Grossman ("The Yellow Wind"), Amos Oz (perhaps Israel’s most famous), Meir Shalev, Mahmoud Shuqair and Liana Badr, Isaksen examines the obligation artists feel (or don’t feel) to help bring peace to the region, the differences between being an Israeli and being a Jew, the likelihood of true democracy in Israel, the meaning of exile in the minds of Palestinians and other weighty topics. The result is a number of sharp insights into the process, promise and limits of art in the face of war; according to Oz, “the conflict is always in the background, but never in the foreground. I don’t write to compete with the headlines.” A founding member of Israel’s Peace Now movement in 1977, Isaksen has been a political player for decades, giving him a firm grounding in the conflict and its literary legacy. This inquisitive guide illuminates the region in a fresh way, giving those already interested a new perspective and drawing in readers who might otherwise eschew modern Middle East history."
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review, Pick of the Week)

"Editor Isaksen is a Norwegian novelist, active in Norwegian writers' groups, increasingly interested in Israeli and Palestinian literature and curious about whether literature can bridge the divide between peoples at war. Norway's active role in sponsoring Arab-Israeli negotiations and support for Palestinian cultural institutions inspired him to consider the role of writers, as did his belief that connections between black and white writers helped end apartheid in South Africa. In 2002 and 2003, he interviewed 15 Israeli and Palestinian writers to see if they believed that their writing could help reduce the hostility and fear infusing their societies. Isaksen is not as interested in the content of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as he is in the prospect of strengthening the human understanding between two peoples, each with a strong sense of victimhood and loss. The result is a series of fascinating conversations with writers of different ages, genders, and styles, linked by their common experience of life in a culture under siege. Isaksen explores with them their understandings of issues of victimization and dehumanization, personal identity and national culture, and the contribution that literature can make to creating empathy between two peoples in conflict for many decades. This book will be of great value to readers with an interest in literature, and it provides sensitive insight into how writers approach their craft and how they view the social impact of their work in a volatile environment. A solid addition to public and academic libraries."
—Library Journal

“[C]onfronts the ongoing conflict in the Middle East by getting up close and personal with several Israeli and Palestinian authors and probing into the psyche of relevant subjects such as literature, history and politics in the hope that readers will begin to have a sense of ‘the other side.’”

“Turning his attention to the Middle East, Norwegian writer Runo Isaksen explores the notion that if, as has occurred in South Africa, antagonists read each other’s literature, perhaps rapprochement could begin. Isaksen admits that before embarking on this project he knew neither an Israeli Jew nor a Palestinian Arab. During two visits to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza (2002 and 2003), he interviewed 15 Israeli and Palestinian writers—some widely celebrated, some emerging—to learn if sharing literature could bridge a gap between the radically different and fiercely competitive historic memories, ideologies, and senses of place. Centering on the Israeli and Palestinian dilemma, the interviews (on both sides of the divide) reveal hope, pragmatism, emotionalism, cynicism, and vastly differing worldviews, and they support Isaksen’s thesis that through literature Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians may see the other as more human and individual. This book provides insights rarely found in the literature on this subject. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.”

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Of Related Interest:
Lake Beyond the Wind, A
Mahmoud Darwish, Exile's Poet
Balcony over the Fakihani, A
The Image, the Icon, and the Covenant
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Middle East Conflicts
End of Spring, The
Wild Thorns
My Jerusalem