BookTrib Q&A: Contemplating Immigration and Morality with Acclaimed Author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

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When Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, the Israeli author, screenwriter and psychologist first published One Night, Markovitch a few years ago, it was one of the most compelling works of literature to be translated from Hebrew into 13 different languages. Now, with her latest novel, Waking Lions, Gundar-Goshen brings readers another compelling story, this time about Dr. Eitan Green, an Israeli doctor who, while speeding at night in his SUV on a deserted road, fatally wounds a refugee with his car. What happens next is something we all hope never to deal with: how to react in a crisis where one decision can mean life or death for ourselves or another.

The doctor chooses to leave the body, and pretend it never happened, but when the man’s widow knocks on his door the next day, he finds that mistake he buried has resurfaced and vows to haunt him for eternity unless he makes some kind of restitution. What follows is a stunning exploration into morality where Gundar-Goshen delivers a very deep,yet subtle message about the human condition and how each decision we make always affects someone else.

We spoke with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen about writing Waking Lions and the lessons we can all glean from her work and the struggles of those whom the world often ignores.

Waking Lions is a dark and incredibly rich story. How did you come up with the concept? Is it based on a real person?

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen: I was twenty years old when I met the man who inspired the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared, night after night. He had a dreamy face and long, light colored hair. He was just out of military service and on the adventure of his life. But there was something very wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything. Just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. It was obvious that something was eating him up inside.

Eventually I went to him and asked if he was alright. He admitted to me that several days [before], he’d hit an Indian man with his motorcycle. Instead of staying to help, he’d panicked and fled. And the thing is, he didn’t look like a bad man. More like a kid. He had a guitar on his back, big blue eyes…in just a few months he due to start university.

In a way, he was a mirror vision of me. And though I wanted to be 100% certain that I could never do a thing like that – I wasn’t so sure anymore. Prison in India can be an unpleasant place. A man can end his life in prison, and it was an accident, not an intentional crime.

Suddenly, I wasn’t absolutely convinced that, in his position, I would have called the local police. I’d like to think I would but, is there a place within me that would also panic, think only of the consequences and of escape? Moreover, was it easier for this young tourist to do this because the man was from a different origin and homeless? Would the idea that this is probably manslaughter, which the police wouldn’t necessarily be too motivated to investigate, have affected the decision?

BookTrib: Like the man you met years ago, Dr. Green runs over an illegal immigrant, chooses to drive away and the man dies. Did you know the direction the story would take in the beginning or was this exploration of morality and superiority something that came to you over the course of writing this book?

AGG: I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn’t find the right trail for the protagonist. I didn’t want to write a 300 page novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I decided that my protagonist was to be blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed, was I able to sit down and write it.

I needed the outsider’s eye— a refugee, one of those people who witnesses everything, but little attention [is given] to their presence. I wondered how many times I had sat in restaurants, kissing, arguing or having intimate conversations, while illegal immigrants I completely ignored cleaned my table. I wanted to investigate what happens when those who are unnoticed see something that severely changes the balance.

When I sat down to write I tried to transpose this highly charged moral and emotional experience I had encountered while traveling in India, to the dark reality created by the waves of refugees escaping from Eritrea and Sudan to the first seemingly western state they can reach over land – Israel. It is only after I finished the novel that I realized I chose to write about reality rather than change it – I could have gone to the police that night at the guesthouse. But I didn’t go to the police. I listened, and I wrote.

BookTrib: This book addresses a refugee crisis that has added to diversity in Israel. This is something that isn’t really mentioned in the news. Most often, the discussion on immigration and refugees is centered on U.S. immigration. Can you tell us a bit about immigration in Israel?

AGG: About 70,000-100,000 people have illegally entered Israel seeking refuge in the last ten years.  For a small country – these are large numbers. They come through the desert, walking the same route that the biblical Israelis walked on the exodus from Egypt. This mythological journey of Hebrew refugees is now an actual journey of African refugees, longing for the Promised Land. Once in Israel, many of them are arrested and put in an open detention center. It’s open – but in the heart of the desert. Nowhere much to go. They can’t work or study regularly or have normal lives. In the last few years, the detention center and other actions of the right-wing government made many of them leave Israel and fewer people try and come. The government considers this to be a good thing. 

BookTrib: The women in this book— Liat, Dr. Eitan Green’s wife, the police inspector, Sirkit, the wife of the man Eitan runs over— they’re just dynamic. How is Eitan shaped and changed by his relationships with them?

AGG: Thank you! It was very important for me that the reader will feel for Sirkit and Liat.

After hitting the refugee, Eitan flees the scene and tries to return to his safe life. But the refugee’s wife finds him and blackmails him. He’s stunned by her, because he never bothered to look at the refugees’ around him before. They are the invisible people in the Israeli society. And she is puzzled by him as well, it’s the first time she has power over a white man, the opportunity to look at him with eyes wide open.

BookTrib: Is there anything you wish you included in Waking Lions that didn’t make it into the published work?

AGG: More inner thoughts of Eitan and Liat about family life. But maybe that was too much for the plot to carry on its back.

BookTrib: Finally, what do you want readers to take away from Waking Lions?

AGG: To ask themselves – had it happened to you, hitting somebody in the middle of the night – are you absolutely sure what your reaction would be?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was born in Israel in 1982 and holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. She has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement, and is an award-winning screenwriter. She won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for best debut. Waking Lions, her first novel published in the U.S., has been translated into nine languages.

 

 

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