I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Cohen Corasanti, author of The Almond Tree. Michelle’s book is inspiring, harrowing, thoughtful. It also deals with a highly sensitive subject, the continuing war between Israelis and Palestinians. In Europe, the war in this region has been headline news for quite some time. I am familiar with the topic, but have never delved deeper than that.
Before we get to the interview, a little of what the book is about.
Against a background torn from the pages of today’s headlines, The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti recasts the Palestinians in Israel and Gaza, a people frequently in the news, but often misrepresented and more misunderstood.
The author Les Edgerton wrote:
Ichmad’s story is a big-hearted story of a small Palestinian boy who learns to survive in a brutal environment and doesn’t simply endure, but emerges from the fire with the wisdom gleaned from the example of a father who has taught him that all men have value, even their enemies. A tale of innocence moving through a vicious world, compassion learned against an environment of daily horrors, and wisdom forged through a boy’s journey through a life we would never wish upon our own children.
The book’s universal message of resilience, hope and forgiveness will hit home with anyone who has faced adversity. Cohen Corasanti’s novel brings humanity and clarity to the Arab-Israeli conflict, exploring themes of redemption, family sacrifice and the benefits of education and tolerance. Her personal experience of living in Israel for seven years and her undergraduate degree from the Hebrew University and her MA from Harvard, both in Middle Eastern studies, as well as being a lawyer trained in international and human rights’ law, gave her the perspective, insight and ability to craft this story.
Welcome to Eliza Loves Sci Fi, Michelle. Don’t let the name of the blog fool you. My readers and I have varied interests when it comes to books. Personally, I find your story fascinating. The Almond Tree is set in Israel, a place where you lived for 7 years. What was your personal experience/impression of the country?
I went there in high school with our Rabbi’s daughter. I was taught that after the Holocaust the Jews found a land for a people for a people without a land and made the desert bloom. I also was taught that Jews were always persecuted due to no fault of their own. I was shocked and horrified to learn that everything I had been taught turned out to be a lie. The victims had become the victimizers. I had never seen oppression and racism like I witnessed in Israel. The Israelis don’t want the Palestinians because they aren’t Jewish. It’s as simple as that. The Israelis want a Jewish only country and are trying to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that anyone who wants any kind of life for their family will leave.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti
I went to Israel for fun and some parental freedom, but instead I became the witness who saw too much. One of the only glimmers of hope I saw during all my years involved in the conflict basically became the seed of the story. When I returned to the US I was suffering from severe culture shock. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the intifada broke out during the last part of my stay in Israel. Israel’s policy of “break their bones” and “might force and beatings” pushed me over the edge. I came back to go to graduate school at Harvard in Middle Eastern studies. I was going to fight for justice for the Palestinians.
At Harvard, I tried to tell everyone about the plight of the Palestinians, but no one cared. All the Harvard students I spoke with cared about was boycotting tuna fish because they killed dolphins when they caught the tuna. I won a merit fellowship to study Arabic over the summer and when I returned for my second year of graduate school at Harvard, I went with my professor to Walden Pond. I was speaking to him in modern standard Arabic and 3 Palestinians approached us. One spoke directly to me. He had lived in the same dorms as me at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, we knew the same people and had the same birth day, thought he was 5 years older than me. It was love at first sight. I discovered he was doing his post-doctorate at Harvard jointly with a Noble Prize winner and his Israeli PhD advisor. His father went to prison when he was 12 years old after he helped a refugee who snuck back into the country bury weapons. Being the oldest of 9 with an illiterate mother, he was forced to become the breadwinner. But because of his genius in math and science, he was able to attend school infrequently and still get a need based scholarship to The Hebrew University. In an environment of publish or perish, the playing field was leveled and the Israelis soon noticed and embraced his genius. Their love for science surpassed their love for country.
I chose to base my story on the rarest of occasions, the perfect storm when all of the stars just happened to line up. This is by no means the norm. If it was, there would be no conflict. The relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli scientists showed me how strong we could be if we pooled forces. If we celebrated differences and focused on our commonalities to advance humanity. Almost everything in the book is fictionalized reality. Either something I saw with my own eyes, experienced, read about or heard about over the years.
Many interviewers have asked me what message I’d like readers to take away from my book, but your story is so important, it demands that readers sit up and pay attention. What’s your message?
The message I would like the Zionists to take away is that we didn’t survive the Holocaust to go from victim to victimizer. That never again should mean never again for anyone, not now it’s my turn.
The message to the world is that we cannot be bystanders to human suffering. We need to find our common humanity and advance each other because the alternative will only lead to destruction. Every life is precious.
Your own story is a fascinating one. You grew up in a strict Jewish home, you lived in Israel and you experienced, first-hand, the Israeli/Palestinian war. You were surrounded by a huge measure of rules and boundaries. Do you think you will ever write your biography?
When I first returned, I wanted to devote my life to bringing about justice for the Palestinians. When I met the Palestinian at Harvard and heard his father went to prison when he was twelve and wasn’t released until he was in graduate school, I wanted to make his dreams come true. Instead, however, I turned out to be his worst nightmare. Instead of saving the Palestinians, I just saved myself. I tried to bury my past and pretend like I never saw anything, like I was a normal carefree American. But the past has a way of clawing its way out. That is exactly what happened when I read The Kite Runner 15 years later. Everything I had tried to bury clawed its way out. One might say it was a defining moment and I decided that I wanted my kids to know that I had seen injustice and tried to do something about it. The Kite Runner also gave me the way. There was a line that said race, religion, history and politics are basically impossible to overcome. That’s when I got the idea for my story because I had seen those very obstacles overcome with my own eyes. I had gotten to a great place in life and now I was going to go back for the ones I left behind. I wanted to try and shine a light so bright the whole world could see.
Moving onto the work you had to do to bring this story to light. What was your experience with publishers/agents when you pitched them your book?
I got my first agent immediately, but then she dumped me when I changed my book. When I had initially written it, I had started with Ichmad on a bus to see his father in prison. He had already helped Ali bury the weapons. One student in my class asked why he should sympathize with Ichmad. He was burying weapons to kill Jews. I immediately changed the beginning to when Ichmad lost his innocence. My first agent dropped me because she didn’t think the Israelis would like my new beginning. I found the second agent easily. I took a course called The first Five Pages and afterwards I hired the teacher to edit my book. He loved it and referred me to an agent.
No publisher in the US wanted my book. I searched for publishers who were sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians in the UK and they decided to publish my book.
How long did it take you to write The Almond Tree and what writing process was the hardest to learn?
When I decided to write The Almond Tree I thought I would be done in three months. After all Khaleed Hosseni, a medical doctor, wrote The Kite Runner. Surely I a lawyer trained in writing could write a novel. Seven years, twenty-one courses and six editors later, I completed the task. Once I studied the different subjects, they were easy to understand. The hardest thing for me was perspective. I had 15 years to recover from what I saw when I wrote the first three parts. The last part on Gaza was the only thing I really had to do massive research for. That wasn’t a good thing because I lost all perspective. I was trying to shine a light on everything. It was like I took the reader to the middle of the ocean and pushed him off without a lifejacket.
So many authors wish they could do nothing else but write. But, like me, they have to work full time in order to fund their budding careers. Are you one of the lucky ones who can afford to quit their day job and write full time?
I’m envious! And finally tell me what promotional work did you do for The Almond Tree?
Massive giveaways because I’ve found my best advertising is when I can get someone to read the book. Of course Paddy O’Callaghan has worked tirelessly to promote my book and was the most successful without a doubt. Another person who is doing an amazing job to promote my book is Spanish TV and radio celebrity Guillermo Fesser.
Here is a recent review I received, highlighting the book’s potential novel-hollywood-potential-exposes-israels-lies
Yes, it was Paddy who alerted me to your book and brought us together. I’m so glad he did. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Michelle. I wish you great success with your book. It’s a story that everyone should read, regardless of personal opinion or beliefs.
The website for The Almond Tree is http://thealmondtreebook.com
Anyone interested in purchasing a copy of Michelle’s book can do so here;