Michelle Cohen Corasanti is the author of the novel, The Almond Tree. Who though being a Jewish, has depicted the sufferings of Palestinians and the atrocities of the Jews in her novel. Being a Jewish American, Michelle has BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a MA from Harvard University, both in Middle Eastern Studies. Gifted with intelligence, she also holds a law degree. She has lived in many countries like France, Spain, Egypt and England. She has spent seven years living in Israel, so she is a close witness of Israel- Palestinian issue. She herself has experienced the situation hence she is able to pen down it in a very realistic way. Currently she is living in New York with her family.
Shamenaz: Tell me about your life, studies and everything?
Michelle: The Almond Tree project has our first big event April 23 and it has been a lot of work. The Stanley Board asked me to give a lecture as a fundraiser for their 85th anniversary on April 23, 2013. Guillermo Fesser, a Spanish TV and Radio celebrity who has interviewed everyone from Jack Nicholson to the King of Jordan contacted me because believes my book can bring about change. He has put together The Almond Tree Project, inspired by my book and he will interview me at the event. Also involved in The Almond Tree project is David Broza who is one of the greatest Israeli singers, songwriters and musicians of all time. He will be singing the Almond Tree song that was inspired by my book along with other songs. I really wasn’t expecting to attract an Israeli icon that I used to listen to in college. The night will also include Israeli peace activist Miko Peled. His grandfather signed the Israeli declaration of independence, his father was a general in the Israel army and fought in ’48 and ’67 and his beloved niece was killed by 2 suicide bombers as she shopped for school supplies. He is the author of The General’s Son and would also like to show a better way. And finally, we will have Palestinian superstar singer, songwriter and musician Mira Awad.
Guillermo will be putting together events throughout the world. My book will be published in India soon. I have a couple of offers and am waiting on a few more. Guillermo will be planning events in India. He is friends with A. R. Rahim who is going to help him put together the plan. I’ll attach ideas he sent me. Let me know if you’d like additional information.
Shamenaz: Your novel reminds me of The Kite Runner?
Michelle: The Kite Runner inspired me to write my book. I said if a doctor could write The Kite Runner than surely write a book. 7 years, 21 classes and 6 editors later I finished. I learned from Khaled Hosseni that a writer can reach into reader’s hearts and change them forever. Thank you so much for your support.
Shamenaz: Were you nervous about the book launch, what has the response been so far?
Michelle: I was petrified, but then I thought of the Palestinian children suffering and I found the strength. I thought there would be fierce opposition by the Jews. I was shocked to see how many Jews are embracing my book. In fact, David Broza who is one of the greatest Israeli singers of all time, who I listened to in college, loved my book and has joined together with me and Guillermo Fesser, a Spanish TV and Radio celebrity to form The Almond Tree project. We are planning on having events throughout the world. Our first event will be in my hometown in NY April 23. David is like God to the Israelis. I never thought he would be inspired by my book to sing The Almond Tree song. (Attached please find some Jewish reviews and the poster for the first event of The Almond Tree project) We will be also joining forces with the Israeli peace activist and author of The General’s Son, Miko Peled. On amazon US, I am usually in the top five in Jewish fiction. Temples across the country are reading The Almond Tree in their book clubs.
I was also afraid because some Palestinians believe that only the Palestinians can tell the Palestinian narrative. First of all, what I wrote is my narrative, my perspective as a witness who had the misfortune of seeing what she didn’t want to see. Because I’m Jewish, people believe I should side with the Israelis. As a lawyer, I can tell you that in a rape case, the competent confessions of the perpetrator are an automatic conviction and as such are much stronger than the testimony of the victim. To reject the testimony of a witness with a perceived bias toward the perpetrator as well as the confessions of the perpetrator in my opinion is very detrimental to the Palestinian people. It would be like in a rape case if the victim rejected the confession of the perpetrator and the testimony of a perceived biased witness and insisted on trying to prove her case just on her testimony alone.
I have to say that I have been getting fantastic responses from people across the board, every race, religion, ethnicity, social class, age and whatever other categories there are that divide us. I think because I tell a human story and in the end, that is what we all have in common. My father- in-law who was born during the depression, whose father was a new immigrant and they lost their house, but he went on to achieve great success, could see himself as my protagonist. In the end, mine is a story about a boy who against all odds achieves what others have only dreamed.
Shamenaz: Are you interested in writing in other forms of English literature rather than novel?
Michelle: Almost my entire story was fictionalized reality. Maybe I hid behind fiction because it was safer. If I get the courage, I may write my actual story, but to do so I would have to disclose some dark secrets that I’ve been trying to hide for years.
Shamenaz: What should be the quality of a novelist?
Michelle: For me, different novels require different qualities. I wrote my novel the way I did so that I could cast as large a net as possible. My goal was to shine a light as bright as I could on injustice in the hopes of trying to bring about change. The US war on terrorism didn’t start with Bush, it started with Reagan and Nelson Mandela was considered to be one of the most notorious terrorists by the US. Even after the rest of the world condemned Apartheid South Africa, the US continued to support it. South Africa knew that as long as they had the US, they didn’t need anyone else. The same is true for Israel today. Apartheid fell when the US changed its policies. The American people need to know the truth for there to be change in my opinion. I knew that I would have to reach down in order to get the masses as well as reach up. So to achieve my goal, I kept my language simple, but my subject-matter was complex enough to attract from above as well. Americans tend to like a gripping story that is fast-paced and clear. They don’t tend to like to be bogged down with historical facts about who did what to whom. The message has to come in through the back door. So to write the kind of novel I wrote one has to have a conscience, courage, thick skin, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve one’s goal. I can’t speak for other novelists. I came from a non-fiction background with no skills. For me, when I realized how a writer can reach readers, I knew I would never quit until I achieved my goal.
Shamenaz: Why have you chosen such a sensitive topic to write?
Michelle: I didn’t choose the topic, the topic chose me. What would you do if you had been taught all your life that your people, after the Holocaust found a land without a people for a people without a land and made the desert bloom; that your people have always been persecuted due to no fault of their own and that Arabs and Muslims want to kill your people just because of your religion. What if you went to your “homeland” and discovered everything that you had been taught was a lie? What if you discovered that your people weren’t the victims, but the victimizers and when you tried to tell people, no one believed you? I didn’t go to Israel to become a human rights activist. I went there for parental freedom and fun. I went there because my parents said I couldn’t go to Paris. I never wanted to see what I saw. But what can one do when she witnesses what she wished she never saw? I only became a writer when I realized that a writer can reach into people’s hearts and change them forever. I thought it was the best way for me to shine a light. I wrote on this subject because I refuse to be a bystander to human suffering and I want my children to know that I did witness injustice and I tried to do everything I could to send out an S.O.S.
Shamenaz: Was it difficult to write against your own people?
Michelle: For me the plight of the Palestinians isn’t about religion, or nationality or ethnicity. It’s about being human. I hope I will always side with the oppressed and not the oppressors. First and foremost I see myself as belonging to the human race.
Shamenaz: Have you got any negative response against your novel?
Michelle: In my opinion, I have received two negative responses. One was from a Christian Fundamentalist who told me that she hated Palestinians because they built the Dome of the Rock on the Holy Temple Mount and that was just the tip of the iceberg. If the Indians asked her to return to Austria she said she would because it was the right thing to do. She feels that since the Jews were there two thousand years earlier, now that they’ve returned, the Palestinians need to leave. She told me that she would never like any book that showed a Palestinian as sympathetic. Another criticism she had was that Yasmine couldn’t get in shape so suddenly. Somehow she didn’t realize that Yasmine was fresh out of high school and pudgy in 1982. We see her transformed the next time in 2009. Call me crazy, but I feel that 29 years is sufficient time for a woman to get herself in shape.
The second negative review I received was from a Canadian woman of Palestinian origin. I met her cousin who was of Palestinian origin as well but didn’t speak Arabic and had never lived in the Middle East. Her cousin said that I portrayed all the Palestinian women as dumb and ugly and the Jewish ones as beautiful and brilliant. She said the only exception was Yasmine who she said only changed under the tutelage of the Jewish Justice. First of all, in literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that white women were the most likely to be sympathetic with the slaves so she made the non-racists among the females such as Eva pure and beautiful so that white women would have a heroine to emulate. That is why I tried to make Justice and Nora bright and attractive. She obviously didn’t read carefully because Professor Sharon’s first Jewish wife was a nasty racist whom he divorced. Ichmad’s first girlfriend at the university was beautiful, brilliant and Palestinian. Secondly, Yasmine didn’t change thanks to Jewish Justice. Yasmine changed in Ichmad’s eyes once she had his son and he saw how good she was with his son. In graduate school at Harvard, I took a course in East/West tension in Arabic literature. A very common theme was eastern man goes to west. He falls in love with a western woman. He returns to the east and is blinded by the west until he regains his vision and appreciates the greatness in his culture. She said that Orientalism. I really don’t think it was that especially since I derived that theme from Arabic literature.
Shamenaz: What is the response of Jews regarding your novel?
Michelle: There was this one woman whose son plays tennis with my twins. She is an ardent Zionist with settler relatives. She told me she bought my book and I just cringed. I thought for sure the relationship would be over. She called me and said that my book was brilliant because it took that personal of a story to show what Zionism did to the Palestinians. She also said that our entitlement to Israel, because of the Holocaust, is drilled into our heads from birth and she was embarrassed as an American Jew to not have thought about what Zionism meant to the Palestinians. Throughout the book I appeal to Jewish values: treat others the way you would want to be treated, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal etc… Zionism is secular nationalism and couldn’t be farther from Judaism. I just showed that throughout my book. Israelis from the right, Benny Morris to the left Ilan Pappe, have proven, based on Israeli military archives, that the Zionists ethnically cleansed the Palestinians from their homeland through terror, razed their villages, looted their belongs and have since tried to make the lives of the Palestinians who they were unable to ethnically cleanses living hell in order to drive them out. A few examples of this policy are: the over 24,000 house demolitions since 1967; the child imprisonment; the ghettoization of the Palestinians in Gaza; imprisoning 800,000 Palestinian children and in one day dropping 100 tons of bombs on them when one ton of bombs takes out an entire city block and decimates children; giving settlers 1,500 cubic meters of water a year and Palestinians in the West Bank between 30-80 cubic meters when the world health organization claims an individual needs a minimum of 100 cubic meters, I have heard there are roughly the same amount of Palestinians and Israeli Jews under Israeli rule today. I have heard that 2 million of the Israeli Jews that are counted to make the 6 million actually live abroad. There are three sets of laws. The Jewish Israelis live in a democracy. The Palestinian Israelis have over 30 laws that discriminate against them as well as an entire culture of racism and discrimination. The Palestinians in the occupied territories have no rights. I could go on and on. What real Jews would support such a county? I believe a big problem is that Jews in America really understand very little about what goes on over there and if they knew, I think they would be as horrified as me for the most part, although there are always those that feel superior when they are crushing others. The only Jews that I have heard speak out against me (never to my face) were the ones who didn’t read my book.
Thank you for your support. Have a great day.