Yael Kenan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature. Her work focuses on affective politics in Palestine/Israel, and more specifically she writes about intersections of mourning and nationalism in Palestinian and Israeli literatures. She’s taught courses on topics such as narratives of migration, storytelling and the American Dream, and she’s a firm believer in accessible and inclusive education as a tool for lasting societal change. She’s also a proud union member and a reluctant activist. As she attempts to work from home, she’s accompanied by her cat, Frankie.
Yael was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.
N.L.: Good afternoon Yael thank you so much for doing this interview. To start us off, what are you reading this week?
Y.K.: This week, I've been reading Journal of Ordinary Grief by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish. It's a text that defies all genre categories as it oscillates between prose and poetry, documentary and fiction. In it, Darwish chronicles the ongoing, almost mundane grief of Palestinians living in exile, suffering various forms of dispossession since 1948. Journal is intensely personal while also describing a collective pain that has become part of life. As I was writing the introduction to my dissertation I mentioned this book in a footnote - I work on nationalism and mourning in Palestinian and Israeli literatures. But then when I picked it up I couldn't put it down, so I've just kept on reading it long after I forgot what the footnote was about.
In addition, unrelated to my work I've been reading James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. A good friend of mine has always said it's her favorite book and I've finally gotten around to reading it. It is painful, beautiful, haunting. I can't believe it's taken me this long to read it.
N.L.: Journal of Ordinary Grief is a wonderful collection of essays. Mahmoud Darwish’s essays provide us with solemn and poignant insights into the Palestinian people. His essays provide a good historical map to the current Palestinian homeland situation, the loss felt by her people, and what it means to them, living within the walls of occupation. An amazing read.
I have personally also found James Baldwin’s work to be exceptional. His essay The Creative Process is one of my favorite pieces of literature. This brings me to my next question: is there a common theme in your book selections? Do you gravitate to any book genre and, if so, what? And why?
Y.K.: In terms of academic writing, I really appreciate and admire clear writing, which is very difficult to do. As for literature, I tend to gravitate towards poetic writing, even in prose. Baldwin is a great example of that, and Darwish is known mostly as a poet but I absolutely love his prose writing. And I suppose the common theme of the books I mentioned is identity in crisis, struggles of belonging, which is certainly something I write about and think about a lot.
N.L.: What author or book has impacted you personally or professionally that you would like to share or recommend? Why?
Y.K.: Oh, it’s a long list. When I was young the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai was my favorite writer, thanks to his ability to describe everyday experiences as poetic revelations. Today I’m much more critical of his approach to politics, but I do still love his writing. A novel that has left a lasting impact on me is Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. I first read it in Hebrew translation, and it shook me to my core, as it narrates the history of Palestine/Israel from a perspective I was taught not to see. Then when I learned Arabic, I read it in the original, and now I write about it in my dissertation. Since living in the U.S. I’ve tried to read more writers from marginalized communities. I already knew and loved Toni Morrison, but have since been reading Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, bell hooks, Rebecca Roanhorse and Tommy Orange. And I still have a very long way to go.
N.L.: Can you touch a bit on the project you are working on and why it is a matter of interest to you? Or is there a theme in your professional or personal life that compels you to seek out certain kinds of books, authors, entertainment, or passion?
Y.K.: I write about intersections of nationalism and mourning in Palestinian and Israeli literatures. I analyze the ways in which texts shape a notion of mourning and how that mourning works to justify and solidify national claims. I argue that these mechanisms work differently within a nation-state and outside of one, a distinction which is crucial in Palestine/Israel. I’ve always been interested in how people grapple with loss, which is unfortunately very prevalent where I’m from (Jerusalem). As I grew up, I began to realize the deeply political aspects of mourning, that often remain purposefully hidden. I feel compelled to shine a light on them, reveal them, and discuss them in the hopes that such analysis might help demystify their power. That’s on the days I’m hopeful, anyway.
I would say I’m generally driven by issues of social justice, which is evident in many of my book selections, in my scholarly work, in my teaching and in my activism, for example with our Graduate Employees Organization. Put simply, I can’t tolerate being gaslit by institutions (or people, for that matter) and I try to speak up as much as possible about things I believe are wrong.
N.L.: That is very inspiring to hear and I wish you luck in your future endeavors. This has been a very insightful and engaging conversation. Thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully answer my questions. As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews with. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?
Y.K.: Just one book? I don’t know if I can do that. When I moved to the U.S. I took three books on the plane with me, so maybe that’s a real-life version of this question. I took Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a collection of poems by Wisława Szymborska, and Anton Shammas’ Arabesques. Beloved is a book I return to time and time again. Its depiction of the anguish of slavery and post-slavery life for black people in the U.S. is gut wrenching and important. There are sentences in that book that are seared into my memory. Szymborska’s poems offer simple yet profound truths about life, that work even in translation. And Arabesques is a novel I loved long before its author became my adviser. It’s funny and daring and beautiful and provocative and destabilizing. It’s a book about conflicted identities in Palestine, written by a Palestinian writer in Hebrew, and its Hebrew is dazzling and virtuosic and full of compassion. The novel sets up a veritable, and still relevant political challenge, but it’s also a story of families and love. There’s a section, on page 69 of my old beaten-up copy, about finding the hairs of someone you loved everywhere in your house after the end of a relationship, and how the hair hangs on whether you like it or not. I re-read that page often, probably more often than I should.