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Help Yourself: An Interview with Alona Kimhi

By Rohan Kamicheril

I met with Alona Kimhi at a Czech café in New York’s West Village on a furiously rainy day this past spring. She was still shaking the rain off her trenchcoat as we sat down to talk about her latest book, Lily La Tigresse, translated by Dalya Bilu, which follows Lily, the book’s dental hygienist heroine, as she navigates the perilous waters of her various relationships—with her close female friends, with the men in her life, and ultimately, with a tiger cub she’s forced into close quarters with. Kimhi is a vigorous conversationalist. She speaks in avid pronouncements, peppering her talk with confidential asides and wickedly funny observations which she delivers with a mixture of expectation and blankness. She skips without punctuation between topics and it’s hard, in retrospect, to surmise what the connection might have been between Alison Bechdel, Agatha Christie, brushing one’s teeth, and Lermontov—but Kimhi, like her book, charms through excess, producing logic and sympathy between distal parts of life and literature.

Rohan Kamicheril: Apart from being strikingly psychological, it’s hard not to notice that your book is also very funny. What are your thoughts on humor in literature?

Alona Kimhi: It's irreplaceable. Even though there are a lot of good books without humor. When I was young I read very funny books—Americans as well, like O. Henry—and Sholem Aleichem, who is a Yiddish writer, and I read Russian. I read very funny writers, and I loved it and it affected me. I fear boredom. Maybe it's not good because it's like being a clown. But I don't use humor out of a desire to be liked. I just need it to get myself going. And life is funny.

RK: And to what effect do you use humor in Lily La Tigresse?

AK: Look, it's a funny book. It's a book about love and our need for love, and the importance of love, and the way that love is taught to women and how they experience it and what they do with it, and the possibility of giving this notion up. But it's funny because I also like to write about outsiders, people who are not in the middle of society. I write about weird people—the mentally unbalanced, immigrants, gays. Not because I'm very aware, socially, but because I experience myself as such a person—an immigrant, a woman . . . So I write about these kinds of people and try to show them without being too dramatic—this is the only way for me. It has to be this way otherwise it's heavy and melodramatic. There are lots of writers who write about such things and they're very serious and they're wonderful, but I'm a clown!

RK: You mentioned reading a lot of Russian writers growing up. Who are some of the writers who've influenced you? Because you’ve mentioned Dostoevsky—

AK: Oh no!

RK: Lermontov—

AK: What, you read classic Russian literature? Yes, young people like it. Young people like Dostoevsky all over the world. A literary friend of mine said that Dostoevsky's name keeps growing. Unlike Tolstoy, for instance, who is much less loved, even though he's a very important author. But young people keep reading Dostoevsky, so his name keeps growing. But I don't like him, I like Tolstoy much better. I don't know many new authors. I know authors from the '80s. Russians used to have a very intellectual bent—everyone read, even the stupidest people. Good books and bad books. There were lots of books that were Soviet propaganda, but they also read Hemingway, who was loved in Russia because he had an affection for the working class. There was no trash. It was a Soviet thing—there were no detective novels! I remember when I came to Israel and I read Agatha Christie—I couldn’t believe it! I was in shock! I felt elated! I would walk around the house just holding up this book. I was stunned by this genre, by this writing.

RK: And I know you’ve talked about your love for self-help books—what is it about them that appeals to you?

AK: Oh! I love them! Well, I don't love self-help books, but I realize that sometimes, very rarely, self-help books can have one idea put in the right way. Something little—a sentence that opens something up. But mostly I read self-help books about writing. It's a little ridiculous, but it's encouraging, and it puts enthusiasm into you. You say "all right, I'm going to do it, I'm going to write.” And there are some really good books about writing, like Stephen King's book on writing, which I love. Then of course there are some stupid books on writing—ridiculous, which publishers put out. But then there are classics like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, too. So, some books, they encourage you, they excite you, they make you excited about your work. So I like to read them from time to time, even though I am, you know, a professional writer, and I've been a professional writer for quite a while. I still love these books—not all of them—and I still read them from time to time. Because writing is hard work; it can be very tough.

RK: I'm going to switch tacks, just a little bit, and ask about the character of Lily, who, in the novel, is an overweight dental hygienist. "Dental hygienist" seems like an odd choice of profession for a heroine in a novel. What inspired this choice?

AK: I love this profession! You know, I did the research with my dental hygienist. I can't explain why, but it's a funny profession. And it's funny when a person, like my dental hygienist, does it very passionately. I've been to many dental hygienists and most of them are very indifferent—you can see their indifference toward what they do. But my dental hygienist, she's passionate about it. She keeps talking to me while she works. "You know, you should brush your teeth, Alona." She always repeats my name with every sentence. "Here, I see, there is a problem, and here I see that you've been brushing well with an electric toothbrush, like I told you to." She really loves her job and she feels like she does something important, and the dentists fear the dental hygienist because once a person goes to the dental hygienist he keeps healthy, and his teeth remain good--so the doctors lose their importance. So she feels power over them. And, you know, I like writing about fat people, there's something about fat people that fascinates me. Because I feel like, very easily, I could be in their situation. And it's only the poor people, the miserable people, unlike in the east where there are statues of gods who are fat because it represents wealth and wellbeing. There's something about fat people and about the way the world treats them that is unbearable. So I wanted to write about someone fat, because, as I told you, I write about outsiders, and I wanted to write about a fat girl who's not busy all the time with being fat. And who feels she is OK, and who treats herself well.

RK: Can you say a little bit about Lily’s relationship to the tiger cub who’s put into her care? Her attitude to the cat changes in a subtle but significant way through the book—does that mirror a change in Lily herself?

AK: It's a dramatic thing. When lovers meet, they don't always find the right language, and sometimes they fight, and then they get close. This is how all love stories go. This is how Shakespeare writes, how romantic comedies go. When Harry Met Sally, and even much cheaper romantic comedies. They dislike each other, they really hate each other, they irritate each other, and eventually they fall in love. So Lily and the cub—it's a big cat living in her house. It's a dirty thing, it's not pleasant—do you have a cat?

RK: No, I'm allergic.

AK: Some people have cats and they're very happy. I used to have cats until I became allergic and now I can't. But it's a complex thing to keep an animal in the house. Eventually this wild, animalistic thing starts to grow in her and then of course the cub starts to symbolize her true nature and he becomes like her offspring and eventually she lives with him, she goes off with him. And all of her emotions, all of her passion is moved to him. She's a girl who's busy with men most of the time. And I have to tell you something—my boyfriend sent me something. It's a test by a feminist intellectual who made this quiz about how feminist a movie is. So I said to myself, I'm good. I'll read the questions because I know I'll respond very well to them. And of course it turns out I didn’t!—even though I'm a radical feminist. There are three notions, three elements that have to be present in the book, to show that women are well-represented in it. The first element is that there are two or more women in the book, the second is that they talk to each other, and the third is that they talk about something other than men.

RK: Oh, you mean the Bechdel Test—

AK: Yes. So I realized that I wrote this book about love and about giving up love and about hating men, and about giving all these things up for your true animal nature and that my heroines still talk about men on a regular basis, and I was very disappointed in myself, and I said to myself that in my next book they won't just be talking about men because I want to be good with these rules—I felt very humiliated! Because I was so sure that it would be an easy game for me. If she read my books, she would say "Oh, Alona!" But in this particular book the characters talk about men all the time. What's wrong with me?

RK: You had a very funny bit in your talk the other day about the differences between men and women writers. I know it was a joke, but—

AK: No, it wasn't! First of all, whenever you're doing an interview in Israel—or anywhere in the world, they say: is there such a thing as women's literature? And what can you say—because there is! Obviously there is, but once you say it, you'll be expelled from world literature. There's a notion that women write for women and men write for everyone. But the way that women experience the world is much more personal. They can deal with very big issues, but in a very personal way. Men, they perceive their problems as the problems of society. They're busy with serious things, with big things—with culture, with politics. They don't necessarily write about it, but this is how they feel. There's a sense of self-importance with most male writers. And there are lots of women writers who are concerned with politics and with social issues, but they are somehow on the fringes. But even though women's literature tends to be apolitical or asocial, it deals very deeply with the human condition.

RK: What are you working on now?

AK: I'm working on a novel about women and it's almost only women in it. And I deal with issues of motherhood, love toward men, and wonderful, artificial, almost mathematical, ways to replace it. I talk about art. Basically, as I said I wanted to write about the problems of modern women. They're all totally neurotic. Very strong, very powerful, but they're always breaking down. And I enjoy it. It's very Almodóvar. And I think it's great to represent women like this, and not just as strong women who fight for human rights. I love women to be strong, but not didactic. It's going to be a less psychological book than the others. It deals with women who have achieved all that women strive for. It's about what you miss in life. It's about human beings always lacking something. They're always in need of something. The unquiet, Western individual is missing something. Not because they're actually actively unhappy. But there's what Lacan calls a missing part. There's something missing and you can look at it from a psychoanalytical point of view, you can look at it from a literary point of view, or a romantic point of view, you can look at it from a biological point of view, but it's about women missing something—which isn't romantic love! I chose women because I don't think I understand men so well. I have a lesbian girlfriend. And she says "What don't you understand about men? They’re so easy!" When I was young and in love, I would say "I don't understand—he calls, he doesn't call. I don't understand him." She’d say "Bring him to me! I'll talk to him and I'll tell you exactly what he wants. Men are the easiest thing to understand!" I just read Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, and she's writing about men, though not in the first person. Men write about women freely, and do it quite well, but women deal with it less. Maybe they think men are as complex as they are, and they don't understand, like my lesbian friend, that they're simple, simple, simple. Plain creatures. Just mammals. I don't know if I could write a male character. I hope I will in the future, just to try. It looks blasphemous to me, to enter this secret world of men. Men are very, very mysterious. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

© Rohan Kamicheril. All rights reserved. 

Published Oct 20, 2014   Copyright 2014 Rohan Kamicheril

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