Raising sparks, from Suffolk to Jerusalem
IT BEGAN with a cat. Eight years ago, novelist Ariel Kahn visited a cottage in Suffolk, seeking creative inspiration. While out walking the country roads, he noticed a ginger cat following him. You and I might have simply noticed the cat and thought no more about it. But an image appeared in Kahn’s mind that he couldn’t shake. He imagined that same cat, prowling the Christian quarter of Jerusalem. As his mind took him to the cobbled streets of the Old City, thousands of miles from the British countryside, another image crystallised in his mind. This time, Kahn imagined a young girl, walking those same cobbled streets.
Back at the cottage, he began to write. He wrote to find out who this girl was. He knew that he needed to tell her story. He just wasn’t sure what that story was.
The image of the girl lingered, invading his thoughts. While shopping for vegetables, Kahn would wonder which peppers she would choose. He dreamed about her. Once, on a visit to Jersualem, he pictured her, now called Malka, walking to the Kotel and felt her heart beating in time to the prayers. When he woke up, he knew that she had a gift, and he set out to write her story.
The result was Raising Sparks, Kahn’s debut novel, published in July of this year and already a runaway success.
Kahn was already an accomplished short story writer when he set out to write his novel. After studying at Pardes Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he discovered a love for Midrash and Kabbalah, he completed a degree in English Literature at Cambridge University, later studying Creative Writing at Roehampton University, where he now teaches. His PhD thesis took the form of a feminist critique of Kabbalah. His supervisor, Leone Ross, a Jamaican-Scottish novelist, encouraged Kahn to convert his thesis into a novel.
Much of that work took place in a café in Finchley, where Kahn and I meet. I ask him about this switch. How did he turn a piece of academic fiction into a story for the lay reader?
“First,” he tells me, “I made two changes, one significant change, and one minor change.”
Following the death of his father-in-law, Kahn channelled his grief into describing an elderly male character who became central to the PhD version. But he was advised to shift the focus of Raising Sparks to Malka, with the result that she is at the heart of the book, the hub of a fascinating group of characters.
And the insignificant change? “It was the cat!” he laughs. “My editor, Lin Webb, loves cats. She realised that the species of ginger cat I described in Jerusalem is native only to England. So the cat became smoky-grey instead.”
The road from thesis to novel was almost as magical and unexpected as his dreams about cats and cobbled streets. Kahn entered a competition called Pulp Idol, where first-time writers read out examples of their work.
“I couldn’t attend the heats in person, because they took place on Shabbat. So I recorded myself reading the story and posted it on Youtube.”
The competition organisers allowed his entry, and he made it to the finals in Liverpool. He didn’t win, but an editor from Bluemoose Books was a judge, loved Kahn’s work, and offered to publish it. It was a good call. Raising Sparks is the fastest selling title Bluemoose have ever published, reprinted within eight weeks of publication.
Malka is a fascinating creation; a determined, visionary woman, who leaves her Orthodox family to go on a journey of discovery, via a cult in Sefad and a stint sleeping rough in Jaffa. She is joined by Moshe, a student of her father’s, and Rukh Baraka, an Arab chef who trains street children to cook.
It sounds a million miles away from the cottage in Suffolk where the book began. Does this refute the old adage that all first novels are partly autobiographical?
“Well”, says Kahn, “I was raised in an Orthodox home with four sisters, which gave me some insight into Orthodox women’s experiences. It certainly made me a feminist.”
He pauses, then continues. “And there is a darker layer to the novel, influenced by my own life.”
He tells me about his friend, Matt, who studied with him in Israel. Matt was in love with a girl called Sara, but it took months, and much encouragement from Kahn, for Matt to finally admit his feelings to Sara. The couple eventually got engaged. Just weeks before Kahn began his studies at Cambridge, Matt and Sara were killed in a bus bombing in Jerusalem. Kahn was devastated. And his religious faith was shattered.
“I couldn’t process my grief at the time. I wasn’t ready. I avoided JSoc and anything remotely religious.”
But twenty years on, Kahn was able to revisit the loss.
“Moshe and Malka are not Matt and Sara. But they are certainly inspired by them. The book became a frame for me to share what I loved about these amazing people. The readers don’t know them, but they can glimpse elements of them. Of course, I asked their parents for permission. And I sent them the first print copies.”
Khan remains fascinated by Kabbalah; Kabbalistic ideas permeate the book. I hesitantly raise my reservations that this might put off the lay reader. Kahn hopes that isn’t the case. “Malka’s father is a Rosh Yeshiva who bans the study of Kabbalah. So the reader’s inexperience matches hers.” The idea is that we join her on a journey of discovery.
It’s a bold endeavour. Some of the greatest Jewish writers of the modern age, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to David Grossman, have fused ancient Jewish ideas into modern prose. Both are firm influences on Khan. And he insists the book is not a religious polemic. “I deliberately hid my personal politics from the book.”
I suggest that a story set in modern Jerusalem, with Jewish and Arab characters, cannot avoid politics completely. For Kahn, however, writing has long been a means for bringing opposing voices together. Together with Palestinian writer Samir El Youssouf he set up the
Arab-Israeli Book Review, which ran for seven years, and is soon to relaunch. It was there that Khan met many Arab authors, including feminist novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, who, in a recent interview with the
New York Times, cited Raising Sparks as one of the books by her bed.
These creative relationships, together with his fascination with Kabbalah and his enduring love for lost friends, coalesce seamlessly, taking the reader on a journey that is at once beautiful and magical, yet also raw and complex.
And quite a distance from that ginger cat in Suffolk.
Raising Sparks is published by Bluemoose Books (£8.99)
I couldn’t process my grief. I wasn’t ready