Rais­ing sparks, from Suf­folk to Jerusalem

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RINA WOLF­SON

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

Ariel Kahn

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