... and mother, had a new profession every five years – teacher, secretary, nurse, and eventually a writer. Magén is amongst the most important writers of Israel. A Selection of her novels and short stories were awarded the Prize of the Prime Minister in 2005, among other prizes. Mira Magén lives in Jerusalem and is also a lecturer at Jerusalem University. AVIVA-Berlin met her in Berlin where she presented her latest novel.
AVIVA-Berlin: You were born into an orthodox Jewish family. Could you tell us a bit about your childhood?
Mira Magén: I was born into a community which is very obedient to all Jewish practices – not the edge of the ultra-orthodox, but still an orthodox family. To be born into such a family means that religion surrounds all your life. The most important thing I was told is that we must be modest in life, that we are only human beings who can´t understand the background of everything. Even though we have questions and might criticize, we have to be. We have to accept things. I know that I am only a human being and my perspective is very limited, but curiosity was created in me, I can´t overcome it.
AVIVA-Berlin: So religion also meant you are supposed not to ask questions?
Mira Magén: You can ask, but you should never argue. You have to believe all the world is conducted, even though you don´t have evidence.
AVIVA-Berlin: I can find this everywhere in your books. Your characters are permanently in doubt about their beliefs.
Mira Magén: You know, I am obeying the practices automatically. I don´t turn on the lights on Shabbat, because I grew up like this. I don´t have to think about it. But I always ask myself if there is someone who asks me to obey these rules or if maybe we invented them. I am sure that there is a common universal need of human beings to have something metaphysic. Every group, every nation gives it another name, but there is a common need to know that there is something above our daily life.
AVIVA-Berlin: Did you read books in your family?
Mira Magén: Yes, but it was limited. My parents let us read, but they wanted to know what we were reading, they controlled it somehow. I will tell you a story: last week my new book came out in Hebrew. I have a close orthodox friend, and she asked me: "Tell me the truth. Is my daughter able to read it or not?" Her daughter is 19 years old! And I understand it. They want no arguing, no ill-speaking.
AVIVA-Berlin: How does it affect you personally that some of your friends don´t read your books?
Mira Magén: I have to understand it, because I come from the same background, I know my books threaten their beliefs. They fear for their children. In my family, we decided not to talk about political and religious subjects, because I am on the opposite side. We would just begin to quarrel.
AVIVA-Berlin: This must be hard for you.
Mira Magén: Yes. But we talk about other topics, and we discuss my works in general, just not the details. My main supporter is my mother. In the beginning, she was afraid writing would pull me out to a "bohemian life", and now she is my greatest supporter! She says "I would prefer it less erotic, but…"
AVIVA-Berlin: Very early on, you chose a different way of life. You have studied psychology and sociology, have been a housewife and mother, a teacher, a secretary, a nurse, and finally a writer. What makes you so curious?
Mira Magén: I always hear a clock in my head, and I know that time passes. Every day I know that I have one day less. And I want to give my attention to it. I don´t want to waste it on shopping malls. When I worked in the hospital as a nurse, in the end of the working day, I asked myself: "What was in this day?" And I knew I have to justify my existence, even if it is just to give a glass of water to a patient. To keep the meaning to every day in life, I wanted to learn more, to do other things. Not to get stuck in one place.
AVIVA-Berlin: And this is also why you became a writer?
Mira Magén: I write since I was a very young child. My mother and my father knew that I was arguing about life in my childish way, and they told me: "It´s better for you to write than to talk about it." They bought me a copy-book.
AVIVA-Berlin: What were you writing about as a child?
Mira Magén: I wrote about the boys I loved, the boys who loved me, and about my desire to disobey the rules, on Shabbat for example, about the secular neighbours. One day my mother peeked into my book. She knew the boy I loved. He loved me too, and he sent me a letter. I was hiding the letter, and my mother found out that I was lying to her. She didn´t speak with me for three days.
AVIVA-Berlin: So your topics were already there, the question of guilt, of love, of doubt?
Mira Magén: I always wanted to kick the frame, to provoke the borders. There was always the question: Who created the moral laws – God or a human being? If human beings created it, I can disobey it – I am also a human being! If it comes from God, I have to obey.
AVIVA-Berlin: In "Time will Tell" ("Die Zeit wird es zeigen") and in your other novels, there is always a handicapped or ill child. This makes your characters doubt God. Why is this topic so important to you?
Mira Magén: My work in the hospital confronted me with a lot of pain. Also my brother is a widower. His wife passed away before she was 40, and he remained with six children. She suffered from a severe cancer over three years, and I accompanied her to all the treatments, we were very close. I was deeply influenced by it and tried to somehow organize my inner life. When something happens to you, it makes you ask questions.
AVIVA-Berlin: Have you found an answer?
Mira Magén: I haven´t stopped looking. I read a lot of philosophy. I´m eager to know more.
AVIVA-Berlin: You are also teaching.
Mira Magén: I don´t teach, I give lectures for many institutions. I combine religion with modern literature. I take chapters from religious texts and show how they communicate with modern life. My students are members of Kibbuzim who invite me.
AVIVA-Berlin: In "Time will Tell" you are constantly changing perspectives. Maybe it is difficult to tell, but who is your favourite character in the novel?
Mira Magén: I created at least five narrators, and each tells the story from his or her point of view. Each one expresses somehow my personality. The focal point is the handicapped girl Anna, but I like her father Mike most. He is simple, not sophisticated, but emotional, with a strong sexual drive. He lives his life and tries to overcome the obstacles.
AVIVA-Berlin: I like Edisso, the boy from Ethiopia, very much. His outsider perspective evokes not only the religious discussion but also social criticism.
Mira Magén: Ethiopians in Israel suffer a lot from the encounter with racism. I worked with many Ethiopians in the hospital and learned about their culture. They are not talked about much in Israel. Almost no books treat racism in Israel. It takes time. This group is still new. People prefer not to deal with a topic before they know more. The Ethiopians have many social problems like poverty. They cannot use their professions in a modern, developed country. Many of them commit suicide. But it will become better. Israel is a nation of newcomers. Every group becomes integrated when there arrives a new underdog. It has always been like that. And the Ethiopians are now the underdog.
AVIVA-Berlin: This point of view is also visible in your novels: You show things that are not perfect, but you believe they will end better. You once said that writers are miniature gods. Does this mean that you can create a world you would like to live in?
Mira Magén: I can give an answer to real life by creating people. I can control where it takes them. This gives me a short time of power. I could have made Anna healthy in the end, but I didn´t want to - because that is what happens in life. I am interested in the question of free will. We don´t know what controls our life, but we can still react to it. We have the free choice of how to choose our narrow minds. I am interested in whether people only react or if they initiate and control their lives.
AVIVA-Berlin: There are many parallels between your novels – family structures, ill children, erotic attraction between sisters and brothers-in-law. In how far do your characters go back to people you know? Do you take them from your surroundings?
Mira Magén: I think my idea is to provoke the norms. My writing is a continuous rebellion against the community I come from. When my novels are read by an Israeli audience, they get a deeper meaning. They confront many orthodox laws. For example, I have a relative who is a rabbi. He wanted to read the last book, and asked me to wrap it in a brown envelop for him so no one would recognize it. He is also dealing with a handicapped child. He is ultra-orthodox, but of course this experience affects all his life. And he told me that he has the same questions I ask.
Also, I once gave a lecture to a group of ultra-orthodox women. A mother had a daughter with a similar illness as Anna. They waited until the lecture was over, and the mother came to me. I thought she would criticize me, but she thanked me. And the daughter asked: "Will Anna find a husband?"
AVIVA-Berlin: Do you think this is why your books are so popular in Israel – because people find their own questions in them?
Mira Magén: Maybe, and also because family is in the centre. Family is a whole cosmos. It can give you strength, but it can also weaken you, limit you. I am very ambivalent about this. I love my family, I appreciate it, and at the same time I decided to climb the borders.
AVIVA-Berlin: Your books are also very entertaining. Is it your aim to entertain or to make people think?
Mira Magén: To make them think. When I started to write my aim was organize my inner life, I didn´t intend to become a writer. A friend encouraged me to give my book to a publishing house, but I didn´t really need readers. I wanted to organize my own mind.
AVIVA-Berlin: You have had so many professions. Are you planning yet another career or will you stay a writer?
Mira Magén: Now I am a writer and a lecturer, and I especially love meeting with all these people.
AVIVA-Berlin: What is you new book about?
Mira Magén: It is about two people who are very successful but decide to end their careers to live in the countryside. Again, it treats the question of meaning, of destiny.
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much and all the best! We are looking forward to the translation of your new book.
Weiterlesen auf AVIVA-Berlin:
Mira Magén – Die Zeit wird es zeigen
Mira Magén – Als ihre Engel schliefen
Mira Magén - Schmetterlinge im Regen
Mira Magén – Schließlich, Liebe