“Maybe We Can Never Go Back”: An Interview with Moshe Sakal in The Los Angeles Review of Books
Podcast listening: The Old/New Middle East, The Tel Aviv Review
Moshe Sakal is an award-winning novelist acclaimed by NBC, Le Monde, and Haaretz. He is the author of six Hebrew novels, including THE DIAMOND SETTER, published in NYC in 2018 (Other Press, translated by Man Booker Prize winner, Jessica Cohen), the best-selling YOLANDA, which was short-listed for the Sapir Prize and was published in France in 2012 (Stock, translated by Valérie Zenatti), and MY SISTER, which was long-listed in 2016. His new novel, UNICORN, was published in Hebrew in 2020.
Sakal's novel THE DIAMOND SETTER was named one of TimeOut New York’s “11 Books You Will Want to Binge-Read This Month,” and Entertainment Weekly has called “[An] essential read…[one] of 2018’s biggest titles…a vital depiction of queer life in the Middle East.”
Moshe Sakal was born in Tel-Aviv into a Sephardic-Ashkenazi Jewish Family. He has been awarded the title of Honorary Fellow in Writing by the University of Iowa, the Eshkol Prize for his work, and a Fulbright grant. Sakal holds a maîtrise degree in Jewish Studies from INALCO university in Paris, and a Master's degree (Hon.) in Philosophy from Tel Aviv University. He lived six years in Paris, France.
Sakal lives in Berlin and has been working on his new novel, funded by the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe.
photo: Dory Manor
“Moshe Sakal’s books make me miss a life I never lived. In THE DIAMOND SETTER, he surpasses himself [with] the blue diamond’s wonderful journey across continents and nations. A rare book by a rare writer.”
—Ari Folman, Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for Waltz with Bashir
“Sakal is one of Tel Aviv’s most promising writers. Behind the richly layered family story lies an extraordinarily subtle portrait of Israeli society.”
Radio France Inter
“Moshe Sakal’s writing is impressive in its range and reflects an ability to arrive at profound psychological insights..”
From comments by the panel of judges, upon awarding the Eshkol Prize for a Hebrew work
THE DIAMOND SETTER
Hebrew: Keter, Israel, 2014
English: Other Press, USA, 2018, Translated by Jessica Cohen
Inspired by true events, this best-selling Israeli novel traces a complex web of love triangles and family secrets across generations and borders.
THE DIAMOND SETTER was named one of TimeOut New York’s “11 Books You Will Want to Binge-Read This Month,” and Entertainment Weekly has called it “[An] essential read…[one] of 2018’s biggest titles…a vital depiction of queer life in the Middle East.”
"Beautifully written."— NBC
“Richly evocative.” —Booklist
“A kaleidoscopic journey into the Middle East of the present and the not-so-distant past…As the mystery of the diamond unfolds, characters’ paths cross in unexpected ways—reminding the reader that we are all, in some way or another, connected.” —Kirkus Reviews
"The book plunges backward into the characters' family histories—and to a time before the founding of the country—to reveal the ways that the past can still ensnarl us."—Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine
"Sakal’s novel reflects on the complex history of this fraught region, exploring themes of forbidden desire and the danger of border crossings. Centered on an eclectic cast of characters and interweaving several narrative strands, The Diamond Setter considers the power of memory in the ongoing search for one’s roots. "— The Los Angeles Review of Books
“If you enjoy richly plotted intergenerational stories inspired by true events, Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter offers bountiful pleasures…a gloriously immersive journey into different cultures.” —The Forward
Read an interview in Gulf Coast
“…what’s best is the unselfconsciously sensuous writing (with a range of sexuality easily accepted) and the beautifully depicted sense of a time gone by when borders were open and Jew and Arab commingled.” —Library Journal
"There are…sparkling, beautiful passages in this novel…The Diamond Setter is very relevant: Jaffa and Tel Aviv represent a modern city’s role in justice, the quest for equality, and continuing rationality in a very irrational area of the world.” —Huffington Post
“Sakal makes room for his narrative to encompass huge issues: the geopolitics of the Middle East, gentrification, sexuality, borders, aging, and the bonds of family. Yet this book never feels ponderous: Sakal keeps things moving briskly throughout…the charm of the novel’s characters and the humanism with which Sakal tells this story go a long way.” —Words Without Borders
“Well written, masterfully translated by Jessica Cohen, and rewards rereading.” —New York Journal of Books
Short-listed for the Sapir Prize
Hebrew: Keter, Israel, 2011
French: Stock, La Cosmopolite, 2012, Translated by Valérie Zenatti
Momo was born into an Israeli family of blended Sephardic origins, with a maternal grandmother, Yolanda, from a French-speaking family in Cairo. Yolanda’s stalwart personality leaves its mark on Momo’s childhood. From his frequent visits with his grandmother, Momo is able to describe her life in detail, as well as the lives of his great-aunts and his eccentric great-uncle, all exiled from their Cairene paradise.
As Momo learns about Yolanda’s life, some enigmatic questions arise. What caused her twenty years earlier to banish her husband Georges, Momo’s grandfather, whose very name she now refuses to utter? Who was Yaakov, the love of her life, who had fought in the Jewish underground and died at the hands of Arabs in Jaffa?
Focusing on the immigrant generation and that of the grandchildren in search of their roots, the author explores, through day-by-day rituals and the tension of languages and cultures remembered and forgotten, the complexity of Israeli contemporary life.
Praise for Yolanda
“Written like a sonata… An amusing and intimate novel.” —Le Monde
“A superb family novel, remarkably moving and engaging.” —Le Soir
“Sakal is one of Tel Aviv’s most promising writers. Behind the richly layered family story lies an extraordinarily subtle portrait of Israeli society.” —Radio France Inter
"Yolanda is a fine work of portraits of loved ones. Moshe Sakal loves his characters even when he exposes them in their psychological and physical nakedness, and it is hard for us not to love them ourselves, despite all their violence, racism, miserliness and suspicion." —Haaretz
"Found in Translation" - Interview in Haaretz daily newspaper: "Francophone Moshe Sakal finds satisfaction in building bridges to world cultures in an era of separatism."
MY SISTER (Hebrew)
Long-listed for the Sapir Prize
Zmora Bitan, Israel, 2016
Author Amos Oz:
“When I started reading the novel My Sister by Moshe Sakal, I could not stop. I found in it things that I liked and which spoke to me very much. Almost all the characters in this book are both divided souls and merging souls, each character becoming one with another. And that is sophisticated and fascinating.”
Moshe Sakal’s best seller, My Sister, tells the story of Neta and her relationships with her two younger brothers. She is single and longs to adopt a child from Russia. The youngest brother, Tomer, a brilliant and mysterious young man, earns money as a sperm-donor in Israel and in the USA, to help his sister raise the funds for adopting his future niece.
My Sister explores the different forms modern families can take, and looks at the ethical and practical questions related to sperm donation, and the ways in which new and different technologies impact today’s reproductive norms.
Prof. Yigal Schwartz, the book’s editor:
“The siblings’ stories are woven together by Sakal’s sensitive yet confident hand, alongside captivating anecdotes from the parents’ Egyptian backgrounds. The power of My Sister stems, in part, from its narrative style. Sakal makes love through his writing: he paints his fictional world in strikingly palpable language which readers can almost reach out and touch; he cradles us in words and leads us after him with enchanting melodies, like the Pied Piper.
Much like Yolanda (2011) and The Diamond Setter (2014), Sakal’s two previous novels, both of which gained popular and critical acclaim, My Sister reflects on immigrants and locals, members of different classes who live in separate neighborhoods, fertility, sexuality and gender, and issues of identity and place. The profound social commentary embodied in the narrative cannot obscure Sakal’s obvious love for his characters and the world they inhabit, and he manages to infect the readers with this love.”
Praise for My Sister
“…a delightful, smart, occasionally funny family novel. Its language is picturesque and supple, and its content full of love for all its characters… Thought-provoking, fascinating and refreshing…” —Haaretz
“…examines the relationship between individual consciousness and family consciousness. This game, which guides the book mischievously and confidently to the peculiarities of knowing and unknowing, is the secret of this too-short novel.” —Makor Rishon
“On the surface a family novel in the old familiar psychological realism mold, full of complications and resolutions, but a second or third reading is in many ways like glimpsing the inner workings of a pulsating, moving organism. On the surface it is wide open, but in fact it guards its mysteries.” —Israel Hayom
One of the kibbutzniks at that meeting asked Simone de Beauvoir unabashedly: “Madame de Beauvoir, could it be possible that you write books because you do not have children?” Unruffled, she replied: “Sir, could it be possible that you have children because you do not write books?”
As a member of Israel’s un-silent generation, I’m committed to telling — and hearing — my family’s stories.
Then I started to think about the Jewish condition and the gay condition as one shared state of marginality. And I realized that in order to live my life as gay, I hadmaybe not to rebuild Sodombut yes, to leave Israel and find my galut, my diaspora.
Growing up in Tel Aviv, my mother fed us what might be termed "Israeli cuisine." But what is that? All and nothing. Both an amalgamation and a negation of everything, much like Israeli society itself. Israeli cuisine is a mystery, a black hole, a utopia. A no-place.
“People can see everything on your complexion,” my sister recited, parroting her mother’s friend. “Whether you’re a good person or a bad person, whether you drink sodas, whether you’re sexually frustrated.”
I was, of course.
A residency program for writers from around the world almost demands categorizing the visiting artists by nationality. But such labels can be deceptive.
Coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Yaffo is mostly evident in the fact that people simply live together, or rather, alongside each other — neither by the knife, nor by the olive leaf.