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Lichfield Literature 2019 Interview: Alba Arikha

Published date: January 3, 2019
Last modified: January 8, 2019

Born in Paris to an artist household with none other than playwright Samuel Beckett as her godfather, Arikha joins us at Lichfield Literature 2019 to discuss her novel Where to Find Me. I interviewed her to find out more…

Where do you find you write best?

Either at home, in my study overlooking the garden, or on the 2nd floor of the London library, overlooking St James’s Square. Having said that, when inspiration hits I can write practically anywhere.

 You have experience writing Novels and Memoirs. What’s the biggest difference between writing in the two different genres?

 With fiction, you have utter control over your characters. With memoirs you don’t. You cannot meander in the same way and are restricted to your factual voice.  The journey is a different one – not creatively, because I do think you can be as creative with memoirs – you are, after all recreating a memory. But the process is different in the sense that the scope of a novel is larger than a memoir, and you are at the mercy of your characters and their inner/outer lives, rather than yourself. This person appears (in fiction) and you know that you want to have a conversation with them and others who inhabit their world. That conversation, although it happens with memoirs too, is a different one, as it’s entirely based on memory and your interpretation of it, rather than your imagination.

What was the inspiration for the theme of displacement, which is so prominent in your novel ‘Where to Find Me?’

I’ve always been interested in displacement, and its impact on the written word. What is our internal language and how does it manifest itself for those of us who straddle different continents and languages? Although I grew up in Paris, my parents came from elsewhere, and the notion of ‘belonging’ to a place without being actually rooted to it laid the foundation for who I was to later become. I chose to carry that notion into ‘Where to find me.’ I knew that I wanted to write a novel about the past, but also about the present. And I knew that I wanted to write about two women, 50 years apart, who had experienced displacement in different ways: one through the legacy of war, the other, the result of a tragic childhood accident. One of those characters, therefore, had to be a wanderer (I chose Flora, the elder one), who would carry the aftermath of war and its scars to her grave. What I didn’t foresee was quite how far the story would take me, covering everything from loss, religion, war, betrayal,  love, particularly maternal love and death.

As the author Grace Paley once said: Every story is two stories. The one on the surface and the one running underneath. The climax is when the two stories collide. This book became a collision between the past and the present, what we internalise and what we exteriorise, the patterns we follow throughout our lives, sometimes to our detriment. Hannah witnesses a drowning on the Dorset coast in the late 1980’s, and Flora lives through the traumas of occupied Paris, war and exile. She flees to British Mandate Palestine, where she has a passionate – but doomed – love affair, then moves to England, determined to rebuild her identity – and to erase the past that has caused her such pain. I could see Hannah and Flora vividly in my mind – and wanted their histories slowly to merge. I also wanted to explore trauma: what does one do with its residue? What does one choose to remember, to forget? The book is therefore about psychological as well geographical displacement, and how both are inevitably intertwined.

We are looking forward to your visit to Lichfield Literature 2019! Could you tell us what is in store for Lichfield Literature visitors who are attending the literature event for your novel ‘Where to Find Me’?

The book straddles several countries and eras: Paris during the Nazi occupation as well as post-war Palestine, London in the 1950’s, the 1980’s – and today.  There is much to be said about those eras – not only politically but also historically – and the roles those strong, resilient, women, especially Flora, play throughout the narrative. What was it like to be a Jew in Paris in 1941? An unmarried, pregnant woman in London in 1956? To what degree can we conceal our identity before our façade crumbles? Both women share similar traits – they are both aspiring writers, have experienced loss in their own way, have fallen in love relatively late in their lives – and are linked in more ways than one. Just how much will only become clear when, nineteen years later, fate reunites them in the guise of a notebook. Although it is probably more of a literary than a commercial novel, I’d like to think it has enough twists and turns to keep the reader entertained!

For more information about Alba Arikha’s event at Lichfield Literature or to book, click here.