Q: So, is there a kind of origin story of Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper—how you came to write the book?
A: Actually, I started working on what eventually would become this novel way back in 1990 while taking a class with the Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld. We spent most of that class simply reading Genesis aloud, stopping to talk about the stories, sentence by sentence, as they unfolded. This approach, I realize now, may well have borrowed from midrash, the Jewish tradition of close reading and interpretation of the Torah in which readers seek out the complexities beneath the surface of the Bible’s highly distilled stories. I found it a wonderful introduction to Genesis.
I’d originally joined Appelfeld’s class to learn more about the Old Testament for another project, and I remember at first feeling slightly embarrassed by my own Biblical ignorance. However, in retrospect, I’m glad I arrived at these stories as an adult, without the cumulative mediating influence of Sunday school, church or temple, and with such a wise teacher guiding us. I value Martin Buber’s advice that everyone steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition should try approaching the Bible with fresh eyes—as if for the first time. And for me that turned out to be relatively easy; there was really no other way I could.
Q: How did studying with Aharon Appelfeld influence the way you approached the Bible?
A: Appelfeld looked at the stories of Genesis as literature, and particularly as stories that give meaning to the human experience. There was one particular comment he made early on that has kept me company throughout writing this book. “You see,” he told us, “how everybody in the Bible is human? There are no heroes, no villains. Even God is human.” He wanted us to understand that the patriarchal narratives are essentially stories of human families and human history, and he also wanted us to appreciate why this makes the Bible so radically different from everything that came before—Greek myths, for example, in which human characters and their stories always remain subordinate to the gods. Looking back, I think now that this project has been, at its heart, an extended meditation on that seemingly simple insight of Aharon Appelfeld’s.
Q: So how did you end up focusing on Dinah’s story?
A: When I started writing, I simply wanted to steep myself in the Biblical stories. Part of why I chose Dinah was truly happenstance: she appears in the Bible about where we were in class when I started writing. We were making our way slowly through Genesis, and we’d just passed the story of Dinah, and moved on to the story of Joseph.
Still, I know there was more to my choice than that. At the time, I think I would have said I chose Dinah because she was a woman. I’d become uncomfortably aware of how much more sparsely told her story was than her brother Joseph’s, and I was drawn to the challenge of trying to fill it out. I think I also sensed a particular intensity charging the silence around Dinah’s brief appearance—a life bristling with conflict. Dinah, I intuited, was a character best understood as caught between worlds, between her Mesopotamian past and her life in exile, between her feuding mother and aunt, between her Hebrew father and her Canaanite lover. So this, too, appealed to me: the opportunity to witness the stories of the Bible through the eyes of someone with whom I could empathize—caught between, a semi-outcast, a “trafficker with the enemy,” and therefore a person capable of profoundly questioning the world views of her times.
Q: So you identified with Dinah? Do you think she serves as a kind of alter-ego for you?
A: Yes, in a way she does. But of course, I had to also be aware of the pitfall of trying to write from empathy alone in imagining Dinah’s experience and sensibility—especially over so enormous a gulf as falls between Dinah and us. For, if there is anything Dinah’s vision couldn’t be, it’s a late second, early third millennial one. So quite soon I came to see that, in a writing project like this, my greatest challenge would be reaching back through the familiar as far as possible towards what would remain always out of reach: a voice, a vision, and a story set in a largely unknowable other time—nearly 4,000 years ago. I began to think of my efforts to inhabit Dinah’s voice and tell her story as a kind of doomed quest for authenticity.
Q: You felt it was important to stay “true “ to the story despite the fact that there couldn’t ever be a fully “true” account of something that did or didn’t occur so long ago?
A: Yes, I really did. Early on I established one rule for myself. Although I read the Bible as a complicated, cumulative, and collective human creation, not the direct word of God, nonetheless I decided I’d never willfully alter the Biblical stories without a very clear reason to do so—of which there ended up being only a few. Of those, some were quite minor. For instance, most versions of the Bible refer to the domestic use of camels even in the stories of the patriarchs. But in my research I found what seems to be scholarly consensus that camels were not actually domesticated during that period; the camels in Genesis, the scholars agree, were likely an embellishment of latter-day story tellers. It felt silly for a modern writer to perpetuate what has become so well-established an anachronism—so I took out the camels.
Then, I allowed myself one significant change. I took the stories of Joseph’s dreams and his abduction by his brothers at Dothan and reintegrated them into the time of Dinah’s story at Shechem. Reintegrated, I say, because I was convinced that this episode is postponed in the Bible to allow Joseph’s story to be told as a whole. Any careful reading of the Bible makes clear that such chronological shifts for narrative purposes occur frequently—along with abundant repetition and variation. This makes sense, I believe, since the Bible originated from an oral tradition in which such shifts are often used. In this particular case, Joseph’s interaction with his brothers near Dothan—a city just north of Shechem—is an important clue, embedded in the story itself, that such a shift was made. Would it make sense for Jacob’s sons to return to shepherd at Dothan, so near Shechem and so soon after they’d been forced to flee? Or is it more logical that this event occurred before the family fled the area? There’s further evidence of such a chronological reordering in the story of Joseph’s dreams of his ascendance, when Jacob questions Joseph about his mother, Rachel: “Shall we really come,” he asks, shocked by Joseph’s hubris, “I and your mother and your brothers, to bow before you on the ground?” Since Rachel will die in childbirth in the flight from Shechem, this reference to her as alive clarifies, I believe, that the story of Joseph’s dreams belongs before that flight despite coming after it in the written text. In any event, I have integrated Joseph’s dreams and his abduction at the hands of his brothers into the earlier narrative at Shechem not only because I think it opens up revealing connections between the two stories, but because I think it also follows a more plausible chronology hinted at within the Biblical narrative itself.
Finally, while midrash often involves adding to and interpreting what is told in the Bible, I’ve made two additions which I know may be controversial: Esau’s rape of Dinah, and Jacob’s offering of his daughter to Hamor when the family arrives in Shechem. However, I think these plot amplifications are plausible based on what appears in the Bible itself. Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s grandfather and father, both offer up their wives, Sarah and Rebecca, to powerful men they wish to appease in their travels—following what may well have been nomadic custom at the time. So, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to me that Jacob might do the same with his daughter. And in the case of Esau, Jacob’s clearly described terror at meeting his brother on his return to Canaan would seem good reason to offer such a gift, echoing Jacob’s earlier offer of a gift of stew to win Esau’s inheritance.
Q: Besides not arbitrarily altering what’s in the Bible, are there other ways you worked to bring authenticity to the story you tell?
A: Very much so. In weaving the story my Dinah tells around her brief chapter in Genesis (Chapter 34), I knew I couldn’t limit myself to what I could find in the Bible alone. And therefore I also relied on the curious mode of research which I suspect many fiction writers employ. I let the story-telling lead, and where I felt a gap in knowledge held me back—not knowing how something would look, or how someone would dress or act or what they’d eat or to whom they’d pray—then I’d scrounge, burrowing into books until I came up with a satisfying enough answer to get on with the story. By the end of this odd, eclectic, sporadic form of research, I think I’d learned quite a bit, and I wanted to share some of the scaffolding on which I worked with my readers—to enrich the story and make it easier to follow.
So I’ve included lists of characters (both mortal and sacred) along with a genealogical tree outlining the lineage of the central family of Genesis. I also put in maps along the way which I drew for myself to chart the course of my characters’ travels.
Since I relied not only on scholars’ translations of the words preserved on steles and tablets, but also images of artifacts from the period, I wanted to share some of these, which I’ve inserted into the text and footnoted at the end. And I’ve included epigraphs, mostly from the ancient texts, which inspired me.
The epigraphs from Genesis all come from Robert Alter’s Genesis, which has literally been my Bible since it first came out in 1996. His nuanced yet plain-spoken translation and thoughtful commentary have guided me well, though at times I take some minor exceptions with his prose. For instance, words like “lad” or “handmaid” (although I’m sure Alter chose them for good reasons) seem spoken out of character with my Dinah—exuding too strong a whiff of the Victorian. I’ve tried to stay faithful to the myths from the other ancient texts, though in my epigraphs I’ve sometimes recomposed the translators’ literal versions into what I imagine would have been the more poetic language and cadence of the original. For this, I mostly relied on what became what I think of as my alternate Bible: the Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament edited by James B. Pritchard, and his accompanying book, The Ancient Near East in Pictures.
At a more theoretical level, Mircea Eliade’s analysis of the archaic world view in The Myth of the Eternal Return was essential to opening a way to imagine how Dinah, a woman of the patriarchal period (2,000-1,700 BCE), might think. Especially illuminating was Eliade’s perception that traditional men and women find human acts meaningful only insofar as they are understood as a repetition of acts in “illo temporare”—Eliade’s expression for the timeless realm of gods. And Eliade’s linking of the emergence of Judeo-Christian monotheism with the origins of history provided a broad, confirming context for Aharon Appelfeld’s perception of what makes the stories in Genesis original—their concentration on human character and motivation as they chronicle the first monotheists’ progressively distanced relationship to the single transcendent god they worshipped. Locating Dinah’s story within this transition as it’s conceived by Eliade—between the archaic worldview, with its insistence on humanity’s indissoluble repetitive “connection to the Cosmos,” and a modern worldview, with its insistence that humans are “connected only with History”—proved invaluable.
William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience helped me in imagining the conversion experience, and James Frazer’s Folklore in the Old Testament provides, among many wonderful things, a compelling description of the descent into the Jabbok. I also relied on David Ferry’s English verse rendition of the Mesopotamian epic “Gilgamesh.” Carolyn Forché’s ideas about the elements that make up the poetry of witnessing, as she described in a lecture during the summer program at UMass Boston’s Joiner Center for the Study of War and Recovery, proved remarkably useful to me as sustenance and encouragement for what was emerging as Dinah’s voice.
Q: So this became quite a scholarly project?
A: In a way, but despite everything I found to aid me in imagining my way back into the ancient Near East from which the story of Dinah comes, my grasp of the archaeology, mythology, geography, history and social anthropology of the period and region is an amateur’s and not a scholar’s. And it’s a fairly narrow terrain on which I worked. Of what comes in the Bible after the stories of Genesis, or what was occurring in other regions of the world at the same time, it would be charitable to say my knowledge is patchy. I don’t know any ancient languages except the remnants of high school Latin. And I’ve never set eyes on the Mideast. So, inevitably, there will be unintentional flaws that mar the authenticity of my story-telling; these I regret.
Q: Are you at all worried that others might find your version of these stories inaccurate or even sacrilegious?
A: Yes, I did realize that there are hazards related to reinterpreting such a central sacred text. Nevertheless, while my efforts to imagine what it might have been like inside the head of Dinah sometimes seemed almost absurdly daunting, the enormity of the distance between Dinah’s time and ours has also been oddly reassuring, liberating even. If my quest for authenticity would always be “doomed,” I’d tell myself, so too was everyone else’s. If our knowledge of what actually occurred 4,000 years ago is built on the archeologists’ shards of evidence and what we have inherited from story-tellers of the past, then permission to tell stories, to fill in what we don’t know by way of the imagination, should be given to everyone. History (or pre-history as it might better be called) becomes the legitimate terrain of the story-teller, and the quest for authenticity becomes especially well-served, at least in part, by forays of the imagination.
But I have thought particularly long and hard about the way I’ve portrayed Dinah’s father Jacob, the great Jewish patriarch. I admit I had to contend with very critical feelings towards Jacob and some of his sons as I explored their roles in the story of Dinah, and as I imagined her telling it herself. But I also tried to stay true to Aharon Appelfeld’s insight: There are no heroes or villains in the Bible, simply people with all their complex motivations, their suffering and their flaws hidden beneath the surface of the text.
Even more important, I certainly hope my interpretation of Dinah’s story won’t be read as an indictment of any particular people or religion. To the extent that monotheism can be implicated in genocide and the oppression of women, which I suspect it can, all three great monotheistic religions—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—have shared in these more unsavory aspects of the Abrahamic inheritance. And still, I know that doesn’t warrant a valorization of the pantheistic religions which patriarchal monotheism displaced, something I hope I didn’t indulge in too much in my eagerness to include those lesser-known but also wonderful earlier mythic stories out of which monotheism sprang.
Q: Wasn’t the existence of Anita Diamant’s very popular The Red Tent—another fictional first-person account told from the point of view of Dinah—at all distracting as you were working on your version?
A: Well, I discovered its existence only after I’d already written a crude working draft of my Dinah. At first I was crushed. Who’d have thought I’d be beat to the scoop, writing about a woman whose life was set in a story from 4,000 years ago? However, as my version has taken far longer to write, somewhere along the way I came to see this as an asset. Those already acquainted with Dinah through Diamant’s novel might well be inclined to revisit her, and will certainly find this a radically different telling of her story. In the Jewish tradition of midrash, there surely is room for both.