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Simone Somekh: “I Want to Give a Voice to Those Who Cannot Express It”

The 23-year old writer of "Grandangolo" (Wide-Angle) discusses the genesis of his first novel and the takeaways from the experience of writing his book

by Lucia Isabel Seda

La copertina di "Grandangolo" e l'autore Simone Somekh

"I’m not a photographer, but I guess I’ve always been fascinated by images and by photography. I imagined that for Ezra it would not be that impossible to receive a camera for his bar mitzvah. He would have never received a smartphone. It would have been impossible. But, a camera, I said, “Maybe we can push it that far.” And a camera can open you up to worlds that you cannot even imagine. It is Ezra’s companion throughout the whole story".

Alienation, belonging and reconciliation: such are the themes that summarize the narrative arc of Simone Somekh’s début novel Grandangolo (Wide-Angle). In a refreshingly clear and honest prose, Grandangolo tells the story of Ezra Kramer, a Jewish teenager who grew up in the ultra-orthodox community of Brighton, Massachusetts. His relationship with his parents is a difficult one, and it grows even more complicated when they welcome Carmi Taub into their family after the death of his mother. The two boys develop a strong friendship, yet Ezra’s desire to experience the world beyond the limits of his hometown—one that he has only marginally witnessed through the lens of his camera—will take him to New York City, Bahrain and Tel Aviv. What follows is a journey of self-discovery and a quest to prove that the “grey zone”—the place where seemingly incompatible elements can coexist—is more than just a fiction.

Simone Somekh will be reading from and discussing his book at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò this evening, February 20, at 6:30 p.m.

What led you to write Ezra’s story?

Three years ago, I was in London. I was visiting friends of mine—a Hasidic family—and I noticed that there were two children in the room who were not theirs. Afterwards, they explained to me that these were two children who had lost their mother recently and whose father had given them, at least temporarily, to a few families in the community so that they could take good care of them. And I thought to myself that in this one issue we could really translate the essence of these communities where the collective sphere is really taken to the next level. I already had an idea for Ezra as a rebellious kid and I thought I would put a camera in his hands. I said, “Now, I’m going to add another challenge to Ezra’s parents. I’m going to place a kid, an orphan, into their home.” And this is how I really imagine my books when I write them.

Similar to a layering process?

Yes—using my characters as puppets. I make them do things, move them here and there. I’m obviously inspired by things I see. I’m a journalist in the daytime and a novelist in the nighttime so I use my journalism skills, like my curiosity, to learn new things that are going to end up in my books.

Why did you choose photography as a literal and figurative motif in your novel?

I’m not a photographer, but I guess I’ve always been fascinated by images and by photography. I imagined that for Ezra it would not be that impossible to receive a camera for his bar mitzvah. He would have never received a smartphone. It would have been impossible. But, a camera, I said, “Maybe we can push it that far.” And a camera can open you up to worlds that you cannot even imagine. It is Ezra’s companion throughout the whole story.

It’s a constant from the beginning to the end of the story.

In every scene you imagine Ezra’s camera to be right there—on the table, in his suitcase. It’s always there. At the beginning of the book, the camera is the tool for his rebellion. In the middle of the book, it’s the tool for his self-realization, his validation in front of others. And then at the end of the book, he understands that the camera can have a deeper meaning and a political value.

Did you have any writing models that inspired you as you wrote Grandangolo?

There were a lot of books from the Jewish tradition that inspired me like Chaim Potok and Israel [Joshua] Singer. The Family Carnovsky was one of the biggest models because it’s also the “Jewish novel.” It starts in Poland, the second part is in a very secular Jewish community in Germany, and then it moves to the United States right before the war. In terms of the writing, I was inspired by Banana Yoshimoto, especially Kitchen, because she uses dialogue and creates a beautiful intimacy between the characters. And that’s what I tried to convey when I placed Ezra and Carmi in that room and tried to create a sense of intimacy. There are not a lot of Italian books that inspired me. This, I feel, is a book in Italian, but not necessarily an Italian book.

Why do you say that?

I’m much inspired by my experience of high school in America and by living in different countries. I think maybe I absorbed a lot of the Italian writing from certain works—from Primo Levi—but in terms of the content I don’t think this is a very Italian book.

Grandangolo has been well received in Italy and is set to be translated into French in 2019. To what do you credit its success?

Whoever knows me knows that I’m very harsh on myself. I’ve been very critical of the book even after it’s out so this was an interesting exercise for me because I couldn’t change it after it was done.

It takes a life of its own and you don’t have any more control over it.

Exactly. Now that I was on tour in Italy I got to see very different interpretations, and I need to adjust myself to that reality which, while I was writing, I didn’t know it was coming outside. But the fact that it’s being translated into French shows that this is a story that many people can identify with. It’s not a story for people who are part of a specific group.

What do you hope your book will do for readers?

At the end, I made it very clear that I wrote this book to address several causes that are in my heart. It’s a story that’s supposed to be entertaining, if possible, but, at the end of the day, I wrote it because I wanted to write about religious fanaticism. And that I don’t think they’re strictly issues of the Jewish orthodox community. I think they can even touch people in Italy who are detached from religion. What I want to do is give a voice to certain people who are not always able to express it. Wherever they are and whatever religion they belong to or whatever context they are experiencing struggles in, [my hope is that] they might find themselves somehow in the book. I want to give voice to them and I also hope to make other people think differently about certain issues. Of course, I do it through empathy and through stories. This is not an autobiography. It’s not a journalism piece where I documented somebody else’s life. It’s a mix of things that I’ve seen, things that I have imagined, and things that I might have experienced.

What has the experience of writing this novel taught you about yourself as a writer?

First of all, it’s one thing to be in your own bedroom and to write a story and it’s another to have the guts to put it out there and to be open to any kind of criticism. And I had to have the strength to decide that the story I was telling should be bigger than any of the fears of putting it out. I learned that I was stronger than I had thought, that I’m able to do this.

So even though there’s a risk—

Yes. And I’m young, I was scared, and I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and say: ‘What did I do?’ But, at the same time, it was worth it—

The rewards were worth it.

Because for every interpretation that I don’t like, everything that I read online that doesn’t make me very happy, there is always someone who messages you and tells you ‘Your novel helped me.’ And I did not write it thinking I would help people—I wrote it just to bring light to certain issues, but the fact that there are people who tell me ‘You helped me’ or ‘I found myself in this’ or ‘I was able to relate’—that’s incredible.

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