OPINION Jasmine Donahay

NWR Issue 108

Ideology and Story in Life-Writing

It’s a strange coincidence that I should be publishing, in quick succession, a biography and a memoir, which both deal in contradictory ways with ideology.

In autobiography, in order to shape the sprawl of your experience, you need to gain some capacity to see your life from outside, as a story, if, nevertheless, one based on facts. A year ago I managed at last to finalise Losing Israel, a memoir about my changing relationship with my mother’s country. I’d shovelled everything into my account, unwilling, like the amateur historian, to omit any fact that might be important. Then I’d tried for several years to find the right form for it. By the time I understood what the story was, I’d cut out 50,000 words.

Everything seems important until you know the story you need to tell – because, of course, autobiography, like biography and social history, is another form of storytelling. You are dealing with experiences and evidence that you have an obligation not to misrepresent, but nevertheless you are making of these only a version of your own life, or someone else’s, or that of a community.

Just as writing about yourself requires you to look in on your life from outside, so writing about others requires a capacity to project yourself into someone else’s experience, or a collective experience – the capacity to empathise with a worldview you don’t necessarily share. Nevertheless, you are limited by your own experience and values: your worldview determines not just the story you tell, or your selection or omission of the facts upon which you base your story, but also what you see in the first place.

Of course we don’t want to see ourselves as ideological in this way. We prefer to believe that how we see arises naturally from the evidence, that we see the world as it is, unencumbered – and that it is those who see the world differently who are ideologues, ideologues whose limiting worldview skews the evidence. Dai Smith demonstrated this, perhaps inadvertently, when, in a hagiographical review, he wrote that Revolution to Devolution by Labour peer KO Morgan should be given ‘to all Welsh political scientists, and any other ideologues who may be lurking in the formerly objective purlieus of academia.’

My memoir is, in this sense, clearly ideological. I don’t have a prescriptive view of Israel, but I have stepped out of the Zionist worldview, and my critical understandings of it are therefore intrinsically ideological – as, indeed, is Zionism. Perhaps it’s inevitable then that writing Losing Israel shaped the way I wrote The Greatest Need, the life-story of Lily Tobias, a Zionist. This is true not only in the story I told about the facts of her life, but undoubtedly also in my selection of those facts.

Last summer I found an unpublished 1938 article by Lily in the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. I didn’t use it – the late 1930s were already overburdened with compelling events and a proliferation of her publications. But this article contained hints of a blood and soil ideology, and I can’t be certain that this wasn’t, in fact, the reason I omitted it (other aspects of her nationalism, Welsh and Jewish, I discussed at length).

In Haifa, in the huge necropolis by the sea, I found Lily’s grave, two along from her friend Gita, sister of Chaim Weizmann, a towering figure in Zionist history. I omitted the detail that their friendship began out of shared trauma: Gita’s husband was murdered on the same day as Lily’s husband, Philip. That omission perhaps kept the drama of Philip’s death sharply singular, but had I explored the Weizmann connection further, it might have shifted the story I was telling. This is the challenge of life-writing: you are continually negotiating between the compulsion of facts, and the compulsion of the story you’re telling about the facts.

Lily’s Zionism reminded me repeatedly of what had been the ideological simplicity of my own politics, my own immersion in the idea of return to homeland, of belonging to an embattled nation assailed by enemies. How could the story I’d written about Israel not colour how I told the story of Lily, whose life was shaped by the political ideology I’d once embraced, and then questioned, and then qualified, and finally tried to leave behind?

Nevertheless, I endeavoured to understand her Zionism without the filter through which many are now likely see it. I tried to present it on its own terms, in the context of her experience before 1948. At the same time I didn’t wish to be an apologist for its excesses, or its naivety, if only through silence. I felt I needed to establish that I saw things differently, that with the benefit of a supposedly ‘unencumbered’ view I could see what she could not see then. And so the biography, like my memoir, is, in this sense, also inescapably ideological – as perhaps is true of all biography, autobiography and social history.

Jasmine Donahaye’s latest books are Losing Israel (Seren, 2015) and The Greatest Need: the Creative Life and Troubled Times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine (Honno, 2015).


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