Arts & Culture

You Write What You Read

Tamar D. Yellin is the author of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her 3rd post.   When I look back over my main literary influences the thing that strikes … Read More

By / October 28, 2009

Tamar D. Yellin is the author of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her 3rd post.


When I look back over my main literary influences the thing that strikes me is how disparate they are: a real rag-bag, if you like, or a pick ‘n’ mix, but probably that is the way it should be. And perhaps the way it had to be for a Jewish girl with a working-class aspirational mother and a Jerusalemite father receiving the most traditional of English education complete with Latin.

At the age of thirteen my reading was narrow but intense. I was up to my eyes in Brontëana but each evening after school would walk the short distance to the Talmud Torah to sit in a bare classroom reciting verses from the siddur and Chumash: the whole class in chorus, Hebrew and English, Hebrew and English. I had no idea at the time that these evenings were laying down a rhythmic pattern in my engrams which would remain with me forever and influence my writing, so that, as my protagonist Shulamit puts it in The Genizah at the House of Shepher, "my brain is now embossed with the black mosaic, the Hebrew Bible."

I remember these as happy times, sitting in the darkening classroom, one entire wall of which was made of glass, looking out onto a number of venerable horsechestnut trees whose leaves, as my memory has it, were always turning gold, whose branches were always waving in a descending storm, reading Exodus, thinking of Wuthering Heights and scribbling, in spare moments, fragments of Emily Brontë-inspired verse in the corners of my Hebrew dictation papers.

Later I would learn about the different forms of parallelism in biblical poetry: synonymous, antithetical, climactic. This is the characteristic repetition, amplification or contradistinction of ideas in the two halves of a poetic line which lend the psalms their unique flavour. It was parallelism, more than anything else, which left its impression on me, so that, for example, when I came to produce stories such as Return to Zion, the opening piece of my collection Kafka in Brontëland and one which is shot through with biblical influence, I would find myself writing sentences such as: "We watched his light moving in the darkness of the garden: the glowing tip of his cigarette moving among the thistles."

After an adolescence spent immersed in Victorian fiction (from which I learned words like "penetralium" and "lachrymose") and Romantic poetry, I moved on to the Europeans and great contemporary authors such as Milan Kundera, who impressed me with the sharpness of his mind and the brevity and directness of his expression. Like almost anyone reading in the eighties, I could not help but be seduced by the lush exoticism of the South American magical realists, who encouraged me to deepen the mattress of my prose and – what is now, I suspect, becoming more and more unfashionable – to describe. Kafka hit me in my early thirties.

Foreign and translated authors have dominated my reading ever since, and I have often thought it strange that, while still acknowledging the Brontës as my earliest influence and despite my profound attachment to the Yorkshire landscape in which I live, my literary instincts both as reader and writer should remain so firmly European. I have come to the conclusion that it is an inevitable legacy of my Jewishness, and that it is an asset of which I am glad. Given the large immigrant population in these hills from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere, I watch for the emergence of other northern authors similarly nourished by a mixed heritage.

As a young writer, I consciously limited my reading for fear, as I said then, of "being influenced." Older now, and increasingly assured in my own voice (though always with more to learn) I see that, like it or not, one writes what one reads, and to read less is only to concentrate that limited experience. A writer is the sum of their influences, and learns through imitation, whether conscious or unconscious. I wish now that I had read more. A writer can never read too much.