Short stories about Israelis in flux feel familiar in novelist’s latest collection

Joan Leegant’s ‘Displaced Persons’ homes in on identity, character and the Jewish experience

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Author Joan Leegant's latest book, 'Displaced Persons,' a collection of short stories, comes out June 1, 2024 (Courtesy)
Author Joan Leegant's latest book, 'Displaced Persons,' a collection of short stories, comes out June 1, 2024 (Courtesy)

When writer Joan Leegant began writing the short stories that comprise her latest collection, “Displaced Persons,” it was long before the October 7 Hamas onslaught pushed Israelis into mourning, bewilderment and for many, temporary exile from their homes.

But there are elements that feel prophetic in this collection of 13 stories in which Leegant, a longtime Boston resident who has spent time in Israel, ponders both the Jewish and Israeli experiences in contemporary life.

“I have written some stories that don’t involve Jewish people, and they’re not in this book,” said Leegant, during a recent conversation in her Boston hometown. “But I discovered a long time ago, and I keep rediscovering it, that it’s an endless vein for me to tap.”

Leegant, now 73, spent three years in Israel in the 1970s, working at a variety of jobs before returning to the US, where she practiced law in Boston for many years.

Then, 20 years ago, Leegant’s first story collection, “An Hour in Paradise” (W. W. Norton and Company) was published, leading her out of law and into writing and teaching fiction.

From 2007 to 2013, Leegant and her husband spent time in Israel and in the Pacific Northwest and California, where their two sons were each living, each place influencing the that show up in “Displaced Persons.”

In ‘Displaced Persons,’ Joan Leegant writes stories about Israelis and American Jews, coming out in June 2024 (Courtesy)

The first story in the collection, “The Baghdadi,” brings together a female American professor and Iranian-born Israeli man, weaving in elements of Israel’s melting pot.

Other stories have refugees from Africa in south Tel Aviv, Israelis emigrating to Berlin, American graduate students in Israel, Russian immigrants and — like Leegant herself, who has taught at Bar Ilan University’s Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing MA program several times — American academics and professors in Israel.

But there are also characters out of Leegant’s own Long Island, New York, upbringing and life, such as the Jewish matriarchs in “Wonder Women,” and the nominally Jewish “bleeding-heart” teenagers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in “Beautiful Souls” who wander around the Arab market in Jerusalem’s Old City and discover that it’s not the theme park setting they initially imagined.

Relationships and family dynamics and, repeatedly, mental illness, show up in tales such as “Hunters and Gatherers,” “The Book of Splendor” and “After.” Those stories are all in the second part of the collection, “Part Two: West,” set entirely in the US.

“My strengths are not in plot,” said Leegant. “My whole interest in writing and the thing that I know that I’m the strongest at is the people side. Digging in there — it feels intuitive.”

Her goal is to find the long-standing emotional truths of any situation.

“They should be able to hold up in time,” said Leegant of her stories, who believes that if Israel were in a different situation right now, such as living more peacefully with the Palestinians and perhaps working toward a two-state solution, the stories would still be relevant.

“But they’re more relevant now, I think,” she said.

All told, the stories and the essays that Leegant writes reflect her love and appreciation for her home bases and the art of writing, a venture she took on slowly and surely over several years.

‘An Hour in Paradise’ was Joan Leegant’s first story collection, published in 2003 (Courtesy)

Leegant tells of having her award-winning first story collection published in 2003, and then being offered a two-book deal, although she wasn’t so keen on writing a novel. She bumped into her neighbor, Boston surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, who was still a resident at the time but had written several award-winning books.

“He said, ‘How’s it going, Joan?’ I said, ‘Well, I have to write a novel.’ He said, ‘You can write a novel.’ I said, ‘Atul, you can write it,'” said Leegant, noting that she had struggled with her 2010 novel, “Wherever You Go.”

“I didn’t set out to be a novelist,” said Leegant, a self-professed night owl who tends to write in longhand and calls it “a chore” to write a novel. “Writing these stories was fun, and it took me a long time to recognize that writing shouldn’t be a horrible thing that you dread doing.”

Leegant will be on a book tour in the US; for more information about her appearances, go to her website.

“Displaced Persons,” winner of the New American Fiction Prize, is out June 1.

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