Michelle Cohen Corasanti is the author of the book The Almond Tree. Here she talks to Anureviews.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti Interview
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, what did you study and where do you live now and what do you do for a living.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti: I was raised in rural upstate New York. After graduating from Yeshiva (Jewish school), I went, with our rabbi’s daughter, in high school, to Israel where I lived for the next seven years. Although I grew up in a Zionist home, I didn’t know much about Israel other than the Jews found a land without a people and made the desert bloom. I came back knowing more than I ever wanted to know. And I decided that I would devote my life to bringing about peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Upon completing my BA at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I returned to the US to continue studying Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. At the same time, I attended law school where I took as many classes as possible in international and human rights law. I even went to Cambridge University for the summer to take 12 additional classes. After ten years of training to become a human rights activist, I went back to my parents’ home to do my last internship in law school with my father’s law firm. There, I met my husband and jumped ship. I buried all the horrors I had witnessed and had vowed to change.
Fast forward fifteen years. I was on vacation, with my husband and twins, reading The Kite Runner when the injustices and human suffering that I had buried clawed their way out. I was confronted with my worst nightmares and greatest failures. Fortunately, I realized from The Kite Runner, that a writer can reach into readers’ hearts and change them forever. That’s when I decided to become a writer. I thought that if a doctor can write The Kite Runner, then surely I, a lawyer trained in writing, could write my story. Seven years, 21 writing classes and 6 editors later, I completed the task. I’m a writer, mother of twins, and wife. I’m just finishing my second novel. And I spend most of the year in rural upstate NY where I was born and lived in Florida during the winter.
You have mentioned in the beginning of your book that it is inspired by a true incident. How much of the story is fact, how much a fiction?
I can’t think of anything that isn’t fictionalized reality. And I wanted to try and put the reader in my shoes. I’m a Jewish American. I didn’t go over to Israel to become a human rights activist. Went there in high school because my parents wouldn’t let me go to Paris. I was 16 years old. I became like the witness who saw what she didn’t want to see. And I felt compelled to do something. I want the reader to experience that as well.
Have you seen families like Ahmed’s up, close and personal? What was your experience like?
I got the seed for the story from a Palestinian I met when I was at Harvard. He was doing his post-doctorate in chemical physics with a Nobel Prize winner and his Israeli professor jointly. His father helped a refugee bury arms when he was twelve. He was the oldest of nine children, had an illiterate mother, and was forced to go to work. He could only attend school infrequently, but because he was brilliant in maths and science that was enough for him to get a scholarship to Hebrew University. There, in an environment of publish or perish, the Israelis embraced him.
I met him at Harvard. One doesn’t rise from the ashes, and then get to fly so high, unless one possesses a brilliant mind, an iron will, intense passion and persistence. He possessed those traits. His love for science trumped all else. He was a true scientist.
During my seven years in Israel, a month of which was spent in his village, I witnessed first-hand what the lives of families such as Ahmed’s were like. I was so affected by it that it took me twenty years to be able to digest my experiences and gain enough perspective to write in a rational manner. Prior to that time, I was too desperate to try to end the needless suffering that I was ineffective.
I see Ahmed growing up amidst two diametrically opposite view points represented by his father and his mother. It is ironic that he and his brother choose the different paths. Did you do it purposely to put more weight in Ahmed’s character?
When I initially wrote the story, I wanted it to be more of a star-crossed lovers’ story between Ahmed, this Palestinian genius who makes it against all odds, and Nora, a Jewish American human rights activist. In retrospect, I can say that Nora was everything I wished I had been and failed to be. As I was writing from Ahmed’s POV, I was unable to give Nora any flaws. I think I was trying to hide them from Ahmed. The main character must be complex. Nora’s only trait was perfection. Hence I had to do away with her in the most heroic manner possible.
I was writing my manuscript right after the war on in Gaza, and my editor suggested I incorporate Gaza. The most effective way I could do so was to have Ahmed’s brother, who wasn’t blessed with genius and was filled with anger, resurface in Gaza as a member of Hamas. I was speaking with a specialist on Palestine from the Carter Center and he said that all the Hamas leaders he knew were very charismatic and so I had to go back and make the brother charismatic. When I did that, the brother popped. I had no intention of writing about two brothers. The story just wrote itself.
Nor did I have any intention of writing about 2 diametrically different parents. The mother was based on someone I knew. In order to keep Ahmed on the right path, in the face of such a brutal environment, I needed a moral compass. My mother-in-law suggested I make the father like my father-in-law, an Atticus Finch type.
Do you think adverse circumstances are more motivating than the comfort zones that lot of us grow in?
I think adversity reveals who we are and our potential whereas prosperity can conceal it.
You have partnered with an actor to role play your protagonist Ichmad or Ahmed. I am intrigued by this unique way of promoting the book. Can you tell us how did you get this idea and how is it being received by the readers and potential readers?
The Huffington Post, The Washington Report on the Middle East and The Daily Star, among other sources, believe that The Almond Tree (TAT) can be a game changer. The US supported the Apartheid government through the Reagan years and the Apartheid government knew that as long as it had the US, it didn’t need anyone else. Same is true today with Israel.
Guillermo Fesser, a Spanish TV and radio host wrote in The Huffington Post, “…for Americans to put themselves in the Palestinians’ shoes, it will take a miracle. The good news is that the miracle is already happening. Peace will not result from any political negotiation table, neither in Madrid, or Oslo. The miracle is happening thanks to a work of fiction; a novel that I predict will become one of the biggest bestsellers of the decade. This is the first novel of a Jewish New Yorker, Michelle Cohen Corasanti, and is titled The Almond Tree… It is an epic novel, a drama of the proportions of The Kite Runner, but set in Palestine.
A beauty. A story that grabs you from the first page and makes your heart go out to the Palestinians without pointing a finger at anyone, without transmitting hatred. A proposal to live in peace and democracy for all… Because Americans do not take in a lot of world news, but read novels and watch movies. And listen to songs. And through art, they can step into the shoes of the Palestinians. Then we will begin to see a glimmer of hope in solving a conflict that weighs on us all.”
A couple great reviews were written about The Almond Tree for Mondoweiss. An editor, there, read TAT and contacted Moe and me. She said that she believes Moe can be a game-changer and so can TAT.
Moe has a huge social media network. He has 45,000 Instagram followers, 33,000 Twitter followers, 38,000 blog subscribers and 9,000 Facebook fans. He was recently featured in MENA’s Top100Arabs.com worldwide social influence rankings list, ranking 6th most influential Palestinian and 62nd most influential Arab in the world. His TV and radio appearances consistently reach the widest audiences as reported by the networks.
Moe is a human rights activist, public speaker, and writer. He has Masters’ degrees in both public health with a specialization in mental health and biology. Plus, he’s a model. He’s brilliant, ambitious, successful, a human rights activist, Palestinian and a game changer. What better person to represent a book written by a Jewish American and said to be a game-changer.
History has shown that statements against perceived interest weigh more than the testimony of the victim. President Abraham Lincoln supposedly said Harriet Beecher Stowe, the white woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the voice of a black slave, that she brought about the civil war that leads to the abolishment of slavery. In the US, in a rape case, for instance, the competent confession of the perpetrator is an automatic conviction versus the testimony of the victim which is not. I’m Jewish. I lived in Israel for seven years. I have my degrees in Middle Eastern studies and law. My testimony is difficult to dismiss. However, a Palestinian needs to represent the Palestinians.
This is more than just another novel. This book is a way to achieve peace. It shows how strong we are when we work together.
What kind of preparation did Moe Diab had to do to do this role play? How did the two of you interact for preparing him for the role?
After reading the book in one sitting, it was clear that Moe was naturally drawn to Ahmed’s character. Both are Palestinian-Muslims, both scientists and both have overcome adversities. Diab read the story several times and began to record in character Vlogs, discussing more in depth his (Ahmed’s) reactions to specific events in the story. Moe read some of the chapters 10-15 times prior to recording the Vlogs and after sending them to me; we discussed the character Vlogs until we both felt that they accurately representing Ahmed’s character.
A special website (www.TheAlmondTreeExperience.com) was made for Moe taking on the role of Ahmed. The website is an interactive platform for the fans/audience to interact. And become more involved with the story. This platform offers the readers an opportunity to get to know Ahmed better. And participate in ongoing discussions and contests. Soon we will be posting a reality type show/videos of the making of Dr. Ahmed Hamid. We will produce a mini series documenting the photo shoots, casting calls. The making of the new video trailer, radio shows, international tours, book signings, public appearances, etc. It is going to very exciting, especially for the quickly growing fan base.
Moe and I stay in constant communication throughout the day to discuss ongoing, recent and planned developments. He’s not only a scientist and human rights activist; he has years of business management experience and the capacity to excel in any field. He is very competent in the field of marketing, especially in social media marketing.
Commercially does it make sense to invest in this kind of book promotion Michelle Cohen Corasanti?
This is more than just a novel, this is a way to advance peace. Because I hit on so many universal themes. I am reaching people across the board. The majority of whom would never read a book on the conflict. TAT is reaching these people and changing their minds. This is an investment in peace. Because it shines a light on the human side of the conflict. Awareness leads to understanding and understanding leads to change.
What has shocked me the most is that the book is getting amazing feedback throughout the world. It’s already being translated into many languages. TAT is about being human and people across the board relate to it on many levels. As a result, it’s casting a huge net and being embraced by all echelons of societies and all sides of the conflict. The Times of Israel, which isn’t a left-wing newspaper, said The Almond Tree should be required reading for every Israeli and Jews elsewhere.
For Americans to embrace a Palestinian Muslim protagonist and be rooting for him is incredible considering the Islamaphobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US. My book isn’t about being Jewish, Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian. It’s about being human and people are relating on that level. My message is that we should celebrate differences and focus on our commonalities to advance humanity.
Are you working on your next book? If yes, please share some details with us.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti: I’m just finishing my next book. As I said, I had to kill off Nora because she was perfect. I was completely unable to write her. When Moe began, he wanted to focus on the Nora/Ahmed relationship so he wanted me to expand on that. I began to write from Nora’s POV. When I did that, the story poured out of me. Let’s face it, what woman can’t see her own flaws?
Think Twilight (without the vampires) and Fifty Shades (without all that sex). Christian Grey was so messed up because of his horrible childhood. Who had a worse childhood than Ahmed? In The Almond Tree, an editor took out the part where Ahmed sold his patent for millions of dollars. We just see in part four that Ahmed’s very wealthy. In my new novel, I put it back in. Ahmed is brilliant, beautiful, successful, rich with a messed up past. I have already finished the first draft and sent it to my editor Marcy Dermansky.
Here is what she said:
I love this book. I think this is such a brilliant perspective, creating the story that is not told in The Almond Tree: beautiful fearless determined Nora Gold.
She is killed tragically and her story is forgotten. She is Ahmed’s first love, the most reckless decision of his life. But then, her story is erased, too, with Yasmine, his family, and his future success.
It is almost as if you are paying tribute to this character. Also, it is a fantastic story.
I try to imagine Ahmed’s obituary after his death, listing his life and his accomplishments. I don’t think Nora would be mentioned. But Nora holds always a place in his heart. I could imagine Ahmed on his deathbed, remembering her. Her golden hair, her flawless skin, and the way she always did what she wanted, how angry she made him and how right she was. After all this time, erasing her, creating a new life: he would miss her.
You are giving Nora her voice with this book. You are also paying tribute to Rachel Corrie, a young woman whose life was cut tragically short, who died giving her everything to a cause she believed in. It has been many years now since her death. And she, too, will soon be forgotten.
I have read reader reviews of The Almond Tree. It is incredible how much your story resonates with your fans. I think you can do this again with your new novel.
But Nora. This is Nora’s book. This is Nora’s story. I love how fierce Nora is, how determined. When Ahmed gives up on her, she doesn’t change her mind. She retreats but comes back again for more. She loves him, she wants him, and she does not give up.
It took me 7 years to write TAT. My new book took one month.