A Debt to Chaim Potok
by Robyn Bavati
When I was in my teens, the book industry in Australia wasn’t the thriving one it is today. Almost all the books I read were imports from England – even American books rarely made it to Australian shores. I grew up thinking that characters in books must live either in London or the English countryside, unless the book was a fantasy novel, in which case the characters may inhabit a made-up land. If the people that populated these books were religious, they had to be Christian. Black was the colour to be worn at funerals, and weddings were inevitably held in churches.
Harbouring thoughts of becoming a writer, I wondered how I could ever accomplish it, never having set foot inside a church, or seen floral wreaths in a house of mourning.
I had never heard of young adult literature. At the age of thirteen, I’d read D.H. Lawrence one day, Enid Blyton the next. I wasn’t alone in this. As children grew older, they simply read fewer and fewer children’s books, and more and more adult ones. I’m not sure why teenagers were so neglected by the book industry, when they were so badly in need of books addressing their concerns.
Teenagers commonly grapple with issues of identity, individuality, family, loyalty and community. In the process of developing independence, forging a sense of self, and working out their place in the world, they seek self-expression while also craving acceptance and a sense of belonging. As they leave behind the child’s black-and-white concept of morality to embrace an awareness of shades of grey, they question more, accept less. They challenge authority – parents, religion, the prevailing culture and the status quo. And they need books that challenge these things too – or at the very least raise them as issues for discussion.
I was in my very late teens when I first discovered the books of Chaim Potok, and what a revelation that was! Potok had the courage to examine the clash between Jewish values and secular ones, and between moderate values and extremist ones. He portrayed characters torn between irreconcilable cultures, experiencing great inner conflict as a result.
Here, at last, were books with teenage heroes who did not live in England, were Jewish, not Christian, and were possessed of an intellectual curiosity about the world beyond their own sheltered existence. What’s more, these heroes were struggling to reconcile their own identity with their sense of responsibility to family and community. Finally, I’d found characters with whom I could really identify, and on so many levels.
Since the late seventies, the number of books for readers aged 12-18 has been steadily rising and today, young adult literature is thriving. And yet – Holocaust literature aside – I’d not, since my encounter with Potok, come across any young adult books with Jewish protagonists and religious themes.
When it came to writing Dancing in the Dark, I believed I had tapped into an area that would resonate with teens. I wrote the kind of book that I, as a teenager, would have loved to read. And having discovered that today’s youth regard Potok’s style as dated, I was careful to use a simple, accessible style that would be easy to read.
Dancing in the Dark has been described as ‘contemporary Potok for teenage girls.’ It tells the story of Ditty Cohen, a girl from an ultra-orthodox Jewish home who is forbidden to learn ballet, but does so in secret. Set in contemporary Melbourne, it portrays her struggle to discover what she really wants, what she truly believes, and what she must sacrifice to achieve her dreams.
Robyn Bavati is the author of Dancing in the Dark, published by Penguin Australia. She will be appearing in conversation with Michelle Prawer (teacher, librarian and book reviewer) as they discuss fundamentalism and related themes in young adult literature, and in her book in particular. Join them at Limmud Oz, Session 110: Fundamentalism in YA Literature on Sunday 13th June at 12.00 pm.