On Pirouettes and Controversy: Yvonne Fein Interviews Robyn Bavati
By Yvonne Fein:
Pirouette by Robyn Bavati tells the tale of twins separated at birth, one raised as a dancer, talented but hating performance, the other, loving nothing more than dance. Her parents, however, see it as just a hobby. Finally, the two girls meet at age fifteen, and hatch a plan which involves their changing places and changing lives. But nothing is as uncomplicated as they thought it might be. For the swap to succeed it requires all their physical and mental capabilities so that their friends and family — and boyfriends — won’t realise what is really going on. Can they maintain the subterfuge or will their scheme come crashing down, hurting those they love the most?
With that in mind, I asked Robyn the following questions.
- How did you come up with the idea for Pirouette?
Well, my first novel was about a girl called Ditty Cohen and her struggle to dance despite her ultra-orthodox upbringing. An earlier draft included a paragraph about a girl in Ditty’s dance class who was forced to take dance lessons by her pushy mother. That paragraph was deleted during the editorial process because the girl who didn’t want to dance wasn’t really relevant to Ditty’s story. But that girl lingered at the back of my mind. Then one day I happened to pick up a book about identical twins. I immediately thought of Lisa and Lotte by Erich Kastner, a book I adored as a child, which was later made into the well-known and hugely poular movie The Parent Trap. And suddenly I had my story – The Parent trap, dance version.
- Dancing in the Dark, your first novel, is a story about a girl raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family with religion being central to the family. In Pirouette, religion plays a less prominent role. Is there a reason for this?
Yes. In Dancing in the Dark, I had mostly shown just one type of Jew – the kind to whom religion is paramount. But there are many other types of Jews, including those for whom religion is just one aspect of their lives. I felt that portraying this type of Jew in Pirouette would provide balance, and give readers the understanding that not all Jews are alike.
- Both girls in Pirouette are adopted, one of them by a Jewish family, but you never mentioned if she had been formally converted. Did you leave this question open deliberately or did it just slip between the cracks?
It did not slip between the cracks. Given what I know of the Melbourne Beth Din and how difficult they make conversion, it seemed clear to me that they would not have converted the adopted child of non-observant Jews. Orthodox Jewish readers, if they think about it, would probably infer this too. Hannah (one of the twins in Pirouette), might have been converted through the liberal shul, or not at all. Given the fact that the novel is aimed at a general readership (as opposed to an exclusively Jewish one), I did not want to get into the question of who is a Jew.
- Both twins are of different religions but this doesn’t affect their relationship. While I’m aware that religion is not a focus of Pirouette, it is undeniably present. Is there a message about tolerance perhaps to be gleaned here?
Absolutely. While each twin must to a degree experience the other’s religion, neither tries to convert the other. They are both open to learning about the other’s religion, and accepting of the role religion plays in the other’s life. Neither sister has a negative experience of her twin’s religion, both religions are positively portrayed, and religion doesn’t in any way affect their friendship and their growing bond. By the end of the novel, each family happily includes the other in reglious holidays and celebrations. In this way, religion becomes inclusive rather than divisive, showing that bridges can be built between people of different cultures and beliefs.
- Where does your fascination with and knowledge of the ballet word come from?
I was fascinated with ballet from a very young age. At the age of 5, I learnt ballet once a week for six months at a local dance school. The following year, I got home from school too late to attend those ballet classes, but it caught my imagination whenver I saw it on TV, and I envied my friends who were able to learn. When I started secondary school, a local ballet school started up where classes didn’t begin till half-past five, and I was allowed to take one or two classes a week. My parents often took me to see the ballet, and throughout my teenage years I took various dance classes in various styles. As an adult, I spent a further few years studying ballet. Then my daughter caught the ballet bug, threw herself into training, auditioned for and was accepted into VCASS (the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School), and spent four years there. The VSD, the fictional full-time dance school in Pirouette, is based on that (though minus the music school).
6)I understand that you’ve just won the silver medal in the 2014 Sydney Taylor Book Awards for Dancing in the Dark, publishedin the US in 2013. (This award, established in 1968, is judged by STBA board members who range from Liberal to Orthodox, acting as advisors on suitable content for a wide range of libraries. ‘Winners exemplify the highest literary the standards while simultaneously portraying the Jewish experience.’)
Given that the award is bestowed by Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) and given the controversy here in 2010 when Rabbi Kennard would not allow your book on the Mount Scopus library shelves, how does this award make you feel?
Somewhat vindicated. The STBA judging committee is made up of a range of Jews (including orthodox) who share a love of both Judaism and literature, and who clearly don’t agree with Rabbi Kennard, who in 2010 described my book to Galus as ‘a polemic which gives an inaccurate, one-sided and fanatically negative presentation of Jewish life with a clear agenda of disengaging young Jews from Judaism.’ As its author, I can assure you my book had no such agenda, and I believe that the only ‘fanatically negative’ thing about it was Rabbi Kennard’s reaction to it.
Dancing in the Dark explores a genuine conflict, and it’s gratifying to know that the AJL will spend 2014 promoting it to Jewish schools and libraries around the world. Still, it saddens me that Scopus students are missing out.
7)As an old collegian of Mount Scopus, what are your feelings about censorship, especially in the light of the Kennard action?
I dislike censorship, although I’d condone it if I thought a book would incite violence. I can’t condone censoring books simply because the ideas they contain don’t accord with ones own worldview, and I believe that a book seen as controversial should be challenged rather than suppressed.