When the World Became White by Dalia Betolin-Sherman is the book that I have returned to most over this past year. Betolin-Sherma is one of my favourite new voices in contemporary Hebrew literature. Her style of writing and telling stories leaves me moved, disturbed, and at the same time happy and surprised at how new poetic expressions can still emerge and evolve in Hebrew – an ancient and almost prehistoric language, with its grumbling sound – and tell stories about my local culture, about the everyday that I experience. It’s as if Betolin-Sherman holds ink and a brush in her hands, practicing the delicate art of description with the precision and care of a calligrapher.
The novel describes three-generations of an Ethiopian family that came to Jaffa in 1984, by foot via Sudan. The stories are written as an autobiographical memoir, involving evidence of Ethiopian tradition, the realities of being an immigrant, and themes of mother tongues and foreign languages.
These topics seemed to me to reveille themselves vividly and dramatically this year: refugees, immigration, terror and violence, appearing over and over again in worlds that continue to ‘turn white’. In this context, one needs a tiny shimmer of hope, and I recommend searching for one through Betolin-Sherman’s eyes.
Throughout these seven stories, which also serve as chapters of a memoir, color and race are not mentioned directly. Betolin-Sherman’s very subtle way of constructing her narrative may be experienced by some as a weakness, but in my eyes this choice created a force of humanity that paralleled the humor and irony, deepening and broadening the reality she depicts. Betolin-Sherman’s novel attempts and succeeds at creating an entirely new voice.
‘When the world became white Mother went to the gynecologist and started taking pills, saying that two was quite enough for her, and contrary to Grandfather’s instructions she hit us less and less often, because, she told Grandfather, hitting a child injures his or her self-esteem.’
‘When the world became white the streets filled with people and there were sidewalks, and the roads were paved with asphalt instead of ash and sand. And we saw cars and hardly any animals. And pale women strode past in shorts, and men ate standing up, and discarded plastic bags drifted by instead of sand, and the air was permeated by the stench of gasoline instead of the buzzing of flies.’