by George Gourlay
Renowned Irish author Sally Rooney has just released her highly anticipated third novel, entitled Beautiful World Where Are You, to much acclaim. It climbed to number one on the Sunday Times Bestsellers upon release, and a review by Brandon Taylor for The New York Times described it as Rooney’s “best novel yet”. Waterstones has said that the novel was their biggest hardback release of all time.
Rooney has made a name for herself as the ‘first great millennial novelist’, with a track record of bestsellers including 2018’s Normal People – which was adapted for TV in 2020 – and her debut, Conversations With Friends, for which a BBC adaptation will hit the small screen sometime next year. The novelist was the recipient of The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017, and has gained a large fanbase of young adult readers.
Beautiful World, Where Are You follows the friendship between Alice, a writer who is coming to terms with newfound fame, and Eileen, who is rekindling a love with a childhood friend. Within the pages of the novel, Rooney weaves in her own social and political philosophies in the form of emails between the two, which read like essays covering a range of topics including capitalism, fame and climate change.
Rooney is not shy of expressing her political views, both in her novels and outside of her work. The self-proclaimed Marxist writer uses her novels as a medium for political discussion. Her bestseller, Normal People, frames a romance between two young adults from different class backgrounds who, through dialogue and confession, subtly highlight the economic and social disparities in modern Ireland.
However, the release of Beautiful World, Where Are You has brought with it its own political drama regarding the author’s decision to refuse the rights for the Hebrew translation of the novel to Israeli publisher, Modan, who published the Hebrew copies of her previous works, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. The latter was translated into 46 languages, and thus it was expected Rooney’s latest would follow suit.
Rooney’s decision follows a Human Rights Watch report, which has accused Israel of imposing an apartheid on the Palestinian population who occupy a large portion of Israel’s land and who claim ownership of the territory themselves, but who have been largely displaced from their homes by the Israeli state since its establishment in 1948. In 1994, a Palestinian authority was created to govern two separate administrations, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank, the latter of which borders the holy city of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Palestine and Israel have been in a dispute for over half a century, with both sides inciting violence in Gaza and the West Bank and in major cities within Israel’s domain. In recent months, the situation garnered international attention when videos were spread online of Hamas rockets sent from the Palestinian side being shot down mid-air over the Israeli tourist city of Tel Aviv.
In emails to The New York Times, Rooney explained that she was “very proud” to have had her first novels translated into Hebrew in Israel and that, “Likewise, it would be an honour for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers,”. However, in alignment with her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), she has “chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house”, seemingly for the foreseeable future.
BDS is a campaign that works to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”. Rooney’s statement on the situation mirrored the movement’s ethos as she elaborated that “Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law,” continuing to state that she was “responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.”
As expected, Rooney’s decision has garnered both ardent praise and extreme criticism. The New York Times spoke to Deborah Harris, a literary agent with a particular business in publishing major authors in Israel, who described the decision as “painful and counterproductive.” Harris highlighted that those who read Rooney’s novels in Israel are likely also within those who do not support the Israeli states actions in Palestine. She took a clear stance against the politicising of the novel, stating: “What literature is supposed to do is reach into the hearts and minds of people.”
Israel’s Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai tweeted: “The cultural boycott of Israel, anti-Semitism in a new guise, is a certificate of poor conduct for her and others who behave like her.”
Two of Israel’s biggest bookstores, Steimatzky and Tzomet Sefarim, have pulled their copies of Rooney’s latest. Steimatzky gave the following statement to the Guardian: “The Steimatzky chain is a literary stage and a warm and embracing home for any literary work with a love of the written word. From the moment the subject was brought to our attention, as an immediate step, we removed the books from the site.”
The situation raises a key question within the publishing industry of how publishing houses are expected to adhere to the individual politics of the authors they promote. In 2012, Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, also declined to publish the Hebrew print of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel in Israel, citing her experience growing up in Georgia in the 1950s. “I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse” Walker explained, in reference to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In recent years, authors, which perhaps once could have been considered a private community for whom their work is the focus of their public image have increasingly entered themselves into political discourse and have garnered controversies surrounding their personal beliefs (no curtain of fiction to hide behind). No truer is this statement than in reference to J.K Rowling, whose reputation has taken a significant hit following her public displays of transphobia after she has made continuing comments against Trans women and their place in the feminist movement.
In some cases, publishers have reacted to the political mishaps of authors. Earlier this year, Julie Burchill faced backlash for Tweets aimed at Muslim journalist, Ash Sarkar. Burchill apologised for the comments, but not before her publisher, Hachette, denounced them as “deplorable” and cancelled her upcoming book, the subject of which, ironically, was cancel culture.
It should be made clear that Ms Rooney is not taking a stance against a language, she remains open to a Hebrew translation of Beautiful World, Where Are You in the future, on the condition that she “can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movements institutional boycott guidelines.”