Expat Author Interview with Tania Hershman

Author Tania Hershman
Tania Hershman, an author living in Bristol (UK), spent fifteen years in Jerusalem. Her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published in 2008; her second, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions is hot off the press right now—and getting well-earned praise, most recently in the Times Literary Supplement!


IMBO: Tania, welcome to I Must Be Off! I love your work. We’ve published several of your stories at Metazen, so I know how I’d describe your writing, but how would you yourself?

Hershman: I would describe it as creative, possibly as speculative, somewhere around the areas of short stories and perhaps dipping a toe into poetry. I would describe it as short, often very very short, sometimes surreal, often I don't know myself what my stories are about. I have written since I was a child, it always felt right. I loved to make up stories. I still do. I still can't believe I get to do that as a career. It feels somehow, well, naughty.

Jerusalem Garden
IMBO: I love the word naughty. It’s a sweet word I wouldn’t have used if I hadn’t moved to the UK. Has being an expat affected your vocabulary?

Hershman: I often joke that spending 15 years living in Israel after growing up in London has given me a far looser relationship with the English language! But I do think that living for so long in a country where my mother tongue was not the native language has allowed me to be more flexible with English. I no longer have the same sense, say, of English idioms etc..., so I make them up. Is it dead as a dodo, a doorknob or a dormouse? I lost that when I let another language in, but I like the result, I love to play with language. I think being bilingual has opened me up to words and other ways they can be used. Since I worked so hard to learn another language, I think I don't take language for granted the way I might have had I never left England.

IMBO: I know exactly what you mean. The only reason I can still remember English idioms is because I have to teach them. And the way you write? Has being an expat shaped your fiction in any way?

A view to the Dead Sea
Hershman: I can't say whether being an expat affected what I write, because I wasn't really writing fiction before I emigrated. I don't tend to write stories set in fixed locations – neither England nor Israel – but everything I have experienced goes somehow into my writing. I think recently, after moving to England, I've started writing stories which seem to have themes of alienation, of being somewhat odd, awkward, not fitting in. It was very interesting how, after 15 years of being away, I don't feel English anymore, although to those around me I look and sound very English. I certainly don't really fit in anywhere, which I think is probably excellent stimulation for a writer.

IMBO: I think the feeling of alienation/not fitting in is so common among expats, and you put such a positive spin on it. What else stimulates/inspires you?

Hershman: I'm hugely inspired by creativity of any form, especially films. I love a great film! I really like the quirky, weird films, like this indie British film called Skeletons, I love it. Watching a film like that makes me want to go and write, fills me with joy. I am inspired by passion in anyone, for whatever they are doing, and humility. I am inspired by anyone who is working for the community, dedicating themselves to the greater good. I just finished running a set of story workshops in the Bristol Refugee Rights centre and was so inspired by the staff, the volunteers, the members themselves, an amazing group of people.

IMBO: Oh, I’d love to hear more about the Bristol Refugee Rights centre.

Hershman's Writing Shed in Bristol (I need one of these!)
Hershman: BRR is an amazing places, staffed by the most dedicated people who try to make life a bit easier for those who have fled to the UK seeking asylum, who are daily under the threat of detention even though they are not criminals. Although the level of English in my workshops varied hugely, and the languages spoken included Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi and more – the enthusiasm and cheerfulness of my workshop participants, some of whom struggled to write a sentence in English, was so inspiring! We looked at different themes each time, from fables to food, love and poetry – and we laughed, we laughed a lot! I got so much out of it, and I hope the group felt that they were given a different way to express themselves and share some of the culture they have brought with them.

IMBO: Care to share a couple of your stories with us?

Hershman: Her Dirt This story was inspired by a visit to the fantastic Wellcome Collection in London – they are devoted to bringing together arts and biomedical sciences and hold regular exhibitions on different topics. Before I went, I asked the editor of the Wellcome Collection blog if he might be interested in a flash story inspired by their “Dirt” exhibition, and he was very enthusiastic. This story was what emerged – there are 3 or 4 elements that came from the exhibition, and my strange brain put them together like this. It was the first time the blog had published fiction.

Express This is a story in my book that was the closest thing to autobiography I have ever written. It's basically about an expat who comes back from Israel to England and how he feels standing in Heathrow, that feeling of being somewhere where you don't have to make an effort, however slight, to understand what's being said, where words just flow into you and you can relax into them. Although the story makes me a little uncomfortable because it's pretty close to me, I'm happy I wrote it.

IMBO: How about a link to a story or an article written by another expat?

Hershman: Eddie by Nikita Neilin.This is the story I picked as the winner of the 2010 Sean O'Faolain short story competition. Nikita was born in Moscow and moved to America in 1990. I was knocked sideways by this story, which has the most amazing rhythm to it which echoes the laundromat where Eddie, an ex-con, works. Each time I read this story, it gives up more, the mark of a truly great piece of writing. It kept bringing tears to my eyes. 
" . . . I don't think it's a bad thing not to feel too comfortable, too settled."

IMBO: Did you ever get homesick when you lived in Israel? Has your concept of home changed after living so long as an expat?

Hershman: I didn't really get homesick, I didn't want to live in England and woke up most days thrilled to be where I was. I loved the beautiful light in Jerusalem, the sunshine, the heat, the way that people were so, umm, expressive, so un-English! Of course there was a lot of trauma to deal with, but in some ways the feeling was of living in the moment because you had no idea what might happen, and I do think now, having left, that that can be addictive, in a similar way, perhaps, to being a war reporter. I do think my concept of home has changed, I'm not sure where it is. I've been in Bristol for almost 3 years now and still am not always sure where I am when I wake up, and really still have difficulty crossing the road, if you asked me to tell you which way the cars drive, I'd need a minute to think about it. My body isn't used to being here yet. And I do miss speaking Hebrew, and a little Arabic. I love those languages. But England is a fantastic place to be a writer, it is very very good to me, and I don't think it's a bad thing not to feel too comfortable, too settled. What would I write about?!

IMBO: I love the way you think. It’s inspiring. Tania, thank you for stopping by. I wish you incredible success with My MotherWas An Upright Piano: Fictions. I’m going now to order my copy, but I'm stopping HERE to watch the video trailer for the book again and again and again.

Hershman: Thanks so much for having me, I really like being part of the ex-pat community, I think I will always be a part of it, no matter that I am now back in the country I was born in. It's been an honour, Chris! Thanks for the excellent questions and for wanting to buy my book. I'm so excited about it!


I must be off,


Tania Hershman's first book, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and included in New Scientist's Best Books of 2008. Tania's second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books) is out in May 2012. Her award-winning short stories and flash fiction have been widely published and broadcast on Radio 4. She is currently writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty, founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal spotlighting short story collections, and a judge of the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for popular science books.

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.


  1. Great interview. Thanks, Chris, for introducing uc to Tania and her brilliant, unusual writing. Any chance she would contribute avstory to Foreign Encounters?

  2. Wonderful insights here and I strongly resonate with Tania's sentiments regarding living abroad and returning home after a long time. Her stories indeed often have a surreal quality to them which I love and which I find interesting perhaps especially because of her science background (which we share). I used to have a writing shed like this in our London garden made of Cedar wood. Anything I ever wrote there I never showed to anyone though, perhaps it was tied to that place too much. Thanks!

  3. Paola, lovely to meet you! Tell me more about Foreign Encounters...

    Marcus, thank you, we have a mutual fan club going on! Interesting to hear about the Secret Unshared Shed Stories, I love that idea.

  4. Thanks for the interview! It's truly wunderbar - wonderful and inspiring. I read it while listening to Hinemoana Baker's song "Free" (from the start of the blog carnival - http://crossings2012.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/bi-an-aotearoa-affair-blog-carnival/ ) and loved how this idea of freedom also speaks to languages and our take on them.


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