Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, acclaimed author of the novel Waking Lions, named one of New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2017, spoke UCLA’s Fowler Museum Feb. 22. She participated in a dialogue about the background of her book and the events that inspired her to write it.
UCLA writing professor David Kipen moderated the dialogue, which was sponsored by the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies in conjunction with Writers Bloc and various UCLA Departments, including the Department of Comparative Literature, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Gundar-Goshen is not only an author. She also works both as a screenwriter and a licensed, practicing psychologist in Israel. Gundar-Goshen’s work as a psychologist played a part in her motivations writing the book. Waking Lions is about an Israeli doctor who hits someone while speeding home one night. He always considered himself a good man, but when he realizes the man he hit is an African migrant who won’t be missed, he makes a life-changing decision to flee instead of facing his actions. This decision changes everything because the migrant’s wife witnessed the hit and run. Therefore, she finds him the next day to blackmail him. However, she doesn’t want money, and her unique “price” forever changes life as he knows it. To make matters worse, his wife is the detective assigned to investigate the migrant’s death. The novel is full of suspense, symbolism and moral quandaries. Gundar-Goshen’s goal is to make the reader look deep inside themselves; it makes you wonder what you would do in the similar situation. It’s easy to say you would stay and help, instead of hit-and-run, but in the absence of witnesses or cameras, would you really confess to a crime that would ruin the rest of your life and forever change the lives of your children?
Gundar-Goshen revealed the book was inspired by a true story of an Israeli doctor who hit an Indian beggar in the Himalayas and decided to flee, fearing the authorities and the loss of material comforts he had grown accustomed to. Gundar-Goshen was pregnant as she wrote parts of the novel, and the story’s moral dilemmas made her wonder what would she do to be able to come home to her children at night. If she were in a foreign country and hit someone that the authorities wouldn’t notice — would she let them die so her children could grow up with a mother?
Another major question that most people are too afraid to ask themselves is, does the fact that, in both of these scenarios, the person who was hit was poor, matter? If the doctor hit another doctor, instead of a migrant or a beggar, would that change anything? Do human beings place more value on the lives of some than the lives of others? How can education, nationality or ethnicity determine the value of one’s life?
In the original story, it is said that the man left a few hundred dollar bills on the body of the Indian beggar. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but fear of prison lead him to choose himself and his family over the life of another. For Gundar-Goshen, the scariest part of hearing this story, and the reason she ended up writing a novel based on it, is the Israeli doctor was a completely normal person. Gundar-Goshen said, when the man was described, he felt like the mirror image of her: he was a law-abiding, tax-paying, parent, doctor and friend with hobbies and interests just like anyone else. Nothing about his life made him seem like the “type” of person who would do such a terrible thing. This is a terrifying revelation because it shows that anyone is capable of such atrocities. But is he really a bad guy for wanting to make it home? As she wrote the novel, Gundar-Goshen wondered, is she a bad person for understanding his motivations? Would she truly be able to turn herself in at the expense of her children’s childhoods?
The book is not just about a car accident, it’s about a moral dilemma. Do we know who we are? At what point does the line between right and wrong start to blur? She uses an African migrant in the book to make a statement about the refugee crisis. Most of her grandparents fled to modern-day Israel before the Holocaust. As the descendant of refugees, Gundar-Goshen expressed the irony of Israel’s current stance on refugees. After the war, we said never again, but how does that translate to helping other nations in need?
Furthermore, the name of the book is inspired by Israel’s newfound status as a developed, educated, and almost privileged nation. She explores the topic of white supremacy and spoke in detail of the idea that Israelis commonly view themselves as victims. They forget that after being victims for so long, they’ve managed to rise above, and at this point in time, can sometimes be the predators. The title Waking Lion refers to the notion that people may not even realize a latent predator sleeps inside them. A person has no idea what they are capable of until they are faced with a choice like this one. Another question Gundar-Goshen asks is, after being a victim for so long, what does one do with power? On one hand, understanding what it’s like to be on the other side should lead to more empathy, but often, it leads people to be more aggressive, so they can protect themselves.
Ultimately, Gundar-Goshen’s novel is well-written, suspenseful and thought-provoking. She taps into important ethical debates and forces the reader to engage in important introspection. I understand why the book was translated into 13 languages and I am excited for the day when her next novel is translated to English.