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A question of identity: a tribal lens

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes by Tamar YellinAlways one fascinated with the question of identity, Tamar Yellin, an acclaimed British writer, explores this subject through one of the last remaining mysteries of history, the question of “what happened to the Ten Lost Tribes?” Although the question of the lost tribes frames her newest novel, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, what truly engages her in this book is the question of identity.

The Ten Lost Tribes, exiled by the Assyrians from the Land of Israel prior to the destruction of the First Temple some 2,600 years ago, are said to be diluted into countless cultures and countries — unidentifiable, truly “lost” — or, like the Ethiopians in the 1980’s claimed, to have remained in self-contained nomadic groups, some yet to be discovered. The mystery of the tribes’ lost identity, or, rather, their very particular identity, is the tool Yellin uses to introduce some of the following questions:

Who are we? Where does one come from? Are there destinations? Does identity tie us down or liberate us? Where is each man’s journey taking him? Do we ever settle down? Does a dual identity mean no identity at all? What fork in each person’s road creates that lost nomad in each of us? Are our identities formed by the roads we do take, or the roads we did not take, our disappointments, our failures? What propels our perpetual journey? If we are constantly journeying, can one even acquire a permanent identity? Do we ever get home? Is there even a home? Is home a place, or an identity? At the end, do we establish our identity, or is our identity established by others who observe our journey?

A talented short story writer, Yellin writes this novel in ten short stories, each titled for one of the Ten Lost Tribes.

The stories are metaphorical and fictional, but creatively narrated by (of course) a nameless traveler and observer. In fact, the narrator’s gender is never revealed. All of this intentionally addresses the pressing question of the novel: identity.

The seeds of this novel seem to have been planted in her earlier, award-wining book, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, a tale of exile and belonging, a fictional reflection of her own family’s identity and journey; although, stylistically, the Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is quite different from her other works.

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes consists of prose, there is no dialogue. And while Yellin uses this writing technique quite well, at times it can slow down the reading.

Yellin opens with a story on “Reuben,” a fictional uncle who seems to be a world traveler to the narrator, who, in this story, is a child. The child sees the uncle as someone inspired by “wanderlust,” who stops by unexpectedly between travels. In fact, the reader learns, he is someone who never got his life together, is a nomad of sorts, and comes to “visit” because he needs to refill his pockets with change. In this strange encounter between uncle and niece-nephew there is great focus on talismans — all the things we carry on about in our lives — that are meaningless, or perhaps, symbolic of who we are, what we are becoming.

The narrator encounters all kinds of people in these fictional stories, each involving some kind of traveling or journeying. And each story ends with an unsettled feeling, a bizarre open-endedness, leaving the reader with questions, and a thirst to find some answers.

But even if one can find contentment in any of the short stories’ endings, Yellin makes sure to introduce the next tribe, or story, by quoting passages from anthropological works, or the Torah, forcing the enigma of identity to settle permanently in the reader’s mind.

While the elusive, unanswered questions entrap the reader, the best part of a Yellin novel is the writing itself. A consummate stylist, Yellin’s sentences are like a savored piece of ganache, bite by bite, one deliciously textured sentence followed by another.

There are the “would-be great people who were too clever for their own good,” or “one of those exceptional people, whom to meet once is to remember always,” and, “a man behind whom the possibility of another man always lurked.”

On success, she writes, “It was impossible, he told me, for anyone with his surname to succeed except in a small way, though their aspirations were always inversely proportional to their achievements . . . all his aunts had poems stashed among their underwear, but only one had experienced any success: she made a decent living writing verses for greeting cards . . . ”

On reaching one’s destination, she writes, “The day would come at last when he cried with triumph, with an almost irrepressible schoolboy glee, I have The Book! And perhaps he had really found it; but my father could no longer receive it then.”

She writes that home can even be a place one doesn’t belong. “He was as much a guest as ourselves in the home his wife had created, and which really had nothing whatever to do with him.”

On journeying, “when she was very young she had left home with the intention of finding her freedom. She planned to catch a boat and sail abroad. She had never got farther than the port, however. That was more than forty years ago . . . She remained exactly where she was, year after year, forever poised on the cusp on her intention.”

Or, “He always kept a packed suitcase sitting on top of his wardrobe in case of emergency, because one never knew when one might have to travel on . . .” And, “not a year had gone by since he turned twenty, that he had not intended to leave, and not a year had gone by that something had not prevented him.” Some of the stories are more compelling than others. Even in their fantasy-like descriptions, they can be embraced, because of the truths they tap within the reader.

Yellin’s imagery and writing reshape the questions that have laced all of our lives at some point or another. They are familiar, existential questions. Ones that often make us uncomfortable, searching for the answers, invoking disappointment in who we are. Yet, Yellin manages to bring new life to these age-old questions, through wisdom, creativity and a touch of dark humor.

And with a profound suggestion, and question, Yellin closes the book.

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