Sally Rooney once tweeted her annoyance of the “cultural prominence” given to novelists.
“I know you could point out they’re really not given a lot of prominence but . . . it’s still too much,” she said.
The Normal People author, who no longer uses Twitter and rarely gives interviews, is not likely to expand on those thoughts now that she is a novelist in the eye of what is literally a global storm.
Her decision not to allow Israeli publishing house Modan to translate her new novel, Beautiful World, Where are You into Hebrew has sparked a fierce debate with critics accusing her of anti-Semitism, while supporters defend her right to freedom of speech and to an ethical view point.
Rooney took the stance as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s cultural boycott on Israel. Last May, the writer was one of the signatories of an open letter from the artistic and creative community accusing Israel of practising apartheid after the violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
The letter called for an “immediate and unconditional cessation of Israeli violence against Palestinians” and an “end to the support provided by global powers to Israel and its military; especially the United States.”
In a statement, the 30-year-old writer often described as the voice of the Millennial generation, later explained she had no objection to the book being translated into the Hebrew language.
“The Hebrew-language translation rights to my new novel are still available, and if I can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so,” Rooney said.
“Many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses... In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society.”
Rooney will have been acutely aware of the power of such resistance given that her native Co Mayo is the home of the original boycott in 1880 when, having refused to reduce rents following a poor harvest, Captain Boycott was shunned by his tenants and labourers.
Her statement pointed out the BDS action was modelled on the economic and cultural boycott that helped end the system of apartheid in South Africa – something Rooney would also have been well familiar with, given the famous stance of the Dunnes Stores workers against that regime in 1984, some years before she was born.
While, during her years in Trinity, she was a lauded member of The Hist debating society, winning prestigious awards for the lively and passionate manner in which she argued her point – something else that would possibly have made it natural for her to maintain a stance in line with her own personal ethics, regardless of the resistance she might meet.
The controversy over Rooney’s decision has ignited a debate over the right of artists and writers to hold their own opinions and to defend their freedom of speech.
Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties said artists have the right “to exert control over their work and to express their political beliefs in whatever way they choose”.
“Sally Rooney has clearly explained that she supported the BDS movement and its aims to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians.
“She should be commended for using her right to free expression and her standing and success to take a considered and principled stance against a regime which has consistently violated the human rights of Palestinians,” Mr Herrick said.
However in a statement to the Irish Independent, the new Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Lironne Bar Sadeh – she presented her credentials to President Michael D Higgins just last week – described it as “very disappointing” that Rooney has chosen to endorse the BDS movement.
“I would have thought that a writer such as Ms Rooney would avoid taking sides in what is a deeply complex conflict, and instead encourage dialogue and understanding,” the ambassador said:
“If Ms Rooney truly did understand the complexities of the conflict, she would not have taken the decision to prevent her book being published in Hebrew.”
She urged cultural figures like Sally Rooney who support the BDS movement to “take the time to educate themselves” and to instead engage and support activities “which promote cooperation and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than engage in activities which only preserve the conflict and deepen the rift between our peoples”.
The ambassador said while she has been impressed by the warm welcome she has received in Ireland: “There is certainly a type of anti-Israel rhetoric espoused by some public figures, which veers dangerously close to anti-Semitism, but I do not believe that such hateful rhetoric is representative of most Irish people”.
Meanwhile the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, told the Irish Independent Rooney had taken “a principled stance against apartheid” that is greatly appreciated by the Palestinian people.
She said there has lately been a “worrying” conflation between anti-Semitism and the calculated criticism of Israeli policies, claiming these are “two different things”.
The ambassador said Rooney “did what she believes in” and is not against having the book translated into Hebrew.
She herself has recently started to watch the TV adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, and is enjoying it.
“It’s very simple and it is something that I like,” she said.
She has also ordered the new book, Beautiful World, Where are You, which she will read in English. “I don’t know if it is available in Arabic.”