Tamara Faith Berger’s sexually explosive new novel, Yara, frames the emotional maturation of a Brazilian-Jewish woman as she tries to escape the clutches of her controlling girlfriend. Halfway through the story, during a Birthright trip where Israeli-Palestinian tensions are particularly high, Yara has her first heterosexual encounter; against this backdrop, the book briefly transcends the erotic and political register in which it is written and adopts prose more closely resembling a holy text or a piece of religious scholarship.
“I hurt just like the Messiah,” a Philadelphian rabbi says to Yara and a group of young Jews in Israel. “This was Paul’s revelation. My friends, this is the pre-eminent Christian teaching. It is the central rift between us and them. The difference between Judaism and Christianity is in the understanding of pain. They believe pain is transmissible. This, my Jewish friends, is a very dangerous thing to have to live.”
This doctrine of pain transference has characterized most of Yara’s life, but it is only after encountering the rabbi’s remarks that she comes to realize the extent to which she has become a vessel for other people’s suffering. Her needy ex-girlfriend pressured Yara to come out of the closet; Yara’s mother practically forced her daughter to get plastic surgery so that she could attract the attention of men; and still later on in the novel, Yara’s porn-star mogul boyfriend tries to convince her to bear his child through sexually extortionate means. Yara’s three closest intimates form a kind of surrogate trinity-mother that cannot help projecting their fears onto her.
“I wasn’t writing against the toxic mother-daughter relationship,” Berger says while describing the various “germinations and originations” of the novel. “But I think a lot of times a mother’s history sort of seeps through to her children, notably with daughters.”
This unwelcome pain-transference occurs on several levels in the novel, but none in a way more alienating to Yara than her mother’s disapproval of her relationship with her older ex-girlfriend. This manipulative romantic relationship is at the centre of all of Yara’s traumas, and Berger cuts forward and backward in the narrative so that the charged events of Yara’s present in 2006 are always in close proximity to their sexually tinged roots.
“I really like to work with the layers of meaning in sex,” Berger says, describing the various pleasures and strains that can result from intimacy. “Sex is a very good place to embed ideas. I think in my past work, I had a bit more of a basic understanding of the representation of sex from the female point of view. I worked under the feminist banner of ‘the personal is political.’ ”
“Consent is the big political subject that I was taking on with Yara,” she continues, “even if I’m trying to bury the politics a little bit.”
Berger set out to situate a young woman’s sexual struggles within a broader web of connections, but without ever losing the immersive feeling of a page-turner – politics are present, but the book is also not an allegory.
Yara forges new relationships outside the boundaries of her girlfriend’s stifling control once she leaves Brazil, ushering her into a world of vast juridical consequences. The culmination of these events is Yara’s ejection from Birthright for filming a sex tape at the height of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping in 2006 by Hamas and the Army of Islam.
After proddings from her friend Talia, who shot the tape, Yara reveals that this is not the first time that she has made an illicit video: Yara’s ex-girlfriend plied her with alcohol and then filmed them having sex while she was a minor. Talia’s father, a lawyer who wishes to have Yara’s ex-girlfriend formally charged for creating and distributing the video, informs Yara of the various legal ramifications that await if her former lover is formally named in a court deposition.
“In addition to class, boundary violations, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Berger says, “I wanted to explore the time before the explosion of the internet when being online was more like an open space – exciting and even aspirational in a way – but I also pushed against the idea that the sex tape means shame and that a leak should be humiliating for a woman. I wish that this equation did not exist.”
Berger is unsure whether her book will make the concept of consent more transparent but she recognizes the value of contributing to the continuing discussions surrounding sexual education, rehabilitation and victimhood.
“My kid recently went to university,” Berger says, “and every student going into residence had to take a consent workshop. They were teaching that consent is not always verbal – that you have to learn how to read non-verbal consent cues. That was quite different than the ‘No means no’ campaign that I grew up with.”
“It’s so fraught right now with school sex-ed and what they’re teaching or not teaching,” Berger continues, “but I feel like it’s incredibly helpful for a child to have a conception of ‘Don’t touch me. I don’t want to be touched right now.’ I’m happy that ideas around boundaries and consent are more in the cultural conversation.”
After Yara is able to disentangle herself from everyone in her life and begin anew, she develops a proper understanding of how consent and personal autonomy can lead to a feeling of empowerment. She is able to cultivate interests and pursuits of her own choosing, and take ownership of her future potential.
“I was going to study translation and true crime,” Yara resolves near the end of the novel. “I stayed in my body. I learned to say victim out loud.”