Michael David Lukas might have two well-reviewed novels under his belt, but that hasn’t taken any of the agonizing uncertainty out of writing.
“There’s moments where you feel something click when you’re writing, but there’s always that self-doubt, that voice over my shoulder telling me that what I’m doing isn’t working,” he said.
Some recent news might help the San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Creative Writing finally set his self-doubt aside: Last week he learned that his multigenerational novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in fiction. Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the award recognizes outstanding literature that focuses on themes of Jewish interest. Lukas says he wrote the novel to capture Jewish history in a unique way, bringing to light the rich history of Jewish communities in Egypt.
The idea for the book was conceived 19 years ago, when Lukas was a college student studying abroad in Cairo. He recalls wandering into a cemetery where all of the gravestones had Jewish names and were marked with the Star of David. A tour guide showed him the way to a 1,000-year-old temple nearby, the Ibn Ezra Synagogue, built at the site where the infant Moses was supposedly taken from the Nile. That religious landmark would become the setting for The Last Watchman of Old Cairo.
“I was in love with the city,” Lukas said. “But I felt disconnected from my Jewish identity. … It just felt like being Jewish and living and feeling infatuated with Cairo were mutually exclusive, but they weren’t at all. They are very connected.”
Published by Spiegel and Grau in March 2018, the novel is centered around Joseph, a literature student at Berkeley and the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. The story follows Joseph’s attempts to unearth the two sides of his family lineage. Lukas, who has also lived and worked in Turkey and Tel Aviv, attributes much of his storytelling to his own personal travels. He says of all the characters he has created, Joseph is who he relates to most.
“That was difficult to do because it involved digging deeper into my own sense of self," Lukas said. "He was a nice vehicle to explore some of the questions that I have been dealing with: questions of identity and nation and memory. What it means to be in a diaspora and what it means to have intergenerational trauma and dealing with that.”
As a Jewish child growing up in Berkeley, Lukas was bitten by the literary bug in high school, perfecting his prose through poetry and writing for the school newspaper.
“The kind of unanswerable questions that are posed by literature, that we attempt to answer with writing, those are the things I wanted to spend my time grappling with,” he said.
Lukas was accepted into a fiction-writing workshop while attending Brown University and nearly 10 years later published his first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, a finalist for the 2011 California Book Award. He’s currently working on a third novel that will be a futuristic retelling of the biblical book of Esther.
He joined San Francisco State’s Department of Creative Writing last summer. Though teaching takes time and energy away from his writing, Lukas says he finds his students’ thoughtful opinions and insightful questions inspiring.
“I’ve been really amazed by the students and I think if anything I feel like they’ve taught me so much,” said Lukas. “The recognition is really gratifying and great to have, but at the end of the day it’s about putting your butt in the chair and just writing.”
— Ivan Natividad