The Great Interview Experiment 2009: Otir!


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If you don’t read Neil Kramer’s Citizen of the Month, you should.  He blogs very poigninatly, conciesly, and humorously on a number of personal issues and has great interactions with other bloggers.

Last year, he held an experiment where each person that commented on his post would interview the person above them and write up the interview on their blog.  He did the same thing again this year and, as a result, I got to find out about Otir, who blogs thoughtfully in French (and now English! and also Twitter and Vimeo) about her life in the United States as a single mother of two boys, one with autism.  But she also blogs about intercultural relations, being French and Jewish, and a number of weighty topics in between.

un sourire fabuleux!

un sourire fabuleux!

Her main blog is in French, which is sad since I don’t speak French because I devoted my high school years to learning the ultra-useful language of Latin and my college years to learning the ultra-widely-spoken Modern Hebrew, but her Posterous blog, her tweets, and her videos are all really interesting.  Here’s my interview of her below.  Check her out-you are in for a real treat!

1. You wrote in last year’s interview that, “To me, language modifies the way we think. I don’t think the same in English, nor do I in French, or in any other language that I may be able to master.”  How does writing in French differ from writing in English for you? What are differences between American and French ways of thinking?

Otir: This is such a thrilling question to me! I have dreamt of being able to elaborate on the topic since I started studying language(s) in my twenties, but I guess I could never devote myself to any scholarly essay, because it is so much work. Writing in French comes naturally to me, because of course it is my native language, I was educated in French, and also I was a “good” writer from the start. But it turned out that I was also good at writing in English when I took it in Middle School and graduated from High School with a very fair amount of “good writing” in English too, although our Language Studies were never really aiming at developing our writing skills.</p>

So, in the beginning, I wrote in English pretty much the same as I would have done it in French, developing ideas, producing analysis, adding words to words and thoughts to thoughts. It turned out to be an asset in order to write essays in litterature classes, but not useful otherwise.

Then, I went to the United States (I was twenty at the time) and lived a whole summer semester completely immersed on a Californian campus (UCSB) and that’s when I realized thinking in English could be so different from thinking in French. I was feeling freer to express in a direct way, without necessarily thinking of all consequences: it was possible to make mistakes, to “take back” some thoughts and reform them.

When I use French, it is as if words had a very different weight. In a way, they are less precise, they are more abstract, so they can bear multiple meanings. English is a more technical language, a language that will describe an action, when French will describe an act, something that is more of a concept, that leaves an inprint, and that you don’t go back to so easily: as if “what is said is said, too late, you can’t delete it!”.

English syntax is more verbal, rather than nominal. Any translator knows that  the ratio between French and English is 1.20, meaning that the translated text in French is likely to be longer than the English original by twenty or more words for a hundred words. Vice versa a text in English will lose twenty percent from the original text in French. Will it lose substance? of course not, but it will definitely go to the point in less words! and sometimes lose what the Americans like to call “charm”.

I certainly could go on and on with the topic, but since I am writing it in English I am too aware of the possible attention span of my readers :-) and don’t want to lose them on the first question!</div>

2.  You write about raising a son with autism, and two sons, all by yourself.  I couldn’t help but think of Penelope Trunk,, also sometimes writes about autistic spectrum issues with her younger son (here’s one of those posts)-in between creating a great deal of controversy in the blogosphere in general, and how she deals with it.  What does it mean for you to be open about your son’s autism online? Does it help you cope, in a way?

Otir: I have never really pondered about the possible controversy I could create by being open about my son’s autism online. In the beginning, back in ’98 when he was diagnosed, I had just arrived in the United States, and Internet was my source of expertise on the topics, the topic of autism, as well as special education, advocacy, at a time when controversy already existed within the autism community, but had not yet perspired in the more mainstream population. So we were keeping the controversies within manageable realms, I guess.</p>

At the same time, I was very urgently feeling the need to educate the French speaking community (autism community) about the fabulous advance the American world had on the questions of education for people with autism and other cognitive and developmental disorders. France was still completely dominated by the idea that autism was a psychiatric condition, probably caused by terrible parenting and only properly dealt with by very pompous psychoanalysts who had a great deal to say about the mysteries of the psyche of those tortured people.

Before Internet, any trend coming from the United States to Europe would have taken something like twenty years to reach out. With the Internet, it started to accelerate the movement. I could not refrain myself from taking part in it, because that’s who I am. I guess that I felt very positively about being open, in the sense that it was for a “greater good”, that I like sharing, and I truly believe that there is power in communication, in information, in education.

I initially was publishing a great deal under our real names, and soon enough, when Google started to take off, realized that the indexation of the World Wide Web could become detrimental to my family’s privacy. That’s when I started using nicknames for everyone. I am certainly trying to be as careful as possible as to respect my sons’ privacy. However, for me saying that one of them has autism is a little bit like saying that the other one has a fabulous sense for maths, something that I truly value, and that is particular to each of them as a possible asset.

Now, to answer the question whether it helps me cope with autism, I wouldn’t say so. I don’t feel like I “have to cope”, or am coping with. I guess this is my life, and we all have things that are particular circumstances, like I have to “cope with” the fact that I live far away from home, or that I am single, etc. Being open about my personal challenges may be a way to cope with them, or just that it is part of my extraverted personality. I don’t always know how to not be open about things that are part of who I am. And having autism in our lives is who we are.

3.  How do you reconcile your French with your Jewish identity or vice versa?  How do you think American Jews are different than French Jews?  You often quote from Jewish scripture in your blog-is spirituality or religion something you feel strongly about?

Otir: Yes, I feel strongly about my Jewishness, and I believe that people would say I am very spiritual, this is how I hear a lot of friends talk about me in life. I have a very strong Jewish identity, and it is not in contradiction with also having a strong French identity, as well as having a strong gender identity. Being a women does not preclude anyone from also feeling strongly in such and such identity, so it can all go together.</p>

American Jews are certainly very very different from French Jews, and the differences are obvious as soon as you start the topic of religion. Because in secular France, the topic of religion is considered as a private matter, where in the United States, it is very common to state what your religious beliefs are in a very casual way. In France, saying that you believe in God, or making reference to religious vocabulary to express yourself can be seen as rude, even offensive: the norm is neutrality and it stems in history, the same way as attitude towards religion in the US stems in its history, of course! Basically, the separation between church and state is considered as no laughing matter in France, especially since the Catholic Church had represented a lot of evil things before it was definitely barred from any form of government, power over people’s lives, etc.

The French Jewry has a very ancient history in France (it goes back to at least eleventh century, with Rashi for instance), and it is so different from the history of the American Jewry that goes back to seventeeth century I guess, with a primary small sefardic community that never developed big. The American Jews have certainly been mixed with several waves of  Jewish immigrations, and have a core of Yiddishkeit that is not existing in France: most of the yiddish speakers were decimated during the Shoah. There are attempts to revive the Yiddish culture, but the sephardic community is much more vibrant and active. Also, France has a unique rabbinate that you don’t find in the United States (called the Consistoire) which excludes non-orthodox movements and still is the official voice of Judaism in France.

I was raised in a secular environment, went to public school, and educated myself in Judaism with more orthodox friends, mostly with a sephardic culture imported recently (after the fifties). Now that I live in the United States, (and am “affiliated” with the Reform movement, just because this was what was available where I live) I have found it more difficult to see more diversity co-exist within the Jewish world here, and I would love that our children get more open on the multiple aspects of Jewish cultures, life and history than it seems to be tought and passed along.

4.  What attracts you to video blogging?  Do you feel it is more or less important than writing? Would you eventually like to go somewhere with it, or is it a tool to document the lives of your family and friends?

Otir: Video blogging came to me very serendipitously ; while I was still in the very beginning of my blogging experience, about six months after I started and was still very excited about it, my computer had to be upgraded and it came with a webcam (I am a Mac person). At the same time, I had been introduced to Seesmic, at the time a video platform run by a French entrepreneur, so I naturally started to take part in the conversation. Then a year later, I overcame the false idea that I could not do storytelling with a video camera and got myself into making small movies, most of them to send to my parents and family so that they keep an idea on how the boys are growing, and more and more, I feel like vlogging is really a nice way of telling stories too. Today, I make more of the small movies to document stories than to actually send my family but not all of them are yet published.</p>

I am not sure I can really improve the amateur quality of my vlogging, because I cannot keep up with the technical aspects of it, and I am always behind when it comes to upgrading and so on, and also because it is time consuming, but I do believe that video will develop greatly, so it is important to keep up with the trend. I see how the young generation (at least my twelve year-old son) is less interested in reading than I was at the same age, when I had no TV (I was already behind technology, because don’t let people think I am eighty years old!), and how the visual message can get accross and reach different parts of their attention.

All in all, I think video blogging is a very nice addition to writing, that it should not replace it, nor be “either/or”, like there are different kinds of litterature, comic books or school textbooks, etc.

What I learnt is that the connection I make with others through their videos or mine is very different, very broadening, and this is what I like.

5. How do you feel you’ve changed, if at all, since last year’s interview? How has your life changed?

My life hasn’t changed basically. Nothing transformative has happened since that interview.  (And if you look at the date, it’s very soon going to be two years ago!). In a way, it feels a little scary to realize that nothing would be changing in my life, given all the passion I try to put into it, but as a matter of fact, I think I like to see that. I turned 50 that year (2008) and maybe that’s why, maybe I have finally reached a stage when balance matters more than a lot of adventures all over the place. I feel like it is a blessing to be in a balanced good health and maintain it, to still be living day to day against all odds, especially with the drastic economy that befell us (although I didn’t have anything to lose myself, I guess it made it easier to become even poorer when everyone seems to finally acknowledge we all have to live with less?).</p>

I am entering a time of transitions, transition for my boys who are in their teenage, and transition for myself too, so I like to be aware of the tiny little changes, although they are sometimes so annoying like not being able to see anything anymore without glasses, or dreading the lack of energy when I have to keep up with younger around me.

I still haven’t really come to terms with my failed marriage, and that has been something I recently became aware of: this should not be left unchanged, and it’s probably high time for me to learn how to let go of the underlying (and toxic) feelings that go with clinging to anger and resentment. However, I always find something more interesting to devote myself to than to myself!

6. You recently wrote on your Posterous, “Do I really need them to read what I wrote? Whom am I writing for in the first place? What am I writing for?” when debating whether to start blogging in English.  Have you been able to answer these questions for yourself? Does blogging in English provide more of a pleasure in being able to reach your friends, or more of a hindrance in expressing yourself?

Otir: I haven’t really been very consistent in blogging in English as regularly as I had envisioned doing it. I feel like I should be able to develop my writing without being such a perfectionist, and this has been what kept me insecure about writing in English, not the English language itself. I have recently been asked to produce some content for our shul’s website, and although I initially volunteered to do so, just the idea of publishing on a regular basis, if the project lives, threw me in panic mode, that I have to fight agressively. It is as if as soon as I knew how to put a face to whom I would be writing for, it becomes more difficult, more threatening. I know that when I answer “I am writing for myself” to the question, I feel like I have no real obligation, but then I also let it be very slack, and do not really endeveour doing my best!

Anyway, I enjoyed tremendously answering your very thought-provoking questions, and once again, I am very thankful for you to have thought of asking them to me, and to Neilochka for pursuing his dream of connecting people. Discovering you has been a real pleasure, and you have gained a reader and a follower!

And you have too, Otir!  Thanks for sharing your fascinating story.