An Interview With Clare Needham
In the interview that follows, Clare Needham talks with TMR interns Persy Clark and Kim Potthast about her essay “Cover Up.” In that essay, the author describes her time spent living and working in Jerusalem. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read the essay here.
Kim Potthast: The title “Cover Up” is simple but effective. How did you choose it? Were there ever any other titles this essay went by?
Clare Needham: I chose “Cover Up” because it can be read as a verb or, hyphenated, as a noun: Cover-up. I intend both readings. I read the title as an imperative, as a command I gave myself to disguise my body as much as possible. As a noun, it functions as a secret note for me, with its suggestion of suppression and concealment. There’s so much I left out in this essay to tell this one particular story. It’s a reminder that the essay is itself a cover-up for a larger, longer story.
There weren’t any viable alternative titles, but I remember that while walking around Jerusalem I’d often think of writing a story I’d call “Who Do You Think You Are?”—without understanding what it would contain or how I’d begin. It’s a question that ricocheted around my head a lot, a question I directed at myself, and also one I wanted to ask constantly of everyone else. It’s a good question, in all its tonal possibilities and responses.
Persy Clark: If you had written this essay while still living in Jerusalem, how different do you think it would be?
CN: I would not have written this essay while living in Jerusalem. In those years, I was fixated on and defeated by trying to understand and explain the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the years since my return to New York, I’ve drifted back to my usual self-contemplation. I still think constantly about Jerusalem, though. It was an education that went beyond the limits of what this essay conveys.
I didn’t intend to write this essay at all—it took me by surprise. I wrote it very quickly in early April 2020, a singular time to be living in New York City, then the epicenter of the pandemic. A couple of weeks before New York issued a mask mandate, I decided one afternoon that I’d tie a scarf around the lower half of my face and keep it on in the grocery store. On my walk over, a man saw me in my makeshift mask and crossed the street before I could pass him. I don’t know what he thought—did he think I was infected?–but his action catapulted me back to the times in Jerusalem, when I would have wanted nothing more than to have that power, to appear dangerous and repel everyone (meaning men) around me. In April 2020, it was as if I’d assumed this incredible power I’d needed and wanted so much in another city, in another time. When I reread “Cover Up” recently, I was surprised by how quickly I launch into a description of what I’m wearing, the uniform I develop and change. But then I’m reminded that I really did begin this as an essay about clothing, and the sometimes-magical thinking I’ve had around clothes: that the right clothes change everything and will protect me. That adding (or removing) clothing is an effective form of control.
KP: In your essay, you mention the death of the American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer under contested circumstances. The story was told to you as a warning. Were there any other examples of violent or deadly incidents like this being used as warnings to resident aliens?
CN: An Israeli colleague mentioned Rachel Corrie to me not as a warning but as an example of how I was being perceived by authority—in specific, by Israeli airport security at Ben Gurion. Jerusalem is not a dangerous city. It’s safer than many American cities, if not most. But in any city, your safety depends on who you are, how you appear, how likely you are to be treated or mistreated by the police, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by the Israeli army, too. Jerusalem is safe for me in a way it’s not for a Palestinian living in Sheikh Jarrah. What happened to me, this kind of stranger vs. stranger violence, was an anomaly, something that shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. I knew that some people back in the States assumed that I was contending daily with the specter of bus bombings, but I lived in Jerusalem in so-called quiet years. There wasn’t the kind of violence that makes international headlines. But there was, and still is, the everyday violence of the occupation, which Westerners can more easily ignore. In “Cover Up,” I describe limitations to my movement in a specific neighborhood, but in general, in retrospect, I was very free. Often, I’d walk through the Old City to get to West Jerusalem, and sometimes the Israeli army would create surprise checkpoints, say at Damascus Gate. One hot afternoon, I took my place at the end of a long line and prepared to show my ID. Within a minute, a soldier led me to the front, apologizing and explaining that the line was “for Arabs only.” Burning with shame, I continued on my way.
KP: How and why did you develop a desire to conform and not make waves, to be a “perfect stranger”?
CN: Sometimes I think of Jerusalem and New York as opposites. In New York, people dress to be seen. I love looking at what people wear. Also in New York, you can dress outrageously, and no one will look twice. I love New York for its gift of anonymity. It’s a kind of anonymity that is not possible in Jerusalem, and really, it’s hard to find this anonymity in other cities, too. In Jerusalem, there are large religious communities, Muslim, Jewish, also Christian. There’s an emphasis on modesty—which is not to say that modesty precludes style. But I knew even before I moved to Jerusalem that I would no longer be operating as I had in New York. I wanted not so much to conform as to pass as a respectful outsider. Is it possible to be a “perfect stranger”? Probably not. It gets back to this interesting question: Who do you think you are?
PC: Do you think conditions for women in America could ever become similar to those in Jerusalem, given the right circumstances?
CN: Women in Jerusalem lead all kinds of lives. There, as it is here, in America, or anywhere in the world, the status of women as people is never secure. It’s constantly being negotiated and is often undermined.
PC: Were there any parts in the final draft of this piece that you considered excluding? If so, why?
CN: I’d consider excluding the entire essay. I usually write fiction, and there’s freedom and power in not claiming anything I write as hewing too closely to my own experiences, thoughts, obvious shortcomings. In fiction, there’s freedom in parceling out bits of my life and observations to different characters.
Also, I’d exclude nothing. I’d leave everything in. But I’d interrogate every sentence, elaborate on it, make it lead to other places. I’d write a longer work that departs from the same material.
There is one small edit I’d actually like to make. In the final sentence, I write: “In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.” I’d like to exclude “In America.” I’m not sure why I qualified the sentence that way when it’s true for me elsewhere as well.