A few days ago I had published a guest post by Ari Marmell in which he ruminates about some of the reasons that his writing never seems to include any Jewish characters or themes. In contrast, in today's post by Kate Elliott, Elliott discusses some of the ways that Jewish elements that have been incorporated into her stories, sometimes even unintentionally.
I've been an avid reader of Kate Elliott's books for many years and am really excited to have her here today.
So take it away Kate....
One of my editors once noted that I always have Jews in my fantasy novels. At first this comment puzzled me.
I write what is commonly called “secondary world fantasy.” By that I mean stories set not on our Earth. Now, a reader could argue that as a writer I tend to write analog-Earths or a “different Earth with magic” or (in the case of the Crossroads Trilogy) a fantasy trilogy set in my science fiction Jaran universe which is a universe based on a version of our future history, and I won’t disagree. I love to examine and re-vision our own cultures and history, partly as a way to examine issues of our own time that trouble, confuse, or interest me, and partly because our own past is such a fascinating and intriguing place that it never fails to horrify and delight and provide a springboard for good stories.
But because I am not writing our historical Earth, my fantasy worlds [Crown of Stars; Crossroads; Spiritwalker (Cold Magic)] do not contain quite the same religions as our Earth does. I always try to write about a diverse world with multiple cultures, which are then usually involved in conflict or change (thus: the plot). I tend to spend most of my time in one “dominant” culture, which has a specific set of customs and an accepted religion, and make forays into other parts of a larger world to get a look into other societies.
However, both in the Crown of Stars universe (the Hessi) and in the Crossroads Trilogy (the Ri Amarah), the dominant culture includes within it an “outsider culture” that is tolerated (or not tolerated) within a larger societal landscape. This outsider culture is made up of a small group of kinship related people who originally came from somewhere else. Their religion and customs and background are different from and seem strange and mysterious to the people who live in the dominant culture. They are often treated with suspicion or conditional trust, and they are best known to the dominant culture as merchants, because that is the way they most commonly interact with the dominant culture. So even though they have a more complex internal culture that is not at all based on money, when others look at them, they see people who are involved in trade.
Oh. All right then. My editor's comment makes sense if one is writing from a non-Israeli point of view (as I am). In both cases I do not write from the point of view of any of the Hessi or Ri Amarah characters (although I have stories I could and hope someday to write from those view points).
That’s not the only way Judaism emerges in my writing.
The world of Cold Magic is a “different Earth with magic,” one in which an extended ice age locked up Northern Europe to the degree that the Germanic and Scandinavian cultures never developed at all. In this world, among other things, the Romans and Carthaginians fought to a standstill back in the day (the story opens in the Augustan Year 1837), and a influx of very rich and powerful immigrants from the Mali Empire of West Africa remade the map of Europa.
There are also no Jews, no Christianity, no Islam.
But the Phoenicians (and descendants of the Carthaginians) are still around. When it came to writing my fantastical variation on history, I drew heavily on the Bible and on ancient inscriptions, because the Phoenicians, of course, were also a Semitic peoples. Ancient Hebrew and Phoenician are closely related languages within the Canaanite group. So they call themselves Kena’ani (straight from Torah). Two of the servants in the household of the main character have names (Evved and Shiffa) based on transliterations of Hebrew words. And when my heroine glimpses, though an open gate, a sacrificial ceremony in which an anonymous woman has made an offering (of a turtledove in this case) in the hopes of gaining the gods’ favor of getting pregnant, I borrowed from Leviticus and the archaeology of ancient Israel. This was a pretty easy jump for me to make because I read Biblical Hebrew (not well) and have a decent familiarity (not scholarly) with Torah and the history of ancient Israel and thus the Eastern Mediterranean of that time.
There is one odd thing I can’t explain, though.
Early on, I gave my heroine Cat and her cousin Beatrice (Bee) the last name of Barahal. The truth is, I saw this name in the paper in the Honolulu Advertiser; one of the administrators of the Honolulu Marathon has the last name of Barahal. For some reason the name stuck in my head, and I used it, even though there was no other reason to except that I felt it was the right name. Her family clan was part of a diaspora that left Qart Hadast (Carthage) when it was conquered by Turanians (Persians). As a clan, it has made its living for the past two centuries as mercenaries, spies, and couriers. In the course of the novel, Cat discovers things about herself that include an ability to travel places others can’t in magical ways which I won’t explain here.
Some months before Cold Magic was published, when the first listings had started to appear online, I received an email out of the blue with a woman whose last name is Barahal. It turns out that the name is Jewish and has an exceedingly unusual history involving a founding ancestor who was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Ba’al being another word shared between Hebrew and Phoenicio-Punic). Barahal is an anagram for the name of this man, Reb Leib Soros (Barahal is the Americanized version). Among other things, he was said to be able to travel astrally (on different planes) across great distances.
I don’t think any of us can truly get away from who we are in the sense of ways of thinking, being, and processing those influences in how we look at the world and what kinds of things flag our attention. That is all that is needed for there to be “Jewish fantasy.” It is the fantasy (and science fiction) written by Jews.
Enter to win a copy of Cold Magic by Kate Elliott by leaving your name and email address in a comment box below.
You can find out more about Kate Elliott and her books by visiting her website or LiveJournal page.