16 March 2010 @ 03:25 pm
On Jewish --and other -- fantasy stories  
I keep coming on posts this week that I want to add to my next linky post, only I find I have more to say about them than can fit in a linky post. Like when lnhammer pointed me to coffeeandink's post about not framing Jewish religion -- or any other religion either--in terms of Christianity. That in turn led me to this article I've been meaning to read for ages: Why there is no Jewish Narnia.

Which I found myself disagreeing with early and often. This in particular irritated me as patently untrue -- "Aside from an aversion to medieval nostalgia, there is a further historical reason why 20th-century Jews have not written much fantasy literature, and that is, inevitably, the Holocaust. Its still agonizing historical weight must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical" -- as did the later claim that Judaism was naturally more sympathetic to science fiction than fantasy. But really, I found myself disagreeing more and more strongly throughout, with the exception of the one intriguing claim that Judaism isn't a good vs. evil religion the way Christianity is, so not as prone to good vs. evil battles -- I don't think that's entirely accurate, but there might be something going on there that would be interesting to poke at at in more detail.

Mostly, though, I found myself thinking about the fact that the author strikes me as looking for "Jewish fantasy" in the wrong place: in the trappings of the worldbuilding. I've only written two clearly Jewish stories (one dealing with Hanukkah and issues around violence/nonviolence; the other dealing with Passover and vampires). But of course all my stories are Jewish. It informs my worldview. I don't construct narratives quite the same way a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Tohono O'Odham writer. All our worldviews inform our work, and this is non-trivial.

One example, just because it's still fresh in mind right now: in the draft I just turned in, which is now sitting on my editor's desk, I went around with issues of forgiveness--I have characters who played a direct role in the War that destroyed their world, and who are still living with what they've done almost 20 years later, and those characters also are speaking up a little bit more in this book than in the first book I wrote set in that world.

So. I'm aware that, in Jewish theology, prayer is a way of repenting for wrongs done against God, but that harm done to another person can only be made right by directly making amends to the person who was hurt--only the individual who was harmed can grant forgiveness for that harm. In its way, praying to God directly is easy. Walking up to those we've hurt and directly apologizing and asking for their forgiveness is hard, and something I've struggled with and not always succeeded at through the years.

I became more and more aware, as I wrote this book, how much that influenced how my characters who played a role in the War dealt with the fact, as well as which responses both they and I had sympathy for.

Which to my mind makes this book about faeries, with little religion on stage, a Jewish book.

Jewish writing isn't in whether the fantasy trappings represent medieval Europe or the Middle East or anyone else, and it isn't in whether dybbuks or seraphim puts in token appearances on a story's pages, either. It's in the ways in which each Jewish writer processes his or her experiences with--our reactions to, workings through of, even rejection of--the various things we've learned and experienced as Jews.

I'm guessing this is true for those from other religious backgrounds, too, though I can't say this for sure, neither having been raised in nor adopted those traditions. I know there are storytelling elements I do think of as Christian (one particular--the way forgiveness often comes as an act of grace that results more from internal repentance than external action), though practicing Christians, who know their theology more deeply than I do, may see it very differently.

Of course, no two stories by writers from a given background will be the same, because we all process our experiences differently, and the common ground can probably only be seen in retrospect, over the long term. Even Tolkien and Lewis created very different worlds.

And even Narnia is not Christian because Christ more or less shows up on stage. It's Christian because of its notions of how one lives a worthy life, how wrongdoing can or can't be redeemed, and what the rewards and punishments are for living or not living life properly. Aslan doesn't make Narnia Christian. It's how Lewis uses that lion and his world that makes it so.
 
 
( 83 comments — Leave a comment )
Emma Bull: Cat in Specscoffeeem on March 16th, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you! This was fascinating, and moving, and informative. (And oh, dear, I'm reminded that I learn so much more from a thoughtful essay than from a scold! *g*)
cathshaffercathshaffer on March 16th, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
This is a very interesting read. I would like to thank you for writing a very thoughtful and informative post without the requisite bash against Christianity, which is not something I could say about the posts you linked to. (I'm so deeply gratified to learn that my faith is not *totally* incompatible with social justice. Phew!)

To answer the question of forgiveness and Christianity, grace or absolution is not intended to replace making amends directly for the wrongs you've done. Instead, salvation and grace are intended to correct the fundamental flaw in our character that causes us to commit those wrongs. In orthodox Christianity, part of the sacrament of confession is penance, which usually involves making amends for what you've done, if possible.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 16th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
To answer the question of forgiveness and Christianity, grace or absolution is not intended to replace making amends directly for the wrongs you've done. Instead, salvation and grace are intended to correct the fundamental flaw in our character that causes us to commit those wrongs. In orthodox Christianity, part of the sacrament of confession is penance, which usually involves making amends for what you've done, if possible.

Thanks for this--it's useful for helping me to better understand how grace dovetails with action in orthodox Christian theology, and I'm guessing other denominations, too.

The question of how forgiveness and repentance work is an interesting one--some day I ought to look more deeply at how various other traditions handle this.
(no subject) - cathshaffer on March 16th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on March 17th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cathshaffer on March 17th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rj_anderson on March 17th, 2010 12:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - janni on March 19th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
orbitalmechanic on March 16th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)
Ah, thank you.

I once wrote a story about a Jewish vampire, which started as a smart-ass one-liner (does a cross burn?) and went somewhere entirely different. I was really struck by how alien the modern vampire story is to Jewish theology--which is to say, how Christian it is, all about sin and corruption and sex and evils of the body.
orbitalmechanic on March 16th, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC)
(The above comment reminds me to say: I don't mean to say Christianity is just about sin and sex! Only that those things mean something very different in Christianity, which informs the vampire stories I see everywhere. No insult intended.)
(no subject) - janni on March 17th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - robling_t on March 20th, 2010 11:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - janni on March 27th, 2010 12:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on March 16th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC)
Do you ever deliberately construct a worldview which is, well, antithetical to your religion?

I mean... I do. All the time. I've got a fringe one, with some fringy beliefs, and... Sometimes I can sneak in a little bit of stuff that is informed by my worldview, but mostly... I'm deliberately ignoring it. I believe X; my characters believe Y, and whaddya know? In the universe I've created, they're right.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 17th, 2010 07:42 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting question. I've constructed individual characters, even protagonists, whose world views don't mesh with mine, but probably not an entire world through and through, though fantasy is a perfect place to do that. It may be because I tend to write stories set in or somehow linked to this world, which are thus influenced by it.

I learned a lot about how much how we build the world influences what philosophies do and don't make sense the time I tried to play a nonviolent character in a universe that actually did have very clear cut evil races that lacked free will and could not be reasoned with!
(no subject) - archangelbeth on March 21st, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - archangelbeth on March 26th, 2010 10:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on March 27th, 2010 12:53 am (UTC) (Expand)
hédonisme libertairemmoneurere on March 20th, 2010 06:15 am (UTC)
I'd be interested in hearing more about this process. I'll admit that I have some limitations here -- to take an extreme example, I'd have a very hard time developing a world in which eternal torture could be anything other than a sign of evil, let alone a holy judgment to be celebrated. I can pretty easily develop characters with very different concepts of theology, and accept that they may be right in their own worlds -- but in the other major realm where religion spends time, ethics, I have a much harder time developing a believable world in which positions which are radically divergent from my own are not only held, but are correctly held. What's it like to take on that sort of project? Does changing the frame of reference change how a narrative works?
(no subject) - archangelbeth on March 21st, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - alixtii on March 28th, 2010 01:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Snuffy LaRuejess_ka on March 16th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
Excellently said!
chocolate in the fruit bowlkarenhealey on March 17th, 2010 12:54 am (UTC)
This is a great post.

And it makes me think how being an atheist, but a Roman Catholic-*raised* atheist, informs what I do in my work. I'm sure a Southern Baptist turned atheist or Sunni Muslim turned atheist might approach world-building and characterisation and theme very differently - my conversion is complete, but I am not entirely culturally rewired.

Edited at 2010-03-17 12:57 am (UTC)
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 17th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
I know for me, the things I've actively rejected (and not only in a religious context) have influenced my world view and how I write about the world as much as those that I've accepted and embraced.

Plus there is that interaction of culture and religion going on -- the cultural influences can play a role even when the religious ones don't, definitely.

I've wondered if maybe that's why lapsed Catholics will actively refer to themselves as such sometimes -- because they still feel they're somewhat culturally Catholic, even if by religious criteria they're really not anymore?

I know Jews more or less do this, except you really can't become not-Jewish or be kicked out in any way unless you actively renounce the religion, so religious and secular Jews (a dichotomy that's problematic in its own way) are both still Jews ...

Edited at 2010-03-17 07:48 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - iainjcoleman on March 22nd, 2010 01:58 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dolorosa_12 on March 20th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on March 26th, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
The Green Knight: Confused?green_knight on March 17th, 2010 11:12 am (UTC)
This makes me question which other Christian values I might find in my own writing - attitudes towards marriage, propriety, family; relationship to one's deities, religious practice, particularly in everyday-life (a lot of non-Christian religions in fantasy look very much either like Christianity or a Christian's view of paganism from where I'm standing), and greater attitudes such as ethics and taboos.

How Christian is my writing is not something I've ever asked myself, but now I wonder...
penigriffin.blogspot.com on March 17th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that your worldview is going to inform your story whatever you do; so fantasy written by a Jewish author is automatically Jewish fantasy; in which case there's quite a lot out there just from Jane Yolen's existence. If the criterion is "someone who reads the story can identify it as Jewish," then whether a story was Jewish (or Christian or Wiccan or whatever) would change with every reader.

I'm agnostic, myself, which in practice means that I can take the question: "what if this belief system really works, how does that look?" and play with it all I want. But my Reverend Mom is always finding Christianity in my stories because that's where she's coming from. And that's fine. We can't control how readers read our stories.
(no subject) - green_knight on March 17th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on March 17th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on March 17th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Deborah J. Rossdeborahjross on March 17th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
The show-stopper for me was the claim that there are no Jewish fantasy writers of any note. Thus the writer betrayed his own abysmal ignorance of the field. Maybe he thinks that writers like Jane Yolen, Lisa Goldstein and Harry Turtledove don't count because they also write other genres?

Like you, Janni, I bring Jewish sensibilities and values to everything I write, whether it's set on Darkover or in outer space. Would a gentile recognize the theme of making t'shuvah in THE ALTON GIFT? Or tikkun olam in JAYDIUM? More importantly -- does it matter?

Occasionally, I write an overtly Jewish story: "Transfusion" (from REALMS OF FANTASY, also available through AnthologyBuilder and in my collection of that name) builds a friendship between an observant Jew and a vampire (in which, among other things, they discuss and are enlightened by the philosophy of Maimonides); "Unmasking the Ancient Light" (from ANCIENT SORCERESSES) is a historical fantasy based on the life of Dona Gracia Nasi; "Green Chains" (from ASIMOV'S) is culturally Jewish, with a light touch.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 17th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
The show-stopper for me was the claim that there are no Jewish fantasy writers of any note. Thus the writer betrayed his own abysmal ignorance of the field. Maybe he thinks that writers like Jane Yolen, Lisa Goldstein and Harry Turtledove don't count because they also write other genres?

Like you, Janni, I bring Jewish sensibilities and values to everything I write, whether it's set on Darkover or in outer space. Would a gentile recognize the theme of making t'shuvah in THE ALTON GIFT? Or tikkun olam in JAYDIUM?


Yes, to all of this.

I don't think it does matter directly, except when someone claims it's all not there, as in that article. :-) Well, okay, it also matters to us as writers, and to those readers who do see it.

Also, I'm now wondering, given that you're the third of us in this thread to write a Jewish vampire stories, if there aren't enough of them out there for a collection, if anyone were inclined to gather them. :-)
(no subject) - deborahjross on March 17th, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
sarah_createsarah_create on March 19th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
I suspect that readers and people in general are unaware of how many Jews write fantasy (including NY Times bestsellers, awards winner, incredible children's writers, etc.)

Our beliefs, including religious beliefs, will inherently appear in our books, usually beneath the surface.

Nice post.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on March 26th, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
Depending on the sort of story, often even ideally beneath the surface. :-)
Shveta, bursting with stars ॐshveta_thakrar on March 19th, 2010 10:41 pm (UTC)
Jewish writing isn't in whether the fantasy trappings represent medieval Europe or the Middle East or anyone else, and it isn't in whether dybbuks or seraphim puts in token appearances on a story's pages, either. It's in the ways in which each Jewish writer processes his or her experiences with--our reactions to, workings through of, even rejection of--the various things we've learned and experienced as Jews.

*clap, clap, clap*
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on March 26th, 2010 09:58 pm (UTC)
(Hey, keep meaning to mention I was happy to hear you mention that you'd be at Sirens--if I'm remembering right--because we'll get to me in person there!)
(no subject) - shveta_thakrar on March 27th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC) (Expand)
solvent90 on March 20th, 2010 10:59 am (UTC)
even Narnia is not Christian because Christ more or less shows up on stage. It's Christian because of its notions of how one lives a worthy life, how wrongdoing can or can't be redeemed, and what the rewards and punishments are for living or not living life properly. Aslan doesn't make Narnia Christian. It's how Lewis uses that lion and his world that makes it so.

Thank you for this insight. I've loved and been infuriated and influenced by Narnia for many, many years and that exactly articulates my feeling about those books. To me, the most Christian moment in the whole series - the moment most specific to Lewis's conception of Christianity - isn't the crucifixion of Aslan, it's that moment in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace tries and tries to remove his dragon scales and there's always another layer underneath and he's only freed of them when he allows Aslan to dig right in with his claws:

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off."

That pretty neatly encapsulates Lewis's account of sin and salvation: the pain, the pleasure, and the necessity for the the action of God to do what human free will alone can't.
solvent90 on March 20th, 2010 11:02 am (UTC)
(here via metafandom, by the way).
(no subject) - janni on March 26th, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
no novian but one; a song with a missiondolorosa_12 on March 20th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
I'm here via metafandom and want to thank you for this marvellous post. I was just wondering if you'd read Abigail Nussbaum's response to the 'why there is no Jewish Narnia' article. She makes some pretty good points which feed in very nicely to what you are saying.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on March 26th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
(bookmarking to read now ...)
i'm going to be on fucking youtube again: AI-David doing *chinhands* at Larrrraaaaficangel on March 20th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
Here via Metafandom
Thank you for posting this; incredibly interesting and informative.
(Anonymous) on November 12th, 2010 02:42 am (UTC)
Sacred Books
Thought this might be of interest:

Culture Clash

posted by Eric Kimmel on NOVEMBER 8, 2010 in BLOG, READING, WRITING

I had an interesting experience this morning. I took part in a panel discussion with author David Michael Slater. The program was part of the adult education program at Temple Beth Israel. David and I spoke to the question of how being Jewish affects what we write.

Some of David’s comments really intrigued me. His Sacred Books series assumes alternate versions of Bible stories. What if the Garden of Eden was a library and the Tree of Knowledge a book? (Wow! These are books that I absolutely have to read. I bought the first book in the series, “The Book of Nonsense,” and had David autograph it for me. Click HERE if you’d like to learn more about David and his books.)

David describes how his books have caught flack numerous times from Christian fundamentalists. In some cases, it reached the extreme of having the books challenged and creating pressure to cancel invitations for him to speak at schools.

This left me stunned. Here is a perfect example of a cultural collision. Some scriptural literalists may not like the idea of what David is doing. However, within Jewish traditions, what David is doing is not only normal—it’s expected.

Rest here:

http://ericakimmel.com/2010/11/culture-clash/
( 83 comments — Leave a comment )