gayrewind-deactivated20160403  asked:

RE: coding, is it possible to explicitly code, say, a fantasy people as being the Jewish people, despite the fact the setting is a secondary world?

Explicit Jewish representation in secondary-world fantasy

It’s not only possible but I’ve done it, in four books and several short stories. Perach, the made-up setting of A Harvest of Ripe Figs and my other books, is an imaginary Jewish Florida originally created out of my realization that if I wanted a queer Jewish Disney Princess, I was gonna have to invent her myself. (“Perach”, meaning flower, is my attempt at translating the word ‘Florida’ into Hebrew.)

The Jewishness of the characters is evident in their casual observance of Shabbat (there are usually pretty detailed Shabbat scenes in each book, since it happens every week), on-screen celebration of Pesach (Passover), Sukkot (in the next book, coming July 2016), and other holidays, and in the Yiddish spoken by the two transplant characters, warrior woman Rivka and wizard Isaac, who come from a vaguely Polish-German unnamed northern area far away.

The wine blessing on Shabbat, with the addition of a little wizard mischief

Here are some relevant quotes from my books. Take note of how I wove in cultural details that are normal experiences for me or my loved ones in the real world, translated into a sort of “Disney princess inspired” fantasy setting. Many of these techniques can be used if your fantasy setting’s Jewish characters are just walk-ons instead of leads; you can have a random man wearing a kippah or a woman who isn’t participating in the local religious tradition because she has her own.

Gluten-free challah at the royal Shabbat dinner for the first time (A Harvest of Ripe Figs):

The introduction of a challah that [Queen] Shulamit could actually eat caused quite the stir at the dinner table. Rivka’s mother Mitzi, who like many people had never entirely believed the queen’s claims of food-related sensitivities, asked the same questions over and over until everyone was relieved when Isaac just held up his hand and said, “Magic. It’s magic.”

“Oh, all right,” she said vaguely. “It’s not going to hurt me, is it?”

Another reference to the queen’s wheat problem, this time at the royal seder two months after she gave birth to the princess (Climbing the Date Palm):

“On all other nights, we eat all kinds of bread–” Here [Isaac] met the eyes of the queen, and chuckled sheepishly. “We would eat all kinds of bread, if we could,” he ad-libbed. From behind the look of harried happiness that enveloped her constantly in these early days of motherhood, she gave him a crooked grin. “And tonight, we eat only this stuff.” He held up a matzo cracker, and Naomi’s tiny hand waved in its direction.

“See that, little one?” Farzin murmured through a jolly smirk. “Someday, you, too, will be able to eat cardboard.”

Rivka in a foreign port town, about to enter a tournament to rescue a damsel in distress (who turns out to be a fellow Jew once they finally meet) (“Rivka in Port Saltspray” from Tales from Outer Lands):

There was a blast of trumpets, and then someone shouted, “Silence for the invocation!”

Rivka felt vaguely out of place as everyone else around her lowered their eyes respectfully and listened as a brass band began to play a local hymn. She knew this part of the world worshipped a pantheon of fascinatingly dysfunctional gods, at least, if the stories she’d picked up were any indication. Rivka usually didn’t care, but right now, when everyone else around her was engaged in group prayer, she felt her difference rather pointedly.

Her eyes happened to flicker over to the captive woman on the dais and noticed that she wasn’t praying, either.

At the very beginning of their friendship, a newly orphaned Baby Queen is confiding in her new bodyguard (from The Second Mango, and this scene is based on my own grieving for my father, who passed away in 2010):

Shulamit nodded, shifting positions within Rivka’s embrace so she could wipe her face clean. “Everyone around me, when they were mourning him, it was so wonderful to be surrounded by people who were sad about the same thing I was because I wasn’t alone, but it was also jarring because they were all talking about him as king, not as a father. When we put his kippah into the museum, everyone was talking about how much money it was worth and the embroidery by some famous artist and how it was a national relic, and all this – but I was just thinking of Shabbat, and seders, and – and it didn’t mean any of those things to me. It meant lighting candles. It meant he’d hid the afikomen in the palace for me and joking with his advisors as he waited around for me to find it so he could give me a new book. National treasure? I–” She blinked away new tears, but this time the look on her face was one of indignation.

Shabbat out in the wilderness, using “the sunset” as candles

You’d be right to be a little skeptical of a secondary world fantasy including real-world Judaism, because where did we escape from in the Passover story if there’s no Egypt? Who wrecked our stuff in the Chanukah story if there’s no Greece? To this I’d say: don’t squint at it too hard. For me, the ability to give myself and my readers a Jewish queen, Jewish warrior woman, Jewish wizard, fairy tales that normalize our lives and to show queer and blended families worshipping as we do in real life but with magic and palaces and swordfighting, too – that’s just way more important to me than making sure my worldbuilding is completely logical.

My main advice about this for someone not-Jewish is to repeat my preference for explicit Jewishness (rather than vague symbolic coding with room for plausible deniability or relies on one possibly insulting facet of our existence or reputation to stand for all of us) carries into secondary-world fantasy. If your MC’s aren’t Jewish it’s okay to say “and there are Jewish merchants over there” or “she lived in a little house across the street from where the Jewish neighborhood started”, or if you don’t want to use the words, having people be at rest from sundown to sundown one day a week or avoiding mixing meat and dairy might be a recognizable shortcut that’s a lot more literal and specific than phenotypes (which can be shared by many other cultures and often have Unfortunate Implications in fantasy lit) or reductive stuff about wandering far away from one’s homeland (which, again, is not specific to us.)

Remember, if a queen sitting down to a royal seder presided over by a wizard, or talking about how annoyed she is that she can’t eat sufganiyot (jelly donuts) at Chanukah any more because of her wheat problems, sounds too specific to you – that’s what existing fantasy lit has taught you, not the way reality works. Reality is that we all deserve our fairy tales, and fantasy as a genre is big enough and wonderful enough to have room for me and my folks, too. Harry Potter celebrates Christmas, after all.

If you’re Jewish and want to write stuff like mine, then you already know what to do. If you feel like you can’t, that’s the voice of marginalization lying to you. Create what’s in your heart and if you can think of a way to explain the worldbuilding better than I did, I wish you luck :)

Isaac’s rainbow-pride magic and rephrasing of Haggadah text replaces the typical lamb’s blood (or in my case, red yarn) put on doorways during Passover as protection


Artwork credit on this post: @theloserfish, @kayaczek-draws (Kiddush)

Review: Climbing the Date Palm by Shira Glassman

If you are looking for a fast-paced fantasy story about Jewish kingdoms with people of color, queens with celiac’ s disease, and openly queer characters who deal with real issues of biphobia and homophobia, look no further!

The queer community is really what drives this book. You have lesbian queens, bisexual cooks, gay engineers, gender non-conforming straight women, and a token straight guy who isn’t an ass about it all.

 Climbing the Date Palm is a sequel to The Second Mango, which I admit I haven’t read. Many fantasy sequels are difficult to get into, but Climbing the Date Palm stands well on its own. The story begins when Prince Kaveh from the neighboring City of Red Clay arrives half dead on horseback to ask for Queen Shulamit’s help rescuing his lover from King Jahandar. Farzin is a civil engineer hired to build a new bridge, and after it’s built, Jahandar refuses to pay the construction workers what he originally promised them. In the labor protests that follow, Farzin is thrown in jail for treason, and is slated to be executed at the end of the Sacred Month. Shulamit’s  goal is to rescue Farzin and prevent war between the two countries.

 Climbing the Date Palm deals really well with issues of biphobia in a fantasy setting. Aviva, Queen Shulamit’s partner and personal gluten-free cook,  and Prince Kaveh are both bi, and both of their stories deal with fallout from biphobia. Kaveh’s fiancé Azar leaves him when she finds that he is bi, thinking that he’s just gay and using her as a shield. Without this experience of biphobia, Kaveh never would have joined the bridge-building project and met Farzin, so in many ways, the biphobia gets the plot rolling.  Aviva later gives Kaveh a cooking lesson where they talk about the difficulties they face being bi, focusing specifically on how their difficulties arise from being attracted to more than one gender, not just the way people view them because of their same-sex relationships. Aviva’s bisexuality is a constant source of tension for Shulamit, who mostly reacts the way we wish all our lesbian girlfriends would react, by reiterating that bisexuality is not the same as infidelity, and restating her devotion to Aviva. Shulamit even takes the opportunity to thumb her bi-accepting monosexual nose at Azar when they finally meet, by pointing out that everyone is attracted to people they aren’t married to, even Azar herself.

 That said, the plot was a bit of a stretch. Queen Shulamit’s idea that they can find some woman the king wrote a poem about, and that she is interested in justice (because of one line about how she’s a good woman), AND that she will be interested in coming back to help Farzin and the construction workers, AND that the king will totally listen to her because, duh, he wrote a poem about her once… That’s some yoga-level stretching there. The leap of logic that revealed she was also a shapeshifter, even more so.

 That said, the story was engaging and moved quickly. I was always interested in the outcome, and the plot tension never felt forced. It had some wonderful but subtle world-building. I would recommend Climbing the Date Palm to anyone who likes socially aware fantasy. I will definitely be going back and reading The Second Mango, and I’ll be looking for the next book in the series, A Harvest of Ripe Figs when it comes out later this month.

~ Ellie


The execution of Farzin.

When he still served as a Vizier, his lushly feathered ears and tail used to be what distinguished him from the commoner Salukis, whom usually are either smooth coated or have their ears cropped at young age. Only the elite are allowed to keep their ears intact. To emphasize the severity of his crimes, Chazaqiel ordered to have his ears and tail cut off when he was imprisoned.