Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni (reviewed here), explores the immigrant experience through the eyes of two folkloric creatures. Helene took some time from her schedule to answer some of my questions and to give me a signed copy of The Golem and the Jinni which I’ll pass on to one random commenter.
Marion Deeds: The Golem and the Jinni is primarily an immigrant’s tale, but your title characters, being folkloric creatures, added a new level to the story. Once again, America is engaged in a dialogue, often a nasty one, about the value of immigrants. Should we have a quota for immigrant jinnis, for instance? (Just kidding.) What do you think your book brings to the discussion?
Helene Wecker: It’s funny, it took me a while to realize that my two main characters are both undocumented immigrants! But yeah, it didn’t escape my attention that my book came out just as the immigrant debate was heating up again. If my book contributes anything to the discussion, it’s that it (hopefully) looks at the lives of immigrants as individuals, not as politically skewed stereotypes or a flattened aggregate. Some of the issues surrounding immigration at the turn of the 20th century are different from those now, but there’s still, depressingly, the tendency in many quarters to view immigrants (documented and non-) as a monolithic Other. It’s one of the reasons that books and reading are still so important. There’s nothing like a book for “de-otherizing” an unfamiliar nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation, what have you. Second only to a real-life conversation, of course.
MD: “De-otherizing” is one of the best words I’ve heard in months!
It seems like you read and wrote a lot of fantasy as a child, and then chose the academic route for your writing career. Did you find any conflicts between the academic expectations and fantasy writing? Was this part of the discussion of marketing The Golem and the Jinni?
HW: I don’t know if I lucked out, or if the academic environment is more flexible than we give it credit for, but I really didn’t experience any resistance to my work while I was at Columbia. No one ever told me, “I don’t know how to offer criticism on this because it’s fantastical,” or “I don’t think it’s well written, but hey, it’s genre writing, the standards are lower.” I think I was also a little lucky in my fellow workshoppers. They were just a stellar group, and we all really believed in each others’ work. I wasn’t the only one doing fantastical, either — there was quite a bit of fantastic and absurdist stuff floating around, and some mystery and sci-fi too. One of my workshop-mates was mystery writer Zoë Ferraris, and she brought us chapters of Finding Nouf, which we all just adored. As for the marketing of The Golem and the Jinni, the folks at HarperCollins really just took the book on its own terms. They never asked me to enhance or diminish the fantasy elements, to make it fit some niche or other. It’s one of the many reasons I’m so glad they decided to publish me.
MD: You have a lot of women characters and all but one of them overcome obstacles and manage to emerge as captains of their own fate and even, in the case of Maryam Faddoul, as leaders. I really liked this about the book. Did that happen organically as you developed the story, or did you plan to showcase strong women from the beginning?
HW: I don’t think I set out to deliberately showcase strong women, but I did consciously work to give every female character her due. I was very aware that I couldn’t be lazy about the women in my book, that the Victorian setting and the “fairytale” aspects might pull me toward more stereotypically weak or flat female characters if I wasn’t careful. At the same time, I couldn’t be anachronistic; I had to be true to the constraints that women lived with in that era. In the end, I became very interested in how they lived with those constraints, how they either chafed against them or found a (perhaps uneasy) peace and a certain amount of self-expression despite them.
MD: It was great watching them develop within the constraints of the era. Because your women characters are so strong, I was a little disturbed when Chava engages in self-mutilation; more so because I didn’t see this theme carried through in the story. What was the purpose of that scene?
HW: In that scene, the Golem is really close to the end of her rope. She’s trying to survive on her own, and she’s confused and grieving. She has a million questions that she can’t ask, many of them about herself. The impulse to experiment with her own body comes from a sort of desperate curiosity: she knows very little about her own construction, and wants to learn more. Plus, she has so few available outlets for her energy, so little to do at night that her brain just grabs at this without thinking about the potential repercussions until it’s almost too late. I was very careful to have her stop under her own power, though. I didn’t want someone coming along and interrupting her, or otherwise saving her from herself; I wanted the decision to be hers.
MD: I was surprised that the Syrian immigrants in your book were Christian rather than Muslim, and I’ve read in your Jewish Book Council interview that it was a surprise for you, too. How did that change the story for you? Did you learn anything that surprised you in researching that part of the book?
HW: I came across this fact pretty early in the writing process, before I’d really figured out the book’s particulars, and it made me realize that I couldn’t take anything for granted. I had to be diligent about research — not just to stay true to history as it was lived, but to let go of as many preconceived notions as I possibly could. In the end, the one thing it changed was that the book couldn’t be a direct allegory to the current Middle East, and honestly, I think that was for the best. It meant the book could take its own course, without having to conform to a story outside itself. As for something I found out that surprised me, certainly Little Syria itself was surprising! I had no idea there was an established Syrian neighborhood in Manhattan. It’s not nearly as well known as it should be, and hopefully we can preserve the few landmarks that are left before they’re lost forever.
MD: I think this book might help with that endeavor by bringing the neighborhood to people’s attention.
While Chava, the golem, is mostly about Duty, the jinni is about Desire. You said in the Jewish Book Council interview that you wanted him to be mercurial and arrogant, but still wanted us to like him, You succeeded, by the way. What were the challenges involved in writing the character of the jinni?
HW: Thanks, I’m glad you think so! Honestly, the biggest problem I had writing the Jinni was that he’s not a very complicated person, especially at the beginning of the book. He’s sort of fundamentally selfish, and it makes his motives and decisions much simpler than the Golem’s, so there was less to play around with. He doesn’t feel torn and vulnerable the way she does; he’s just trapped, and angry about it. That’s one of the reasons why Sophia became a more prominent character than I’d intended. The reader needs to see the consequences of the Jinni’s actions, even if he doesn’t himself, so Sophia ends up shouldering that narrative burden. But on the other hand, he was a hell of a lot of fun to write! Especially when he’d go into seduction mode, or do something dangerous and self-destructive just for the thrill of it, something I myself would never do in a million years. I got to indulge myself, and pretend to be a bad boy for a little while.
MD: So if anyone asks you, “Which folkloric character are you?” we have that answer; to some extent you’re both. Helene, thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions.
Readers, I’ve got a signed copy of Helene’s book, The Golem and the Jinni for one random commenter.