The ProsenPeople

Where Orthodox Judaism, Feminism, and Fantasy Fiction Intersect

Thursday, March 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilana C. Myer wrote about how Jerusalem found its way into her debut fantasy novel. Ilana is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I always dread people asking me what my book is about. I know that’s ridiculous—who would know better than I? But the truth is that there are several possible responses. Last Song Before Night is a fantasy set in a world where art and magic are intertwined, and the protagonists are poets. It’s also an exploration of the power of art to shape—and sometimes distort—the narratives of our lives. But it is also, in a way I never anticipated, a story about women, shaped in no small measure as a response to Orthodox Judaism.

The genre of the (former) ultra-Orthodox memoir has reached a peak in recent years, as prominent memoirists such as Leah Vincent, Shulem Deen, and Deborah Feldman emerged to tell their stories. The stranglehold of ultra-Orthodoxy makes for compelling reading for people growing up in a secular and permissive environment—and even for religious people whose lives are not as circumscribed as those of the ultra-Orthodox. To most readers, the stories are clear-cut in their message: the ultra-Orthodox world is stifling in obvious, dysfunctional ways.

My background is more ambiguous. I was raised Orthodox, first in New York and later on in Jerusalem. I read secular books and watched movies (but no TV). No one ever told me I could not have the career I wanted, or that I was inferior to men. I would marry the person I chose; I would even go to college. So when secular people remarked how limited I was in my options—or, as one woman put it, how “protected” I was—I myself didn’t see it. (Nor do I think going to school amid Jerusalem’s suicide bombings can be described as “protected,” but that’s a different conversation.)

When a value is expressed tacitly, through practices rather than through words, it can be hard to see. And I don’t think anyone in the Orthodox (as opposed to ultra-Orthodox) world consciously thinks of women as inferior. It all operates as a subtext beneath the surface.

But adult life can test the parameters of religion, especially when it exposes us to the world. When I left my parents’ home at 18 and had to chart a plan of survival, it wasn’t the safe route of father’s home to husband’s home that can keep a young Orthodox woman shielded from reality. My confrontation with that reality ended up coming out in the novel I was writing. Without intending to, I grappled with women’s roles in Orthodoxy through fiction.

The society of Last Song Before Night is unabashedly sexist—a land where poets hold great power, one that is permitted only to men. One woman is driven by her desire to become a poet despite the stricture forbidding it. The contrast between her experience and those of the celebrated male poets of her own age is marked: they flourish where she is malnourished and plagued with nightmares, riddled with psychic battle-scars that no one sees.

My other female protagonist is, to use the word of that condescending woman, protected. Her experience represents the ideal of what the Orthodox woman is supposed to be—cultivated, innocent, sheltered behind walls, and content for marriage to take center stage in her life. When her life’s security is shattered, none of these qualities serve her in the slightest as a defense. The ideal woman of Orthodoxy can only survive behind protective barriers. At the slightest contact with adversity, the slightest destabilization of the core, the entire structure collapses. This woman broke my heart to write.

Last Song Before Night began as a journey to understand my relationship with art. I was blindsided by the pain that broke through, unbidden, through the experience of its women. In the end it became important to me to find their way, just as I was seeking mine, and allow them to sing.

Ilana C. Myer has written about books for The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. Previously she was a journalist in Jerusalem.

How Jerusalem Infiltrated My Fantasy Novel

Monday, February 29, 2016 | Permalink

Ilana C. Myer is the author of the fantasy novel Last Song Before Night. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

The cover of Last Song Before Night was always going to be a cityscape, of the city of Tamryllin where much of the book takes place. When my editor—who generously involved me in the process—asked if I had any tips for my cover artist, I enthusiastically typed, “I envision it as a combination of Paris and Jerusalem”—and it was like a light bulb went on.

Until then I hadn’t considered with any seriousness the impact of Jerusalem on this novel. The setting was inspired by research of medieval France and landscapes of Ireland and Scotland, the latter of which I’d visited in the year I began writing. That I was living in Jerusalem for the entirety of the writing period just seemed like circumstance. That is, until I found myself giving directions to the cover artist, Stephan Martiniere. So it came to be that this fantasy novel inspired by the troubadours of France and the Celtic poets has much of Jerusalem in it. It is all in the city, where much of the novel’s action takes place; outside the city has more a flavor of Ireland’s Ring of Kerry and a tiny island in the Scottish lowlands, near Loch Lomond.

And there are aspects of Provence, for there was something about the Mediterranean abundance of that place that I wanted for my capital city of Tamryllin, where arts, culture, and beauty flourish alongside brutality. So when I wrote lovingly of pale stone and jasmine scents and red wine, these seemed appropriate for the Mediterranean sort of atmosphere I wanted. But the atmosphere and aesthetic are closer to the city I was living in at the time, a place that has always been precious to me even as my relationship with it is complex. (Is there is anyone whose relationship with Jerusalem is not complex?)

One scene was consciously modeled on the Jerusalem cityscape—I knew it at the time. It was one of those writing experiences that comes rarely in a lifetime, when everything feels right. It was a hot summer night in Jerusalem, one of the hottest on record; we’d regularly had days of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not normal for Jerusalem, and it didn’t cool down at night. One night I found that I couldn’t sleep. At 3: 00 AM I found myself on our third-floor porch on Emek Refaim, laptop balanced on my knees as I sat in a rickety chair left behind by a previous tenant. It was exquisitely quiet and I could see the dark treeline of the hills beyond the city. And it just so happened to be when I was writing a character who was wandering at exactly that time of day, the earliest hours of the morning, cutting through narrow, winding streets and scrambling across rooftops. I was imagining the Old City, where I’d taken such shortcuts at night. Into those particular pages I poured my experience of Jerusalem.

The rest was absorbed as if by osmosis, and I was not to realize until years later, when at last my book was to be published by Tor/Macmillan and we were discussing cover art. Sometimes when we write we’re not aware of the ways in which what we take in is expressed on the page. Now Last Song Before Night stands not only as a testimony to a certain time in my life, but also to a place that matters to the world and, in very real ways, matters to me.

Ilana C. Myer has written about books for The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. Previously she was a journalist in Jerusalem.

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