I’m a Jewish author. I always have been, in the sense that I have always been Jewish and have been a professional author for close to twenty years. I write fantasy for adults, teenagers, and younger children — stories of magic, imaginary lands, mythical creatures. Stories of heroes and monsters and wars and romances. In the past I’ve spoken occasionally about how my Jewish identity and upbringing have contributed to the way I write and to the things I write about. And yet there’s a question I get asked, more often than I would have thought (often by family members).
“Why don’t you write about being Jewish?”
“I do,” I say. “I have.” One of the major characters in my first series, the Mortal Instruments, is the kind of Jewish I myself grew up as: deeply cultural but not particularly observant.
“That’s one character,” the questioner says. “And not a protagonist. And he’s, you know, bagels-and-lox Jewish. He never asks the complex questions about his religion or what it means to him, how it fits into the world he finds himself in.”
“Well, he’s very busy,” I say, getting perhaps a little testy. “He gets turned into a vampire and then a bunch of people try to kill him. He ends up in prison, he loses his memory. Lots more stuff.”
There’s a stereotype about American Jewish artists: that for as many of us as there are, most of us create art primarily from an assimilated American perspective. Unlike many other minority groups, who are assumed to write primarily from the perspective of that minority identity, we are granted the privilege to pass — changing our names, if necessary — as members of the majority (usually Western) culture that we live in. And given that privilege, we produce art mostly for and about that majority culture.
It’s hard to remember now, but when Steven Spielberg was making Schindler’s List, it was not immediately clear that he was the right artist to engage with that kind of material. It was obviously no secret that he was Jewish, but he made quintessentially American films, blockbuster ones. Previously his main contribution to the discourse of World War II was Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Now, of course, we’re living in the future of that decision, where Spielberg has gone on to make plenty of World War II-related projects and has expressed a lot of interest in his Jewish identity. But at the time, Schindler’s List was seen as a possible major misstep. You either make art about your minority identity, or you make art in the mainstream culture. Not both.
This idea has been in decline over the past few decades, but I certainly fell into it when I started writing. The work I’m best known for, the Shadowhunter series, is set in an ecumenical pastiche of Abrahamic mythology. There are angels and demons: the angels are from all over the mythological spectrum, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The demons, and other magical beings like vampires or faeries, I’ve taken from myth and folklore from all over the world. This is what readers call “kitchen-sink fantasy”: a broad world that can contain every myth, every folktale, in a kind of gestalt that allows for epic stories anywhere and anytime you want. The Shadowhunter world is meant to be all-encompassing: its watchword is the idea that “All the stories are true.”
To me, the connection between my Judaism and the Shadowhunters is obvious: it is the values those books espouse that are deeply informed by my religion and my culture. Nevertheless, it is still a common occurrence that readers are surprised to find out that I’m Jewish.
And the world has changed in the past eight years or so — or perhaps some of our illusions about the world have fallen away. I grew up in an American society in which, following World War II, antisemitic language and ideas had ceased to be tolerated in polite company. It was easy to think of anti-Jewish sentiment as something excised from American culture because, for the most part, it had been ostracized from public life.
But the advent of the Internet has allowed like-minded people to find one another at a scale previously unimaginable, and virtual communities of significant sizes appeared, for good and for ill. Hateful ideas that had been driven underground came back with a vengeance. If anything, those hateful ideas are only gaining strength as the overlapping, ongoing crises facing our society send many looking for scapegoats.
I have been keenly reminded that the status of comfortable assimilation with which I grew up is not guaranteed, and may not be permanent. Restrictive laws, pogroms, expulsions, forced conversion — this history is a part of my inheritance. I grew up in the United States because my great-grandparents fled from persecution in Poland, in Ukraine. Significant branches of my family end abruptly with the Holocaust, aunts, uncles, and cousins whose lines on the family tree terminate with a black box containing an immediately recognizable code: d. 1943.
It is hard to think of being Jewish as just bagels and lox, these days. We are a diasporic people, existing in a liminal state in which we are both welcome and unwelcome within the majority society. That is a primary feeling of being Jewish, for me. And that haunting sense of wondering when that level of welcome is going to change is something I had not written about before Sword Catcher, my new book.
Lin is like me in a way that most of my characters aren’t, a way that is hard to articulate but is felt deep under the skin.
Writing Sword Catcher provided an opportunity that I hadn’t had before. Unlike the Shadowhunter books, it’s set in a completely imagined fantastical pre-modern world, where one’s identity is mostly defined by one’s homeland. I realized very early in the creation of this world that it was important to include a people in this world inspired by my people — a people without a homeland, a people who lived everywhere and yet belonged nowhere, a people who prospered or suffered at the whim of the majority. These people, in the world of Sword Catcher, are the Ashkar.
Sword Catcher takes place in the grand city of Castellane, a global center of sea trade, an incredibly multicultural city full of travelers, traders, bankers, and thieves, all seeking their fortune. There are plenty of Ashkar who live here. And — like in many other cities in both Sword Catcher’s fictional world and our real one — those Ashkar are kept within the walls of a ghetto called the Sault, locked in at night, and restricted in the kind of work they are permitted and the clothes that they can wear.
In many ways the Ashkar have it pretty good in Castellane. In the book we learn about other countries where things are much worse for the Ashkar, or where they are forbidden to live entirely. In Castellane, at least when Sword Catcher begins, things feel more stable. Yes, the Ashkar are locked up behind the gates of the Sault every night. Yes, they suffer as the targets of superstition and distrust. But they are also highly valued as physicians, the current royal family doesn’t persecute them directly, and the King has even brought the foreign tradition of an Ashkar advisor to his court. Nonetheless, deep in the bones of the Ashkar is the knowledge that their safety and freedom only goes so far, and could disappear at any moment in the wake of a change in politics or the mood of the city.
The story of the Ashkar differs quite a bit from the story of the Jews. Their deity is a goddess, who has left them but will someday return. That goddess is seen by the other religions of this world as a betrayer, though in Ashkar mythology she is a redeemer. The former Ashkar homeland is a barren wasteland where nobody will ever again live. And most notably, the Ashkar are the only people in this world who are able to perform magic. Readers may recognize the magic as derived from gematria, the assigning of numerical values to combinations of letters. As a result, the Ashkar are depended upon, but that dependency has exacerbated others’ distrust and resentment of them.
All of these similarities to the real-world situations of various Jewish populations throughout history are deliberate. But I suppose those family members who were questioning me at the beginning of this essay could protest. I’m not, after all, writing about Jews. I’m writing about the Ashkar. But this too has a purpose, one tied to the powers of fantasy itself. Realistic fiction must concern itself with facts, and with a direct verisimilitude to the world around us. But fantasy can speak to things deeper — to archetypes, to mythologies, and to emotions that live within cultural memory. This sense of cultural memory is often the part of my Jewishness that I feel most keenly, and I love writing fantasy because, independent of the historical specifics of the real world, I can engage directly with the symbols and stories that have been passed down to me through my grandparents and my great-grandparents and beyond.
One of Sword Catcher’s two protagonists, Lin, is an Ashkar doctor, struggling to find her place in her community. She has been in conflict with them already — women are not normally permitted to become doctors, and it is only through willpower and argument that Lin has managed it. (The Ashkar are no more immune to the inanities of patriarchy than anybody else, it turns out.) She is fascinated by the history of her people as keepers of great magic, the legends of their abilities as healers from that antediluvian time. She wonders if all magic is truly lost, or if it could be recovered somehow, putting her in direct opposition with the Sault, who forbid such research. To Lin, the Sault appear hidebound, comfortable with the status quo and defensive of their own power. She isn’t happy with the liminal life she leads, as a female doctor, as an Ashkar in Castellane. She wants change. She doesn’t even know what change would look like. But she knows that standing still isn’t the answer.
Lin’s life quickly becomes more complicated than she expects. Her grandfather, Mayesh, is the Ashkar advisor to the throne, although she feels she barely knows him. But then there is a crisis at the palace, and a desperate need for a doctor. Mayesh brings her to meet the prince, Conor, and his closest companion, the man whose life is given to dying for Conor’s sake, Kel. The Sword Catcher. And Lin must figure out how to juggle her life in the Sault with the complications that her encounter with the prince and his bodyguard will lead her into.
Lin is like me in a way that most of my characters aren’t, a way that is hard to articulate but is felt deep under the skin. There is something different about writing from the perspective of one’s own culture, something that feels true to me about the Ashkar. When Mayesh explains to Lin why he serves the Palace, away from his people, he says, “Because there is always an Ashkar close to the throne, the King is forced to look upon us and remember we are human beings. The task I perform protects us all. Not only do I speak for our people, but I am a mirror. I reflect the humanity of all our people to the highest seat in Castellane.”
As I wrote those lines, I felt Lin’s combination of grief (at knowing you are not accepted as equal) and hope (that this time it will be different) that I know is mine, and that has been handed down to me, like my grandmother’s silver kiddush cup and my grandfather’s Haggadah. Lin and the Ashkar feel not just familiar, but familial, in a way nothing else I have written has.
Right now, my hope is focused on Sword Catcher. While the Ashkar of Sword Catcher aren’t Jews, they share recognizable elements of identity and experience with Jews. I hope that as well as more obvious touchpoints related to our history — references to the Sanhedrin, the Maccabees, the exilarch, lines from El Nora Alila—my Jewish readers will feel connected to the theme of the ambiguity of identity: of feeling accepted and rejected, of being regarded as both weak and too powerful, of being insiders and yet outsiders. I also hope that my non-Jewish readers will gain some insight into the complexity of these feelings and where they come from.
Cassandra Clare is the author of the #1 New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Publishers Weekly bestselling Shadowhunter Chronicles. She is also the co-author, with Holly Black, of the bestselling fantasy series Magisterium. The Shadowhunter Chronicles have been adapted as both a major motion picture and a television series. Her books have more than fifty million copies in print worldwide and have been translated into more than thirty-five languages. Cassandra lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and three fearsome cats.