Science Fiction, Judaism, and the Hidden Self: Phoebe North on writing inclusively as a Jewish woman

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It wasn’t exactly true that I was hiding my identity as a sci-fi writer in my MFA program.

The truth was, when I first went away to graduate school, I didn’t know that my love of genre was something that I had to hide. I read broadly poetry by Richard Siken and Jessica Fisher, fiction by Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, thick paperbacks by Philip Jose Farmer and Stephen King. It never occurred to me that these tastes were at all incompatible. I liked stories about complex women and troubled men, stories that explored identity through metaphor and myth. Some of those stories were “literary” in their trappings, shelved with the general fiction; others were tucked away with Fantasy & Science Fiction, a category which, in my local library, was signaled by either a unicorn or a rocket sticker on the spine.

But aside from those stickers, categories seemed trivial to me. So I was surprised when I went away to graduate school and found that it was a bit taboo to read so broadly. I’ll never forget the time I was deep into Stephen King’s The Shining midway through my first year. I took a break to attend a student BBQ, where I began to excitedly chat about the book. Other students diverted their eyes, looked away. “I think I read that in middle school,” one said.

Or the time that I, having recently started to write fiction, traded manuscripts with another student. “I’m not qualified to comment on fantasy novels,” she told me, after a long stretch of silence. I was baffled. Wasn’t good writing the same whether it featured magical changelings at the center of it all or not?

And so, though I never tried to hide my genre roots, embracing them involved a coming out of sorts. I had to learn to be fearless if my poems were to be apocalyptic, and unapologetic if I was going to write short stories about Wild Men and feral girls. Whatever my writing was — and it exists at a crossroads, really, of “literary” and “genre” — I couldn’t be embarrassed by it if I was going to learn, grown, and do it justice.

Something similar could be said about my religious identity. Growing up in a family of mixed religious origin — half-Jewish, half nebulously Christian — I never questioned our mish-mosh religious observance. We would celebrate Easter at one grandmother’s house, Passover at another’s. There were stories about Jesus in my children’s bible, and yet I dressed as Esther at Purim. But the world would soon tell me something else, namely that it is notable, strange, and even wrong to be a Jew.

“You’re Jewish?” a friend asked me at the third grade lunch table, and before I could say yes, she added, “That means you’re going to hell.”

In appearance, I look more like my Christian father — freckle faced and fair. I have his name and his smile, and so in some ways it became easy to slip under the radar as a stealth Jew. I never had to mention my Jewishness if I didn’t want to. It could be a secret. And for a long time, it was.

When I started writing young adult fiction, I wasn’t entirely certain that my Jewish cultural identity might not be a liability. After all, even in fantasy works, character names and cultural signifiers often seem to point to an unthinking Christian default. And at the time in my life when I first started writing Starglass, my connection to my cultural heritage and faith were both tenuous. My grandparents had passed away, and a trip to Israel had left me more uncertain than ever as to whether I had a right to call myself “Jewish.”

In the beginning, the spaceship featured in Starglass was not at all “Jewish.” The names and terminology were generic, even bland. But I realized the book needed something more. Just as the science fiction tropes were necessary, so, too, was a shadow of my own cultural heritage. Little bits of Yiddish began slipping out. I changed my main character’s last name to Fineberg, which was my mother’s maiden name. I began to explore what Judaism would look like in the final frontier of diaspora, and in doing so, ended up exploring my own faith, as well. I wouldn’t quite say that by the end of writing Starglass and its sequel Starbreak I’d experienced a religious resurgence, but my spiritual and cultural identity is richer for having written both.

And in promoting the books, I began to reclaim that identity, vocally and proudly. Just as I’d once reclaimed my identity as a lover of science fictional tropes and books, I began to talk about the issues of Jewish identity that concerned me. Particularly interesting to me is the question of “What makes a Jew?” I think often of my own fears in claiming my Judaism, how I felt torn in two directions. I worried people would think I had no right to the label. I also worried that I would face discrimination because of it.

But the truth is, I’m so much happier in not hiding my true self. I continue to explore issues of faith in my works in progress, and I continue to approach those explorations from a lens that is simultaneously “genre” and “literary.” And honestly, I would have it no other way. Just as those unicorn stickers once helped me connect to books that I love, I hope that my own frankness about who I am and what I love will help me connect with readers who care about the very same things.

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About Author

Phoebe North

Phoebe North writes fantasy and science fiction about complicated girls. She lives two hours north of New York City with her husband, daughter, and cat. Together, they go on adventures.

Her novels Starglass and Starbreak are available from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers