The Golem and the Jinni
Helene Wecker aims to add a little more magic to our world and play with familiar ideas in unexpected ways.
Interview conducted by Melissa Grossman
An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. The woman is a golem created out of clay in Poland by an aged dabbler in the dark Kabbalistic arts to be the wife of a man who then dies at sea, leaving her unmoored and adrift as the ship comes into New York harbor; the man is a jinni, a being of fire, who is trapped by a Bedouin wizard in a copper flask and released accidentally by a Syrian tinsmith in Lower Manhattan. The narrative traces their respective journeys, as they explore the strange human city.
This is a hugely ambitious first novel filled with so many unique and complicated characters, both human and otherwise. What inspired this story?
When I was a writing student at Columbia, I started writing a series of short stories that combined tales from my family and from my husband’s family. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab American, and so in that sense we come from two different (and, in many eyes, opposing) cultures. But I’ve always been struck by the similarities between our families, the way that certain themes echo between them, specifically around issues of immigration to America – of adapting to a new language and a new culture, of carrying the baggage of another place entirely, and feeling always like a stranger in a strange land.
In any case, I was writing these stories, but I wasn’t having much luck with them. One day I was complaining about it to a friend, and she suggested I try something different. She knew I loved stories that used elements of the fantastical, and was surprised I never wrote like that. By the end of the conversation, the seed had been planted. I thought, what if I swapped the central characters in my short stories with supernatural creatures, one from each culture? What if, instead of a Jewish girl and an Arab-American boy, they were a golem and a jinni? I could picture them immediately, and with much more vibrancy than I’d ever felt from any of the characters in my short stories. But then I had to figure out what to do with them. Somehow it seemed likeliest that these two would meet in New York in the late 1800s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe and Syria were coming to America in droves. So I put my head down and began to write. At first I thought it was a short story, but then it became clear that this was going to be a novel. The supporting cast filled themselves in as the story grew. And at the same time, the Golem and the Jinni began to develop their own personalities and concerns, which affected the story as well. (For instance, I didn’t realize until long after I’d started the book just how much the idea of free will would come to dominate the book.) In the end, I think it’s a very interesting mix of the themes I’d originally meant to write about, and the elements that arose along the way.
Why did you decide to write a story that takes place in a true time of history and a mythical time, and fill it with both human and non-human characters?
I think it goes back to my love of fantastical and fabulist fiction – stories that aren’t quite realist and aren’t exactly fantasy (at least as the publishing world defines it), but that take our own mundane existence and twist it a little. I love the idea that if I looked hard enough through the archives at the New York Public Library, I might find a photograph of a golem rolling out dough in a Lower East Side bakery, or a newspaper clipping about the new ceiling in a Little Syria tenement building. It adds a little more magic to our world, and lets me play with familiar ideas in ways that might be unexpected. Part of the reason that creatures like golems and jinn (or werewolves, vampires, etc.) are so useful, and so popular, is because they’re aspects of human nature that we’ve isolated and blown up larger than life. Vampires speak to our fear of mortality, golems to our fear of our own creations (every “robot out of control” sci-fi story shares the same root), and so on. Because of that, the traditional myths and legends have done a lot of the work for me already. My job in this book was to take those myths and legends, and work with them in ways that explore not just their own natures, but ours as well.
The main characters are Jews and Arabs. Were you trying to say something about the potential for these two peoples to work and live together through this book?
As a writer, I distrust the idea of giving books messages. Nothing, in my opinion, kills a book dead quite like a deliberate message. I’m much more interested in prompting the reader to ask questions. But with this book, I did make it a point to depict an Arab community and a Jewish community that weren’t at direct odds with each other. There are a lot of similarities between Jewish and Arab cultural experience in America, and I wanted to point this out, as an aspect of our peoples’ shared history that doesn’t get talked about – because usually, as soon as you mention Jewish and Arab in the same sentence, it becomes about opposition and conflict. As for the potential of Jews and Arabs to work and live together (on a macro scale, at least – my own personal life seems to bear out the micro scale), I do believe in it, even when it feels like it will never happen.
One of the main themes of the novel is control. Both the Golem and the Jinni’s story are based on others controlling them. Yet, in the end they find happiness even though they don’t have complete free will. Why did you write their journeys this way? Do you believe they can be happy without being free or having free will?
When I was writing this book, I became very interested in limitations and restrictions, the ones we place on each other and the ones we place on ourselves. They confine us, but at the same time, they create communities. Think of the Ten Commandments, or a nation’s laws, or even “the bonds of matrimony.” I’ve become a big fan of finding happiness within restrictions – sometimes even because of restrictions, in the way that the strict form of a sonnet can spark a poet’s creativity. Of course, when those restrictions edge over into repression or injustice, that’s another matter. (And everyone’s opinion is different on just where that line should be drawn.)
As for the Golem and the Jinni, their limitations are more exaggerated and extreme than our own, just like everything else about them. And the true happiness of their “natural states” was much more pure and heightened than ours, as well – the Jinni free in his own form, and the Golem bound to a master. I don’t think that as I wrote them, they could ever again reach that state without being completely free. Instead they have moments that look a lot more like our own: often fleeting, or muted into contentment, or occasionally bittersweet.
At the end, the story of The Golem and the Jinni feels like a love story between two very different people who love each other and are trying to find a way to be happy together. Would you characterize this book as a love story?
I definitely would, though it’s a lot of other things as well. (And “love story” to many people means a romance novel, which is a different sort of book that follows its own conventions.) But yes, it’s very much a love story, even though they never so much as kiss. I wanted their relationship to feel true to life, so I built it piece by piece: through their discussions and arguments, their experiences and adventures together. I didn’t want the sort of book where the protagonists instantly fall into each other’s arms. That has its appeal, of course – it can be a lot of fun to watch two people pant at each other! But these characters needed a relationship that would advance in very small and wary degrees. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s modeled on my own marriage, by any means, but I did try to incorporate what I’ve learned about communication (successful and otherwise) between two people with very different personalities – and how a foundation for love can be built on good-faith efforts at communication, even if the signals still get crossed with exhausting regularity.
Melissa Grossman is the national director of the HBI Conversations Program. She joined HBI in 2011 and is a graduate of Brandeis University where she received her B.A. in English Literature in 1991. She also received her M.S.W. from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. Prior to coming to HBI, she worked at UJA-Federation in New York, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
About the Author
Helene Wecker received a BA from Carleton College in Minnesota, and an MFA from Columbia University in New York. A Chicago-area native who has made her home in Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York, she now lives near San Francisco with her husband and daughter. The Golem and the Jinni (Harper, 2013) is her first novel. For more on Helene Wecker and her writing, visit www.helenewecker.com.
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