On Jewish characters and challenging expectations

At the moment, I’m in the middle of reading Chimera by Mira Grant. It’s near-future science fiction, and it’s set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Don’t worry. I won’t be posting any spoilers here. Just the name of a single character.

Not even a main character. Just a minor character who caught my attention, not for anything she did, but because of what she’s named.

In Chimera, there’s a character named Batya.

The first time I encountered this character, I was completely thrown out of the story. When I encountered her later, wearing a snood while doing her thing, I was thrown out of the story even further. I think this may be a first for me, being thrown so badly by a character’s name.

Now, maybe this is because I know a few people named Batya. One of them is my sister. Another is the namesake for the character in the story, and in my mind, this character has her face. That certainly doesn’t help.

But I think there’s another, deeper reason why I find the name so jarring. I think it’s because I never expected to see a Hebrew name, especially a less common one, in a work of speculative fiction. Seeing a Hebrew name where I didn’t expect it threw me from the story because it somehow felt like it didn’t belong there.

It *should* belong there. I *want* it to belong there. And yet, it felt out of place.

It took me a moment to realize that I’d gotten so used to not seeing Jewish characters in speculative fiction that I’d just accepted their absence as a norm. Even worse, I’d internalized that norm so thoroughly that when I finally did encounter a character with a Jewish name, the name struck me as not belonging there. I found myself feeling like the author had forced the name in there where it didn’t actually fit.

It took longer to realize that I shouldn’t feel that way, that finding a Batya in a science fiction story should stop me long enough to say, “Hey, that’s my sister’s name,” before I continue on as if nothing unusual has happened. As if having a character named Batya in a post-apocalyptic world is completely normal and expected.

Because it should be.

I recently read this piece on the We Need Diverse Books website. It’s about Jewish authors and anti-Semitism. When I read it, I found myself thinking, “Jewish authors? Why would they need to focus on Jewish authors. There are so many of us.”

Authors, maybe, but apparently not characters, especially in the genres I read most often. And it disturbs me a bit that I learned not to notice. That I just took for granted that, while plenty of characters look like me, none of them worship like me. None of them keep kosher, or worry about getting home on time on Fridays. Everyone at Hogwarts celebrates Christmas.*

And then, I think about my own work, and how I find myself avoiding characters with Jewish names, because who would want to read about them? I try to put in characters with diverse ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities, but I find myself hesitating every time I consider writing a story where the main character is a Jew. I find myself thinking that my story will be pigeon-holed as one that only other Jews will want to read, that non-Jews will read it and feel bored or alienated by a religion they don’t understand, that it will get rejected by every publisher, because who wants to print stories that most people won’t want to read?

And yet, I never paused to think about the fact that I *shouldn’t* think that way.

I’ve been aware for a while that we need a greater diversity of characters in our books, and making sure this happens is important to me. Which just makes it even stranger that I didn’t fully understand until today that I, too, belong to one of those underrepresented groups.

I don’t think that addressing the lack of Jewish characters is as important as addressing the dearth of Black or Hispanic characters. After all, while not all Jews are White, the majority of us are, so at least we can find an abundance of characters who *look* like us in the stories we read.

But just because it’s less important doesn’t mean it’s not important. Encountering a Jewish character in speculative fiction shouldn’t throw me out of the story. Instead, it should serve to draw me in further.

 

*unless you read certain fanfiction stories, like this one. But in the actual books, everyone either celebrates or doesn’t get mentioned.

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