This post of mine is based on a comment I made in a Facebook group (for bloggers and authors) in February 2018. We were discussing Lionel Shriver’s article in The Guardian (you can read the Guardian article here), which raised many questions within the group:
- Should we only write about the life we know?
- Or should we feel comfortable writing about a life we don’t know?
- Should we write about topics we haven’t experienced - and may never experience?
- Or should we only write about topics we have experienced?
I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction. I've never committed a murder (you'll be pleased to know), but I do keep many of the Jewish traditions and live in a Jewish area, so to some degree I am writing about what I know. Yet this doesn't make writing a novel any easier. I still need engaging characters, a great plot and a believable setting (and I'm working hard on those, if anyone's interested). It also brings up other challenges for me, as I'm explaining concepts and practices I take for granted to people who know nothing (or very little) about the religion. I'm not ready to share any details about my plot, but my main character is a journalist who is learning about the religion as she investigates some possible crimes - which helps to take the reader on a journey of discovery too.
Many people show interest when I tell them what I'm writing. Comments include:
- 'Jewish-themed crime fiction is definitely something different.'
- 'I don't know much about Judaism so would love to learn more.'
- 'Get on and write it - I can't wait to read it.'
Judaism in the UK
Jews make up only 0.5% of the UK's religious groups - below Christians, those with no religion, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the chart. This often surprises people when I tell them this, as Jews seem so prominent within society and we are not considered by many to be an ethnic or religious 'minority group'. Many people tell me they've never met anyone Jewish before - yet, how would they know, as we look and behave like everyone else. Ignorance breeds antisemitism and racism - this is something that needs to be addressed and one of the reasons I'm writing this book.
My book begins with an antisemitic attack by two teenagers against a Jewish woman. Most people don't realise how much antisemitism occurs in the UK and that it is on the rise, as the incidents often don't make the national news. According to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, one in three British Jews has considered leaving Britain in the past two years due to antisemitism, with concern mounting over failures to tackle antisemitic crime and antisemitism in politics. Universities throughout the country are now a breeding ground for anti-Israel and antisemitic behaviour. According to the Community Security Trust, there were 1,382 antisemitic incidents recorded nationwide in 2017 - a record level in the UK.
Diversity within Judaism
The Facebook group discussion moved on to the concept of diversity and whether it's possible to write books that appeal to diverse readers if you're not part of that group yourself. My point was that it will always be difficult to please everyone but you do have to make sure your book is well researched - and others in the discussion agreed.
Just as there is diversity in the country as a whole, there is diversity within all communities and there isn't (or shouldn't be) such thing as a stereotype. The Jewish population in the UK is an example of this. You have the ultra-religious communities, who may dress and behave in a particular way (and are most easily identified as being Jewish). You may see them in parts of London, Greater London and Manchester, for example. Then you have the non-observant Jews, who don't keep any of the traditions, but are still Jewish because it's in their blood and are proud of their Jewish heritage. And then you have everyone else in between.
My book is set in a fictional town based on where I live, with some more observant Jewish families and some who keep very little of their religion but still identify themselves as being Jewish. Despite living in a fairly Jewish area, many people around here (including us) have experienced antisemitism (some openly, some disguised and some completely shocking).
Next weekend, it is the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover), which is one of the most commonly observed festivals, even by many people who are otherwise normally non-observant. But as with all diverse groups, everyone keeps the festival in their own way - so I'll use this as an example. It's one reason why I've been busy recently and will be for another couple of weeks.
Some Jewish people observe all of the 'rules' and others observe very few - and some in between. Even where I live, members of our Synagogue observe it in different ways, at different levels of religiosity. This is a clear example of diversity within one Jewish community.
What is Pesach?
Pesach, which lasts for eight days, commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The name Pesach (Passover) comes from the miracle when God passed over the houses of the Israelites during the 10th plague - 'Death of the First Born'. The festival has many different features. It's too complicated to explain in detail, but here's a relatively short summary:
1. We eat special foods. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) rather than bread, reminding us that the Israelites didn't have time to let their bread rise when they left Egypt in a hurry. Matzah is made from flour and water and cooked very quickly. It's flat, like a cracker. I can't say I'm a great fan of it - I think of it as edible cardboard - but other people (including my husband and Dad) like it! Pesach is more complicated than just eating Matzah though, as all of our food (other than fruit, vegetables, meat/poultry and fish) has to be specially made for Pesach - even down to cooking oil, tins of tuna, dairy foods, crisps and chocolate (no Easter eggs!) - to ensure it hasn't been in contact with bread and chametz - see point 2). Some people will just avoid bread and eat matzah during Pesach but won't change any of the other foods they eat. Everyone keeps Pesach in a way that suits them.
2. We prepare for Pesach with the ultimate spring clean. We clear our house of bread and other foods (known as chametz - pronounce the 'ch' as in the Scottish 'loch') before Pesach begins. During Pesach, we can't eat pasta, rice, barley and legumes. We use different crockery, cutlery, pots and pans for those eight days, sealing up our kitchen cupboards (so we don't use our 'normal' items) or swapping them around (our Pesach items are stored in boxes in our garage and loft during the rest of the year). We cover all the kitchen surfaces. It's a bit like moving house (or at least, kitchen), with all the preparations beforehand. And yes, it can be stressful (okay, a nightmare).
3. We have a special family meal on the first two nights. It's called a Seder, which means 'order', because the meal has a special order that we follow, with specific traditional foods (such as parsley dipped in salt water to symbolise tears shed in slavery and raw horseradish to symbolise the bitterness of slavery). The Seder details, and the story of Pesach, are written in a special book called a Haggadah. Some families only do one Seder on the first night - we do both nights.
During the Seder, we sing songs and have discussions. Frogs may be dotted around the table (not real ones, I should add) - as frogs feature in the second plague.
Last year, we had the parting of the Red Sea down the centre of our Seder table - thanks to blue crepe paper, sand-coloured felt, fish stickers, shell-shaped sequins and Playmobil figures (Egyptians and builders etc). I think I enjoyed making it far more than my teenagers enjoyed seeing it. We even have a big Playmobil pyramid stored in the loft from when my boys were younger.
Pesach has many different themes and we do try to relate them to the 'here and now'. One of these is the theme of modern slavery (and not just the obvious - think about how enslaved we are to technology and social media). Then there's the theme of refugee status - as currently seen in Syria. Then finally the theme of antisemitism, which returns to my book. Just as the Jews were persecuted by Pharaoh then, they have been persecuted ever since, with the Holocaust and modern day antisemitic attacks.
So should we be free to write about lives different to our own?
I know that if I do get my novel published, it may come under a lot of scrutiny and I may be more open to antisemitism - I've already experienced antisemitic behaviour on social media, in response to a tweet about Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yes, this does worry me, but I know that I'll rise above it and have a strong support network of people around me.
But I may not only attract criticism from the wider population, and in some ways this worries me more, turning writing this book into more of a challenge to get it right. As already mentioned above, the Jewish community is diverse. So my personal experience of Judaism probably won't be the same as someone else's. The Jewish characters in my book are also diverse, from a Jewish community like my own.
Some Jewish people may disagree with the content of my book if it's ever 'out there', because it's too Jewish, not Jewish enough, tells too much, tells too little, 'we don't do it like that', gives us a bad name... and 'you can't have anyone Jewish committing a crime'. Others may say it's great as it highlights antisemitism, shows that we're like everyone else, raises awareness of Judaism etc - which is exactly what I'm trying to do.
I don't think there's any way to 'win' in terms of writing about diverse groups of people, even if we're part of the community ourselves. When we read books, they touch us in many different ways, based on our nature and nurture, our upbringing, our past experiences, our present situation. No two readers will read a book in the same way or respond to it in the same way.
And that’s the beauty of reading - and writing.
Ultimately, we should be free to write (and read) about what excites us, what motivates us, what challenges us and what drives us.
For me, it's crime fiction with a Jewish theme.
Watch this space!