Last chance for the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Harriet

The Kickstarter for Magical Princess Harriet is on its last day. One month ago I launched this campaign hoping that others would be as excited as I was about the idea of a Jewish fantasy novel with a transgender protagonist, and the response has been truly phenomenal. In only 29 days ninety people have contributed a total of $3,180, enough to ensure that Magical Princess Harriet will in fact see the light of day. I am so deeply honored that so many people believed in this enough to help make my vision a reality.

If you are still interested in pre-ordering the book and having your name appear on the thank-you page, you can donate to the campaign here. Thanks again!

Why Fantasy?

As a rabbi, one might argue that my proper purview in life is things like God, Torah, Israel, Justice and other matters commonly held to be Serious Business. Why then, you might ask, am I devoting my time to something so frivolous as writing a fantasy novel for teens?

Inkedstraw-man_LII’m glad you asked, Mr. Rhetorical Straw Man! Here’s the deal: Throughout its illustrious history, the Fantasy genre has often been maligned as a form of escapism. Those who read fantasy, the argument goes, are unable to deal with reality and so escape into an imaginary world where they don’t have to deal with their problems. This argument is problematic for several reasons – first, and rather ironically, it paints reality itself in a really negative light. If reality were genuinely so bad that people had to resort to fantasy novels to escape from it, then it seems as if that would be a serious indictment of reality, not fantasy. Second, because fantasy fiction doesn’t really hold up as an effective means of escape – no matter how much I enjoy re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the 100th time, my problems are still going to be there when I put down the book. Third, and most importantly, the “fantasy as escape” argument tends to ignore the many ways in which fiction and reality interact with each other.

No work of fantasy, however creative, can ever separate itself completely from all connection with the lived reality of the author or the reader. While J. R. R. Tolkien may have celebrated fantasy as a form of “sub-creation,” a way in which human beings can emulate their Creator by giving birth to worlds of their own, he did not mean by this that the new worlds we create can ever be completely devoid of reference to our own world. Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable for the reader is the way it often has of taking some idea or issue from the world we live in and re-examining it through a different lens. The Lord of the Rings evokes the despair and heroism Tolkien witnessed serving in the trenches during World War I. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time deals with issues of authoritarianism and the hazards of conformity that were supremely relevant when the book was published in 1962. Ursula K. Le Guinn deconstructs the patriarchal assumptions of most medieval fantasy in the later Wizard of Earthsea books, and thereby holds a mirror up to patriarchy in our own time. None of these classics of fantasy fiction make much sense when viewed in terms of “escapism” because each of them wrestles with the very real issues important to their authors in ways comparable to more “realistic” fiction.”

But the real importance of fantasy fiction comes into light not when we examine the impact reality has on fantasy, but that which fantasy has on reality. The notion of “reality” is a tricky one – it seems to presume something fixed and unchanging, an underlying substrate we can point to as the “real” as distinguished from the merely “imaginary.” But the nature of humanity is such that we tend to reshape our reality in accordance with the values and concepts that inform our lives. Technology, systems of government, economic relations, politics, art – all of these are means that humans employ to change the “given” reality around them into a form in keeping with their desires and preconceptions. In other words, the nature of the human imagination is such that the imaginary is constantly spilling over into the real and remaking it in its image.

Given this fundamental fact of human life, what we spend our time imagining may be just about the most important thing for us to consider. The realm of the imagination prefigures and ultimately determines the forms which can be assumed by the world around us, and so if we are to have any hope of changing this world for the better, it becomes vitally necessary to do the work of imagining what that world would be like and how it could be brought about. This is precisely the work that fantasy fiction is ideally suited for. Fantasy (along with its twin sibling, science fiction), is the conceptual test ground for the world we are in the process of constructing, and what that world is like will be ultimately determined by what we find it possible to imagine and what will remain literally “unimaginable.”

Furthermore, imagination is one of the ways in which we can reach out and grasp the ineffable, whether that is understood in terms of the theological/metaphysical underpinnings of reality or the barely-understood mysteries of our own identities. Growing up as a closeted transgender girl, for a great deal of my life my own truest self was something that existed solely in the realm of my own imagination. This wasn’t about escapism – on the contrary, my imagination was for me a place where I could hold those truths which were for me so true that at least for the time being there was no way they could find themselves into the unimaginable world in which I found myself. Fantasy can be an incredibly powerful way for queer and otherwise marginalized youth to connect to and explore their identity when the world around them gives no other space in which to do so. It can also be a tremendous way of forming contacts and relationships with other “dreamers,” thereby creating the social networks that will become the basis for bringing their dreams to life later on.

Another Excerpt

Another excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

As the door swung shut behind her Harriet stood there for a moment, leaning against the doorpost, her heart beating a mile a minute. The bathroom was a long, narrow, poorly-lit room, its walls tiled in a particularly unpleasant shade of muted yellow-green that put one in mind of things rotting in a swamp – or perhaps that was just the smell. Along the wall facing the door were a row of stalls, with a row of urinals opposite them. Next to these were a number of shabby-looking sinks that looked as if they’d been installed around the time Eisenhower was president. The rusty faucets were dripping incessantly and the sound of the drops falling into the cracked porcelain basins echoed weirdly off of the room’s abnormally high ceiling.

She had been so upset when she came in that it took a minute before she realized she wasn’t alone. The room’s other occupant wasn’t immediately visible, but Harriet could hear them breathing in weak, shuddering gasps. The sound was amplified strangely by the room’s odd acoustics, so that at first she wasn’t certain where the sound was coming from. Bending down to examine the empty space along the bottom of the bathroom stalls she spotted a pair of black-on-black canvas sneakers that clearly belonged to someone standing on the other side of the last stall, in the space between it and the green-tiled wall.

“Hello?” she called out softly. “Are you okay?”

The echoes of her voice sounded metallic and distorted. When there was no response she crept tentatively forward and leaned around to see what was going on. Harriet gasped, eyes widening in alarm at what she saw. The boy – he must be in her grade, but he was so small and slim that he looked much younger – stood, or rather slumped, against the side of the bathroom stall, his eyes open but unseeing. The lower part of his face was obscured by the shadowy, amorphous form of a creature much like the one that Azrael had loosed on her the previous day in the upstairs hallway. It was clinging to the boy’s body with its long, wispy tentacles, its body slowly expanding and contracting, while beneath its translucent gray skin what looked like little clusters of glowing bubbles were gently pulsating with a ghastly violet light vaguely resembling the chemical phosphorescence of a glow stick.

A shudder ran through Harriet’s whole body. Her mind went back to those horrible moments, to the dreadful chill that had invaded her body when the creature had latched on to her and begun to feed. Gritting her teeth, she reached out to grab hold of the thing, meaning to pull it off the boy. When she did however she found that her hands passed right through its body, clutching nothing but empty air. She grunted, half in exasperation and half in pain as the cold, tingling sensation she remembered from before began to creep up her arms.

Taking a step back, Harriet’s hand went automatically to the pocket of her jeans where the little paper rose lay but it paused there, not quite touching it, her eyes darting nervously to the door through which she’d come. What was she supposed to do in a situation like this? Clearly the boy needed help – his breath was coming out in shallow wheezes that made her wince in sympathy just to hear them. But was she seriously considering bringing on the transformation right here in the middle of the boy’s bathroom? What if someone were to come in to use the toilet? What was she supposed to do then — shrug and say, “Sorry guys, guess I must have taken the wrong turn?”

As she stood there, paralyzed with indecision, Harriet’s eyes went back to those of the boy. They were wide and staring and utterly blank – the eyes of a human being on the verge of being totally lost. Shivering, she found herself recalling the words that Nuriel had spoken to her just before it disappeared:

You are a caring soul and your eyes have been opened to a danger which threatens people you care about, the angel had said. You have been given a gift which you are only beginning to understand, something which might otherwise have remained hidden from you for years to come. No one can hope to win in a fight against their own true nature. When the time comes and you are faced with the choice whether to live by that truth or betray it utterly, you will act.

Heaving a sigh of resignation, Harriet closed her fingers around the rose.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, why not consider donating to my Kickstarter and help Magical Princess Harriet come into the world?

Announcing the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Kickstarter Banner

I am proud to announce that the Kickstarter campaign for Magical Princess Harriet is finally underway!

If you haven’t been following this saga as it has developed, MPH is a Young Adult Fantasy novel about a Jewish middle school student named Harriet (neé Harris) Baumgartner who is charged with dealing with a family of Nephilim who are trying to take over her town, all while having to deal with her growing awareness that she was never meant to be a boy. Yes, that’s right – I wrote a novel that is basically a queer, Jewish version of a magical girl anime. So there.

You can find out more by visiting the Kickstarter page here. Watch the video, check out the characters, and please consider donating if you can!

What it felt like

A short excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

 

As Harriet grasped the paper rose her skin began to glow from the inside, and again she felt that tremendous surge of warmth and wellbeing flowing through her. It felt like…

What it felt like, really, was love. That was the only way to put it into words. The thing that filled her up to overflowing with a light so bright that it literally lifted her up off the ground, pulling her toward some higher place she could not see but could just barely feel – that was love. It was big – far too big for her to really grasp the sheer scale of it without losing all sense of herself. It was a love big enough to encompass the entire universe and then some, and yet somehow at the same time it seemed radically specific. The love was in her and for her, just as she was in it and for it. It called out to her from somewhere deep inside of her, and since the only way to follow the sound of that voice was to turn completely inside-out, that is exactly what she did.

Why No Jewish Narnia?

So way back in the day, when I was still living in Tulsa, OK and had maybe just converted to Judaism, my rabbi handed me a copy of the (then relatively new) Jewish Review of Books. In this particular issue was an article by Michael Weingrad entitled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” I read it. It bothered me. It still does.

This article is not without its issues. At the very least Weingrad’s understanding of Fantasy seems overly reductionist, placing undue emphasis on romantic nostalgia for a vanished feudal past as a central and essential element of the genre. But while it might be a useful exercise for a later time, I’m not here today to critique the article itself, because it’s not really the article itself that I take issue with.

It’s the title.

When I read the article all those years ago, I initially misread the title. Rather than “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” I thought it said “Why Is There No Jewish Narnia?” A subtle difference, but an important one, because it underscores how Weingrad approaches the question as if it were already answered, as though taking it for granted that there are good reasons why Jewish culture has produced so few notable works of fantasy. That’s what bothers me.

Underlying all of this is a set of assumptions about what Judaism is and what it can be, a set of assumptions that were outdated and inaccurate back in the 60’s and 70’s and which continue to be so to this day – that Judaism is “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly,” that it is somehow more inherently rationalistic than Christianity, that elements of magic, the supernatural, and above all mythology are foreign to it. The fact is that these elements of Jewish self-understanding are ultimately derived from the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, representative of the efforts of members of the newly-formed class of German Jewish academics to cast Judaism in a light that would be more palatable to the rationalistic mainstream German academic culture. In pursuit of this goal, historians like Heinrich Graetz cast the history of Judaism a particular light, downplaying the deep importance of mysticism and mythology to the development of Judaism as a religion. The fact that Hasidic Judaism, grounded in a version of medieval kabbalah radically reformulated to be accessible to the masses, was developing in eastern Europe into one of the most successful religious movements in Jewish history, was apparently too insignificant to have been worth their notice.

Today, despite the work of such noteworthy researchers into the field of Jewish mysticism as Gershom Sholem and Moshe Idel, the idea of Judaism as an essentially rationalistic and “this-worldly” faith is still with us. But this way of looking at ourselves seems deeply limiting to me. It strikes me as ignoring not only a fundamental aspect of the history of our civilization, but of our own spiritual being. In order to be a healthier, more complete people, I think we need to come to terms with the mystical side of ourselves, and of our religion, which to this day still tends to be ignored. I also happen to think that the most powerful way of exploring this less-than-adequately-acknowledged side of Judaism may be through the medium of fantasy fiction.

I’ve thought about Weingrad’s article from time to time over the years, and more than once I’ve wondered why it bothers me so much. I think at last I may have an answer – because in reality the title doesn’t strike me as a bare statement, nor as a question calling out for scholarly inquiry. To me, it feels much more personal than that. It feels like a challenge. In that light, the answer to the question, “Why is there no Jewish Narnia?” seems laughably simple.

It is because I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Next post: Introducing Magical Princess Harriet

The Visitor

There once was a person – let’s call hir Someone – who lived all by hirself in a big, old house a long way from anywhere. Someone didn’t get out a lot, and nobody ever came to visit hir, but Someone didn’t mind much, and on the whole zie was reasonably content with hir solitary existence.

Then one day out of the blue a letter arrived in the mail. This was something of a surprise in itself because Someone never got any mail. Zie had kind of assumed, because zie lived way out in the middle of nowhere, with no towns or even neighbors close by, that the postal service simply didn’t deliver all the way out here. Certainly Someone couldn’t think of anyone who might want to write to hir.

The letter was unsigned and had no return address, and when Someone opened and read it zie discovered that it consisted of only three words –

I am coming.

Receiving this letter left Someone understandably confused and a little nervous. In all the time zie had been living in the house zie had never had a single visitor, and zie couldn’t imagine who might want to visit hir now. What is more, the letter’s terse language left Someone without any idea as to the purpose of the visit or what the visitor’s attitude toward hir might be. Did they know Someone? It seemed unlikely, as Someone didn’t know many people. Were they coming to visit Someone, or just the house where zie lived? Were they coming for a short visit, or did they intend to stay longer? On what basis did they presume the liberty to come and visit without consulting Someone’s opinion on the matter?

All of these questions and more occupied Someone’s mind over the next several days, but the more Someone pondered them, the more mystifying they became. As zie considered this strange turn of events, however, it began to occur to hir that that house in which zie lived, adequate enough for hir own solitary needs, was woefully unprepared for receiving guests of any kind.

And so, partly out of nervousness at what the mysterious visitor might do or say should they arrive to find that adequate preparations had not been made for their stay, and partly out of embarrassment at the rather shabby condition of hir home, Someone began to tidy up and make the house ready for the visitor’s arrival. Zie opened up a spare room that hadn’t been used for ages and cleaned off the layer of dust that had been allowed to settle over everything. Zie got out the extra linens and made sure they were freshly washed. Zie picked up all the half-read books lying strewn all over the living room and put them back on their shelves.

And in the midst of all these preparations, as Someone was hanging the freshly laundered sheets out to dry in the lawn, zie happened to glance in the direction of the road and found to hir surprise that the flag on the mailbox was up – another letter had arrived!

This second letter was as mysteriously devoid of identifying features as the first and when Someone removed it from the envelope zie found that it contained a message more or less similar to the first. This one read –

I love you.

I am coming.

This letter threw Someone into even greater depths of confusion than the first one had. If it was improbable that zie might have forgotten some prior acquaintance who might wish to visit hir, that zie should be unable to recall someone who loved hir seemed beyond belief. At the same time, Someone was relieved to discover that the visitor’s feelings toward hir were evidently positive and they did not appear to mean hir any harm.

Nevertheless, when Someone looked around at the work zie had done to prepare for the visitor, zie was suddenly dissatisfied. Certainly there was a room now prepared for the visitor, and the living area was tidy, but it now occurred to Someone how shabby the exterior of the house had grown over the time zie’d lived there. It had never really occurred to hir to think what a visitor might think, because no visitor ever came. But now there was a visitor coming, one who apparently had deep feelings for Someone, even if zie could not remember them. It seemed a shame somehow to think of them arriving and finding the place in such a shambles.

And so Someone began to fix up the exterior of the house. They rehung the shutters that had been blown down in a storm, replaced the missing shingles on the roof, weeded the garden and even gave the door a fresh coat of paint.

In the midst of all this fixing and weeding and painting, Someone happened to glance again in the direction of the road and lo and behold, once again the flag was up on the mailbox – another letter!

This one was as indistinct as the first two had been, but this one read –

I miss you.

I love you.

I am coming.

Someone read this new letter with a sense of anxious trepidation in hir heart. Evidently the visitor who was soon to arrive felt a great connection to Someone, but as much as zie wracked hir brains zie could not think of a single person who might feel this way about hir. Only now did this fact strike hir as rather sad. Zie had never really realized how lonely it was living by hirself, with no one to talk to or share hir day with. Now though, Someone felt that there was nothing zie wanted more, and so zie resolved that when the visitor arrived, even if they didn’t recognize each other, even if it was all a mistake, zie would as the visitor – beg them, if need be – to stay a little while and keep hir company.

But where was the visitor? Three letters had now arrived to announce their coming, and yet there had been no sign of them. Someone began to get nervous. Perhaps it really had all been a mistake and no one was coming. Maybe the letters had been delivered to the wrong house entirely. Or maybe the visitor had suddenly realized they had been writing to the wrong person. Perhaps they had been expecting Someone to write back, to acknowledge their coming, and when no reply had been forthcoming they had decided they were unwelcome and not to come after all.

This last though – that some response had been expected and that by failing to give it Someone had caused the visitor to rethink their plans – distressed Someone greatly. Zie took to wandering through the house, thinking hard about what zie might do to signal to hir mysterious correspondent that that they were welcome and indeed eagerly awaited in Someone’s home.

It was a big, rambling house, most of which Someone didn’t even use on a regular basis, and lost in thought Someone wandered into a passage that zie hardly ever visited. Suddenly, zie was startled to to notice that at the end of the hallway was a door zie’d never noticed before. Ordinarily, that end of the passageway was shrouded in darkness, even in the daytime, and so it was not surprising that in hir infrequent trips to this part zie’d missed the door. And yet now there was a thin line of yellow light visible through the crack beneath the door. What is more, Someone could hear the sound of footsteps coming from the other side – there was a person in the room beyond!

Feeling as if zie was dreaming, Someone walked slowly to the door and turned the handle. The footsteps on the other side paused in their pacing, as if listening expectantly. Steadying hir nerve, Someone opened the door.

Inside was a cozy little room with a small bed, next to which was a night table with a lamp, from which was coming the warm, yellow light that Someone had seen under the door. There was an old armchair and a shelf containing some books and various odds and ends. In one corner was a writing desk on which were strewn several sheets of paper identical to that on which the letters had been written, and standing in the middle room was a person Someone knew instantly must be the mysterious visitor zie had been so anxiously awaiting.

“When did you get here?” Someone asked, beside hirself in astonishment.

“I’ve been here all along,” the visitor replied. “I built this house as a matter of fact. For a long time I lived here all by myself, and the loneliness was almost too much to bear. When you arrived it seemed like the the answer to my prayers, but I found suddenly that I was to nervous to face tou. And so I hid in here, and I’ve been hiding ever since, watching you from afar, taking pleasure from your company, even if you didn’t realize I was there. After a while though it didn’t seem right that I should be able to take comfort from you when you weren’t even aware of my existence. So I had the idea of writing you a letter and presenting myself as a visitor. At the same time, I was still a little afraid you wouldn’t want to see me, so I’ve been trying to work up the courage to show my face.

Someone couldn’t believe it – all that time they had been sharing the house with the visitor without even knowing it! Filled with sudden joy, Someone held out hir hand to the visitor.

“I’ve been working so hard to make everything ready for your visit,” zie said. “I was worried you were never going to come. Come with me and I’ll show you.” And the visitor, smiling, took Someone’s hand and together they left the room.