Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch
In author Helene Wecker’s works, realist stories of the immigrant experience come alive through make-believe
part literary fiction contending with the immigrant experience, Wecker manages to make it all feel simultaneously expansive and intimate. I ask her why she chose fantasy, and why the themes of alienation and identity are so central to her books.
“As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, displacement and immigration were a huge undercurrent of my childhood […] in my mind, all families came from somewhere else, somewhere that wasn’t America,” she says.
The write way
Wecker started taking her writing seriously only in her mid-to-late twenties, even though she was “one of those annoying people who always knew that they wanted to write”.
It was during her master’s degree in fiction writing at Columbia University that she began working on stories that would one day become The Golem and the Jinni.
“I didn’t have that many friends who shared my love of sci-fi and fantasy—and this was pre-internet, so I couldn’t find a community online—so it wasn’t until high school and college that I really found my people, as it were. The idea of immigration and exploration, of journeying into otherness, has always been linked in my mind, at least in part, to the fantastical,” she says.
Even then, it took a challenge from a friend for Wecker to add the fantastical element to realist stories that weren’t working. This changed everything, giving her the freedom to explore her chosen themes of the “other” in more ways than one, making the eventual narrative far more nuanced and layered in a way that only fantasy permits.
“I had decided on a golem and a jinni at the very beginning of the first book, back before I even knew it was going to be a novel. I wanted two characters who could serve as fantastical lenses for my own JewishAmerican background and my husband’s Arab-american background,” she says.
“At first they were more like sketches, or maybe vessels, than full characters,” she continues. “But, before too long they began to develop their own personalities, and then I had to flesh them out and decide who they really were, independent of my own assumptions.”
To do this within the constraints of the legends meant figuring out the “rules” governing them in the world of her novels— and in the process, things emerged that she hadn’t planned but ultimately were to the narrative’s benefit.
"GROW AND CHANGE AT YOUR OWN RATE, BUT ALSO KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO SHED YOUR SKIN AND MOVE ON” —HELENE WECKER, AUTHOR
“Once I made these decisions [about the rules], I had to take their knock-on effects into account. I realised that I’d created one character that had been given free will but had no idea what to do with it, and another that had had a part of their freedom taken away and resented it deeply. So it stood to reason that once these characters met, they’d argue about this very topic! It added a philosophical depth to the book that I hadn’t set out to include, but I think the book was richer for it,” says Wecker.
The third novel in the series will be mostly set in 1930, at the end of Prohibition and the beginning of the Great Depression, but that’s all Wecker is allowed to reveal for now, so I ask her for a parting piece of advice.
“Grow and change at your own rate, but also know when it’s time to shed your skin and move on,” she says.
email@example.com Follow @Htbrunch on Twitter and Instagram