Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to be able to bring your story “The Dybbuk Ward” to our readers. Can you tell us how this story came to be?
I’ve been editing science fiction and fantasy professionally since 2006, and writing since 2010, but a car accident in 2019 left me with a traumatic brain injury. I had some works-in-progress left hanging, but “The Dybbuk Ward” was the first story I wrote start-to-finish after that accident. It had taken me five months to be able to read again, and a year to be able to work. Recovery hasn’t been linear, and hasn’t been predictable. I have occasional balance issues that leave me needing a stability aid sometimes. Even though I have various illnesses and I’ve had chronic pain since my teens, accepting actual disability has been an interesting and complicated process.
I love writing medical science fiction and disability-related fantasy. I had another disability-related dark fantasy story that I’d been shopping for years, but that had never found a home, and I had kind of an epiphany that maybe the problem with selling it was that I was writing about disability, but not in an own-voices way. So I knew that what I wanted to write next was something intensely personal.
I was thinking about how medical explanations and diagnoses have changed so much over time. Maladies we used to blame on spirits or an imbalance of humors are now known to be due to germs, or genetic factors, or organ dysfunction. Mental illnesses and drastic personality changes that used to be called possession are now discussed in terms of functional brain connectivity. But there are cultures that still believe in those older, less scientific explanations, and what if they’re not wrong? That led me to think, what if some people are possessed, and we just misdiagnose them? I used my own experiences of mental health, both as a neurodivergent person with an experience of psychiatric hospitalization, and as someone with a degree in psychology, to flesh out the world in which that happens.
You can see why it’s extra meaningful to me that this story is my first professional magazine sale.
What can you tell us about dybbuks? Have you explored or been inspired by other themes in Jewish folklore?
To quote the New World Encyclopedia, a dybbuk is the spirit of a dead person that attaches itself to a person on earth. The word “dybbuk” is derived from a Hebrew term meaning “attachment” or “to cleave.”
In the book Invisible 2: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F by Jim Hines, I wrote an essay on Judaism in science fiction and fantasy, and noted at the time that our monsters — especially golems, but also dybbuks — always seemed to me to have more representation in the genre than our people do. I’ve always been aware of Judaism in science fiction and fantasy when I see it; I never expect to see it, and I’m always excited when I do. Writing that essay, I realized that I could help to create that representation myself.
What was the most challenging part of writing this story? What was the easiest?
When I was nineteen and in college, I spent three days involuntarily committed in a psychiatric inpatient setting. My father was a doctor and was able to come and get me released into his care. I had been struggling with mental illness and hadn’t known how to ask for help, but I knew without a doubt after the first day that the kind of inpatient care I was given wasn’t the kind of help I needed. Drawing on those memories was both difficult and frustrating — not so much because it was sensitive stuff, though it was, but because it was the one time in my youth that I didn’t keep a journal, and I wish now that I had. It would have made writing this story a lot easier!
But remembering the sinking feeling that none of the busywork activities on the ward were actually helpful, and trying to see the experience through a practitioner’s eye, made setting the mood for the story an easy and interesting task.
As we continue to try to destigmatize issues of mental health as a society, how creators portray mental illness has become an important part of the conversation. What was your process in navigating the relationship between the fantasy aspect of the dybbuk and the reality of mental illness?
It was so important to me to stress that neurodivergence is real, is important, and shouldn’t be ignored. Even the dybbuk in my story made sure to stress that point, because they knew what it was like to have been neurodivergent—more specifically, to have suffered from a diagnosable neuropsychiatric problem—when they were alive. I’ve experienced major depression and anxiety, and I’m a 9/11 survivor with PTSD. I definitely don’t want to dismiss or minimize real mental illness, or suggest that some single act can magically heal us and bring us closure. It’s not so easy for the neurodivergent. I tried to tell a story in which both illness and possession were real and concerning, hopefully without being dismissive toward one or the other, whether in the context of my fictional world or this world.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about “The Dybbuk Ward”?
I’d like to point out a couple of the tropes I deliberately broke away from in this story. The dybbuk is the protagonist, not the villain. There are no hypersexual female psychiatric patients. There are no hyperviolent male psychiatric patients. There are no patients drugged to insensibility or locked in isolation. The psychiatrist is more than a blank wall to facilitate exposition . . . and most importantly, she isn’t incompetent or corrupt.
What are you working on now, and are there any other projects we can look forward to seeing from you in the future?
My urban fantasy novel, Aether’s Pawn, just came out at the end of February, so I’m very excited about that. Next up will be a D&D Adventurer’s League adventure, set in Ravenloft, which will be available on Dungeon Masters Guild this summer. Two novels and a handful of stories are in the planning process. And I have a Patreon, which I’ve been slowly filling with behind-the-scenes peeks at my novel and other projects. It has a Discord server attached, and some of the perks include monthly Q/As and live gaming. Come and check it out! https://www.patreon.com/gabrielle_h
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