Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “By Our Own Hands” to our readers. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
Thank you so much! I’m delighted to have found such a great home for this story, and I hope readers will enjoy it. I’m going to be honest, this story had two inspirations, and one of them is a meme. People on Jewish Twitter have been sharing a reaction image of an iPhone dialing a contact listed as “the Golem” under basically anything with antisemitic undertones, which is funny, but also got me thinking. Like a lot of American Jews of my specific generation, I had the privilege to grow up without thinking very much about antisemitism, because it wasn’t a daily feature of my life. I was occasionally proselytized to by classmates who believed I was going to Hell, or asked ignorant questions, but constant fear that my neighbors might try to kill me because of my Jewishness seemed like ancient history. Suddenly, over the last few years, it has become clear that isn’t true, with the public rise of the alt-right and an online culture that emboldens the most vicious forms of antisemitism. This meme—with its classically Jewish blend of history, modernity, and humor—spoke to all of those changes.
The other, as anyone familiar with the source might guess, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, from which I’ve borrowed the title. The golems in that world have a saying in their own language: “By our own hands, or none,” meaning that the golems will only accept freedom that they’ve earned for themselves. But Pratchett (whom I adore and admire immensely!) was not Jewish. In his work—as in other mainstream depictions—the golems are seeking freedom from their creators, not on their behalf. It felt important to me to claim back that symbol of the golem somehow, as someone for us to call on when needed, as a way for the works of our own hands to free us.
I also felt like I had to write something about antisemitism. It is such a huge issue, with politicians now openly espousing antisemitic conspiracy theories, hate crimes rising, and virulent, constant attacks on Jewish people online. Yet it goes largely unacknowledged, and unfortunately many people, even well-intentioned people, wrongly believe that antisemitism is over. (I used to be one of those people! Growing up my brother and I made fun of our dad for seeing antisemitism everywhere. Sorry, Dad. You were right!) Now that antisemitism is on the rise again, that ignorance is dangerous. Writing is the way that I get my ideas out into the world, so I wanted to share this story to hopefully open people’s eyes to how it can feel to be a Jewish person right now.
Between the pandemic and rising hate, this story doesn’t flinch from how painfully raw things are today. How did you approach writing something so unblinking, and does that differ from how you’d approach a story dealing with different subject matter?
To be honest, it didn’t feel particularly painfully raw as I was writing it—maybe because so much of this story is just the background reality for me. The last few years, and especially the time I was writing and revising the story in (October and early November of 2020), felt pretty constantly scary as a marginalized person. As a Jewish person, I had to add to that the fact that it felt like no one except other Jews noticed or cared about the fact that we were being attacked, that there was a sharp rise in hate crimes against us, that politicians were publicly using antisemitic rhetoric. I’d also had to deal, myself, with the fact that I’d been so wrong to think antisemitism was something that had ended in my grandparents’ or parents’ generation. It feels very fantasy-esque, in some ways, like fighting a monster no one but you can see. And so writing about it in this genre felt very easy and natural.
I think my style is really influenced by the subject matter I’m dealing with—but ultimately, maybe because of the world we live in, I find it hard to shy away from bleaker themes altogether. I’ve written some “lighter” fiction, but even my YA tends to eventually confront themes of genocide, oppression, and cruelty—because those are the things my family has experienced, and the things I’m thinking about. The only difference is that in some ways it’s simpler to write when I can be straightforward about the big-picture issues I’m dealing with. For fantasy, this is in many ways an extremely literal short story! A lot of my other work deals with these issues on a more metaphorical level.
One thing that struck me is how differently so much science fiction and fantasy treats human-created nonhuman life, with AIs and constructs often destructive and hostile—but as David’s grandmother says, many of those are “goyische stories.” How do you think these stories can be told in more complex ways?
I do think the idea that a human-created construct is going to be hostile or dangerous is a limited and limiting one. In many other cultures, not just in Judaism, there are more positive or complex traditions around created beings, like the golem. I wonder if our discomfort with human-created nonhuman life stems, at least in part, from the conception of humans ourselves as created beings—created by an infallible divine G-d—and the ambiguity we may feel about having been created, and about our existence, especially in a Christian-centric model of the relationship between G-d and his creations. What would we do, if we were faced with our own creators—if we were the robots, the AIs, the conjured spirits? Would we want to obey them? Would we want to follow their commands and their vision for our lives? Or would we want to fight back? And what would it feel like to be the one with all the power, to be the creator, not the created?
It’s not that the golem myth, or Judaism by extension, is disinterested in these questions. In one of the earliest golem stories, the Golem of Chelm is destroyed because its creator fears it will eventually consume the whole world. However, in Jewish stories, the creator of the golem isn’t an all-powerful figure who has succumbed to hubris, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, summoning magic he cannot control. He is a member of an oppressed community trying desperately to protect the people he cares about. I think the golem myth is one example of how we can reimagine our relationship to the things we create. I see many people bemoaning the way that technology has contributed to global warming, job loss, and many other ills—yet it’s not technology itself, but the way we use it, that creates these issues. (This is hardly an original premise, and I’m relying on the work of many thinkers and writers, especially Indigenous people, in my thoughts here). That’s because, often, we’re telling these stories from the perspective of the people in power. We—we capitalists, we wealthy people, we white Christian men—may create the seeds of our own destruction. But what if it’s a different we doing the creating, or doing the telling? That, I think, is how to imagine these stories in more complex ways.
There are resonances in here I appreciate, like how David’s grandmother says that “our stories don’t end”—and neither does this one, really. Are there any other ways Jewish storytelling traditions influenced the structure of your story?
A few! Honestly, I wish I knew more about Jewish storytelling and myth. More and more I’m seeing the influences of Jewish culture show up in my creative work, but I know I’m hardly an expert. Being part of a tiny diasporic minority means you have to do a lot of educating yourself on your own traditions! But I do think there are a lot of Jewish influences on the work beyond just the themes. For example, the back-and-forth between David and his grandmother. I wanted to reflect the importance of history in Jewish families—and how complicated its importance can be, given the things that sometimes aren’t spoken about as a result of intergenerational trauma, or memories that get distorted, or traditions that get lost over time. I also tried to, in places, imitate some of the conversational style I used to hear from my older relatives.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Yes! I have a few other short stories out that you can find at my website, but the big thing I’m working on is my upcoming debut novel! Queen of All is available for pre-order, both digital and paperback, wherever books are sold. Trying to survive the debut process is taking up a lot of my time now, but I am also very nearly finished with the sequel. If you liked this story you might find book two especially interesting, since it deals with Jewish identity and fighting back against oppression—though in a high fantasy, second-world setting, and written with a young adult audience in mind.
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