This essay has three parts. The first tells you about who I am and why I find ways to put Jews and Judaism in my fiction. The second tells you about my novels and the Jewishness of them. The third is the good bit. When I build worlds for my novels, I make sure that there is food in the world. I will talk aboutÂ some ofÂ that food and, of course, there will be recipes. Recipes are worth waiting for. If you want to start on the fiction before you read the first post, then my most recent novel isÂ The Green Children Help Out. I explore what a superhero looks like when created by a Jewish Australian woman with disabilities. Hint: thereâ€™s no Superman. And now, on with the posts.
Iâ€™m JewishÂ Australian. It used to take courage to say this in front of strangers, and it still takes a moment and a deep breath. Things are different in Australia. Itâ€™s not just the big spiders and curious streetlife. Iâ€™d rather talk about the curious streetlife, because kangaroosÂ areÂ a traffic hazardÂ where I liveÂ and our magpies attack people.Â Also, itâ€™s easier than talking aboutÂ beingÂ Jewish.
Officially, Iâ€™m classified as CALD (Culturally And Linguistically Diverse), but until recently I was NESB (from a Non-English Speaking Background). Unofficially, Iâ€™m called many things. I often call myselfÂ a giraffeÂ (an exceedingly short one).
Why a giraffe? StrangersÂ tellÂ me afterÂ panels or papers or talks,Â â€œIâ€™ve never met anyone Jewish beforeâ€ or â€œYou speak very good English for someone Jewish.â€ People with more worldly knowledge ask when I left New York or Israel or, if theyâ€™re less tolerantÂ tell me,Â â€œYou should go back to where you came from.â€
IÂ usuallyÂ ask, â€œDo you mean MelbourneÂ in general, or specificallyÂ Hawthorn?â€ Melbourne isÂ my home city andÂ HawthornÂ my home suburb. Iâ€™ve been away for nearly forty years.
The conversationÂ continues, â€œGo to whereÂ your parents came from.â€
â€œThatâ€™s difficult, because my father lived in country Victoria and my mother in Melbourneâ€”you need to choose.â€
The conversation seldom stops there.Â Most of these peopleÂ expect me to turn into some mythical being from somewhere they never quite identify, and are very disconcerted when they find out my fatherâ€™s motherâ€™s motherâ€™s mother was born in London, as was her mother, and her motherâ€™s mother. The rest of me comes fromÂ all over Europe.Â My family has been in Australian for well over a century.
Most Australians expect Jewish Australians to be exotic. TheÂ most commonÂ terms areÂ â€œExotic Whiteâ€ or â€œNear White.â€ During the infamous White Australia policy, Jews wereÂ Honorary Black.
These days,Â I describe myself as â€œoff-white.â€Â ItÂ stopsÂ all the questions before they begin.
The writer Iâ€™m most often told about when people discoverÂ my professionÂ is Arnold Zable. He wrote a fictionalised account of his familyâ€™s last days in BiaÅ‚ystock during the Holocaust. He was one of the last people to escapeÂ this far, you see. Another member of his family who escaped married a cousin of mine and a couple of years ago I finally met Zable.
â€œYou know my mother,â€ I said, â€œAnd your cousin married one of my cousins.â€
â€œWhich cousin?â€Â he asked.
â€œFeivel, the carnival guy.â€
This tells you something else about Australian Jewry. Prior to World War II, we were few in number.Â Many of us are related in some way, if we come from an older family. Or our parents went to Sunday school together.
We are culturally different to Jews whoÂ arrivedÂ after the Shoah. I call usÂ the scones-and-committee branch of Judaism.Â Our branchÂ hasÂ writers and musicians and dentistsÂ and teachers and shopkeepers andÂ lots of people who worked in the garment industry.Â I have a cousin who specialises in lipstick and a sister who specialises in wine.Â My great-aunts ran a shop that Phryne Fisher would have gone to for her haberdashery. My family fought in World War II. We are, in our way, quintessentially Melburnian.
And yetâ€¦ Iâ€™m off-white.Â It took untilÂ my third novelÂ forÂ strangersÂ to stopÂ telling me my English was very good for someone Jewish.
All these descriptions rollÂ outÂ as if Iâ€™ve said them a thousand times. I have. Theyâ€™ve been my defence against bigots and those who assume there are no Jews in Australia and againstÂ all thoseÂ people who donâ€™t see meÂ unless I shout.
MyÂ fictionÂ helps me shout.Â I hold the pinpricks I faceÂ up to the light so that a picture shines through.Â I donâ€™t write literary novels. I write science fiction and fantasy. Every now and then I stop and ask, â€œWhy donâ€™t I write like CS Lewis or â€œDocâ€ Smith or, in fact, any of the writers I grew up reading?â€ I have things to say about myself and my culture, I suspect, that donâ€™t fit into a classic SF story. There are scones, there are committees,Â andÂ thereâ€™s a lot more.
Next post: Meet the novels in which I say these things.
BIO: Dr Gillian Polack is aÂ Jewish-AustralianÂ science fiction and fantasyÂ writer,Â researcherÂ and editorÂ and is the winner of the 2020 A Bertram Chandler Award.Â The Green Children Help OutÂ is her newest novel.Â The Year of the Fruit CakeÂ won the 2020 Ditmar for best novel and was shortlisted for best SF novel in the Aurealis Awards.Â She wroteÂ the first Australian Jewish fantasy novel (The Wizardry of Jewish Women).Â Gillian is a Medievalist/ethnohistorian, currently working on how novels transmit culture. Her work on how writers use history in their fiction (History and Fiction) wasÂ shortlisted for theÂ William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review.
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