On Writing a Novel in Two Cultures

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Yesterday I wrote that my novel, 
The Golem and the Jinni
, is “pretty darn Jewish.” In truth, that’s only half the story. There are two cultures in my novel, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century: the Jews of the Lower East Side, and the Syrian immigrants who lived in what’s now New York’s Financial district.

When I started writing this book, I was incredibly daunted at the idea of writing about a culture that wasn’t my own. At a guess, I know slightly more about Syrian culture than your average American Jew: my husband is Arab American, so I married into the knowledge, as it were. But it’s one thing to know the foods and the holidays and the etiquette, and to learn how to say salaam aleikum and shukran and insh’allah when the cousins visit. It’s quite another to create fictional characters who belong to that culture, hopefully true to life and free of generalizations. I really, really didn’t want anyone to read my book and cringe, like a British person watching Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

And as soon as I started to research, it became all too clear just how little I knew. The residents of “Little Syria,” as it was called, weren’t Muslim but Christian, mostly Maronite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox from what’s now Lebanon. I’d always been flummoxed by the various and subtle differences between Christianities, and now I felt even more daunted. I tried to plug my ignorance with books and informational websites, and often ended up more confused than when I started. I went so far as to order a back issue of a Catholic magazine that had an article I wanted to read. Before long they’d given my name to every Catholic mailing list in America. One charity even mailed me a rosary. I still have it, hidden in the back of my sock drawer, as though from God’s prying eyes. How the hell do you throw out a rosary?

After a while I’d read enough to feel like I could start writing. It was important to me that the Jewish and Syrian sections of the book be roughly equal: in length, in weight, in the importance of the characters. I didn’t want one side of the book to be merely a catalyst or booster for the other, like the stalwart friend in a romantic comedy. This led to a number of interesting decisions. After some back and forth, I decided not to use any Yiddish sayings in the book. If I couldn’t say it in Arabic, then I wouldn’t say it in Yiddish either. (I had a couple of salaam aleikums in there before someone told me that only Muslims say it, not Arab Christians—exactly the sort of mistake I was looking to avoid.) I tried to use religious and cultural details sparingly, because a little goes a long way, and I wanted to keep my blunder opportunities to a minimum.