I’m a Jew­ish author. I always have been, in the sense that I have always been Jew­ish and have been a pro­fes­sion­al author for close to twen­ty years. I write fan­ta­sy for adults, teenagers, and younger chil­dren — sto­ries of mag­ic, imag­i­nary lands, myth­i­cal crea­tures. Sto­ries of heroes and mon­sters and wars and romances. In the past I’ve spo­ken occa­sion­al­ly about how my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and upbring­ing have con­tributed to the way I write and to the things I write about. And yet there’s a ques­tion I get asked, more often than I would have thought (often by fam­i­ly members).

Why don’t you write about being Jewish?”

I do,” I say. I have.” One of the major char­ac­ters in my first series, the Mor­tal Instru­ments, is the kind of Jew­ish I myself grew up as: deeply cul­tur­al but not par­tic­u­lar­ly observant. 

That’s one char­ac­ter,” the ques­tion­er says. And not a pro­tag­o­nist. And he’s, you know, bagels-and-lox Jew­ish. He nev­er asks the com­plex ques­tions about his reli­gion or what it means to him, how it fits into the world he finds him­self in.”

Well, he’s very busy,” I say, get­ting per­haps a lit­tle testy. He gets turned into a vam­pire and then a bunch of peo­ple try to kill him. He ends up in prison, he los­es his mem­o­ry. Lots more stuff.”

There’s a stereo­type about Amer­i­can Jew­ish artists: that for as many of us as there are, most of us cre­ate art pri­mar­i­ly from an assim­i­lat­ed Amer­i­can per­spec­tive. Unlike many oth­er minor­i­ty groups, who are assumed to write pri­mar­i­ly from the per­spec­tive of that minor­i­ty iden­ti­ty, we are grant­ed the priv­i­lege to pass — chang­ing our names, if nec­es­sary — as mem­bers of the major­i­ty (usu­al­ly West­ern) cul­ture that we live in. And giv­en that priv­i­lege, we pro­duce art most­ly for and about that major­i­ty culture.

It’s hard to remem­ber now, but when Steven Spiel­berg was mak­ing Schindler’s List, it was not imme­di­ate­ly clear that he was the right artist to engage with that kind of mate­r­i­al. It was obvi­ous­ly no secret that he was Jew­ish, but he made quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can films, block­buster ones. Pre­vi­ous­ly his main con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­course of World War II was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now, of course, we’re liv­ing in the future of that deci­sion, where Spiel­berg has gone on to make plen­ty of World War II-relat­ed projects and has expressed a lot of inter­est in his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. But at the time, Schindler’s List was seen as a pos­si­ble major mis­step. You either make art about your minor­i­ty iden­ti­ty, or you make art in the main­stream cul­ture. Not both.

This idea has been in decline over the past few decades, but I cer­tain­ly fell into it when I start­ed writ­ing. The work I’m best known for, the Shad­owhunter series, is set in an ecu­meni­cal pas­tiche of Abra­ham­ic mythol­o­gy. There are angels and demons: the angels are from all over the mytho­log­i­cal spec­trum, Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, and Mus­lim. The demons, and oth­er mag­i­cal beings like vam­pires or faeries, I’ve tak­en from myth and folk­lore from all over the world. This is what read­ers call kitchen-sink fan­ta­sy”: a broad world that can con­tain every myth, every folk­tale, in a kind of gestalt that allows for epic sto­ries any­where and any­time you want. The Shad­owhunter world is meant to be all-encom­pass­ing: its watch­word is the idea that All the sto­ries are true.”

To me, the con­nec­tion between my Judaism and the Shad­owhunters is obvi­ous: it is the val­ues those books espouse that are deeply informed by my reli­gion and my cul­ture. Nev­er­the­less, it is still a com­mon occur­rence that read­ers are sur­prised to find out that I’m Jewish. 

And the world has changed in the past eight years or so — or per­haps some of our illu­sions about the world have fall­en away. I grew up in an Amer­i­can soci­ety in which, fol­low­ing World War II, anti­se­mit­ic lan­guage and ideas had ceased to be tol­er­at­ed in polite com­pa­ny. It was easy to think of anti-Jew­ish sen­ti­ment as some­thing excised from Amer­i­can cul­ture because, for the most part, it had been ostra­cized from pub­lic life.

But the advent of the Inter­net has allowed like-mind­ed peo­ple to find one anoth­er at a scale pre­vi­ous­ly unimag­in­able, and vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ties of sig­nif­i­cant sizes appeared, for good and for ill. Hate­ful ideas that had been dri­ven under­ground came back with a vengeance. If any­thing, those hate­ful ideas are only gain­ing strength as the over­lap­ping, ongo­ing crises fac­ing our soci­ety send many look­ing for scapegoats.

I have been keen­ly remind­ed that the sta­tus of com­fort­able assim­i­la­tion with which I grew up is not guar­an­teed, and may not be per­ma­nent. Restric­tive laws, pogroms, expul­sions, forced con­ver­sion — this his­to­ry is a part of my inher­i­tance. I grew up in the Unit­ed States because my great-grand­par­ents fled from per­se­cu­tion in Poland, in Ukraine. Sig­nif­i­cant branch­es of my fam­i­ly end abrupt­ly with the Holo­caust, aunts, uncles, and cousins whose lines on the fam­i­ly tree ter­mi­nate with a black box con­tain­ing an imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able code: d. 1943

It is hard to think of being Jew­ish as just bagels and lox, these days. We are a dias­poric peo­ple, exist­ing in a lim­i­nal state in which we are both wel­come and unwel­come with­in the major­i­ty soci­ety. That is a pri­ma­ry feel­ing of being Jew­ish, for me. And that haunt­ing sense of won­der­ing when that lev­el of wel­come is going to change is some­thing I had not writ­ten about before Sword Catch­er, my new book.

Lin is like me in a way that most of my char­ac­ters aren’t, a way that is hard to artic­u­late but is felt deep under the skin.

Writ­ing Sword Catch­er pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty that I hadn’t had before. Unlike the Shad­owhunter books, it’s set in a com­plete­ly imag­ined fan­tas­ti­cal pre-mod­ern world, where one’s iden­ti­ty is most­ly defined by one’s home­land. I real­ized very ear­ly in the cre­ation of this world that it was impor­tant to include a peo­ple in this world inspired by my peo­ple — a peo­ple with­out a home­land, a peo­ple who lived every­where and yet belonged nowhere, a peo­ple who pros­pered or suf­fered at the whim of the major­i­ty. These peo­ple, in the world of Sword Catch­er, are the Ashkar.

Sword Catch­er takes place in the grand city of Castel­lane, a glob­al cen­ter of sea trade, an incred­i­bly mul­ti­cul­tur­al city full of trav­el­ers, traders, bankers, and thieves, all seek­ing their for­tune. There are plen­ty of Ashkar who live here. And — like in many oth­er cities in both Sword Catch­ers fic­tion­al world and our real one — those Ashkar are kept with­in the walls of a ghet­to called the Sault, locked in at night, and restrict­ed in the kind of work they are per­mit­ted and the clothes that they can wear. 

In many ways the Ashkar have it pret­ty good in Castel­lane. In the book we learn about oth­er coun­tries where things are much worse for the Ashkar, or where they are for­bid­den to live entire­ly. In Castel­lane, at least when Sword Catch­er begins, things feel more sta­ble. Yes, the Ashkar are locked up behind the gates of the Sault every night. Yes, they suf­fer as the tar­gets of super­sti­tion and dis­trust. But they are also high­ly val­ued as physi­cians, the cur­rent roy­al fam­i­ly doesn’t per­se­cute them direct­ly, and the King has even brought the for­eign tra­di­tion of an Ashkar advi­sor to his court. Nonethe­less, deep in the bones of the Ashkar is the knowl­edge that their safe­ty and free­dom only goes so far, and could dis­ap­pear at any moment in the wake of a change in pol­i­tics or the mood of the city.

The sto­ry of the Ashkar dif­fers quite a bit from the sto­ry of the Jews. Their deity is a god­dess, who has left them but will some­day return. That god­dess is seen by the oth­er reli­gions of this world as a betray­er, though in Ashkar mythol­o­gy she is a redeemer. The for­mer Ashkar home­land is a bar­ren waste­land where nobody will ever again live. And most notably, the Ashkar are the only peo­ple in this world who are able to per­form mag­ic. Read­ers may rec­og­nize the mag­ic as derived from gema­tria, the assign­ing of numer­i­cal val­ues to com­bi­na­tions of let­ters. As a result, the Ashkar are depend­ed upon, but that depen­den­cy has exac­er­bat­ed oth­ers’ dis­trust and resent­ment of them.

All of these sim­i­lar­i­ties to the real-world sit­u­a­tions of var­i­ous Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions through­out his­to­ry are delib­er­ate. But I sup­pose those fam­i­ly mem­bers who were ques­tion­ing me at the begin­ning of this essay could protest. I’m not, after all, writ­ing about Jews. I’m writ­ing about the Ashkar. But this too has a pur­pose, one tied to the pow­ers of fan­ta­sy itself. Real­is­tic fic­tion must con­cern itself with facts, and with a direct verisimil­i­tude to the world around us. But fan­ta­sy can speak to things deep­er — to arche­types, to mytholo­gies, and to emo­tions that live with­in cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. This sense of cul­tur­al mem­o­ry is often the part of my Jew­ish­ness that I feel most keen­ly, and I love writ­ing fan­ta­sy because, inde­pen­dent of the his­tor­i­cal specifics of the real world, I can engage direct­ly with the sym­bols and sto­ries that have been passed down to me through my grand­par­ents and my great-grand­par­ents and beyond.

One of Sword Catch­ers two pro­tag­o­nists, Lin, is an Ashkar doc­tor, strug­gling to find her place in her com­mu­ni­ty. She has been in con­flict with them already — women are not nor­mal­ly per­mit­ted to become doc­tors, and it is only through willpow­er and argu­ment that Lin has man­aged it. (The Ashkar are no more immune to the inani­ties of patri­archy than any­body else, it turns out.) She is fas­ci­nat­ed by the his­to­ry of her peo­ple as keep­ers of great mag­ic, the leg­ends of their abil­i­ties as heal­ers from that ante­dilu­vian time. She won­ders if all mag­ic is tru­ly lost, or if it could be recov­ered some­how, putting her in direct oppo­si­tion with the Sault, who for­bid such research. To Lin, the Sault appear hide­bound, com­fort­able with the sta­tus quo and defen­sive of their own pow­er. She isn’t hap­py with the lim­i­nal life she leads, as a female doc­tor, as an Ashkar in Castel­lane. She wants change. She doesn’t even know what change would look like. But she knows that stand­ing still isn’t the answer.

Lin’s life quick­ly becomes more com­pli­cat­ed than she expects. Her grand­fa­ther, Mayesh, is the Ashkar advi­sor to the throne, although she feels she bare­ly knows him. But then there is a cri­sis at the palace, and a des­per­ate need for a doc­tor. Mayesh brings her to meet the prince, Conor, and his clos­est com­pan­ion, the man whose life is giv­en to dying for Conor’s sake, Kel. The Sword Catch­er. And Lin must fig­ure out how to jug­gle her life in the Sault with the com­pli­ca­tions that her encounter with the prince and his body­guard will lead her into.

Lin is like me in a way that most of my char­ac­ters aren’t, a way that is hard to artic­u­late but is felt deep under the skin. There is some­thing dif­fer­ent about writ­ing from the per­spec­tive of one’s own cul­ture, some­thing that feels true to me about the Ashkar. When Mayesh explains to Lin why he serves the Palace, away from his peo­ple, he says, Because there is always an Ashkar close to the throne, the King is forced to look upon us and remem­ber we are human beings. The task I per­form pro­tects us all. Not only do I speak for our peo­ple, but I am a mir­ror. I reflect the human­i­ty of all our peo­ple to the high­est seat in Castellane.”

As I wrote those lines, I felt Lin’s com­bi­na­tion of grief (at know­ing you are not accept­ed as equal) and hope (that this time it will be dif­fer­ent) that I know is mine, and that has been hand­ed down to me, like my grandmother’s sil­ver kid­dush cup and my grandfather’s Hag­gadah. Lin and the Ashkar feel not just famil­iar, but famil­ial, in a way noth­ing else I have writ­ten has.

Right now, my hope is focused on Sword Catch­er. While the Ashkar of Sword Catch­er aren’t Jews, they share rec­og­niz­able ele­ments of iden­ti­ty and expe­ri­ence with Jews. I hope that as well as more obvi­ous touch­points relat­ed to our his­to­ry — ref­er­ences to the San­hedrin, the Mac­cabees, the exi­larch, lines from El Nora Alila—my Jew­ish read­ers will feel con­nect­ed to the theme of the ambi­gu­i­ty of iden­ti­ty: of feel­ing accept­ed and reject­ed, of being regard­ed as both weak and too pow­er­ful, of being insid­ers and yet out­siders. I also hope that my non-Jew­ish read­ers will gain some insight into the com­plex­i­ty of these feel­ings and where they come from.

Cas­san­dra Clare is the author of the #1 New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Jour­nal, and Pub­lish­ers Week­ly best­selling Shad­owhunter Chron­i­cles. She is also the co-author, with Hol­ly Black, of the best­selling fan­ta­sy series Mag­is­teri­um. The Shad­owhunter Chron­i­cles have been adapt­ed as both a major motion pic­ture and a tele­vi­sion series. Her books have more than fifty mil­lion copies in print world­wide and have been trans­lat­ed into more than thir­ty-five lan­guages. Cas­san­dra lives in west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts with her hus­band and three fear­some cats.