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“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
These questions, posed by Rabbi Hillel the Elder over two thousand years ago, were the inspiration behind “If Not Now, When?” — a panel at the Boston Book Festival that took place at the Boston Public Library on Oct. 14. Moderated by YA Author Rebecca Podos, the panel featured three award-winning authors of historical Jewish fiction: Elana K. Arnold, R.M. Romero, and Aden Polydoros. Throughout the hour-long talk, the speakers explored the ways their identities have influenced their work and probed the fundamental questions about family, autonomy, representation, and justice that lie at the hearts of their novels.
The lecture began with a brief reading from each author. Arnold introduced listeners to a portion of her latest novel, “The Blood Years,” which she described as a “deeply, deeply researched and personal” work based on her grandmother’s teenage years in Romania during the Holocaust.
“Not only are the main events of the story my grandmother’s, but it was very important to me that all of the terrible things that happened were not manufactured by me, but were taken from real historical sources,” Arnold said.
Next, Romero read from her novel, a queer “Swan Lake” retelling titled “A Warning About Swans.” After visiting the palace of King Ludwig II, Romero was inspired to reimagine the history behind the seemingly magical landscape.
“You feel like you could round a corner and you could come across a sort of mystical creature,” Romero said. “I found myself returning to that more than ten years later, thinking, ‘What is the story behind the stories?’”
Finally, Polydoros shared pages from his novel, “Wrath Becomes Her.” The historical fantasy, set in Lithuania in 1943, follows Vera, a gollum created to avenge the murder of her creator’s daughter.
“She is forced to confront what it means to be a monster during a time in history when humans were truly monstrous,” Polydoros said.
Although they span genres, settings, and time periods, the three novels are united by the theme of justice, which manifests differently in each story.
Explaining why fairytales in particular speak to her, Romero referenced an idea that she credited to the Jewish fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes: “Fairy tales are stories of fantastical justice.”
“Fairy tales envision a world where everyone gets what they deserve,” Romero said. “If you are compassionate and empathetic and brave, you are rewarded in those stories, but if you are sadistic and selfish and greedy, you’re punished.”
Justice — and its dark side, vengeance — also plays a central role in the story of Vera, the protagonist of “Wrath Becomes Her.”
“She meets a variety of people who have different ideas of what it means to enact justice — to enact revenge, even — and how far are you willing to go to try to either get vengeance for the wounds that other people have dealt to you, or even how you move beyond them,” Polydoros said.
Alongside justice, all three authors also emphasized the importance of family in their novels and the complicated interpersonal dynamics that come with it. Polydoros spoke about how “Wrath Becomes Her” grapples with the ways that one’s parental figures influence who one becomes, in ways both good and bad.
“What I really wanted to focus on was this idea of how the people who made us, who raised us, have shaped us,” Polydoros said. “And what sort of values, what sort of character traits, our upbringing has given us.”
Romero connected the idea of family to “A Warning About Swans.” In this novel, the main character, Hilde, struggles to define herself beyond the realm of family expectations and familiar experiences.
“She transitions into this brand new world to explore herself and have freedom, but also, freedom sometimes has consequences. Sometimes you make the wrong choices, sometimes you trust the wrong people. And no matter how much your family and your parents and your siblings try to prepare you for that, sometimes they can’t,” Romero said. “And then it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with that situation.”
Another topic at the heart of the lecture was the significance of having diverse, nuanced, and vibrant characters that readers of all backgrounds can see themselves in and look up to. Polydoros highlighted the monopoly that Holocaust books hold when it comes to Jewish representation.
“It was just very important to me to write a book where Jews were not just portrayed as passive victims,” Polydoros said. “They weren’t just portrayed as existing in the story solely for the purpose of dying.”
Romero was motivated by a similar lack of representation.
“I grew up in the ’90s, and surprisingly, there were very few female heroines back then. It was almost all just cis white boys. So I started to find different ways to explore myself and put myself in the position of hero and heroine,” they said.
She also praised the traction that stories centering Jewish narratives are gaining in the publishing industry.
“I think we’re going through a real Renaissance of Jewish stories right now; Jewish fantasy, Jewish historical fiction, where we are exploring things other than the righteous Gentile Holocaust story. We’re spanning across different cultures, different sides of Judaism, different time periods,” they said.
This emphasis on diverse Jewish narratives resonated with Margaret Ward, a 17-year-old from Marshfield who sat in on the lecture.
“I really love that their stories aren’t about just the tragedies about Jewish people and history. There’s happiness, but there’s also complications, and there’s hardship. But it’s not just focusing on Jewish people being victims…,” Ward said; “It’s about their stories.”
These stories also struck Ella Verinder, a student working for Write Boston who was drawn to the lecture by its cultural focus.
“Overall, all of the readings were just so amazing,” Verinder said. “Definitely going to look into those books.”
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