Veronica Schanoes, “Burning Girls” – WOD #2
She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire… She’s living in a world and it’s on fire – Alicia Keys, “Girl on Fire“
“This is no place for a girl on fire.” – Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
Veronica Schanoes‘s “Burning Girls“, available for free on Tor.com, isn’t the story I expected it to be. I should have picked up on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire reference earlier than I did. I was more interested in the other reference, the lilim and the significance of names, and I was thoroughly curious about Schanoes’s reference materials. I need to get my hands on them, stat. In spite of the cityscape cover, for some reason I was expecting something more in the vein of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
All that said about what I expected and what I didn’t, it was actually a much better story than I expected it to be. In places it reminded me more of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate in the way that the traditions and magic wove in, but it’s definitely more dark fantasy/fairy tale than magical realism. At the same time, it felt like a true tale, like something that walks hand in hand with Chagall’s experiences in Vitebsk and Fiddler on the Roof. Schanoes has clearly and thoroughly steeped herself in the Jewish classics and the fairy tales, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her oeuvre.
What led me to the story and what I’m puzzling at is still a variant on what makes fiction Jewish. There’s no question in my mind that “Burning Girls” is Jewish fiction, but it’s also, like The Hunger Games and “Girl on Fire,” feminist storytelling that speaks to the strength and power of women together. It’s a layered commentary on burning witches, burning Jews, burning girls — the ones who have too much ambition to be content with the role society would prescribe for them. It treads similar territory as many of my most beloved female characters, including the one I’m playing in a Space 1889 game. It’s a great read and I expect that any of my friends who read it will enjoy it.
The thing I can’t quite let go of is how bright it burns. There’s not a bushel in sight. And for all that the Bible would teach not to hide your light under a bushel, every Jew who has heard of the Holocaust, and every passing minority in a repressive regime, knows that burning bright is an invitation to hate, crime, burning.
As someone trying to write a similar story, a Jewish twist on another fairy tale, I keep twisting over this literal girl on fire. Do I want to burn bright, demand attention, say fuck the mainstream and hope Jewish futurism or Jewpunk or Jewish fantasy generates the kind of interest that Afrofuturism has? Can it, even, since for most non-Jews, being Jewish is about religion and it’s as uncomfortable for non-Jews to read Jewish religious fiction as it is for me to read apocalyptic Christian fiction? Or is there a way to write cultural Jewishness into fiction in a way that doesn’t immediately quash the interest of non-specialist readers?
It’s totally ridiculous and premature, I realize, for me to be worrying over something like this. Even knowing the book has a publishing home at Falstaff when I get off my ass and get it written, it’s kind of arrogant to think it’s going to matter or find readership. I “should” just write the book and let the chips fall where they may.
Then again, the question matters to me. Like “Shtetl Days,” it’s really a question of identity and identification, and maybe identifying, too. Write what you know means write from your authentic self, write from who you are. So maybe the question I’m asking over and over is “what kind of Jew am I?”