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Williamsburg Bridge by Brian Kingsley CC BY-NC 2.0   
Literature and Political Theology

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (2013)

“Literature–or “imaginative writing”–is not simply a window into understanding the theo-political positioning of author and reader, but also a medium for experimentation, in which the familiar is made strange and the strange becomes familiar. “

Literature–or “imaginative writing”–is not simply a window into understanding the theo-political positioning of author and reader, but also a medium for experimentation, in which the familiar is made strange and the strange becomes familiar. This is particularly true of fantasy literature, which by definition navigates the boundaries between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-otherwise, and in so doing highlights the contingency of the world-as-it-is.

An excellent example of this capacity of fantastic literature is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni (2013). The novel won the 2014 Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, as well as being nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. It also placed highly in reader poll awards, winning the Goodreads Debut Author Award, second place in the Locus Poll Award for Best New Novel, and third place in the Goodreads Award for Fantasy.  While it never appeared on a bestseller list, this critical reception was more than enough to lend commercial justification to a sequel, The Hidden Palace, which was published in 2021, and also enjoyed extremely positive reviews. The religious dimensions of the books have not passed unremarked; Kirkus reviews even categorised both books as “Religious Fiction.”

The Golem and the Jinni builds a complex narrative around the inter-cultural encounters of the two mythical beings of the first book’s title both with each other and with the modern world. It tells the story of Chava, the golem, who is awakened on board a ship travelling from Eastern Europe to America, only to find that her master, the man for whom she was created, is dying, and she is about to be flung into the world alone. Ahmad, the jinni, awakes from a centuries-long sleep to discover that he has been trapped for many years in a brass lamp and, still in chains, is still unable to escape his confinement in human form. The two protagonists struggle to find their place within their communities, and are drawn together both by their relationship with one another and by their struggle with old antagonists who seek to re-capture them. The book’s sequel, The Hidden Palace, picks up the story several years later, as both characters continue to struggle to find their place in the world, navigating their complex relationship with one another, with the human communities which have never quite accepted them, and with members of their own kind.

The struggles of Chava and Ahmad to relate both to the humans around them and to each other provide grounds for Wecker to explore questions about the nature of humanity and the way that it is constructed through an encounter with otherness. Each confronts forms of subordination, both within their own nature and in the people around them. The books portray not only the political violence which structures these intercultural relationships, but also the gendered forms of violence which both Chava and Amad resort to in defense of their personal sovereignty. But another part of their survival strategies, of equal interest for political theology, is their approach to work, which is also portrayed along gendered lines. Both golem and jinni premise their claim to social acceptance on their demonstration of their ability to create value: Chava undertakes repetitive forms of reproductive labour, which she performs to an inhumanly high standard, where Ahmad cannot bear repetition of any sort; he creates art (with all of the gendered hierarchies of value implicit in the categorisation of ‘art’) and also dabbles in the illegal economy. The essays assembled in this forum each explore a different dimension of the experimental pathways of political theology opened up by Wecker’s world-building.

Marika Rose’s contribution explores the gendered dimensions of the labour that Chava and Ahmed undertake, both at the behest of their human masters but also in the course of integrating themselves into the human world. But more than this, she unpacks what Chava and Ahmed’s choices within the constraints of their natures reveal about the complexity of that most potent theo-political imaginary, the ‘American Dream’ of freedom.

Fatima Tofighi reads the novel alongside the Muslim philosopher Abu Nasr al-Fārābī, exploring the connections between the faculty of imagination and political authority. Tofighi draws a connection between imagination and exilic memory, both in al-Fārābī’s thought and in Wecker’s portrayal of Ahmad and Chava. In the context of exile, Tofighi suggests, the expansive possibilities of fantasy can open up pathways to liberation. Wecker’s narrative, both in form and content, suggests the political potential of the fantastic to enable the emergence of prophetic communities.

Alana Vincent’s piece explores the intersection of politics and romance in the novels. Against Hannah Arendt’s insistence that the political must not intrude into the realm of the personal, the love story which unfolds between Chava and Ahmad suggests, for Vincent, that love is always political. We cannot take for granted a shared humanity from which to begin the work of politics. Instead, it is by the decisions we make about who and how to love across divisions of culture, race, and nation that we build the worlds in which politics take place.

Zhange Ni suggests that in the novel’s two protagonists we find a model of personhood which disrupts both the bounded self and the secular time which Charles Taylor takes to be characteristic of secular modernity. The threat to ordinary narratives which Ahmad and Chava represent is ultimately displaced onto the figure of the enemy, Schaalman, whose quest for immortality threatens to end the stories of both the golem and the jinni. The limits of Wecker’s imagination are revealed by her insistence on traditional narrative form, which plays with alternate temporalities only to fold them back, in the end, into storied coherence.

Symposium Essays

The American Fantasy: Gender, Work, and Freedom in The Golem and the Jinni

“I was only imagining it. Being freed.”

Fantasy and the Prophetic: A Response to The Golem and Jinni

“Dreams come true, in fantasy novels and in prophecy”

The Political Romance of Clay and Air

“Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air is the air of the steppes.”

Intimate Association Beyond Secular Time

“I am the sum total of a thousand years of misery and striving! You may have given us this broken immortality, but I will be the first to die without fear!”