You may have heard me shouting from the rooftops about my new favorite book: Sacha Lamb‘s When the Angels Left the Old Country. Well, I recently had the privilege of asking Sacha about their book. They shared their thoughts about Jewish folklore, queer angels and even My Chemical Romance.
Sacha is a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult fiction. When the Angels Left the Old Country is their debut novel. I’ll let them tell you about their book in their own words!
(Interview edited for length and clarity.)
“America is a complicated place full of magic and murders”
Melis Amber: Could you introduce yourself and When the Angels Left the Old Country to our readers?
Sacha Lamb: I write magical Jewish stories with a primary audience of teenagers and a wider audience of anyone who needs some queer magic in their life.
When the Angels Left the Old Country is my debut novel, an Ellis Island-era immigrant fairy tale starring an angel and a demon who leave their shtetl in Poland in search of a missing girl and discover that the “Golden Land” of America is a complicated place full of magic and murders.
Little Ash and the angel (it starts out changing names depending on its current angel task and later adopts the name Uriel) have studied Talmud together for centuries, and now their little village is emptying out. They go to Warsaw and then to America, looking for Essie, a girl from the village who’s disappeared and might be in danger.
Then, on the ship, they meet Rose, a teen girl determined to make her own way in the world and pay for her family to leave the Russian empire. The three of them and Essie become entangled in all kinds of dangers, from mob bosses to shop bosses and demonic doctors and learn a lot about themselves along the way.
“It’s a leap of faith”
MA: I’m always fascinated by the origins of stories. In When the Angels Left the Old Country, you mix two story threads. At their most basic, one is fantasy, and the other is historical fiction. Where did these stories come from? How did you decide they were one book?
SL: I wanted the point of view of the novel to accept certain elements of Jewish folklore as facts of the universe, basically to accept fantasy as the reality the characters live in. In many traditional societies, it’s just like that — the evil eye can be as mundane a fact as the existence of germs.
I read a ton of folk and fairytales, as well as did historical research so that I could bring actual fairytale elements of magic and the supernatural together with a sort of collective memory story about Jewish migration in the early 20th century.
The story arc of poor shtetl-dwellers who leave for America, get jobs in the factories and maybe join a labor union is deeply ingrained in the lore of the American Jewish community. There are elements of it that are already fantasies. For instance, no one’s name was actually changed at Ellis Island, as far as historians can tell. It felt natural to combine the half-real “memory” story with magical elements.
MA: Many books seem afraid not to overexplain things, especially about minority or marginalized communities. How did you determine not to define all your phraseology and theology? To require your unacquainted readers to meet your characters and book on its terms?
SL: I think it’s about trust in the reader. The impulse to explain everything really clearly can be a defense mechanism, a way to head off misunderstandings. But there’s something enjoyable about picking up a book and feeling that the author has just accepted you into their living room to tell you a story like there’s no reason to keep you at a distance.
It’s a leap of faith, but I trust readers to follow a good story wherever it takes them. It was also about the narrative voice: the narrator persona has an early 20th-century, classic literature kind of voice. I think of it as if Sholem Aleichem (who wrote the book Fiddler on the Roof is based on) was your gay uncle.
That narrator wouldn’t be a big explainer, but the historic feel also starts you off in the mode of reading something from a culture that’s a little different.
Little Ash(medai) and Uriel (regular size)
— Sacha Lamb (@mosslamb) February 21, 2022
“It’s kind of nonsensical to think of gendering a book”
MA: As I mentioned in my review, the queer Jewish representation in your book — particularly Uriel — was really healing for me. Did your characters’ genders and pronouns, and identities at large, come to you fully formed? Or were those more conscious choices?
SL: From the beginning, I had a few things in mind. But each character’s identity did evolve as I worked through the story. I made some very conscious choices in the final presentation. The core concept that started this story on its journey was the idea of the angel/demon Talmud study partnership (chevruta) AS a queer relationship.
It’s traditional to study Talmud with a partner so that through a process of constructive argument, you can push each other to deeper understanding than you’d reach alone. Going back to the original rabbis quoted in the Talmud itself, these partnerships can be really central to people’s lives.
Rabbi Yochanan and Rav Shimon ben Lakish have a study partnership that lasts their whole lives, beginning with an incident where Shimon ben Lakish mistook Yochanan for a beautiful woman, and ending with Yochanan weeping on his deathbed that no one challenges him the way Shimon ben Lakish could. You can read this as homoerotic very easily!
I wanted to create a deliberately queer version of that dynamic, using the ultimate opposites, an angel and a demon, to embody the tension and growth that a chevruta implies. What I really loved about your review was the way that you felt this element of queerness inextricable from Jewishness opened up for you the possibilities within Judaism. That means a lot to me and was definitely something I hoped for as I was writing it.
The angel’s gender is another important central element of the story. Traditionally angels (and God) are supposed to be genderless, but for convenience and grammar and patriarchy, we tend to gender them male. I thought of Uriel as a creature who at first has more in common with a natural process or a holy book than a person. It would identify more with those things. It’s kind of nonsensical to think of gendering a book.
I used it/its on purpose even though it can be uncomfortable to see people identified with that pronoun set because I like the way it pushes back against gendering. Using those pronouns almost suggests it would be silly to consider gendering their referent.
Uriel is evolving and becoming more like a person, identifying more as a person, through the course of the story. I could have made the choice to have it choose a gender as it evolves. But I didn’t want to do that. There’s a scene where it asks Little Ash if it needs to be a man to be a person, and he kind of laughs this off (“You’ve met women!”), but it’s a serious question.
Why do we have to be one thing or another in order to be seen as a whole person who’s worthy of respect? Why can’t we change? Why can’t we reveal ourselves to be other than we were assumed to be?
“A demon can just hang out in your study hall, and no one bothers to question it.”
MA: Can you talk about the role of religion in your novel? In particular, in the way it meets more fantastical “magical” elements.
SL: A lot of the fantastical elements are drawn directly from the Talmud, so religion and magic are inextricably intertwined. People don’t give the Talmud enough credit for being full of really wild and lively stories. We think of it as a legal text. It is, but it’s also jam-packed with daily life and personal details from the rabbis.
Sometimes, they’ll be telling you about their digestive issues like a flock of grandpas, and sometimes, they’re like, “I heard Joseph the Demon interpreted this law like this,” and you’re like, wait, Joseph, who? Why are these religious scholars hanging out with a demon?
The rabbis lived in a world where there wasn’t a clear boundary between fantastical and real. To them, the supernatural was all part of God’s creation. I had a fun time building a world inspired by that, where a demon can just hang out in your study hall, and no one bothers to question it.
MA: What do you want readers to take away from When the Angels Left the Old Country?
SL: I’d love for people to know that my characters’ intersections of identity aren’t anachronisms. We have historical records of queer Jews, disabled Jews, gender variant and potentially trans people, throughout history.
A great source for this is Noam Sienna’s anthology, A Rainbow Thread, which collects texts that show evidence of queerness in Jewish life all the way back to the ancient world.
“Her steamroller personality causes her problems in the story, but it also comes in handy in a crisis”
MA: Which of your four protagonists would you want to be stranded on a deserted island with?
SL: Definitely Rose. Little Ash would be alright at survival skills, but I feel like he’d make me eat something weird like raw fish or some kind of root that demons can digest and humans can’t. Uriel and Essie don’t have the practical outdoor skills you’d need for being stranded.
Rose would make a plan and stick to it and wouldn’t let me get depressed and bogged down. Her steamroller personality causes her problems in the story, but it also comes in handy in a crisis.
MA: Do you have a “day job”? If yes, what, if any, effect does it have on your writing?
SL: My actual job is librarian and archivist for a science nonprofit, but I was also trained as a historian. A lot of the research for the novel actually came as a freebie when I was researching my master’s thesis on Jewish women as immigration advocates in the 1920s.
The biggest effect it has on my writing is that I read outside of my genre as well as within it, so I have a lot of different sources of ideas to work with.
MA: What’s next for you?
SL: Hopefully, another queer Jewish fantasy! I’m working on something now, but it’s in the very infant stages, so I don’t want to jinx it.
“I feel like the emos are having the last laugh on that one”
MA: What are you reading/watching/playing/listening to these days?
SL: I watch a lot of Chinese historical dramas, especially ones where there are a bunch of women in elaborate costumes being incredibly catty in court. I’m partway through one called The Imperial Coroner right now. It’s about a provincial daughter of a coroner’s family. She ends up doing autopsies for an emotionally stunted prince.
She’s so cute. She just wants to look at dead bodies and has zero social skills. You know the prince is going to fall in love with her innocent, straightforward outlook. But in the meantime, he’s SO awkward.
MA: What’s your favorite fandom?
SL: Earlier this year, I had a big fandom moment going to a show for the My Chemical Romance reunion tour. I remember being a kid and a fan of MCR when “emo” was an insult (with homophobic undertones, too). I feel like the emos are having the last laugh on that one.
MA: Anything else you’d like to add?
SL: I’d just like to recommend some other Jewish fantasies to anyone who enjoyed Angels. The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros and From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos are both queer. The Way Back by Gavriel Savit is a historical set in Eastern Europe, full of demons and witches. There’s more and more Jewish fantasy coming out, and it’s really exciting.
Thank you so much to Sacha for taking the time to answer these questions!
Follow Sacha Lamb on Twitter.
When the Angels Left the Old Country is out now. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore or library. 📚🔯😈