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A Q&A with Novelist Ava Reid

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. Her fellow villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, fellow villagers betray Évike and surrender.  

So begins The Wolf and the Woodsman (HarperCollins), a complex, haunting and fable-like exploration of Jewish history in Eastern Europe.  Debut novelist Ava Reid talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how—and why—she wove these many strands into a highly original literary tapestry.

YZM: Tell us about your background. What drew you to your subject? 

AR: I actually came to Hungarian history through contemporary politics, and the politics of modern-day Hungary sort of formed the apparatus through, which I then interpreted and studied the history. I was writing a paper for one of my classes on refugees and forced migration and decided to focus on the mass exodus of Romani from Hungary to Canada. Through that, I learned that pogroms against Romani are still taking place in Hungary, driving many to leave the country.

Jews and Romani are different peoples and have different cultures and identities, but much of our history runs parallel. The persecution of both Jews and Roma is predicated upon the notion that we’re not “truly” European (in this case “truly” Hungarian), that we’re outsiders or even intruders upon the Hungarian nation-state. Other classes about the violence of state formation helped me craft the rest of the story: about a country still taking shape, struggling to define its identity, and cruelty with which groups such as Jews and Roma were excluded from that.  

YZM: You’ve said, “I wanted to write something that at least attempted to do justice to the contributions that Jews have made to Eastern European history and culture, and to write Jews in fantasy that aren’t poorly rendered as gold-grubbing goblins, or as a people defined only by their misery and oppression.”  Can you elaborate? 

AR: Jews have had a pretty rough go of it in the fantasy genre, going all the way back to Grimm. We’re allegorized as impish shysters who will beguile you into impossible bargains (Rumpelstiltskin) or as the miserable victims of persecution and violence (The Jews Among the Thorns). Classic fantasy tropes about vermin-like cabals who secretly influence royal politics have their origins in medieval antisemitism, as do a lot of motifs of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and blood-drinking. Goblins are the stereotypical fantasy stand-in for Jews—think J.K. Rowling’s take on them as hook-nosed, treacherous, greedy bankers—and even when we aren’t portrayed as malevolent, there’s a sort of inherent misery to our very existence, a rootlessness and abiding despair.

I wanted to write a book about us, about both the pain of exclusion and the beauty of the diaspora, about the thorny and complicated history that gentiles seem entirely ignorant to, or perhaps too afraid to even touch.

As the fantasy genre in recent years filled with Eastern European-inspired fantasy, I started wondering where my people were in all of this. Why don’t we belong in Russian-inspired fantasy? The Pale of Settlement comprised 20% of the territory of imperial Russia. Eastern European Jews contributed enormously to the larger culture and history. Every time I read about a fantasy character wearing a kokoshnik (a traditional Russian headdress), I think about the ancestral name of my direct maternal line, Kokoshky, and the apocryphal family stories we have about them being tailors to the tsar.

We’re seeing an upswell in diverse fantasy, fantasy that moves beyond the typical vaguely western European setting, but I never saw Jews included in any of that. I wanted to write a book about us, about both the pain of exclusion and the beauty of the diaspora, about the thorny and complicated history that gentiles seem entirely ignorant to, or perhaps too afraid to even touch.

YZM: You chose to tell this story as a kind of fable; can you talk about why you did that and what it allowed you to accomplish? 

AR: Fairy tales and folklore are incredibly valuable cultural touchstones that confer soft power, which is why they’re so contested, even in the modern era. Every nation has a national myth: in this country, we have an entire holiday celebrating the absurdly fallacious narrative of white settlers peacefully breaking bread with Native Americans; in Hungary, they have the myth of the turul (a legendary bird) leading the Magyar tribes to the “uninhabited” Carpathian basin. Folklore is used to build power or reify existing power structures.

Given that, I wanted to write a story that felt folkloric but actually turned a mirror to the viciousness and falsehoods upon which national myths are built. People always ask if The Wolf and the Woodsman is a fairy tale retelling, but it’s really almost a parody of a fairy tale.

YZM: Can you talk about your trip to Hungary in 2019, and the legacy of antisemitism? 

AR: Budapest is absolutely strewn with Holocaust memorials. Just in the course of a week, I saw the shoes on the Danube bank, a memorial for Jews who were massacred by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party). They were shot on the riverbank so that their bodies fell into the water and floated away. I visited the Dohány Street synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. Built to seat 3,000, a mere fraction of that now fills its rows on Shabbos. The Dohány Street synagogue was the historical border of the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, so while it’s not common for synagogues to be adjacent to graveyards, the Dohány Street synagogue is also the site of a mass grave—2,000 Jews, among the 10,000 who perished before the Russians liberated the ghetto. It was the only site I visited in all of Budapest that required us to pass through a metal detector.

All of this sat alongside things like fliers that advocated for the restoration of “Greater Hungary,” the territory that was part of the Kingdom of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon, and encompassed parts of modern-day Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Austria, and Ukraine. This political goal is part of what drew the Hungarians to collaborate with Germany during World War II. I saw the empty, shuttered campus of Central European University, which was forcibly closed in 2018 by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as part of his feud with George Soros—a Hungarian-Jewish billionaire and Holocaust survivor and a favorite scapegoat of fascists everywhere.

I took a cab ride with a man who proudly sported an Arrow Cross/turul tattoo on the back of his head. The turul is one of the symbols of the Arrow Cross. These myths aren’t dead or fettered by time or history; they’re alive and they have teeth. How on earth can you write a book about Hungarian Jews, even in a secondary-world fantasy, and not take any of this into account? It’s irresponsible; it’s dangerous.

YZM: The Yehuli in the book are a representation for the Jewish ethnicity.  Can you talk about how you conceived and developed them in the novel? 

AR: This was one of the most difficult parts of writing the book, because of course you want to be respectful when dealing with real culture and history. The most important thing to me, though, was to acknowledge the complexity of the diaspora. It was painful, certainly, but we are also more than our marginalization. And when the Yehuli are offered a “country” of their own, they reject it, because Hungary (Régország) is their home. They are part of the diverse, thorny, complicated history of Hungary, and to deny that would be to concede everything to the Christians (Patritians). It would be to concede everything to the proponents of Greater Hungary, to Viktor Orbán and his followers, to the people who walk Budapest proudly with Arrow Cross tattoos. I wanted to say unequivocally, Jews belong here and always have.

The Wolf and the Woodsman is a book about identity crisis, on both a micro and macro scale.

YZM: Évike and Gaspar begin as enemies yet find much common ground by the end; was this your way of expressing optimism about the future of Jews in Eastern Europe or even in the world? 

AR: That was part of it, definitely. Évike and Gáspár are both outcasts—Évike for her Jewish heritage; Gáspár for his foreign blood—who manage to fight their way into the story, to make a place for themselves in myths and history. The book ends with the hope for the peaceful coexistence of so many different ethnic groups within Régország: the Yehuli, the Patritians, the Kalevans, the Juvvi. That’s aspirational, but it’s also, well, just reality. No country has ever been homogeneous. No nation hasn’t been the site of contested identity. The Wolf and the Woodsman is a book about identity crisis, on both a micro and macro scale. My aim was to realistically portray that, not to necessarily completely resolve it. But of course I think there’s hope for Jews: it will require a rejection of ethnic nationalism, which necessitates a peaceful sort of reconciliation of our complex diaspora past.