"I wondered, does that mean G-d has stopped talking to people? Are we on our own?"by Evonne Marzouk
I'm very excited to have Evonne Marzouk visit gilagreenwrites today. She shares some deep insights into the two decades it took her to write her YA novel The Prophetess and the world she invented with "everyday" prophets. Please welcome Evonne Marzouk!
Bio: Evonne Marzouk has spent her career in pursuit of inspiring others, making a difference, and bringing Jewish wisdom into the world. She grew up in Philadelphia and began writing and publishing poems and stories as a young child. Evonne attended the Johns Hopkins University and received a B.A. from the Writing Seminars program, with a minor in Religious Studies. She has worked on a range of international policy and communications projects for two decades as an employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From 2004-2014, Evonne founded and served as executive director of Canfei Nesharim (recently merged with GrowTorah), an organization that teaches Jewish wisdom about protecting the environment, and she co-edited Uplifting People and Planet, a collection of Jewish environmental core teachings, published in 2014. Her first novel, The Prophetess, was published by Bancroft Press in 2019.
GG: Why did you choose to make this book for young adults instead of adults or middle grade? Could you help other authors perhaps struggling with this decision with some advice from your experience of choosing YA?
EM: It's funny you should ask that. Though in retrospect perhaps this wasn't the best idea, the truth is, when I was writing The Prophetess I wasn't considering the marketing audience that much at all. I started writing this novel when I was twenty, and it took about twenty years to write. That whole time, I was basically writing it for myself and people like me. As a young adult, I had read inspirational fiction like The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist, and I wanted to write a story like that from a Jewish perspective – to fill a gap I saw in spiritually fulfilling, fun-to-read, accessible Jewish literature.I saw it as "inspirational Jewish women's fiction" that would be appropriate for both teen girls and women. It was my publisher who told me the book was for young adults, because the main character Rachel is 17 years old. I still sometimes find that difficult, because a lot of adults really find a lot of meaning in Rachel's story – and some adults who might enjoy it think they don't like YA. Our focus groups have found that the story is loved by both young adults and adults, and that they read the book in different ways. Given that, it's a great story for mothers and daughters to read together. Then again, having The Prophetess classified as YA has enabled me to meet a lot of teens, and to talk to them in school settings about writing, what it's like to be an author, and my choices in writing the book. There aren't that many Jewish YA books that make young Jews feel proud to be Jewish. Seeing the difference the book makes to those readers has been incredibly fulfilling.
GG: "Rachel's experience of going from an outsider to an insider with a community of religious Jews is modeled after my own experience." This quotation is taken from a previous interview. Would you say that your book autofiction? Why or why not? I teach autofiction, so this might be of particular interest to some of my audience who struggle with this decision.
EM: People are often asking me to what extent The Prophetess is based on my real life. The simplest answer is that it's not. The story is about an American teenage girl who is called to join a secret community of Jewish prophets. Her great-great grandfather was a holy mystical leader in Eastern Europe, with traditions that have nearly been lost to her family. When she begins to have visions, a teacher arrives to initiate her and teach her how to use her gifts. By the end of the book, she is able to use her prophetic powers to save lives. None of that is true of me. Rather than autofiction, The Prophetess began more like a "wishful thinking" kind of story for me. As a Jewish girl growing up with little Jewish education or practice, I wished for some kind of secret Jewish heritage. I lived as an outsider to most of Jewish life, but I wished for a message that G-d had called me for some secret, special mission. As I matured, I had the opportunity to learn more about Judaism and become more connected to Jewish tradition. I also found teachers who taught Jewish wisdom that inspired me – and the fact that I was writing a book gave me the courage to ask for their specific attention. My mother became ill and died while I was writing the book, and that changed my life in profound ways. Consciously or unconsciously, all of these details found their way into Rachel's story. But the story itself? Definitely fiction.
GG: Your book is set in Israel. Do you believe you'll continue to set books in Israel? Have you felt any pushback from doing so?
EM: Rachel begins her journey in the Pikesville Jewish community of Baltimore, a community I know well since I went to the Johns Hopkins University there. Rachel lives and goes to high school there.The more mystical elements of the story, however, take place in Jerusalem and Tzfat. It felt important and authentic to Jewish tradition that the center of the community of "secret prophets" be in Israel, and that visions and prophetic experiences would be more accessible from the Holy Land. In the scenes that take place with Rachel in Israel, I sought to create the experience that I think so many Diaspora Jews have had in visiting Israel – the sense of holiness and specialness of being there. I intentionally side-stepped any politics, because that's really not what this story is about.I have not had any pushback from the way I presented Israel, and specifically, the focus group participants really loved those scenes. That said, many people have asked me for a sequel about Rachel, and I have struggled with how subsequent stories about these secret prophets might work in the land of Israel. There's only so long you can avoid taking a position in a story about prophets, and of course the topic is extremely fraught. If I were going to write a story fully set in Israel, I feel I'd need to learn a lot first to handle it in a knowledgeable and sensitive way.
GG: You mention in other interviews that you hope your book will help teen girls grow into their gifts. Could you explain this more? What specific obstacles do you think are in the way of teen girls' growth these days? (NOTE: I have four teen girls) Do you think these obstacles are very different from the ones you faced as a teen girl? Are they very different from what teen boys face? In what way?
EM: Rachel's story begins when her grandfather dies, and when she finds an old childhood prayerbook he had given her, with the words "For Rachel - May she grow into all her gifts." This wish for her becomes the theme of Rachel's own journey when she turns them into a prayer on Yom Kippur, "Help me grow into my gifts." Soon, Rachel is dealing with more "gifts" than she could have imagined: prophetic gifts that are more than overwhelming for a high school senior whose previous concerns were keeping her A average and wishing the boy down the street would notice her. As Rachel discovers her gifts and grows into them, she finds she is much more than a high school senior trying to get straight As. Her purpose in life is more than she ever expected, and it is not always easy, but she is able to grow into a much bigger version of herself than she knew was possible. At the end of the story, she is told, "When they say you are great, believe them."That's what readers of The Prophetess learn – to not be satisfied with where we are so far, to believe in our own greatness, to grow into the next level of our dreams. These are incredibly challenging times in the world, and it can be easy to want to hide or to feel defeated.We need young heroes and especially heroines – with feminine gifts as well as masculine ones – to believe in themselves and live into the greatest version of themselves that they can be. I hope this book helps all of us do that.
GG: In traditional Judaism there are 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses or 55 recorded prophets (there are other prophets) but the recorded ones according to tradition are those with timeless messages for Jews. Do you have a comment on this in view of your work? Did you do a lot of research on any of these prophets or model any of them for your book?
EM: When I began exploring the idea of prophecy, I was at first troubled by this traditional idea we have that prophecy ended at the beginning of the second Temple period. I wondered, does that mean G-d has stopped talking to people? Are we on our own? Over time, I learned that this is not what it means. Judaism teaches that the Hand of G-d is always moving in the background of life, making things happen, and that with proper intention we can tap into some holy wisdom in the form of intuition or insight. The "secret community of Jewish prophets" described in this book are not really the kind of prophets with messages to be recorded for all generations, like Jeremiah or Deborah. They are modeled after the more "everyday" prophets that used to exist in ancient times, who would live in community and support and educate one another. As traditionally understood, their visions can be overwhelming and even debilitating, and after being chosen as prophets, they struggle with the limits on their free will. In the book, they have missions that could be as simple as giving someone the right book at the right time, and as consequential as saving a life. All of this was based on my understanding of traditional sources and conversations with those who were more familiar with writings on the prophetic experience. That said, I did construct a community in which prophets and prophetesses have equal roles and equal importance. In The Prophetess, the teacher of all the prophets is a woman, Devorah, who is known as the "Gedolah HaDor." She plays a fundamentally important role in Rachel's development. Though I don't know of any actual secret community of Jewish prophets, my own feeling was that if they were being chosen and continually guided by G-d, there was no reason why both prophets and prophetesses should be anything less than equal.
GG: What are you working on next? Is there anything you wish to add?
EM: The biggest thing right now is the creation of the new GROW INTO YOUR GIFTS Bat Mitzvah Present. The package includes a "Grow into all your gifts" journal with matching pen, inspirational stickers, bookmark, decorative Shabbos candles, Jewish star jewelry, and a personalized signed copy of The Prophetess -- the perfect gift to empower the next generation of Jewish heroines. You can order a beautiful present for the special young women in your life, or order inspirational "Grow into Your Gifts" stickers, bookmark, journal and pen for yourself or others you love. The campaign ends July 27 and if this idea speaks to you, your pre-order will make a difference! Thanks for your support.
To follow Evonne:
Twitter: @ProphetessBookWebsite: www.growintoyourgifts.com