The Big Idea: Elijah Kinch Spector
One can imagine another time and place for a novel, but the when and where of one’s life will find a way into the telling of that story. Or so Elijah Kinch Spector discovered in writing Kalyna the Soothsayer. Today’s Big Idea delves into this phenomenon.
ELIJAH KINCH SPECTOR:
The United States is simply too big to function properly. It always has been, really—we have states, and not provinces, because each one is, in many ways, its own little country. But the U.S. isn’t that special, plenty of countries throughout history have felt like someone slapped together disparate groups with spit and duct tape.
My debut novel, Kalyna the Soothsayer, is secondary world fantasy in a vaguely 18th century eastern and central European milieu, and I didn’t consciously write any part of it to be about the U.S. But every story is actually about the time and place where it’s told, right? I’ve always loved this bit from a Studs Terkel interview with James Baldwin, who was promoting his own novel: “Another Country. … It’s about this country.”
Soothsayer was always meant to be a book of spycraft and intrigue, so I made up a state that would lend itself nicely to internecine squabbles and complex politics: The Tetrarchia. Four separate kingdoms that stopped (officially) going to war with one another two hundred years before the novel starts, in order to become one ungainly, four-part state.
Each of the kingdoms has its own proper culture and language, alongside countless smaller peoples and traditions that the governments have tried to bulldoze in favor of singular ethno-national identities. Once a year, the four ruling monarchs meet to hammer out laws at the “Council of Barbarians,” named for how each kingdom sees the other three. Kalyna, our reluctant hero, is from a family of nomads with ancestry from every part of the country—she is extremely of the Tetrarchia, and yet outside of it, considered foreign everywhere.
It’s a tenuous arrangement that could collapse at any time, which made it perfect for the kind of suspenseful story that I wanted to tell. Planning out the Tetrarchia’s nooks and crannies also got me to think even more about what countries, borders, and ethnic groups even are, why they matter, and to whom. In 2013, I read the book Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europeby Norman Davies, which I bought on a whim at a bookstore in Dublin on my honeymoon. (And thank God I bought it there, because the U.S. edition replaces its romantic subtitle with the deeply boring, “The Rise and Fall of States and Nations,” which… my dude, that could be the subtitle for any book in a shop’s Popular History section.)
Vanished Kingdoms dedicates each of its chapters to European countries that no longer exist and, in doing so, demonstrates just how porous and nebulous national identities and borders really are. Davies covers the “five, six or seven kingdoms” that were named Burgundy, most of which contained people we would now call French; he discusses Galicia, but not the one in Spain, the one in eastern Europe, where my family fled pogroms; and he rants wonderfully about how western scholars decided the Roman Empire “fell” in the 5th century even though it continued for another thousand years.
When I read Davies, I already knew, vaguely, that Germany wasn’t founded until the 19th century, but I didn’t know that the same was true of Italy. Both of these countries, whose national myths and cohesion are presented as being so strong, were groups of city states, fly-by-night duchies, and parts of larger empires for centuries. There were so many people we would now call German or Italian who would’ve considered themselves Prussian or Sardinian (or perhaps Etrurian, if they spent formative years in Tuscany between 1801 and 1807). But leaders want consolidation, so they speak of a monoculture; normal people are scared and alone, so they want to be part of something great and old. I don’t need to tell you where German and Italian jingoism, specifically, led in the 20th century, although they’re far from the only countries that have used nationalism to fuel atrocities.
At the same time that Davies’ thesis was swirling around in my head, I learned about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a country that, growing up in the U.S., I’d never even heard of. (Fun fact: they elected their kings. Well, the nobles did.) This was all a huge influence on that first draft of Soothsayer, because I finally had greater proof of something I’d always suspected: that “national identity” is crap.
I’m an Ashkenazi Jew (don’t act so surprised), which means my ancestors were kicked around eastern Europe for centuries: pushed or pulled over borders, when those borders weren’t changing around them instead. Most of them had to speak at least three languages: the local language, to get by; Hebrew, for prayer; and Yiddish to speak with one another, and probably to think in. Believe me when I tell you that almost never did my ancestors, nor their neighbors, consider them to be Polish, Russian, German, or even Galician. They were Jews. Stateless. (Not that having one’s own ethno-state is necessarily a good thing.)
Point being, Soothsayer is a fantasy swashbuckler about secret plots, duels, prophecies, and things that slither in the dark. It’s also a book about being othered, about how ethno-nationalism thrives, and about how impermanent the institutions we see as infallible often are. I’m very proud of how it all turned out, and I hope that strange mix appeals to you. (There is also a handsome guy who’s an expert on fruit.)