This is a conversation with Michelle Cameron on becoming who she is – a writer. Her story starts two centuries ago, Napoleon’s troops occupied the Italian port city of Ancona, freeing the city’s Jews from the ghetto. Michelle Cameron’s novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is the story of the collision that ensued between two cultures, and one of love across religion, nation, and other walls…
Cameron’s tale is a fascinating, fictionalized foray into a bygone era, but the themes she addresses are still timely and, for many, still very personal: Antisemitism, gender roles, social roles… Cameron and her heroines grapple with these issues in a story that invites us to look at our own.
A conversation with the author. It begins, of course, with some history:
I was a reader long before I became a writer. The novels that spoke loudest to me were those that immersed me in other times and other lands. But rarely did I meet up with characters who shared my Jewish heritage and culture.
I didn’t set out to write primarily Jewish historical fiction, [but] when I discovered the story of my 13th Century rabbi ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg, I realized this was my story. So I wrote The Fruit of Her Hands, giving Meir’s fictional wife, Shira, a chance to speak her own truth.
That set me on the path to bring more Jewish characters from different historic moments to full, breathing life.
Beyond the Ghetto Gatesis about Napoleon demolishing the Italian Jewish ghetto gates and emancipating the Jews, who then had to contend with the bias against them within the Catholic population. Despite its historical setting, the story engages with issues many contemporary women face: Agency, freedom, identity, duty …
True. Many readers have shared that the women’s issues in Beyond the Ghetto Gates are still true for them today. Women, even in the 21st century, are often hampered by their sense of duty to their families, which stops them from pursuing their passions. Women are still brought up with the expectation that they will sacrifice for their families, that their husband and children must come first.
Was this your experience too?
Yes, and frankly, I sometimes regret it myself. I stopped pursuing my writing career for many years because I was raising a young family, working a full-time job to help support them. Unlike Mirelle, my protagonist, I didn’t put my own aspirations first, for many years couldn’t even find a balance where I would at least keep the flame of my writing ambition alive. My career as a novelist might look very different now had I done so.
What message did you want Mirelle’s story to convey to a young woman, or man, reader?
I would hope that Mirelle’s final decision to pursue her own course, despite social confines, would encourage a young woman to define herself less by constraints than by her own sense of who she is. I don’t have a daughter, but I have sons, and I’ve raised them (I hope) to recognize that it is not up to them to “allow” women to pursue their own course in life – but instead support their choices and cheer them on.
Has the world changed, and changed enough, between then and now, for women?
We have made progress, though certainly not enough. Back then, women were raised to be married off, hopefully to their family’s advantage. There’s a line in the song “Satisfied” in Hamilton that I always think of when I consider Mirelle’s fate: “I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich.” Mirelle’s desire to work and contribute to her family’s legacy was disregarded as she was pushed toward marriage with an older man, simply because he was wealthy. Had she been the compliant girl her mother had wished for, she would have had no say over her future.
These days, only women brought up in fundamentalist circumstances – though regrettably, there are still many of these – suffer from the same constraints. Women of today’s world have many more choices. We have won basic freedoms that Mirelle did not have – the right to vote, the right to do what we want with our own bodies. But we are still not considered equal. You only have to look at the disparity of what we earn versus men, or at the way any woman politician is treated in this country, to realize that. And history has shown how quickly and easily these freedoms might once more be denied us. We still remain the vulnerable sex. There is still work to be done.
In terms of work to be done, what women inspire you and can inspire us?
Any woman who pursues her own talents and passions, despite male disapproval and sometimes even flat-out opposition. A name that comes to mind is Marie Curie. I’ve also always deeply admired Queen Elizabeth I, despite her many flaws – she forced her way into a man’s world and ruled it in the face of threats from within and without.
In my own realm of writers, I’m inspired by the Brontë sisters, who published at first under gender fluid pseudonyms so their work would be taken seriously, and by George Eliot, who signed her writing with a male name to hide the fact that she was actually Mary Ann Evans. And, of course, there is my beloved Jane Austen, who reportedly would slip her work into her writing box whenever company showed up – but kept writing brilliantly, nonetheless.
As a writer yourself, what glimpse can you give us into your practice?
When I am deep in a project, it is important to me to spend some time everyday writing. Because I’m a historical novelist, I allow myself about three months’ worth of deep research into the events, customs, dress of the time, etc. – but no more, because I am fully aware of the temptations of the deep, dark hole that is research. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not researching daily – but my focus shifts from pure research to actual writing. Spending at least some time every day keeps the project top of mind.
Often, I’ll talk out loud when I’m driving or walking, trying to figure out plot points or hear bits of dialogue in my head before I write them down. Years ago, I probably looked odd doing this. These days, of course, people will simply assume I’m talking on my cell phone!
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
My primary advice to anyone who wants to write is to find a community of fellow writers. This was advice I received myself, back when I was just returning to writing – and participating in various writing groups really did change my life. Being part of a group that meets regularly brings a sense of accountability to your writing that is difficult to achieve on your own. Writing is lonely work, but finding others eager and willing to talk about it makes it less so.
MICHELLE CAMERON is a director of The Writers Circle, an NJ-based organization that offers creative writing programs to children, teens, and adults, and the author of works of historical fiction and poetry: Beyond the Ghetto Gates (She Writes Press, 2020), The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz (Pocket, 2009), and In the Shadow of the Globe (Lit Pot Press, 2003). She lived in Israel for fifteen years (including three weeks in a bomb shelter during the Yom Kippur War) and served as an officer in the Israeli army teaching air force cadets technical English. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and has two grown sons of whom she is inordinately proud. Visit her website for more information https://michelle-cameron.com.