Alumnae/i Feature

Sacha Lamb '20MS/MA Embraces Queerness and Jewish Folklore in Debut Novel

Photo of Sacha Lamb

Thanks to Simmons, I have a community of people. I was in History/Archives, but I have friends who studied Children's Literature and Library Services to Children, and people who focused on LIS. An awful lot of really cool people go to Simmons, and it's nice to have connections with people in all kinds of different library spaces.

What led you to study Library and Information Science at Simmons?

I had wanted to be a librarian for a long time. I love organizing things, so it seemed like a good fit. I grew up in the Boston area, and attending Simmons allows me to live at home. The Archives Management and History program allows me to study archives from both sides: how do I use an archive as a researcher, and how do I facilitate the use of an archive?

While in the program, I had an internship at the American Meteorological Society, an independent science publisher and professional association in Boston. I was hired part-time while at Simmons and worked as a library assistant to the former librarian/archivist, Jinny Nathans '84MS. I became a librarian in 2019, and when Nathan retired in early 2020, I became the Society's librarian/archivist.

I love talking to scientists because they are passionate about what they do. In an archive, you get to help people with research. I like to make sure things don't get forgotten.

How would you describe your debut fantasy novel, When The Angels Left the Old Country (Levine Querido, 2022)?

Cover phot of When the Angels Left the Old Country - a book by Sacha Lamb

I'd call it an Ellis Island-era immigrant fairy tale about an angel and a demon who study the Talmud together in a little village in Eastern Europe. When a local girl goes missing, they go after her and discover that the golden land of America is a place full of mystery, danger, and a bit of magic. They are joined on their quest by a girl who is looking to distract herself from a break-up and to find a better life for her family.

What was the initial inspiration? What did you research? [started at Simmons?]

I won a Lambda Literary Fellowship in 2018, and had just finished a draft of an entirely different novel. It was an emotionally difficult story, and I wanted to do something fun. At the time, I had just completed my history thesis on Jewish women's support for immigration in the 1920s; my advisor was Professor Laura Prieto. I had done a ton of reading about immigration, immigration law, what made people leave [their home countries], and what made people come to America. It was fun to take that and put it together with the fairy tale elements. I wanted to play with everything that I enjoy, it was relaxing for me, but a fairly complicated story came out of this fun project!

The book is full of references to Jewish religion and culture, history, and fantasy. Was it your plan to pull all of these elements together from the beginning?

I've read a couple books that do this, but there aren't many. Gavriel Savit's The Way Back (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2020) is set in a shtetl and involves a lot of demons and fairy tales — it was exciting to see someone else pulling from classic Yiddish literature. There is a fabulist element to some of those stories; in everyday village life during that era, people didn't necessarily separate the natural from the supernatural. That's why it's a part of classic Yiddish literature, like that written by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem. I hope that by combining all of those things into a story that people can enjoy from a modern reader's perspective, that may make readers interested in those older books and Jewish folklore.

The novel focuses on immigrants at the time of Ellis Island, and queer identities. Did you pull inspiration from historical research?

I read A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, edited by Noam Sienna (Print-O-Craft Press, 2019). It's an anthology of queer Jewish texts from the first to the 19th century that spans a wide variety of texts, including extracts from the Talmud that offer a glimpse of queerness — stories of people who would have been considered female living as men in the 19th century. Another book I really liked was Female Husbands: A Trans History by Jen Manion (Cambridge University Press, 2020), about people who were assigned female but lived as men and husbands to women in the 19th century. At least one person on record made it through Ellis Island with their chosen identity, and if there was a record of one, there were probably more who got away with it. I like these tiny glimpses of queerness in history, because there is always a bigger story behind it all. So many stories didn't get recorded, and there was likely a deeper level of stories that were never found out — people who were able to live their lives and were never caught.

How has your book been received by the Jewish community?

I've been blown away by the reaction to this book. It's great to see people who are really excited about the representation of traditional Jewish life who are accepting it as a queer book, and queer people excited about the queerness and accepting it as a Jewish book. My book was a 2022 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Young Adult Fiction and a Sydney Taylor Award winner. It also won a Printz honor, and received a Stonewall award for the queer aspects of the story. It's exciting to get that recognition for a book that is all of the things that it is. I had thought of it as a story for a very specific audience, but if you write something with your whole heart, it becomes universal. While everyone has specific experiences, everyone can feel human emotions and recognize genuine human emotion, even if they aren't familiar with the cultural specifics and need to look in the glossary in the back. It's been a really amazing reaction.

How did Simmons prepare you to become a leader in LIS?

Thanks to Simmons, I have a community of people. I was in History/Archives, but I have friends who studied Children's Literature and Library Services to Children, and people who focused on LIS. An awful lot of really cool people go to Simmons, and it's nice to have connections with people in all kinds of different library spaces. Also, you get to see how people approach history and research from multiple angles — presenting it as a children's librarian, public historian, archivist, or historian — these are valid perspectives, and seeing how they interact has helped me think about how to turn history into a story.

On March 25, Sacha Lamb will give an author talk at the Greenburgh Public Library in Westchester County, NY.

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