Interview: Liz Jacobs

Liz Jacobs is a queer Russian Jewish American author who recently debuted her young adult romance duology Abroad. She first traveled from Russia to America as a refugee with her family when she was only 11 years old. Now based in Massachusetts, she lives with her wife, spending her time writing nuanced queer fiction, working her day job, and watching British dramas. Geeks OUT wanted to learn more about the author, and we were excited by how receptive she was to sharing with us!

Your series of young adult novels Abroad focuses on Nicholay Melnikov, a young Russian Jewish immigrant. How much do Nick's experiences and emotional responses echo that of your own?

Oh, so very much. My intention with writing this book was to find a way to tell my own story that could also - hopefully - echo other immigrant kids' experiences with culture, and loss, and identity formation. I've described Nick as being me at his age, turned up to 11. His anxiety, his worries, his fears were all something I experienced at his age, but what I didn't give him was my anger at the time. I think that anger, which I didn't realize at the time I was experiencing, helped me feel less helpless than Nick, I think. But overall, his story is very much own story.

As a person who identifies as a queer Jewish Ukrainian Russian American woman, I know firsthand how anxiety-inducing it can be to share your identity with the world. Have you ever had any trepidation about sharing your identity?

Oh my goodness, yes. For me, the biggest fears were wrapped up in my family. As a young teen, the biggest fear for me was that being gay would be bringing shame on the family. When I came out to my parents, finally, that didn't precisely ease - and it took a lot of hard work on my family's part to stop feeling shame, as my fears were not exactly unfounded - but it has, finally, gone away. But the anxiety was so real, and you could not pay me enough to go back to a time when I wasn't out to the whole family. It was a terrifying, horrible time.

Has writing openly about LGBTQ topics helped empower you?

Definitely. I came into writing through fanfiction, and that, more than anything else, has made me comfortable and empowered me. I discovered a lot about myself and my desires through fanfiction, and when I began to write original stuff, I felt like the window that fanfiction had opened up for me, turned into a full set of French doors. It's been an amazing journey in that way.

In addition to featuring queer romance in your novels, you also focus on an (also queer) interracial romance between Nick and Dex Cartwell. How did you approach that portrayal of intersectionality?

Extremely carefully and thoughtfully. I did a lot of research, I listened to a lot of people online and took in their experiences. The last thing I wanted to do was a disservice to Dex's character and write something that could harm others. This isn't the same thing at all, but watching how Russian people have been portrayed by Western media for years and years gave me some insight into how hurtful stereotypical and ignorant portrayals can be - even by well-meaning people. I think intentions matter, but what matters more is the execution. Being white is experiencing extraordinary privilege in basically every sense, thus I had to put in much more thought into the portrayal of Dex and his family (and Alex, and Natali) than anyone else, because I did not have my own intuitive experience to draw from. There is a way in which I can understand certain experiences, but overall, this was very much a "listen and learn and take in" sort of venture.

Why is this kind of representation in fiction important to you?

Because representation matters. I know we all hear this, but it's so true. I have never seen myself and my own experience represented, and it was really meaningful to write it myself. I wanted someone out there who's been through what I've been through to open this book and find themselves in it. And also, we are not islands, and we are not alone. The idea that you can see a book or a film where no people of color exist is mind-boggling to me, just like the idea that there are no queer people anywhere in anyone's vicinity. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented, and not just as a background person or a token, but as a real, fully-fledged person, which is what I tried doing with Abroad. I wanted it to reflect reality and also a more hopeful vision of the world.

Are there any LGBTQ authors who have inspired you or stories that have resonated with you?

Oh God, yes. The first time I felt seen was actually in Jamie O'Neill At Swim, Two Boys. Despite the fact that there are no Russian-Jewish queer women in sight, the inner experiences of the characters spoke to me like nothing else ever had before. That book has been one of the most formative, meaningful reading experiences of my whole life. Jim and MacMurrough, in particular, reflected my feelings in a way that took my breath away. I remember sitting in a cafe I worked in, on my day off, and underlining (in pencil) lines that felt like they'd been taken from my brain.

More recently, I've really resonated with work by Harper Fox, Roan Parrish, Alexis Hall, and KJ Charles. Wildly different styles, and still so universal and vividly rendered.

What can we expect from you now that the Abroad duology is complete?

Oh man. I hope, quite a bit, but I'm not sure where it will start! My current WIPs include a queer YA novella, a queer historical romance, and a contemporary f/f novel. I'm not sure which will see the light of day first, but I'm excited for all three. And I hope others will be too, of course.