Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie: on Jewish money, solidarity, and privilege
With a huge admin job made mammoth by the pandemic and three kids to homeschool (and occasionally parent), I am tired. I want my entertainment to be modern, fresh, fun, funny.
I recently chose two pieces that I thought would be perfect: a pink-backed work of chick lit and a high school comedy. But to my surprise (and initial disappointment), both my choices, novel and television show, British and American, Black- and Asian-authored, shared a common, disconcerting element: the classic stereotype of the money-obsessed Jew. Here, in Part I, I’ll discuss Queenie.
I am not saying I didn’t love Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel Queenie (2019), a book that made me laugh and cry and also want to shake some sense into Queenie more than once (Is it so hard to use a condom?? Come on, girlfriend! And if the only one getting off is him, it is time to move on…). That is the charm of this way-better-than-a ‘black Bridget Jones,’ which didn’t win the Booker prize, but was long-listed for it (and curiously bears a front cover not terribly different from Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which did win).
Isn’t it ironic to see these one-size-fits-all covers on novels that work precisely to counter a monolithic sense of black British womanhood?
But let’s open the cover.
Queenie invites readers into its eponymous protagonist’s life. She makes us cringe with her when strangers touch her hair or when she receives racist, sexist messages on OKCupid. As often as not these messages compare her to confectionary (‘Nice curves, I like bigger girls. Some of my favourite porn is BBW’; ‘I want to go out with you, chocolate girl. How about it’). We find ourselves whispering encouraging words in her ear when she hesitantly goes to her publisher with her pitches for #BlackLivesMatter articles. She convinces us that if we’ve never been to Brixton, we’re too damn late, because all the sweet-smelling Caribbean bakeries have been replaced by trendy burger bars and minimalist coffee shops full of white people on Mac laptops.
When Queenie WhatsApps her ‘CORGIS’ — these are her three close female friends who are far less rich and white than some other fabulous fictional female foursomes (yes, I’m looking at you, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte!) — I wanted to be a part of their group. And in a way, I was.
‘Cassandra was the first Jewish person I’d ever met,’ Queenie tells us of one of her CORGIS. ‘I’d put my stuff next to Cassandra in an English Language seminar and as soon as I sat down, she leaned over to me and said that as the two minorities on the course, we should stick together.’
This description embarrassed me, because it felt a little too real. Let’s face it: Jews make a pastime of touting our minority status. We are the victims of millennia of discrimination and oppression. We hold fast to this self-image, even when we share in much of the privilege of whiteness—and sometimes more of it than many white people.
We’re also keen to show solidarity with other minorities (and talk about it!). In America, we love to remind everyone of the role of Jews in the Civil Rights movement (let’s not forget Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr King!). Both in the UK and the US, Jews have been very vocal about supporting Black Lives Matter (as Jews). Jewish newspapers highlight heart-warming stories, like the one about a sixteen-year-old mensch who is raising money for the NAACP with his ‘Tikkun Olam means Black Lives Matter’ line of clothing.
Right: Thousands of people have shared this image of a South Orange, NJ, synagogue on social media
Solidarity is vital. But as Carty-Williams’s novel suggests, solidarity does not mean being blind to privilege. What Cassandra (and perhaps Jews at large) should work on is a model of ‘differentiated solidarity.’ When she declares that minorities should ‘stick together,’ Cassandra seems to miss the fact that differences can’t always be glossed over by ‘minority’ status. Chiefly, Cassandra is oblivious to the economic disparity between her and Queenie, as the novel highlights in passages like this one:
‘When you run out of money, why don’t you just use your other money?’
‘What?’ I laughed. ‘What other money?’
‘You know, savings, an ISA, that sort of thing.’
I looked at her blankly.
Throughout the book, Carty-Williams links Queenie’s Jewish friend with money. Because of the longstanding association from the Middle Ages through Shylock to Louis Farrakhan of Jews and money, the portrayal feels a little ugly. While Queenie’s Ugandan and white CORGIS mostly listen and offer their shoulders to cry on, Cassandra’s most virtuous (?) act throughout the book is lending Queenie money—because apparently that’s what Jewish saviours do. It’s not the rosiest picture Carty-Williams offers, and at the end of the book, when at a restaurant, Queenie looks out at her people, only Cassandra’s presence at the table is questionable. I guess I was glad Cassandra made it to the table. I was just hoping Carty-Williams would give her a good reason to stay that wasn’t footing the bill.