Fight Against Fascism, Imperialism at Heart of Local Author’s Novel

In his debut work of historical fiction, “The Half-Caste,” local author Jason Zeitler takes readers from the gritty streets of 1930s London, where a Fascist Party leader galvanizes an army of followers nicknamed the “Jackboots,” to the lush jungles of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where anti-imperialist sentiment is on the rise.

A vivid depiction of the period, with insights into art and music, the book is also an ode to friendship.

The novel’s half-caste is Vernon Price, a half-Dutch, half-Ceylonese postgraduate student at the London School of Economics. Posing as a member of the Jackboots, he must hide not only his ancestry but also the fact that he is a spy, reporting back to the anti-fascists.

In this guise, Vernon meets a young nurse, Zoe, who becomes disenchanted with the Jackboots when they unleash their antisemitism. As the pair fall in love, Vernon rekindles a friendship with Saul Maccabee, a wealthy Jewish intellectual and connoisseur of music who has been deep in mourning since the death of his wife, Esther.

Saul is based on Leonard Woolf, the husband of Virginia Woolf, publisher, writer, political activist, and member of the Fabian Society, a socialist organization known for its belief in gradual change rather than revolution.

Zeitler first read about Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury Group as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, studying English and economics.

“Delving into that history,” he says, “you almost feel like you wish, at the back of your mind, that you had lived then.”

Zeitler grew up in a low-income family in South Dakota, far from the rarefied world of the Bloomsbury Group. He joined the Marine Corps to fund his education, serving in naval intelligence in Washington, D.C.

While Zeitler’s studies sparked the character of Saul, the author found inspiration for Vernon closer to home, in his son, Dilan, to whom “The Half-Caste” is dedicated. Zeitler met his Sri Lankan wife, Darshini, when both were graduate students in finance at George Washington University. After stints in New York and Los Angeles, they moved to Tucson in 2005 to be near Zeitler’s mother.

Trips to visit family and friends in Sri Lanka helped set the stage for “The Half-Caste,” Zeitler says, along with copious research and imagining how his son would react if he were in Vernon’s situation.

Author Jason Zeitler

Zeitler has also published a novella, “Like Flesh to the Scalpel” (Running Wild Press, 2018); a story collection, “The Breatharian and Other Stories” (Polyphony Press, 2024); and stories and essays in U.S. and U.K. publications. Retired from a career as an economist, he is working on a second novel, which will be set in India, Berlin, and Sri Lanka.

Although he is not Jewish, Zeitler feels an affinity for the Jewish people and says the new book also will include Jewish characters.

“The Half-Caste” (Polyphony Press, 2023) is an Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Awards Silver winner in the Best New Voice: Fiction category. The 2024 IBPA awards were announced at a ceremony in Denver on April 26.

In the fall, Zeitler will give a talk on “The Half-Caste” at the Tucson Jewish Museum & Holocaust Center, tentatively set for Sept. 12.

The Half-Caste” is available at Barnes & Noble and Mostly Books in Tucson and through online retailers.