Nina MacLaughlin says that she began her brilliant, lyrical, painful new book “Wake, Siren” when she took a stab at rewriting the ancient Greek and Roman tale of Callisto from the nymph’s perspective and in the nymph’s voice—raped by Jove (Zeus), turned into a bear by his vengeful wife Juno (Hera), swept into the sky and turned into a constellation by Jove.
“I see all the stars around me, and I wonder, Are you the same as me?” MacLaughlin’s Callisto says. “Is this what we all are? Fires fueled by fury, burning through the nights?”
MacLaughlin first drafted her version in February 2018. “I liked hearing her voice in my ear,” she writes. “The next day, I wrote another—Daphne. After three, it took hold and took off. I read a story, reread it, then spent the day listening to the voice in my mind, trying to hear what this woman sounded like, what story she wanted to tell and how.”
The Cambridge author will read from her resulting book, “Wake, Siren” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at 7 p.m. It’s the Roman poet Ovid’s 8th century “Metamorphosis” retold through the lens of #MeToo. Instead of glorifying the ancient Greek and Roman gods as superheroes, they’re accurately described as serial rapists, gropers, domestic abusers, kidnappers, molesters, online stalkers—perpetrators who get away with their crimes.
These are the classical deities as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump. (MacLaughlin says #MeToo “was totally on my mind. How can you ignore any of it?” But writing a #MeToo “Metamorphosis”? “That completely was not my intent.”)
“You look especially beautiful when you’re scared,” the sun god and rapist Helios tells Leucothoe. MacLaughlin’s Eurydice says, “For some people … what feels familiar about love is getting hurt, is getting reminded that you’re worthless, is the powerful feeling of someone else giving voice to a voice that lives in you that tells you that you are pathetic and stupid and bad.”
These are fierce, searing, furious tales of pain—beautifully told. “It’s not the serpents writhing from my head that turn people to stone,” MacLaughlin’s Medusa says. “It’s my rage.”
“This book felt like a bodily event,” MacLaughlin tells me. The writing of the book took less than three months, she says. “It’s really painful. There’s a lot of terrible, violent, horrific shit. …. When I had to read it over for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ It was a glimpse into my mind that felt extremely uncomfortable.”
All Things Change
MacLaughlin studied classics and English at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In her 20s, she worked at The Boston Phoenix—putting together the calendar of event listings, writing articles, and rising to become managing editor of the website. (Note: I wrote art criticism for The Boston Phoenix and The Providence Phoenix.) Then she worked for nine years as a carpenter. Now at age 40, she is a books columnist for The Boston Globe and builds tables, carves spoons.
“The Phoenix was so much more grossly sexist and so much more grossly misogynistic” than working in the building trades, MacLaughlin says. “The trades, the men that we worked with were respectful, funny.”
MacLaughlin first read the “Metamorphosis” about seven years ago, she says, while writing her 2015 memoir “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She mentions Ovid’s tales in the book’s prologue as a way to consider her transformation from journalist to carpenter: “Without the gods to guide us, to cast their spells of transformation, how do we become something other than we were?”
“This fucking book is so goddamn beautiful,” MacLaughlin says of the “Metamorphosis.” “It’s so alive. It’s so sensual.”
“The thing that’s brought home again and again in the ‘Metamorphosis’ is all things change,” she says. “The idea of change was still very compelling to me. As I think it always will be. … My awareness was on the idea of who’s allowed to tell a story and this sort of anger and pain that must have been involved for the women who didn’t get to express that in any way.”
“How do you come out of the other side of something horrific?” MacLaughlin says. “How do you deal with time passing and getting older. So these different modes of transformation.”
MacLaughlin’s method in “Wake, Siren” can bring to mind the voices from beyond the grave of Edgar Lee Master’s 1915 “Spoon River Anthology” cycle of poems as well as classics teacher Madeleine Miller’s 2018 novel “Circe,” a feminist recasting of the infamous goddess of Homer’s Odyssey into a hero. “I was not surprised by the portrait of myself,” Circe says in Miller’s version, “the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
“These stories are so—old isn’t the right word—they’re in us,” MacLaunglin says. “These are the stories that make up the way humans understand ourselves.”
“The major players are often the male gods, also the female gods. The writers were men—Ovid, obviously a man—and the translators were mostly male. It’s this filtering down of this male perspective,” MacLaughlin says.
“Thinking about translation, one of the things that struck me was the very euphemistic way rape is described,” MacLauglin says. Phrases like “deflowered” or “he attained her love.” A story about the Sirens is translated “honeyed music poured from their lips,” when the original Latin is “mouths.” MacLaughlin says, “Who tells the stories matters. What words are used matters.”
How does “Wake, Siren” relate to MacLaughlin’s own experience? “I’ve never been turned into a myrtle tree, but I have an imagination regardless if these things have or have not happened in my life,” she says. “The job of the writer is to insert yourself into whatever that experience may be and overlap your own experience.” And the book does reflect “a profound frustration with how women are seen and treated. Frustration does not get close to the word.”
MacLaughlin’s Procne says after recounting how her husband raped and tortured her and her sister: “People want to know. And then they don’t want to know. That keeps happening. It’s so horrid, it’s so gross, people say. It’s too loud. And either you want to know or you don’t want to know. And it’s easier not to know.”
“How ugly this stuff is and how disgusting and how perverse and how we are both drawn to and repelled by it,” MacLaughlin says. “These stories get ignored—the way police respond to domestic violence, the way women get treated on the internet. And there are no protections or consequences. It’s easier not to know. And for a woman to think it’s not that bad. … maybe it’s not that bad, maybe I’m overreacting.”
MacLaughlin’s Scylla says, “I thought about how maybe the worst violence isn’t the physical part, but what it does to the mind.” MacLaughlin’s Io says, “One does not need to be jailed to be imprisoned, to be caged by something that happens.”
MacLaughlin says, “What’s so insidious is the amount of time it takes from your life, the amount of time that you have to think about it. … Your mind is focused on what did I do wrong to bring this on myself. … It is a thief of time.”
Who Gets What They Want?
“Wake, Siren” prompts questions about why these stories of men sexually assaulting women are so seminal for Western culture. MacLaughlin says, “It is to me an art of examining these stories that help form the basis of storytelling. And it sort of demands we look at the ways these stories live in us, the things we take for granted, the things we don’t investigate and just sort of absorb.”
MacLaughlin says, “Is it punishing to be a woman? Yes. That is something it says about our culture, our civilization. It is. It has been.”
What do these ancient stories reveal about men? “They’re scared. There’s a lot of fear,” MacLaughlin says. “It’s hard making these sweeping generalizations. That’s an impossible thing to say. But there’s fear. I do think that’s a big part of it.”
In “Wake, Siren,” fear is often a harbinger of violence. MacLaughlin’s Procne warns, “A man whose fear has made him angry is one of the most dangerous kinds of men.”
MacLaughlin says, “That hinges on ideas of power and who gets what they want, who has a right to certain things. I have this right to this pleasure. I have a right to your body. Your wants are an irrelevance. Your need to be safe is an irrelevance.”
The old tales of the Greek and Roman gods can be seen as allegories of the rich and powerful. The deities are gangs—or royalty. “The people in power can act with a level of impunity which we are sort of seeing to the max now,” MacLaunglin says. “I’ve accumulated enough power that I can get away with it. The gods and goddesses are all flawed and jealous and vengeful and petty.”
MacLaughlin says, “If there’s a way out it’s going to involve a lot of just saying—the women who are standing up and saying this happened to me—that’s the first step of the way out. And there being consequences: that you are fired, that you’re not worshipped in this cultural pantheon. Shame is a potent motivator. If the possibility of shame motivates you not to behave in certain ways that’s great. I want to be careful. I do not have the answers. What’s the way forward? I don’t know the answer to that. I hope everybody keeps talking. That’s not a solution. But I hope the conversation keeps happening.”
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