Saturday, January 26, 2019

Maria Dhavana Headley talk @ North Western

author photo by Beowulf Sheenan,
no really that's his name, I checked
This last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to catch Maria Dhavana Headley in a talk at North Western with Dr. Barbara Newman. Part of One Book One Northwestern (they're doing Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale), Headley and Newman talked about The Mere Wife, Headley's recent novel. A modern, feminist take on Beowulf, The Mere Wife was one of my favorite reads of last year. Dream-like, nightmare-like, lyrical: highly recommended.

After some introductory remarks by Juan Martinez, they jumped into a discussion of The Mere Wife, Beowulf, and Headley's forthcoming translation. Brief notes below! Possible spoilers! Good ideas theirs, errors mine:
  • Barbara Newman: Gives a brief summary of Beowulf. Talks about the play on "mere" in Headley's novel, asks about what led her to write this.
  • Maria Dhavana Headley: First ideas for this novel came from reading, and not being impressed with, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Being from rural Idaho, suburban/commuter vision of America didn't click, and unimpressed with vision of women characters as wholly subservient to male interests. Had encountered Grendel's mother before encountering Beowulf--in a kid's bestiary kind of thing. When she did read Beowulf, intrigued by women's role as peaceweavers. I thought about all the times in women's lives that we're asked to "do it nicely", and thought about women supporting Trump in the 2016 election, signing up to support their own oppression. "Mere" wife as both "water wife" of Grendel's mother, and "little wife" of "unimportant" women, wanted to write about them both as important.
  • BN: Kind of post-apocalyptic of Beowulf--written after the fall of this great society. Do you see parallels with our current moment?
  • MDH: Definitely see parallels with "Make America Great Again", this idea that in the "good old days" we didn't have these problems, even if that's kind of nonsensical it can be a rallying cry. Beowulf is actually a story about men killing each other, about men coming home from war and making the domestic space a war-space. It's still nostalgic; there's still this undertone of how there are slithering bits of evil within all of us.
  • BN: Sense of detritus, lost objects, buried histories in these texts. Is Gren (Mere Wife) really a monster?
  • MDH: The way people who are other/vulnerable are made into monsters. That's a very useful form of rhetoric for people who want to seize power. It's also about the fear of having a very vulnerable child, who will be looked at as a monster. Talked about the story of a child who went through precocious puberty at 3, so looked mature very young and was seen/treated as threatening while still a child.
  • BN: It's hard to get sympathetic for Ben Wolf--deflating the myth of heroic masculinity.
  • MDH: Discusses Heaney & Tolkien's (notoriously not super-good) translations, and the way Beowulf is really a bro story. Beowulf brags about stuff, and you kind of do not believe him. Spends days underwater, has the strength of 30 men--totally parallel to Grendel, looked at objectively they have equal "monsterhood". Blended that with police officer tropes: that violence has always been there, but only recently visible in video recordings. Thinking about the dynamic of becoming so fearful of "monsters" that the violence in response to it is always "heroic", thinking about that structure around thinks like the Tamir Rice shooting (& many other instances). How did your fear get to the point that you would murder a child? It comes from this rhetoric, and flipping "other" to "monster".
  • BN: Part of Beowulf as a tragedy is that Beowulf never marries, never has children. In your novel, Ben Wolf does have children, but you have Gren & Dylan become friends/lovers, in a different world they would have lived happily ever after. How does having this would-be gay couple respond to anything that's in Beowulf.
  • MDH: I split Grendel in half, one to the wilderness and one to the suburbs/privilege. I was interested in the attraction to differences, doubling down on class differences & hierarchy. Grendel in Beowulf doesn't get anything good. Same focus on being outside in John Gardner's novel. Frankenstein's-monster-esque.
  • BN: Cup-stealing scene that wakes up the dragon in Beowulf; the twist on that in The Mere Wife is Dana stealing back a cup that belonged to her ancestors from a museum, could you talk about that play?
  • MDH: Initially was setting this story in the Catskills where the trains stopped running from the city. Thinking about New York and aggressive removal of people along class lines in certain areas--"gentrification" is a word I object to. But thinking about the history of humans and the way we consistently both pave over other peoples and take their artifacts & even bodies to display in museums. "This is precious, never mind that it's someone's body." Relates story of Minik Wallace, Inuk boy brought to New York with a group who mostly died of disease, some were taxidermied and displayed, no one thought it traumatic or evil to do so or allow him to see it. This link of colonization, exploration, exploitation, and exhibition.
  • BN: There's a mummy of a six year-old Egyptian girl right here at the Garret Seminary, which is not where she was intended to rest. And obviously so many struggles in America around Native people's remains and artifacts staying where they're intended. Is there a racial subtext in The Mere Wife?
  • MDH: I wanted to write about predatory whiteness. Dana & Gren are not white, which is part of the reason Dana is afraid for her son: the world is dangerous for him. Talks about being in Australia for this book tour, and while Australia also has a horrible history of colonization, they do this very specific announcement at public events about who the land is stolen from. Can't imagine that happening in America without protests, but it's something that should happen. We just don't like to have that dialog--we have this myth about bootstrapping intrepid white explorers and don't like to think about the rest of that story. Talks about her family having heirlooms, historic rifles used "in the Indian Wars", not questioning that as a child, and then at a certain point realizing "oh these are the genocide guns", how do we not talk about that? It should be in everyone's minds here, it should be a basic teaching point.
  • BN: Tell us about your own translation of Beowulf that you're working on!
  • MDH: Coming at this from a weird way, since I did an adaptation first--had someone ask when the translation was coming out, at first felt not qualified, but then thought about all the other people who weren't qualified but did it anyway. Translating it in kind of wild verse, lots of alliteration, some rhyme, not couplets or anything horrifying like that. Doesn't translate Grendel's mother as "monster" but as "fighter". Translating it looking at culpability of Beowulf, the slow weight of old sins, Grendel's mother's murder as legal vengeance in Old English law, but Beowulf kills her anyway. Dragon killing Beowulf over someone else's theft kind of appropriate, looking at what the dragon means.

Q&A time:
  • Q: Could you talk about place as a character in The Mere Wife and what you were thinking around that?
  • MDH: There is a lot of character to the place in Beowulf, though it doesn't have a voice--the vivid gory details around the lake etc. Wanted a kind of balance between the mountain & the suburbs, so Dana & Gren weren't totally alone; wanted to write a novel where the history of the place was also a character, the misuse of the place, human failure, the long memory of the earth and generations of disasters on a landscape. The preciousness of a building is so important in Beowulf, how the safety there is totally subverted, and how Grendel's mother's hall is a shadow-echo of Hrothgar's.
  • Q: Anti-war elements of the book, the forever wars we're in today, what you were thinking around trauma with Dana & other characters.
  • MDH: Many people join military where she's from, had a lot of proximity to that. The idea that military training tries to prepare you for things you can't be prepared for is compelling. Monster versus hero is a narrative that is used all the time but can shift at any time, not fixed. Current partner has a military background, so a lot of special-forces types read The Mere Wife. Biggest "error" they brought up is that Dana killed too many (10), but only because they only count direct-with-a-gun as things they're personally responsible for. Talked about how different levels of trauma will be for different people in similar situations. How differently our conception of trauma and broken-ness are now compared to Vietnam. The idea of going in thinking you're a hero and finding out you're a monster is compelling as a story-teller.
  • Q: Great medievalist question--implication of Juliana of Norwich and reconciliation of Heaven & Hell, Gren/Dylan Mere/Suburb doing this?
  • MDH: You're a bad-ass, and yes doing some stuff with that! I can't just make the villain the villain, what do they think they're doing? The original end of Beowulf, "he was a guy who really wanted to be famous" isn't where I wanted to end this. It's a long road, but things can change, everyone has done wrong, everyone is traumatized. Beowulf is not a story where change from that is possible, except intriguingly for women making peace between tribes--but that's not explored. What happens when you go into your enemy's house and try to get power, or find out they're not you're enemy, or fall in love? I don't think we're busted, we can change the world with generosity and energy, but we have to it. The "it's just horror!" Cormac McCarthy-style doesn't work, can't live in that world.
Fantastic talk!

No comments:

Post a Comment