CW: r*pe, assault, stigma as a result of those, stalking, male violence, white nationalism
Ancient Greek culture has been an ideological battleground for centuries.
The birthplace of democracy
—that only worked for male Athenian citizens.
The paragon of western art
—that’s not capable of caring for it, according to the British (re: Elgin Marbles).
The origins of hyperrealistic, white-marble sculpture
—that’s been co-opted by white supremacists (despite those sculptures having been painted with olive and brown skin).
In the 18th & early 19th century, Europe—at the height of its WASPy, patriarchal, imperialistic power—became obsessed with Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and so this time period became known as the neoclassical period. To be honest, I don’t know if we’ve ever completely separated ourselves from the impacts of neoclassical politics, especially at the intersection of art.
I know I never did.
As a humanities teacher, I’ve had to get comfortable with the trial and the death of Socrates, Plato’s the cave, Aristotle’s unities, and plays from Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes while textbooks kept (not so subtly) implying it was all the best damn origin story for humanity ever; as a student, I had to explore the Oedipus and Elektra complexes in psychology classes while some (male) psychoanalytic-leaning people in the room earnestly entertained the idea of penis envy; and in my spare time, I played Age of Mythology as a kid and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as an adult while white nationalists–who I’ve taught about in regards to the use of white marble statues in supremacist propaganda–stormed the US capitol demanding democracy should only work for them.
We, as a Western society grappling with its own insidious skeletal structure, haven’t quite made up our minds about what exactly the classics mean to us–in part because we were told there was only one right “us” when in reality, we are multitudes.
When we gaze upon Ancient Greek culture, we do so with that baggage.
You might have opened up Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram and seen one of the most recent ideological battlegrounds. Medusa With the Head of Perseus, created by artist Luciano Garbati in 2008, took the internet by storm and now stands opposite the Manhattan courthouse where Harvey Weinstein was tried. “Be grateful we only want equality and not payback,” the caption often reads (Gershon)—a symbol for feminist rage in the #metoo era.
We are used to privileging the male gaze in art and media, just as we’ve been taught to privilege Western perspectives. Women’s bodies are there to consume, visually, and the way they’re depicted or shot reflects that. Medusa, however, is an incarnation of a female gaze–when she looks upon men, they turn to stone. In that moment of reversal, we (whether that be us now, or the Ancient Greeks who whispered about her in myth) are uncomfortable. What is abject is condemned, and so we condemn Medusa as monstrous, relegating her to the club in our Western Imaginary of infamous women who consume and undo men (e.g. Cleopatra).
But it’s only because Poseidon consumed Medusa first.
“According to legend, Poseidon, the god of the sea, raped a maiden named Medusa in the temple of Athena. Blaming Medusa for the temple’s defilement, Athena turned her into a monstrous gorgon capable of transforming those who looked at her into stone. Later, the demigod Perseus beheaded Medusa as part of a heroic quest.”Gershon
Tale as old as time. Man rapes woman. Women uphold the patriarchy by piling on. Woman is monstrous. Men see said monstrosity as an invitation to inflict more harm. And they all lived happily ever after.
Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus With the Head of Medusa (1545-1554) is the accepted version of “The End.” Medusa with the Head of Perseus is its inversion, asking what it might have looked like if the monster slayed the hero this time.
But it took time for that question to reach ears. Garbati unveiled (wording intended) this statue in 2008. It went viral a decade later in 2018.
It took the #metoo era for us to listen.
I’d already posted my #metoo tale by the time it came across my feed. Twice in my life, I’d been a child when a male teacher abused his power and became inappropriate with me. The first, my mother caught and shut down before anything got bad. The second was after she’d passed, and it escalated from grooming to stalking and culminated in a threat of suicide when I tried to break it off. That’s a mild story in comparison to what my mother herself went through, as well as the stories I’ve listened to from friends and female family. Medusa’s trauma truly is a tale as old as time. As we were all assuring each other we weren’t alone on social media, Garbati’s statue came across my feed with a very resonant caption (paraphrased here):
What if Athena did not curse Medusa? What if she saved her from ever having to suffer the assault of another man ever again?
In both versions of Medusa’s myth, the female gaze is a weapon. But if it is a gift rather than a curse, the tale becomes one of sisterhood, of survivors finding allies, of striking out against that which systemically causes us harm. It is a stand against male violence and an act of self preservation in the face of its subsequent trauma.
As a woman who’s had her own brush with assault both lived and shared, that revision affected me profoundly.
The story of Medusa is the story of female monstrosity.
But what do we do with that monstrosity?
Medusa’s the femme fatale who must be shot dead by the hardboiled detective at the end of the movie. In the grand scheme of her story, we’re only just now starting to interrogate if that’s really the patriarchy speaking. Perhaps we can imagine her another way–reshape her to reflect what we know about the female experience more broadly.
Perhaps we can reimagine that entire club of monstrous womxn at large.
All of this was rattling around in my brain when I critique partnered (or beta’d, edited? Idk read) the prologue and first three chapters of Kalie Cassidy’s YA Fantasy manuscript, In the Veins of the Drowning, in which the main character is a siren living in a society where sirens are caged and murdered for their monstrosity and their magic.
Contextualizing In the Veins of the Drowning
Kassidy opens up her world with a prologue in which a goddess births sirens out of earthen clay and golden blood:
Her voice, smooth from spirits, fell over the pit in a blessing.
“May no man have power over you. May you devour those who might try. May your blood give you the want of your heart and quiet the call of your instincts.”
A strong hand wrapped around her waist and pulled her body from the earthly womb–back into the tangle of gods and wine and chaos. But the goddess sat and watched, with a goblet in her hand and lips on her neck, as three sisters emerged from the pit. Winged women.
Goddesses in their own right.
Their skin glistened wet with sea and golden blood, a song hummed through the bones of their chest. They were strong and lovely, with black feathers at their back and dark talons at their fingers.
Sirens, thought the goddess.
And so they were.
Immediately, on page one, Cassidy takes a stand within this ideological battleground. Sirens, like those Odysseus encounters in his titular epic ballad, are femme fatales. They lure men with their songs until those men dash themselves against the cliffs because, to quote Netflix’s Disenchantment, they “must have sex with its origin.” Throughout the course of history, sirens have been condemned for their voice, just as Medusa has been condemned for her gaze. They have feminine power, and they consume men with it. Thus, they are monstrous.
Sirens may belong to that club of infamous femme fatales, but here, Cassidy is aligning their monstrosity with the more feminist revision of the Medusa myth: “May no man have power over you. May you cut through the flesh of those who might try.” Their magic, their talons, whatever it is that makes their sirenhood a weapon is used as a means of self defense. It is only when men would seek to control, dominate, or harm these female creatures that they become monstrous–as a means of retaining their personal sovereignty.
I got really excited reading the first few chapters of Cassidy’s work because of these themes. We talked a lot about them and how they might inform her revisions from Draft 3 to Draft 4, and then, when I read her revisions, I got even more excited! She’d done such a fabulous job driving the themes of female monstrosity from a feminist vs a patriarchal vantage point into the very foundation of her language. And so it became very easy for me to use observation, analysis, and synthesis to recognize what work her language was doing for her on that front—and where to push it that much further so that everything was aligned under that one banner.
Theme is Queen.
Read Chapter 1, Draft 4 of Cassidy’s manuscript and then let’s talk about it! I’m hoping this will be an excellent example of how you might be able to use the close reading skills we’ve worked on to really hit home the themes of your creative works in progress.
Close Reading In the Veins of the Drowning’s Connotations
Did you feel a sense of dread while the MC navigates the pact day? Did that dread have a certain maleness to it? Perhaps a coldness? Let’s explore exactly how the text got us to feel that.
Cassidy’s protagonist, Imogen, is torn between the siren sea and her mountainous existence. By the very nature of those images—the “dark waves” and the “smooth, stark frost” (2)—Cassidy’s set up an extended metaphor that can do a lot of wonderful work underneath the surface of her prose.
Dark, bold colors, like that of the haunting siren’s wing nailed above the door—“riot of colors on its black surface—the slash of iridescent blue and green near its base, the purple near its fringed edge” (1)—are a call to home, an expression of her feminine power that aches to be unleashed; whereas anything associated with Fort Linum carries with it a cold, white, patriarchal violence: “I organized the blank pact parchments before me as the chill of the marble floor crept under my skirt and up my legs. It was the biting type of cold. The kind that wraps around your bones so that you feel them sitting within your flesh” (1). The cold mimics a sexual assault, creeping underneath her skirt; it has teeth to bite, despite Imogen actually being the “monster” in the room; and it is a suffocating experience that wraps around her bones, penetrating violently deep. Because Cassidy sets up this juxtaposition on page one, readers are primed to read “cold” a certain way throughout the rest of the chapter.
When Imogen realizes Ferrin knows what she is, her “anger, searing and consuming before, [becomes] a cold, creeping fear” (6). Cold, for us, is the incarnation of encroaching male violence, of the institutional power that keeps Imogen sick and suffocated beneath her servant’s veil. The moment that Ferrin, a man of that societal fabric, learns that she is the same female monstrosity nailed above the door as a warning, Imogen’s anger affects us more profoundly because the language evokes the same extended meanings we’ve experienced in the beginning of the chapter. Imogen is out of her element, trapped in a world of white frost and cold marble with men who would kill her for what she is—and in this moment, every layer of that is wrapped up in that one phrase: “cold, creeping fear.”
With this meaning established at the very base level of language, Cassidy then gets to play with very cool subtleties within Imogen’s state of mind. When I was critique partnering, I was about to edit the following passage:
I’d be killed, or if I was lucky enough to flee these mountains and get to the sea, the water would wrap its cool, inviting fingers around my flesh and force me to become what I never hoped to be. Pitiless and murderous. A monster of the deep.
“Cool” was the word in question: I originally thought, “whoah, wrong connotation for the sea; it’s too close to ‘cold.’” But then I realized what it’s actually doing here:
I was this close to saying change cool, but it’s actually fucking perfect. A), it’s cool, not cold, and B), it precedes her internalizing the narrative this institution has made her believe about herself. So that coldness is still a violence, still in line with the meaning you’ve primed, but you’re mitigating it to be not exactly like the others—so you’re signaling, so fucking subtly, that it’s a lie. A miscreation.
Imogen calls herself murderous—a monster of the deep. She’s begun to really believe the patriarchal interpretation of her myth—that she is Medusa in need of slaying. To use language more in the vein of craft books, this is Imogen’s misbelief. Over the course of the novel, she’ll come to terms with her identity and unravel the narratives that have been veiling her, suffocating her, from the beginning of this chapter—but for now, she believes them to be true. And Cassidy has managed to signal that with a single freaking word: “cool.”
Once I recognized that pattern, I then pushed Cassidy to use the same kind of logic in her description of the main antagonist in this scene: Ferrin. Cassidy knew she wanted unsettling figurative language, but there are three main images she uses:
• Birds of prey: “He was like a vulture. Dark eyes studied me down the length of his hooked nose” (3).
• Rodents: “[I] kept my eyes on the room instead of his sniveling face” (3)
• Insects: “The [scent of him] had burrowed into my skull. I gnawed at the inside of my lip” (3); “His spindly hand crept towards mine on the table, but I jerked away before he touched me” (6).
All three of these images are disconcerting; they all are connected by the virtue of detritus feeders (those who feed their bellies with the death and decay and the misfortune of others); they all make sense for Ferrin’s character. However, there’s an interesting layer Cassidy could add if she sticks to one of them. Any guesses on which?
Sirens are often depicted as mermaids, but in Cassidy’s work, they are more in line with the original Ancient Greek myths: birds of prey. Winged and taloned femme fatales. Beautiful dangers. Most importantly, sirens feed on the upper echelon of the food chain. Not only do they consume human beings, but they specifically feed on men, who, in a patriarchal world, are the ultimate top tier of animal.
Vultures, by comparison, are an ugly kind of danger. They’re winged and taloned like sirens, but they don’t attack their prey; instead, they sit and wait and then swoop in when the timing is right and the threats are relatively minimal. Most importantly, they feed on the bottom layer of the food chain: road kill, meat rotting in the ditch, anything lying around.
By linking Ferrin and Imogen with bird language in a chapter where the first opening image is a wing nailed to the wall, Cassidy can echo the logic she imbued in “cool.” Imogen recognizes Ferrin as monstrous and so–because she believes the narrative of Fort Linum–she codes him in the language normally reserved for sirens. However, on some level, she recognizes they are not the same. He is a bottom-feeder; she is not.
Close Reading In the Veins of the Drowning’s Syntax
We’ve talked in-depth about the connotative meanings in this chapter, but we also should give its syntax some room. In the same way that dark, bold colors are associated with the ocean and its femininity—the greatest hidden symbol there being the blood of pact day, which comes “once a month” (1)—the syntax changes when Imogen recalls what the ocean looks like:
The creak of the opening door echoed around me, and the two king’s guards led the petitioners into the white stone space. They were like smudges on smooth, stark frost. Weary from their trek up the mountain and dirty from their lives in the port town of Stowand. The scent on the air changed as they made their way in. Fish and filth. But I never missed the other heady balm that was mixed between—the sea. I filled my lungs with it and let my gaze drift to the window, where the water winked and trembled miles below. I lost myself in the curling trail of rocks jutting I the dark waves. I dreamt of rest from the perpetual grey and cold. Of sun-warm paintings in bright spring hues. What it might feel like to have sand stuck to my toes. Saltwater against my skin. The burst of longing in my chest made me forget the danger that awaited me below its shimmering allure. Almost. I forced my eyes back to the onyx feathers above the door. They were my reminder. My warning. (2).
Leading up to this moment, the syntax was rather straight-forward. Every sentence had a subject and an object, a traditional—potentially stuffy—logic to them. Then, when a reminder of the sea breaks through the cold, mountainous marble room, the syntax becomes a bit more poetic. We get more alliteration—“fish and filth,” “water winked and trembled”—and we get an influx of light, frothy fragments that break up the monotony of article, subject, object, period.
Once Cassidy does that, fragments appear more frequently in the chapter. I, myself, have experienced that hazard of creative writing: doing something that you like (uncapping it, if you will) and then repeating it more as you go along. However, because Cassidy’s already coded Fort Linum in stuffy, overbearing language to suffocate Imogen, I took a keen eye to any time fragments appeared in the chapter. I suggested, for instance, that the following passages get revised into a more traditional sentence structure since they are part of the institutional constructs of Fort Linum (first sentence) and imbued with the patriarchal violence that keeps Imogen trapped and cold (second sentence):
Their wants were always the same—a request for a blood bond or severance. A plea for atonement. The right to sell their goods or permission to travel to another island (2).
[Ferrin’s] eyes roamed from my hair to my neck, down my body and back up. Like he’d never seen me before, like I was something to be possessed (5).
Once these are redirected into the more traditional syntax, we reserve the light, frothy stuff for any reference to the ocean—signaling at the sentence level, yet again, how separate these two spaces (mountain and ocean) are in meaning for Imogen.
At this point, you might think we’re in the weeds here. Is a reader picking up a YA fantasy really going to notice if these sentences are fragments or if they’re whole? Are they going to notice the difference between “cold” and “cool,” or “siren” and “vulture”?
Christina, you might ask, what if her favorite color is blue?
Every now and again, it’s worth pulling ourselves out of our rabbit holes to remember why the heck we’re doing all this in the first place.
Why do we read like this, and what if it’s all total horse shit?
Did you feel a sense of dread reading Cassidy’s chapter? I can say, confidently, that dread was not as present in the third draft of this chapter. Cassidy took toothy, biting language that aligned with her themes and drilled them into her sentences. She took her chapter that said something and made it work harder for her. She did this work. Intentionally. But even if she hadn’t, even if it was all an accidental collection of chips fallen on the table, you still felt it. I felt it.
Because the patterns were there to affect us.
It might have been as simple as, “hey, I kind of like this paragraph about the ocean a little more than the rest of it.” Did you know that it was because there were shorter, fragmented sentences? Maybe not. But they were still there, and you still felt them. Perhaps you liked them more because they were shorter, easier to read.
That, my friends, is enough.
That effect is enough to make this work worthwhile.
When I talked to Kalie about this blog post and gave her the first half of what I’d written, she said, “You’ve made me sound like my book is so much more thought out than it feels.” But again, that’s the beauty of working in an intent-less world, right? There’s power in our words beyond our control; if we can tap into that energy and shape it, redirect it where we want it to go, then it can have an even bigger impact than we originally thought.
Kalie Cassidy’s work does not happen in a vacuum. She is coming to her piece with a context surrounding it, a cultural zeitgeist that asks questions about monstrosity and femininity, about the role the ocean plays in our understanding of humanity and freedom, and about the lies we tell ourselves when everyone around us is telling us we’re less than. Her work has meaning because of that context and in spite of it, in its own right. But if she’s aware of it, she can tap into that current and ride it to its fullest potential. Like the currents of the ocean, there’s a push and pull in her words. If they work in harmony, it is truly magical.
Imogen believes herself to be part of Benvenuto Cellini’s telling of Perseus With the Head of Medusa (1545-1554); but that’s just where she is now. At that moment. Page one. And even though Imogen might think she’s the monster, Cassidy is reframing her, oh so subtly, to be the hero of her own tale.
Gershon, Livia. “Why a New Statue of Medusa Is So Controversial.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 13 Oct. 2020, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/controversial-metoo-medusa-statue-unveiled-180976048/.