At the Brooklyn Book Festival, writers Carmen Maria Machado, Madeline Miller and Anjali Sachdeva discuss the modern myth and the female role therein
Question: What do you get when you take a deep contemporary dive into the female experience in ancient folklore?
Answer: Genetic engineering, Minotaur C-sections, gastric bypasses — among other things.
In a panel on “Modern Myth” at Sunday’s Brooklyn Book Festival, authors Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties), Madeline Miller (Circe) and Anjali Sachdeva (All the Names They Used for God) spoke with Bustle’s Senior Books Editor Cristina Arreola about what it means to reimagine folktales, fairytales and ancient myths in a contemporary sense.
Each participant gave a brief reading from her book before settling in for the moderated conversation.
“What is a modern myth?” Arreola asked the panelists, as a conversational entry point. The consensus seemed to be that all myths are modern by nature. Miller, whose newest book Circe imagines the story behind the Odyssey’s Aeaean witch, pointed out that “Ancient Greek myths are already modern,” as they are deeply concerned with human nature. Machado spoke about the morphing powers of myths. “They absorb the DNA of the people who tell them,” she said.
Another thing the three agreed upon: their stories, though they are mainly told through the female lens, are not to be pigeonholed as “feminist retellings” of classic mythology. Miller, referring to the Homeric canon, categorized epic literature as full of male protagonists and female cameos, and as Machado pointed out, one doesn’t have to go through “weird mental gymnastics” to find the often dystopian fates of women in these stories. These modern myths do not place a feminist hat on old tales, but instead delve deeper into them to focus in on the stories that are often skated over. “When you think more about the women’s role,” Sachdeva said, “the story changes.”
Towards the end of the session, Arreola opened up the floor for audience questions. A young woman who introduced herself as a teacher at City College asked Machado why her female protagonists are often unnamed. “I didn’t do that on purpose,” Machado said. She and Sachdeva both expressed a type of searching behind their creative process. “I never know the ending till I get there,” Sachdeva said. Machado added that she often learns more about her own feelings on an issue by the time she reaches the end of the story.
All three women also answered questions about the often graphic depictions of the female body in their stories — bodies that bleed and decompose and vomit and pop pimples. Machado said she wanted to communicate the “messiness of being alive.”
Miller, too, said that she sought out to expose messiness. “If you have the opportunity to write a Minotaur birth scene, as a writer you have to take it.”
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