Making Medusas: interview at the Institute of Classical Studies blog

Making Medusas: interview at the Institute of Classical Studies blog

Appropriately enough for an interview like this, Liz Gloyn’s research interests in classical reception, my creative interests and even some themes in my academic work have snaked around each other since we got to know each other on Twitter talking about teaching practice several years ago…

Liz’s essay on Medusa appears in Making Monsters right next to my story ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, which revisits the myth through the theme of the ‘monstrous’ queer female gaze by imagining a woman who wants Medusa to see her, so it was a pleasure to talk with Liz about reinterpreting Medusa to tell a story of my own…

This interview originally appeared at the Institute of Classical Studies blog on 24 September 2018.

LG: What drew you to work with the story of Medusa?

CB: Initially, I didn’t want to work with Medusa at all – as soon as I saw the Making Monsters call, its interest in reworking female monsters from marginalised perspectives including queerness spoke to me, because queering up archetypes is A Thing I Do. I knew I wanted to explore what makes queer women want to identify so often with the witch or the monster or the sorceress. But Medusa’s the archetypal classical female monster, and I knew the editors would probably get more Medusa submissions than anything else, so couldn’t I find something more original than that? After weeks trying to think of female monsters in traditions I knew well enough to handle who’d also convey themes I wanted to work with, I gave in and accepted Medusa was who it was just going to have to be.

And Medusa brings the terror of her gaze, which I do know something about. So how could I start inverting the reader’s expectations enough to start telling a story of my own, and align it with themes of recognition and re-enactment that I like to work with? Let’s ask what kind of character would want to be looked on by Medusa, when that’s exactly what her myths forbid you to do… and that’s how I knew the story would start with Nysa, the protagonist, waiting for Medusa to turn her eyes on her. What’s made her long to be transformed like that? We’ll find out…

 LG: What did you find challenging about working within a story that has been told so many times before?

CB: The resonances of other ways the story has been told – because even when they worked against what I wanted to tell, I couldn’t pretend they weren’t already there. Every retelling of a myth, and every act of identification with a figure from myth, is crafted for a purpose – people select the aspects of the myth that best make their intervention for them, attach what they’re bringing from outside the myth, and what they do with the myth becomes part of the complex of associations that the hero or the monster drag behind them. Medusa has been reclaimed so often as a symbol of the monstrous feminine, or how women and their bodies terrify the patriarchy, that it was challenging just to devise a plot that wouldn’t have to go down the railroad of the sinister anti-patriarchal Goddess taking back her power. And I struggled with whether feminist reclamations of Medusa and her monstrousness had been so linked to the idea of taking back power for the cis female body that a Medusa story would end up with that kind of essentialism embedded in it.

The two resonances that constrained me most were, firstly, Perseus, and secondly, the idea of the Gorgons as the nearest thing Medusa has to an identity bigger than herself. Either Medusa had to meet her death at Perseus’ hands, or she’d have to escape her traditional fate and that would be the climax – divergence is the currency of retelling, and deviating from the myth that much would cost most of what the story had in its purse. Whatever Perseus stands for, Medusa has to embody its opposite, because that’s what the hero – if he is a hero – goes to slay. The Gorgons almost undermined the entire idea of writing about a protagonist who identifies with Medusa. Because in trans and feminist history, the Gorgons were an armed and dangerous group of anti-trans radical feminists who threatened to kill the trans sound engineer Sandy Stone in the mid-1970s if her all-women record label, Olivia Records, brought her on tour to Seattle. (Stone went on to write a foundational trans feminist essay that inspired another trans theorist, Susan Stryker, to write an essay and performance piece about her own affinity with Frankenstein’s Monster.) Knowing that history, how could I write a protagonist who wanted to become like Medusa, the most (in)famous of the Gorgons, without aligning her with violent hatred against trans women in the mind of a reader who’d remember that history when they saw the Gorgons’ name? That’s one reason why this story’s Medusa is a singular, feared woman, not one of a known species of monster, and it’s certainly one of the reasons that made me want the action to look ahead to future transformations of Medusa’s image, to tackle those and other resonances directly – while making sure the story had a trans woman in its world whose womanhood would be affirmed by the narrative itself, and spaces where other gender-variant people like her could exist.

LG: Medusa’s gaze is what makes her monstrous; how did you approach that in your retelling?

CB: Even before we get to the gaping wide mouth or the snakes-for-hair, let alone the translated naga tail that modern Medusas keep ending up with somehow, it’s because Medusa’s gaze is monstrous that we’re supposed to dread her. Nysa seeks out that monstrous gaze instead. She wants to have its terrible power turned on her. Because she’s had to learn that by the standards of her home environment – or what she perceives as the standards of her home environment – her own gaze of desire towards other women is recognised as a monstrous thing itself. What Nysa projects on to the myths she’s heard about Medusa reminds me of one of those secret chords of growing up queer: wanting to identify with the monster, because you’ve already been made to feel the deepest and most indescribable part of yourself is monstrous. And Nysa wants her outward form to reflect the monstrousness she’s certain that she carries inside, just like Medusa’s own form notoriously does …

…while in some ways, on her journey to find Medusa and become what she aspires to become through her encounter with her, she’s almost a counter-Perseus. Or at least, her own journey depends on three women (none of whom fit well around the heteronormative hearth) who all lend her their sight…

LG: How do you think your Medusa expands our sense of what she can be and what she can tell us?

CB: Integrating Medusa into a repertoire of themes that resonate with the kinds of queerness I’ve wanted to write about turned out to involve making sense of the feminisms that have reimagined her as much as it did making sense of her: until I understood what traditions I was inserting myself into, and what positions I wanted to take in relation to them, I didn’t know what ‘my’ Medusa could even have the possibility to be. Medusa isn’t a figure who’d ever been personally significant to me in the rolodex of mythological and historical archetypes I’d enjoyed transforming (whereas Athena, Artemis, Atalanta… I know, I know). My Medusa exists in the space of what we don’t know about her: where she might have come from, how she’s meant to look. And her meaning as a monster is already being constructed before the action even starts, by the people who have told stories about her around their hearths, and by the women who have whispered other stories as they recreate hearths of their own…

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Making Monsters: micro-interview with The Future Fire

Making Monsters: micro-interview with The Future Fire

Over on The Future Fire‘s Facebook page, I had a quick chat about ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, my story in the Making Monsters anthology (which is out now!):

FFN: What does “The Eyes Beyond the Hearth” mean to you?

CB: The desperation of being a young queer person without your own way to make in the world, afraid of your own desire and scared of your own sight, embracing the only identity you think is left to you. Also, switching from Dead Can Dance to ‘Monsters’ by Saara Aalto every time I was done writing for the night.

FFN: What is the idea, thought or fight that you’d like to pass to the next generation?

CB: Remember how easily we can have our pasts erased, and how hard we can fight for them not to be.

FFN: What are you working on next?

CB: I’m querying a queer fantasy novel about pop-culture magic and rewriting myths, set in London between 1991 and 2012, and my next short story might have something to do with a brave radical librarian searching for a mysterious giant cat…

Making Monsters is out and available to order online or from your local bookshop now.

30 questions about the Queer Magical Doorstop

30 questions about the Queer Magical Doorstop

At the beginning of May, Twitter user @KMWhite18 posted a month’s worth of questions about LGBT-themed works in progress, so writers could tell each other more about their books.

Months are important in the WIP I’ve started to call the Queer Magical Doorstop (more about it here, and it will be, very much, each of those three things). Characters have superstitions about midsummer. They project myths on to the calendar like Robert Graves did when he invented a symbolic year around his pseudo-Celtic cycle of folkloric trees. Two women who are each other’s reflections are doomed to confront each other like the oak-king and holly-king of old as the year turns, so that one can reign supreme. Or that’s what stories not written by queer women say has to happen.

Months, and rituals, are important in this book. So of course I didn’t start answering anything until the middle of May.

This is more or less what I told Twitter.

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#1: Introduce yourself!

(yes, I know it’s already the 19th of May): genderqueerish lesbian writer born in London, living in Hull these days, probably became an academic because I never found a blue police box.

(Actually, I do have one, which looks a bit like this; it just doesn’t go vworp vworp any more.)

#2: Pitch your WIP

I always want to say ‘lesbian JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL with a WICKED + THE DIVINE complex’ but then I’m never sure who reads , so I’ll say it here instead.

#3: Your main character in five objects

There are two MCs.

Meet Maria… and there’s a reason most of these are broken.

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And meet Anya, who’d have overthought these even more than me. (I’m still not sure I’ve got her the right trees.)

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#4: A line capturing your WIP’s atmosphere

‘The shadow falls across her eyes and mine, companion to hero, heir to king, double to double, or newcomer to star.’

(Or we could go with someone sounding off about the mythological resonance of Shakespear’s Sister.)

(That quote’s in Anya’s voice, though. Maria… does not sound like that. Though she can sound off about the mythological resonance of Shakespear’s Sister.)

#5: Does your WIP focus on the ‘queer experience’?

They’re lesbian magicians trying to make their mark on 20 years of queer history and fashion, and stop the government mastering magic before they do. So, a little bit.

#6: What inspired this WIP?

The short answer involves seeing this comic panel in 2015 and realising how close it came to a character I already wanted to write about, who’ll turn up in here.

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The long answer involves wanting to hurl a Robert Graves book across an airport departure lounge.

#7: Are the protagonists based on you?

It felt a bit like drawing blood every time I did give either of them a trait I had in common. So I hope not.

That said, protag #1 makes her name in a magical duo called Glenarvon, so hang as big a lampshade on that as you want.

#8: Why do you love this WIP?

Because I needed to read it, and to meet characters whose magic wasn’t just a metaphor for being queer, it intersected with the queer experiences they’d really have had.

#9: Do you consider your WIP to be #ownvoices?

Both protags are roughly in my corner of sexuality and gender expression, so yes.

(Though they belong to queer generations I don’t, I’m writing across a class difference with one of them, and across more differences with the supporting cast, so that’s a reserved yes, now I have more space.)

#10: A line where a character talks about their identity

‘”May King isn’t right, May Queen isn’t right,” said Caro, “where do you put me?”‘

(Magic works by re-enacting myth; here’s a non-binary magician, on verge of stardom, working out which ones they’ll reimagine…)

#11: What could tempt your protagonists to the dark side?

One of them’s already going to spend more time there than she’d ever have imagined at the start – it’s more a case of what could tempt her back

#12: Talk about your antagonists!

One siphons celebrity chaos. One is a paparazzi witch. One is a landed second son, taking back new magic for old power.

And then there’s Anja, the second: think Lexa x Ruby Rose, but Anya’s double, who’ll make Anya more powerful than she ever was alone.

(Or: come to the dark side. We have statement coats.)

#13: Who are your protagonists’ soulmates?

After those last couple of answers, that would probably be telling. Sorry.

(Some of these characters would start a magical war to stay together. Some of them might start one so they didn’t have to.)

#14: What are you most excited to write?

I’m querying agents now, so… whatever the next stage of revision is. If I’m lucky enough for that to happen.

#15: What’s your ideal cover?

I haven’t even dared think about it. I’d love to see a designer do something clever and queer with the main characters’ images and the doubles theme. Or pick out an object that can stand for their magic and use that.

#16: What scares you about this WIP?

That a story following these two women and the whole of London over 20 years wanted me to tell it, and now I’m responsible for getting it out as polished as it can be.

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(Is it time for some worried porgs? It’s always time for some worried porgs.)

#17: Post the protagonists’ theme songs!

Once they discover how to turn magic into performance, magicians literally have those. This’ll be Maria’s. She has a thunderstorm thing going on.

Anya’s training an up-and-coming team of celebrity magicians to harness mythic resonance using queer style. She directs from the background. But here’s her song.

And ‘Stay’ by Shakespear’s Sister might as well run through the whole book. You better hope and pray you make it safe back to your own world, etc.

#18: Weirdest thing you’ve researched

What took longest, for least reward, was almost certainly trying to work out what wine the it-girl heiress of postmodern occult London would probably have ordered in 1996.

(I could have said the exact projected running times for each bit of the London 2012 opening ceremony, if I hadn’t had them from a work thing years ago…)

#19: A line that shocked you

(I spent far too long over this one. ‘What line did you write that surprised you as you wrote it?’ was the prompt. So eventually I chose:)

‘Anja, among all the artisans, is whom you call on to guide a chisel or a pen to say one thing as it says something else.’

Which showed me she was basically a patron of queer-coding in her world’s mythology.

#20: Are you jealous of your MCs?

Yes in terms of the power they’ll have at their fingertips by the end, if I’m being honest. No in terms of what I put them through so they could get it.

#21: Has working on this WIP changed you?

Yes, actually. Somehow I’m much more able to express Queer 401-level stuff about how we want people to see us anyway, after powering through a whole book about how that could work as magic.

#22: How does your WIP’s setting handle queerphobia?

It’s wherever history put it. Next-generation magicians were at school under Section 28; AIDS devastated the 1980s occult fashion scene; one protagonist’s bi father was almost blackmailed out of his job at a defence laboratory, researching artefacts the arch-antagonist military family had acquired but didn’t understand.

#23: Post your characters’ pride flags!!

Difficult one. Neither MC grew up identifying with any in the 70s and 80s (which is partly what drives them to create a magic scene where they belong). One has a major choice about a flag to make near the very end of the book.

In the supporting cast, some magicians would have their Pride badges and pronouns down the sidebar of their Tumblrs by the end, others could be my age and still not be able to tell you if they’re bi or pan.

But this is a book where having a name for yourself is powerful.

#24: Post the scariest/darkest line

That depends if you want the terror one or two of these characters could turn moving-image magic into, or the terror that history would already perceive.

‘She’d be a husk of a replacement for her target; she could be one.’ That’ll do for the first kind.

For the second kind, this action will be unfolding across two decades where people were already learning to use live video for ends more frightening than fiction.

#25: Who should play the MCs in a movie?

Resemblance amplifies magic, so even the claims they stake about that could be acts of power.

(Though I did hold my breath when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was in the frame for the 13th Doctor, as that would have spookily triangulated with the vibe for someone in this book…)

#26: Queerest moment in your WIP?

Well, besides ‘most of it’, probably the one where a woman and her alter-ego lover, in each other’s outfits, are watching each other take each other’s roles to re-enact part of the myth of Joan of Arc…

#27: Advice for your protagonists

‘And then you said, “Bone to bone, blood to blood, joint to joint, so may they be mended.” You fixed it, because gods fixed the wound that way before.’

(One of them learns that from her new-age lesbian video witch lover. Then, the race is on.)

#28: Post some sexy lines 😉

Someone would ask, wouldn’t they?

‘Her touch releases me. Her sight consumes me. Her body ignites me and her reciprocity regenerates me.’ (I’m not going into which couple that’s about.)

#29: Is this WIP breaking ground?

It’s a saga of magical discovery, told over 20 years of London’s recent history, centred on queer women, the myths they rewrite and the families they find.

So, yes, it’s breaking ground.

#30: What’s your FAVOURITE line?

I want this to be one that encapsulates the whole book, like you could just tap it on a table and the entire story would spill out.

But it might be where the MC still living off her chaotic ’90s pop-culture-magic glory gets taken to an otherworld she’s always refused to believe in, spots its pulsing red castle walls, and asks its guardian, ‘You got an emerald one of these as well somewhere?’

#31: Wrap up!

(And that was probably the most I’d ever talked about this book on Twitter at once, so thank you to the month of May for that…)