(Djelloul Marbrook and I share a getaway spot: the Starbucks in the Kingston mall strip. I go for a break from my writing to sip a frothy latte and read the paper. He sets up his laptop and gets to work. The other day, when we ran into each other by chance, I invited him to write a guest blog. Several days later, when we spotted each other again, he’d just hit the Send button to deliver this piece. Let me recommend both the novel he describes, Artemisia’s Wolf, whose heroine has been struck by lightning on my beloved Giant Ledges, and his poetry book, Brushstrokes and Glances. My thanks to Djelloul for his fearlessness in these dark times.)
Society celebrates the rebel in young men but will go to almost any length to quash it in girls. I think the reason is rooted in fear, the same fear of women that motivates many terrorists.
The power of women who rock the boat is like ball lightning. It can strike anywhere and it changes everything. Young men who don’t play by the rules, like Jesse James, become legends, but young women are burned at the stake or destroyed in other ways for lesser offenses. Fear of women underpins more of our conventions than we would like to think, defining boundaries, patriotism and such.
Contemplating such matters, I wrote Artemisia’s Wolf. I was born to a mother who never played by the rules, who insisted that truth was what she said it was, anything she said it was. I witnessed the havoc and the power in such behavior—and the price.
Young women aren’t supposed to have talent unless it’s for the entertainment of men. If they write, they aren’t supposed to paint. If they sing, they aren’t supposed to act. Men want them to stay in their pigeonholes, and they always appear to men as if they’re about to break out of their categories. Why, for example, should it have taken so long for us to know that the beautiful Hedy Lamarr was a scientist whose inventions contributed to our war effort?
We have all encountered at least one person in our lives who looks as if he or she is about to say the one thing we don’t want to hear, the one thing that will rock our boat, and this person is not going to be our new best friend. This is the person we will harass or flatter, the person we have to do something about.
I’ve thought for a long time that the mere appearance of gender equality in our media has contributed to fundamentalist terrorists’ fear and loathing of us. God forbid they should have deal with women as equals—or have to deal with them all. And I’ll bet it hardly matters to them that women haven’t achieved anything like equality in our society.
Artemisia Cavelli doesn’t set out to shake things up, but when lightning strikes she finds that the furniture and utensils of her mind are not where she put them. Nothing is where she put it, everything is rearranged. Her angle of vision is changed, as if she is floating three feet off the floor. Shadows become unreliable. She hears what people think when they speak, and she finds innocence in strange places and evil in our ordinary way of doing business.
Even as a teenager she understood why the sexual patois of men is so often about putting “it” to women, rattling them, shaking, as if men believe there is something that must be knocked out of women, as if men must “do” something to women. Can I find a young woman who will speak to me about such matters? I asked myself. At first, Artemisia was a poem in my second volume of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, but in time she began to speak, to dictate the terms of a story she had in mind.
Don’t stick me in a plot, she said. I’ll tell you what the deal is, she said. And so she did. The story of a woman who would be lightning’s sister, who would harness the reordering of her senses to the sheer task of not pretending that things are what society says they are, because in such a society nobody can be herself. Indeed nobody can be himself, because the oppression of women lessens men.
It took several years for us to hear each other. I would say, Sorry, I didn’t get that, and she would say, Yeah, you did. Again and again I would try to horse her into repeating herself, the way sales clerks sometimes do on a bad-hair day, and she would walk away, me fearing never again to hear or see her. Sometimes I would say that I wanted to tell her story, and she would say, And I‘m supposed to listen to it? Well, yeah. I don’t think so, she’d say.
And then one day I started hearing her. Every little word and nuance. I started getting her. What would happen, Artemisia, I asked, if I just let you talk? You might waste more of your life, she said, or you might have fun. But would I get a story out of it? No, you’d get me, I want to tell you how I stopped worrying about what people want to hear. What have I got to stop doing? You have to stop being the person you think somebody else will like.
This is some scary shit, Artemisia.
And that’s how our collaboration finally got underway, me being scared, just like I’ve always been, but without some of the pretense. Me taking the machismo out of my ears and hearing, really hearing, this lightning-crazed girl. See, I’m not Scheherazade, she said, I’m not worrying about you taking my head, I’m just telling you what it’s like to be me, because one day you wrote a poem about me and I heard you, I heard your call, and here I am.