I just watched Nikita Gill perform some of her work, Maidens, Myths and Monsters and her novel in prose The Girl and the Goddess at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The piece she performed (beautifully) was about Hera, the jealous and fiery-tempered goddess who cursed many and caused suffering to countless gods and mortals. Yet we see her at the start of her life. Consumed by her own father, raped by her own brother. Gill’s words are lyrical, lamenting the fear and distrust Hera had for her mother who would not save her from her father. Vowing that she wouldn’t be that kind of mother. That her children would be put first, in a way she was not. This shift in perspective means I felt pity for her, and it was only when I looked her up later I realised that she was one of the most hated goddesses of mythology.
This is what Nikita Gill wanted to do. She loved the myths but wanted to hear the tales of the monsters, the women, the goddesses. All of those who were largely tools for revenge or jealousy or heroism in a male narrative. What made them monstrous, how did their sacrifices affect them, where did their jealous fire come from?
There have been many retellings of myths. From Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy – sometimes the myth is plainly there, other times it is woven into a story you almost couldn’t see unless you were looking for it. Hidden in the fabric of the story. What they give us is something rare – the power to realise something from another point of view.
Last week, something wonderful happened. In a country that felt like it was sliding into dictatorship despite its proud history of democracy, a vile and selfish leader was shown that you can’t buy and bluster your way out of everything. I can’t begin to imagine that anyone watching events unfold last week can have felt anything but jubilation when the result was finally called. But there were millions who were watching with trepidation, scared of what was ahead.
I just read a very interesting essay (thanks to Grace Louise for sharing it) about giving grace to people when their values aren’t your own. I’m choosing an extreme example to test this out because it seems more important. I can understand why someone wouldn’t like marmite or mushrooms. I can’t understand why someone would vote for Trump or get upset when he didn’t win.
As the old adage goes, no-one thinks they’re a villain. Most people love those near to them and their actions are a consequence of them trying to look out for those they care about. It’s incredibly hard, when an administration has brought in hateful policies that have denied women access to abortion and has removed immigrant people from their parents, but I’m trying to understand how, in a time of such scary crisis, you might put ideas about the economy (even if they’re misguided) above care of people you’ve never met, people you’re scared of because you think they threaten your way of life.
Because we have to understand. In these days of ever-increasing polarisation, where some extreme left-leaning people will also send abusive messages to those we don’t agree with, just as vehemently as the right, the danger is that we’ll just end up at either side of a wall, shouting at each other. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the power of community and connection. And in its largest sense, that means talking to and finding ways to work with people whose perspective you might find impossible to appreciate.
At the end of her powerful performance of her work, Gill talked about the power of writing. She said that writers, especially poets, are “witnesses to emotional history.” She talked about the pandemic, how it will be remembered in numbers – length of lockdowns, number of cases, number of deaths. But the most important thing for us, as a species, to take from it, was the emotional experience. She said, “we have to document the emotional history of mankind. Otherwise it will be forgotten. Feelings are so powerful and vulnerability is so powerful it deserves to be remembered.”
If we can look back at the myths of years long past and start to see them with new eyes, surely we can look at the state of our world and try to understand it emotionally, how it looks to other people, even those people we might find hateful. And the most enchanting and non-threatening way to do that, as always, is through art. Let’s hope it can guide a path through and illuminate the shared humanity in us, and not the skewed perspectives which make us look so ugly and monstrous to each other.
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