Monday, June 3, 2013

Wordcraft -- Atwood's reimagined myth

“A duck, a demigoddess, and a dozen housemaids walk into a bar in Hades and --”

Wait, this is where I’m required to give the standard disclaimer for jokes -- “tell me if you’ve heard this before.” But I guarantee you’ve never heard the Odyssey the way prolific Canadian author Margaret Atwood recounted her version for a packed audience in Dallas last Friday night. Atwood’s appearance as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts and Letters Live series had to be moved from the museum to a larger venue in the sanctuary of the century-old First Presbyterian Church to accommodate demand for tickets.  

The DMA’s current special exhibit is “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece.“ And considering that Atwood’s novella, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, is a re-envisioning of an ancient myth, it was understandable that the DMA introduced her talk as a discussion of how myths had influenced her work. Atwood tweaked that hope with a free-ranging discussion of everything from comic book superhero Captain Marvel, to her high school’s “only home economics opera” -- starring the three Fates ( make that the three Fabrics, Orlon, Nylon, and Dacron), to her love-hate relationship with technology.

The story behind The Penelopiad is the story of the Trojan War and the subsequent wanderings of the Greek warrior Odysseus. This time, it’s told from the viewpoint of Odysseus’ wife Penelope who “waited twenty years, didn’t ask a lot of questions when he got back, and did a lot of home ec,” in Atwood’s summary of the classic.

Penelope makes up for her silence in The Penelopiad, written about her life after death in the underworld; the twelve housemaids her husband hanged for consorting with his wife’s suitors during his absence; and Penelope’s detestation for Helen of Troy, fathered by the god Zeus when he took the form of a swan. (Some believe Penelope’s name means “duck,” in honor of birds who rescued her from drowning as an infant. Even after death, Helen, at least in Atwood’s telling, will refer to Penelope condescendingly as “little duck.”)

“I came to write this book because my publisher was doing a mythology series,” Atwood explained. “What should I do? Then I remembered the maids in the Odyssey.” The housemaids, understandably annoyed at being strung up, confront Penelope, chorus-like, after they all enter Hades.

To give some idea of Atwood’s quips, I’ll turn the microphone over to her.

Q. What were your childhood mythological influences? A. “The Royal Ontario Museum’s Greek and Roman collection, and its mummies. Mostly the mummies. There’s just something fascinating to children about preserved dead people. More so than pictures of naked men. Even naked men doing athletic things.”

Q. What’s your favorite quotation from a classical author? A. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. (Translation expurgated.)

Q. What’s your favorite book? A. “That’s a question I don’t answer. But it’s always the one I’m about to write next.”

Q. How do you feel about technology for writers? A. “Only do it if you’re comfortable with it. People can usually tell if you hate it. Blogging is like having your own radio show. And Twitter is like having a party. But only plugging your own books is boring and then nobody’s going to invite you to another party.”

Q. How would you teach students to write? A. “Jokes are good. A joke is probably the shortest form of story a person can tell.”

So with Atwood’s permission, I’ll end my joke from the beginning of this blog. “The duck says to the demigoddess, who’s your daddy? And the demigoddess says, Zeus if I know. Stop! say the housemaids. We’re at the end of our rope!”

For more about Atwood and her writing, see

(Next Monday, Wordcraft returns to last week’s discussion of crime scenes and appropriate poisons and explosives.)

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