The creators of history usually don’t chronicle it. During Women’s History Month, we at Book Club Babble wanted to talk to some writers who’ve made it a point to tell the stories of powerful women. We’ve put together a few questions and posed them to authors who have as much variety between them as the women they write about.
Today we’re interviewing Marc Graham. Marc’s latest title Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba follows his first novel, Of Ashes and Dust, which won the Paul Gillette Memorial Writing Contest and National Writers Association Manuscript Contest. Graham is an actor, speaker, story coach, shamanic practitioner, and whiskey aficionado. When not on stage, in a pub, or bound to his computer, he can be found traipsing about the foothills and mountains with his wife and their Greater Swiss Mountain Dog. Learn more here.
Amy M. Hawes: Why is it important to tell the stories of women who made history? What unique challenges does it present? For example, are their stories more difficult to uncover?
Marc Graham: I tend to agree with the old adage that history is written by the victors. While that may make for simpler educational standards, I find the stories of history’s losers much more fascinating. And, sadly, for most of recorded history women have been on the losing side.
This presents some interesting opportunities and challenges for a storyteller. One is simply the lack of material to work with. The tales and legends that have come down to us rarely mention women’s roles. If they do, those roles are generally related to how they aided or attempted to thwart the righteous pursuits of the men involved.
Another challenge is, where women’s stories survive, to disentangle them from the political, religious, or other prevalent viewpoint being presented, and to discover the power of a woman’s story in its own right. I’m an engineer by profession and an armchair psychologist by avocation, so I actually find this a very rewarding challenge. I get to take a popular story or legend, then reverse-engineer it to work out what might actually have happened, and what powers were at play to twist the ‘real’ story into the one that got passed down.
In the case of Song of Songs, I was able to peer backward through the lens of the Biblical legend of the Queen of Sheba (with its definite patriarchal, monotheist focus), un-distort the images, and arrive at the story of a powerful, intelligent, and determined woman and leader of her people.
AH: Women have the unique ability to bear children and have traditionally been charged with the raising of them. How does this fact create, shape, or thwart their desires to achieve dreams that expand beyond the scope of their families?
MG: I can only speak here as an interested observer, and I have to acknowledge my unconscious male bias. Further, my wife and I chose not to have children, so we haven’t had to face that particular set of challenges. It seems, however, that the capacity to dream big is a universal human characteristic, not governed by gender identity or social status. The ability to pursue and achieve those dreams, however, and the tools and methods used in that pursuit, are generally very different for women and among various cultural and economic groups.
Early in our social evolution, it was specifically their roles in bearing and raising children that led to the more domestic role of women, versus the wider-ranging pursuits of men (mainly for hunting and tribal defense). Over time, and with the nearly universal adoption of patriarchal/monotheist culture, what was once an evolutionary imperative became a societal norm of great power—men went out of the home to provide for the family, while women did so within the home.
But in modern Western society, where safe and competent childcare can easily be hired out or bartered, and where the next meal requires only a short hop to the grocery store, the traditional roles are becoming more and more irrelevant. More to the point, the growing power and global reach of the internet has greatly expanded the opportunities for both men and women to create their dream lives, either from home or a co-working space.
Now, if we’re talking about a balance between family care and life goals, I would stress the importance—no, the imperative that having a family be part of a couple’s shared life goals. Bringing children into the world and helping them grow into fully formed, healthy adults is too important a job to be done because that’s what family/society expects, or because it might fix your relationship, or because Oops!
(If you’re in one of those latter categories, fear not: You only need to work around your dream for another 18 years or less. Your dream will still be there when you’re ready to commit full-time, but you can certainly make progress in the meantime. And, full disclosure, I don’t have children to blame my slow progress on, but I still find excuses, so…)
Healing the ills of our society—and make no mistake, our challenge here is nothing short of that—will only be possible when we reach a critical mass of people becoming self-actualized through the active pursuit of their soul desires, not by trying to live up to some societal norm. To get there, it’s critical for children to see their parents and other adults around them using the so-called realistic, pragmatic things of life as tools toward the achievement of their dreams, rather than excuses not to pursue them.
As with planting a tree, the best time to do it was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.
AH: Obviously, each person is unique. But are there some (typically) feminine characteristics that your protagonist possessed, which gave them a unique ability to attain their goals?
MG: Now, this is where the ice gets a little thin, but I’m nothing if not honest. Or brave. Or foolish. Whatever.
In Song of Songs, I explore the experiences of two primary female characters, Makeda and Bilkis, along with one male point of view. The women are half-sisters, with a shared cultural background/upbringing, and who face similar challenges as they navigate their stories. Exactly how each does this is quite different, but both rely on distinctly feminine qualities to do so.
Speaking from an archetypal (and not at all sexist) viewpoint, where the masculine is about projecting strength, the feminine is about drawing in power. Where the masculine is a straight road that cuts through the landscape, the feminine is a river that flows with the natural terrain. The masculine directs, while the feminine influences.
Both Makeda and Bilkis demonstrate what I consider to be uniquely feminine character traits: resilience, power, subtlety, art. These are in (sometimes subtle) contrast with my male character’s approach to life with force-of-will, strength, forthrightness, and craft.
Historically, there has been a tendency to make a value distinction between masculine and feminine qualities. Perhaps the most egregious (and overlooked) instance of this is the ancient view of the masculine/right-hand vs. the feminine/left-hand, which from Latin gave us our words dexterous vs. sinister. (My left-handed wife really does not like that example, but there it is.) In my view, feminine and masculine traits are equally worthy and equally available for noble or destructive purposes. Strength may bring liberation or oppression. Subtlety may be cunning or scheming.
Makeda and Bilkis both make use of the feminine skill set. How each does so, and to what end, is what defines them.
AH: Does a heroine need to be a historical figure to inspire young women? Can a fictional character do the same?
MG: In my opinion, there is little difference between a historical figure and a fictional character. What’s important is that she be fully formed, capable of change, active and engaging, and cast in a story world that has challenges relatable to (if not precisely the same as) today’s.
Our ancestors used myth to teach young people how to identify who they were, how best to find their way within the tribe, and how to navigate the world about them. Story today has the power to do the same, and young women can draw inspiration whether the tale’s roots are grounded in historical reality or fed by the wellspring of imagination.
AH: Do you envision a day when the accomplishments of women and men are viewed equally? How can writers contribute to that end? What will the stories of the future look like?
MG: I do, and may it come soon.
It’s my belief that our world culture follows certain energetic cycles. We’re now transitioning out of a hierarchical, masculine-dominated cycle (Pisces) into one of equality and individual worth (Aquarius). Religions and institutions centered on a male deity with no need for a female companion (or, worse, who imposes his will on a passive, feminine Nature) are giving way to more traditional animist or humanist viewpoints that celebrate the power and creativity of both masculine and feminine energies. This transition may not be easy or graceful, but I believe it’s inevitable.
Today’s storytellers have a major role to play in this shift. In tribal societies, the shamans or medicine-keepers or wise-ones held the ancestral lore. They communed with the deities, shared experiences from Other-world, and tended to the health and wellbeing of the tribe, as a whole and individually. Storytellers are the shamans of modern culture.
A well-told story is not simply a tale that’s been made up. There is an underlying theme, a principle, a lesson to be shared. This is not to say it should be preachy (a very Piscean approach). Rather, it should be one of co-discovery, of author and reader, character and observer journeying together, experiencing a particular set of circumstances, and learning shared lessons.
This is the true power of Story: the ability to learn by proxy. Life is too short to learn All the Things in one go. It would be impossible (and a lot of hard work) to experience every condition, every failure, every tragedy in order to learn the priceless lessons they teach. Story enables us to do this vicariously.
When I was growing up, pretty much everyone I knew looked like me, had family incomes about like mine, shopped at the same stores, ate the same food, watched the same television shows, etc. Anyone outside of those very narrow parameters was an Other, a stranger to be treated with circumspection at best, fear or anger at worst.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to grow into a much larger world, to learn that differences are not to be feared, but to be celebrated. Another superpower of Story is the ability to transport the reader to a different world, to a culture or a way of experiencing life that is foreign to her own, but every bit as valuable. While there’s no substitute for experiencing different cultures and ways of being for oneself, a well-crafted, immersive story is the next best thing.
As we enter this new era, I’m excited to see stories told not just from male or female perspectives, but from all along the gender spectrum, from more diverse ethnicities, cultures, politico-religious viewpoints, and so on.
Look, we don’t all have to agree on everything—the world would be a rather boring and stagnant place if we did. But by sharing our stories, by opening our innermost thoughts to one another, we can learn to celebrate the beauty in the Other, and we can literally (and literarily) heal our world.
Thank you Marc Graham! Stay tuned for our next post when we talk to Judith Cromwell!