On Thursday, Senior Lecturer in Classics Michael Nerdahl hosted a talk with writer Nina MacLaughlin at Searles Hall. In the auditorium, MacLaughlin discussed the topic of “Sex, Violence and Change” in Greek mythology.
At the center of the talk was MacLaughlin’s acclaimed 2019 book Wake, Siren, which reimagines and reinterprets Ovid’s Metamorphoses. MacLaughlin’s book focuses on the unheralded voices of Ovid’s epic—for example, retelling the story of Callisto, a figure raped by Zeus and punished by Hera, from the victim’s perspective.
In the Q&A-style talk, MacLaughlin discussed many aspects of mythology, highlighting how ingrained myth is to our culture and collective psyche.
“We know [myths] without knowing we know them,” MacLaughlin said during her talk. “In many ways, [we are] born with these stories in us.”
To MacLaughlin, the ingraining of these myths at an early age can also potentially raise problems. She believes that phrases such as “attained her love” and “had his way,” denoting rape and violence, are not as easily understood by younger Ovid readers—it is only later in life that one has a reckoning with the content.
“Those individual words have this huge power. And so the sirens take on this sexualized aspect because of the sort of choices that historically male translators have made,” MacLaughlin said. “These myths have been reinterpreted hundreds of times—it’s a long tradition of looking at these stories and telling them in new ways. And so I think that it was just [that] you absorb the stories and they kind of grow and evolve inside you. It’s sort of how I experienced it.”
MacLaughlin wishes to be clear, however. She is not, in writing her book, being “antagonistic or corrective” to Ovid. On the contrary, she says that prefers to think that she is “in dialogue” with the Roman poet—adding that it’s a “much more open and generous and curious way to go into it.” In response to a question on how Ovid would react to her retelling, she laughed
“[It would be a] funny and fun conversation,” she said.
MacLaughlin’s visit to Bowdoin was several months in the making. Earlier this year, Nerdahl had posted on social media about the “overwhelmingly powerful response” his students had after reading her book. MacLaughlin, who was tagged in the post, saw it and reached out, initiating discussions about a potential visit to campus.
Nerdahl, who included MacLaughlin’s book in the reading list for his class on Classical Mythology, took the opportunity of her visit to expand its role in the curriculum. He can still recall his reaction upon reading it for the first time.
“It challenges those traditional interpretations and adds to it … you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s completely new. I never would have thought of it that way. How valid is that?’” Nerdahl said. “And then sometimes, she doesn’t give a hoot about validity, right? She’s just completely challenging the entire way of looking at these myths. And that’s really awesome, too.”