At Lit by the Bridge Thursday night, I got up to read a poem, looked out at the audience, and saw two little girls. My poem was too strident for their ears, and I hadn’t brought another one, so I sat down. My unshared poem, “Memo,” addresses world leaders in unflattering terms. The second stanza lays out my case for being angry with them. In the third stanza, I posit that it was Gaia, not Yahweh, who created the world. The fourth stanza lists the horrors men have perpetrated on women throughout the ages. Finally, in an eleven-line stanza, I endorse women for positions of leadership. I didn’t want to be the purveyor of bad news that those little girls were growing up in a world where tradition and circumstance might try to place limits on their aspirations because of gender.
Women could rule the world—probably more ably than men—if men did not fiercely guard their positions. Like Gaia, an author is free to create her own worlds. As a result, my female protagonists always live strong in their universes. I once wrote a short story called “Dina, the Warrior,” in which a little girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, fights Death for her brother’s life and wins. My own brother died when I was 2 ½. He lived only four days, but he and I were alive at the same time; I was excited over his birth and viewed him in his tiny casket. I bonded with him for life; hence, the story about Dina and Finn. In another short story, a librarian endures an appalling rape by proxy. Her silverware represents her body. The aged tormentor is a sophisticated oil man seated next to her at a library banquet table. In full view of those assembled, he fingers every piece of her silverware, except a teaspoon, as he tells her how the Hopi fertility god Kocapelli rapes his victims. If she creates a scene, the librarian will lose her job. The ordeal plays out. She detaches. She gets through it unscathed.
In the hills and valleys of my life, I’ve found wells of strength within myself I never dreamed I had. That’s why my female protagonists can fight Death, walk into dark alleys, kill snakes with a broom handle, pull people from fire, etc. I introduced Maria Pell, the protagonist in Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) and in The Untold Story of Edwina. Maria is a professor of Poetics at an Indiana university. Her partner of nine years, Mathieu Joubert, is from Togo. He teaches Black Studies. In Edwina, she suspects he’s unfaithful and is greatly distressed. Two years have passed when we meet her again in WTRRD. This time, she’s sure he’s unfaithful and although hurt, moves on. Does she leave him? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
The strained relationship between Maria and Mathieu is only a subplot. The main plot centers around seemingly insoluble murders of Creighton family members. Maria is drawn into the mystery when one of her friends is involved. In a small racist southern town, she learns to grow a thick skin as an outsider, and demonstrates courage as an amateur detective. Endowed with psychic abilities, Maria encountered a malevolent spirit in Edwina, and one might think she’d learned to be more cautious in her spirit wanderings. Two departed souls attach themselves to her in WTRRD. Undaunted, she enters their realm.
It’s rewarding to write strong women characters. Perhaps I was influenced by the measured derring-do of Nancy Drew in the Carolyn Keene series. Certainly, I pored over those books as a girl. I never saw myself as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or The Little Match Girl. Wonder Woman was more my style.