“Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung” Reclaims the Voices of Women from Myth

Nina MacLaughlin on how the same story has been repeating itself for 2,000 years


In Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, Nina MacLaughlin spins anew the tapestry of tales that makes up Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her retelling gives voice to more than 30 Ovidian women silenced by metamorphosis—often in the aftermath of the epic’s many scenes of sexual violence and rape. In MacLaughlin’s hands, their stories reverberate across the millennia with messages that ring as true today as they did in Ovid’s Rome. These tales are at once strange and heartbreakingly familiar.

There is Daphne, who describes how she transformed into a laurel tree to escape being raped by the god Apollo. There is Procne, who tells us how her husband raped her young sister, then brutally cut out her tongue. There is Hecuba, whose grief and rage at the loss of her children in martial violence is total and self-annihilating. There are lovers and hunters and mothers and growers and artists and sisters and friends, and they demand to be heard. 

The book compels us to face head-on how the violence of myth still runs rampant in our own world. And although transformation can be dehumanizing and silencing, it can also—if we listen to these women and others like them—be the force that delivers us from our brutal history.

Stephanie McCarter: At the start of your “Philomela and Procne,” Procne—who now in bird form leads tours of the scene of her sister’s rape—says:

Some of what you’ll hear will be challenging….Some people have complained…that I should have warned them, and that if they’d known how awful it was going to be, they never would’ve signed up.

This feels like an allusion to the “trigger warning” conversation from a few years back, which arose at Columbia University in response to Ovid’s epic. Was this in your mind at all? 

Nina MacLaughlin: Certainly, when I was writing, that was not conscious. I was aware of the idea that a lot of this stuff is easier not to know. It’s awful and it’s hard and it’s ugly, and it’s gross, and it’s easier just to let it wash over us and ignore it. But I wasn’t thinking of it in the trigger warning sense. 

But certainly, people have been talking about that since the book has come out. And as I’ve been doing readings, one I’ve been doing is Callisto, and there’s a violent rape in it. I’ve been giving a heads-up in advance that this is a violent one, playing into this idea of a trigger warning. 

Procne’s is the toughest one. It’s right in the center of the book. It’s the longest story in the book. It’s the most gruesome and graphically violent. And like a lot of these stories, it’s just easier not to know. So it wasn’t just about a trigger warning or #MeToo. It isn’t just this moment. It’s the same story repeating itself for 2,000 years—the powerful men, the violence, all the stuff we’re seeing right now. There’s nothing new about this moment.

SM: You and I had a brief Twitter exchange, in which I mentioned I didn’t sleep for two days after reading your Procne and Philomela. I have to ask you about the refrain you introduce into the story. Procne urges us about twenty times to “imagine” or “please imagine” the horrors she’s describing. Why did you want to engage our mind’s eye so vividly in this of all stories?

NM: It’s the idea, again, that if you’re going to look, you have to look. It becomes inescapable. Please imagine this. Put this in your mind. I was doing it in a way that was as clear as I could possibly be. These are the simple facts of what happened. You see this damp rocky floor? Imagine this, imagine. If you want to know, you’ve got to see it. And you’re on this tour—you’ve asked to know. It was my way of laying out the brutality in the clearest and most forceful way I could think of.

SM: The epic’s sexual violence has so often been glossed over, and that “please imagine” does not let us get away with that. It reminds me of Arachne, who weaves the tapestry with gods raping women on it, and you have to look at it.

NM: I think that’s the thing—let us show you because it’s easy when you’re reading through the Metamorphoses for your eyes to glaze over. Oh, another nymph gets chased, she’s gonna get raped and then she’s turned into a rock or stream or whatever. The stories are similar over and over again. So stepping into it, being specific—what does this feel like?—you can’t glaze over it.

SM: I want to turn to the theme of power. The book has a kind-of thesis that characters restate in various ways. Daphne, for instance, says, “When men feel small they are dangerous.” And Procne: “A man whose fear has made him angry is one of the most dangerous kinds of men.” How did this idea develop?

NM: The poet Mary Ruefle in her lecture “On Secrets” says, “Anger is an emotion that is produced by fear. There are no exceptions.” I really believe this. Thinking about these men and what they might lose—whether it’s a reputation or the woman they desire—this fear gets translated into anger and into violence a lot of the time. 

SM: Is that experience of fear and anger and violence unique to men or do your female characters also feel it? 

NM: Totally not unique to men. It’s human, that fear—and that fear getting distorted and twisted up and sort of outleted in ways we have limited control over. A lot of the time when we are afraid, these defense mechanisms take over. And instead of accessing the fear, there’s protective rage, violence, running away.

With the women, there’s tons of fear—how could there not be? In a lot of these stories, these women were looking backwards, reflecting. In some of these experiences, the raw reaction is total fear because they’re in great physical danger. And then it’s digested and over time becomes anger. Whereas for men, the fear that they’re not going to get what they want in the moment gets translated to anger.

SM: Yes, Ovid even says that Tereus, before he cuts out Philomela’s tongue, is angry but also afraid. And I like how this explains Juno, for example, in terms that aren’t misogynistic—as though she’s just a jealous wife. It’s a larger human nexus of emotion and fear driving her that leads to violence. 

NM: It was interesting writing Juno because she is responsible for a lot of acts of revenge and a lot of these transformations. And I was initially kind of thinking, “Man, what a jerk!” And it wasn’t until writing from her perspective that I got this real tenderness for her, this real sympathy, saying, “Yeah, that would be terrible. How do you outlet the anger?” 

SM: I’m curious about the order of the tales. You say in the author’s note that you didn’t follow Ovid’s order because you had your own “conversation” you wanted to establish between the stories. What were you trying to achieve with this conversation? 

It’s the same story repeating itself for 2,000 years—the powerful men, the violence.

NM: With the order, I was thinking about a lot of different things. I was thinking about length. There are some that are the way you and I would speak and there are some in more of a mythic register—kind of an epic, atemporal register. I wanted to keep those balanced.

There are a few that play off of each other, which was fun to tease out. Semele comes up in the Echo story that Juno tells, and then is in a much more experimental mode later on. 

One of the most thrilling moments for me was realizing that the Myrrha character, who is the one who seduces her dad and is in psychoanalysis in the book, is the granddaughter of Pygmalion. There’s a tiny little reference in the Myrrha piece and if you miss it, it’s fine. But if you see it, little strings light up between the stories. 

I’m not a musician, but I think about it as the way you would organize an album, balancing the really violent with less so, with tone, length, all of that.

SM: I was thinking about that when the Baucis followed Philomela and Procne. You had to have that or you couldn’t go on.

NM: Completely. The story of Baucis and Philemon makes me cry in the Metamorphoses. It makes me cry every time—I just think it’s so beautiful. That’s the tenderest, most loving piece that there is. You do need that after the Procne and Philomela story.

SM: In the Metamorphoses, women’s stories are usually told by other people. Your characters get to tell their own stories but there are some exceptions: Syrinx, Echo, Agave, the Ivory Girl. Why do other women tell some stories?

NM: Some of those are written from a “we” perspective. Those often felt the most powerful to write. It felt like there’s this kind of team and we’re telling the story and we’re all together. There was this feeling of power and allegiance. With Syrinx, for example, there’s a sadness that her voice gets taken away–she now has this kind of reed voice blowing through the wind. She doesn’t like that voice, so we’ll tell it for her.

A lot of these decisions weren’t exactly conscious. I was reading through the poem, and then I would just kind of listen, and different voices would present themselves to me. It definitely wasn’t a conscious “Okay, with Syrinx I’m going to have it be like a team of women, and they’re going to tell it this way.” It just kind of rose up in me.

SM: It really produces some beautiful effects. I’m thinking of the “Ivory Girl,” the statue woman made by Pygmalion who comes to life. That’s a “we” story. In the end, you write: “We teased her, but only because we wanted to make her know.” They were teasing her about her stretch marks—but it’s very friendly. I appreciated that because her whole manufacture is due to Pygmalion’s hatred of women, as you point out. Then, the last thing you see is her in this group of women—it’s wonderful.

NM: Exactly. There’s something loving and like, “We’re all around her.” She’s becoming realer and realer and we love her more and more.

SM: One of Ovid’s key themes is that power silences its victims. Your book builds on this theme—and corrects Ovid—in striking ways. For you, silencing is not a result of literal metamorphosis in the way it is for Ovid, but arises from our failure to listen to women’s voices correctly. When Jupiter ignores her refusal of him, Io says, “My words had no power.” The Sirens’ voices, on the other hand, are misconstrued: 

The men in ships they heard us sing and they could not resist the sound. And so they called us dangerous. When it’s they who lack control.

This made me think more broadly about what it means to listen to women without mansplaining and the like. 

When you hear something told a certain way from a certain perspective enough times, you start to believe it.

NM: It’s about the validity of a story and the validity of a perspective. When you hear something told a certain way from a certain perspective enough times, you start to believe it. Even if your experience is different, you think, “Oh, maybe”—I don’t want to be reductive but I think women do this more—“maybe I’m understanding this wrong. Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Am I wrong here?”—that sort of second guessing. I think that’s what happens when your story is not heard. Giving validity to these voices feels in itself like a powerful act, to say these perspectives are as valid as the gods’, as anyone else’s, and need to be heard. 

SM: On a related note, you were very aware of the history of euphemism in translation of the epic’s rapes. For instance, in Medusa’s narration of her rape by Neptune, she says:

The words for what happened next are not ‘seized and rifled.’ Not ‘deflowered.’ And not ‘attained her love.’ The word is force…..Rape. Rape. Rape. Rape. Rape. Let’s say what it was.

These are all actual published translations—by men—for what Ovid clearly describes as rape (vitiasse). How were you thinking through this issue of “translation” more broadly? 

NM: It was so interesting for me to think about. I was working with the Allen Mandelbaum translation, which does now and then use the word “rape.” For me, “attained her love” was always just like—are you joking?! Come on! Again, to go back to this idea—if you hear a thing a certain amount of times, you absorb it in a different way.  

Emily Wilson was talking about translating the Sirens in the Odyssey and quoted this line, “their song poured forth like honey from their lips.” Over and over all the translations by all these men have “lips” “lips” “lips.” In fact, in the Greek, it’s “mouth,” a much less sexy word. 

I really do believe that, even on a word level, it impacts how we experience these figures, how we experience these events, these violations, these transformations. 

SM: And this makes such a big difference in Medusa’s story because after Neptune rapes her, Minerva punishes her. To understand the full cruelty of what happens to her, you have to understand that she was raped. 

The epic gets a lot of attention for its sexual violence, but it’s not an epic about sexual violence—it’s about change. In the end, I think you’re optimistic about change. It’s not a despairing book. That’s not what I left with at all.  

NM: I’m so glad to hear that. It’s dark and heavy material, but I feel like there’s also a lot of joy behind it. And there’s a sense that change is ongoing. Whatever you are in right now, that’s not how it’s always going to be—whether it’s horror or the best ever. You are always changing. And there’s something really beautiful and terrifying and thrilling to me about that.

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