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Colloquium on Nina McLaughlin's "Wake, Siren"

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

By Caroline Murphy-Racette and Mercer Weaver

On July 15, Lupercal hosted a book discussion to talk about Nina MacLaughlin’s recent work, Wake, Siren. There were twenty participants from around the world, including the author herself. After completing an interactive Latin worksheet, participants took the time to discuss their thoughts and experiences reading the book and asked MacLaughlin questions about her work. We asked people to write down some of those reflections to share with you.

Melissa Marturano, co-leader of Lupercal’s NYC chapter said:

When I was reading Wake, Siren I was intrigued that (yet again) someone who is outside the field of ancient studies—or at least has been away from the field for years—can see Ovid more clearly for what he was more than many Ovidian scholars: an artist living in a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal culture who was not sympathetic to women and their experiences of sexualized violence. This is a minority position within Ovidian studies where many see him as proto-feminist to an extent. But whatever one’s take on Ovid’s sympathies, his ambiguity—to be generous—about violence against women had material effects on Roman women and continue to have material effects on us today. Wake, Siren made me think about these issues in a new light. Moreover, I used the Galatea and Scylla story in my classes this year on Ovid’s Polyphemus episode to discuss the “nice-guy” phenomenon, or when a man expects sex from a woman because of (feigned) generosity and compassion towards her, this sexual entitlement being on of the cornerstones of ancient and contemporary misogyny. My students enjoyed seeing what they felt about the poem confirmed in a story that translated the experience of Galatea to a more modern sensibility. More and more, I see the future of our field in reception and it is great to know more resources and pieces of art are being created to facilitate conversations about the transhistorical relationship between Rome and ourselves.

Caroline Murphy-Racette, an undergraduate at the University of Oxford:

I translated a handful of stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in high school and, from childhood, was familiar with some of the more well-known myths. I read the Apollo and Daphne story and didn’t think twice about the girl’s dendritic entrapment or the god’s attempt at rape. It was the same for many other stories--I just attributed their uncomfortable and upsetting bits to the fact that they were mythological tales. So why did I have such a difficult time reading Wake, Siren?

Nina MacLaughlin retells these stories from the female perspective, which forces readers to confront the material head-on. Considering these myths from the victims’ viewpoints, they quickly transform from being quirky aetiological tales to distressing accounts of abuse and oppression. It’s because of this violence that the participants in the book chat agreed that the work is inappropriate for middle- and high-school students. I recognize that Wake, Siren is much more graphic than Ovid’s renderings of the myths--the content was disturbing to me, and would be much more so to a younger student. But rape is rape, no matter how ambiguously or artistically it is portrayed; why is it considered ‘cultured’ for high-schoolers to translate such stories, yet taboo for them to discuss what’s actually going on? Isn’t brushing over the narrative’s portrayal of sexual violence just feeding the problem?

To analyze mythological behavior only in relation to modern ethical standards would result in a diminished understanding of the stories and the culture in which they were composed. Adaptations such as MacLaughlin’s, however, challenge us to rethink the way Classical texts, namely the Metamorphoses, are taught. Her book serves as a reminder that an inclusive, comprehensive study of such myths should not--and cannot--rely solely on whitewashed renderings of the matter.

Abigail Lopez Ortiz, leader of the Mexico City chapter:

Nina MacLaughlin was bold enough to reinterpret Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a contemporary setting, which may not be to everyone’s taste. At first, I thought it could be a downer, but I was easily captured by her prose. I love it when people dare to retell the classics; I find it really necessary.

Some might be struck by the use of modern slang, but what’s truly outrageous is how contemporary those voices sound, the amount of hate and violence we still have to endure.  

Is it punishing to be a woman? It is. It will continue to be. (Tiresias)

The author offers a wide variety of female characters. She turns women in myth from patients to agents, it is they who share their own experiences without concealing the most atrocious parts.

The words for what happened next are not “seized and rifled”. Not “deflowered”. And not “attained her love”. The word is force. The word is violence. Violation. Force. Chaos […] Rape. Let’s say what it was. (Medusa)

I am so glad Nina chose to name things, for it made every word more relatable. As much as I enjoyed reading it, many times I had to put down the book and take a deep breath because I was moved to tears. I could really experience fear, fury, disgust. Some stories left me feeling helpless and devastated. It was hard to get to the end, but I’m really glad I read it.

I hope for a day when a fury as white-hot as mine can be held by another, accepted, understood, maybe even shared. (Medusa)

Mercer Weaver, an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University:

My first introduction to translating real Latin poetry was the story of Daphne and Apollo. At the age of 16, in my junior year of high school, my class spent the better part of the semester discussing the grammar and picking apart literary devices. Most importantly, we had fun with it. Between translations, we made games out of making fun of Apollo and drawing the worst stick-figure trees known to the world. Sure, on a conceptual level, we understood that this was a story about rape, about a woman’s desperation to get away from a man hell-bent on getting what he wants and ultimately violating her anyway. However, all of that was never addressed on any significant level; the story was boiled down to the origins of the laurel wreath and the arrogance of the gods.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized how watered down these translations are. The subject of sexual violence, or any type of violence, against women is always skirted around, with the atrocities depicted in a far more PG way. Realizing this, however, did not prepare me for Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren. I was warned there would be graphic depictions of violence, and yet that warning did not prepare me for having to put the book down, story after story, to process the intense rollercoaster of each chapter. Even stories such as Iphis or Baucis and Philemon filled me with so much emotion that I needed more time to process than it took to read.

That is why Wake, Siren hit me so hard. MacLaughlin’s writing encompasses the horrors against women that Ovid has to offer, and, while it is one thing to know of a story’s violence, it is another to hear it in the words of the sufferer. 

Jacqui Bloomberg, Lupercal Boston chapter leader:

I absolutely devoured Wake, Siren. I have read Ovid's Metamorphoses many times, but I have never been as touched and moved as I was when reading Nina's creative and thoughtful response to it. Hearing the voices of the women, through so many different time periods and genres of writing opened up a new world for me. I have already recommended the book to students, even though I worry that some of the accounts might be very difficult to read. Reading Ovid can be difficult as well, but I have asked them to read that. I just taught a summer course of reading Ovid's Heroides in translation, and I used Wake, Siren as an example of ways to hear voices we don't normally hear. I have asked students to write in the voices of mythological and historical women, and now I have an excellent example to share.

Lupercal's next book club will discuss Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths by Helen Morales, which can be purchased here. While the date and time are still to be determined, we hope you can join us for this next read. We are thrilled to announce that the author will be joining us at the end of our meeting for a Q&A in English, so come with questions!

Caroline Murphy-Racette is entering her third year studying Classics at the University of Oxford. While she is primarily a Hellenist, her first love was Latin, which she has studied for seven years. Having attended one of the first Lupercal meetings in 2018, Caroline is delighted to be joining the team as a summer intern. In her free time, Caroline enjoys fencing, kayaking, playing (and watching!) rugby, and making music.

Mercer Weaver is a rising sophomore in college double majoring in Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Women’s Studies. In addition to Latin and the ancient world, their interests include reading and crafting. They are currently in the Lupercal Summer Internship program and hope to continue participating in Lupercal events in the future.

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