Author Helen Morales’ Thoughts and Experiences in Antigone Rising
By Mercer Weaver
On August 27th, Lupercal will be hosting our next book club event to discuss Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myth by Helen Morales, who currently serves as the Argyropoulos Professor of Hellenic Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. Antigone Rising covers a wide range of topics, from reflections of the #MeToo movement to commentary on diet culture. Despite its recent release on April 14, Antigone Rising has already garnered much attention in the media, with one review from The Guardian describing Morales’ work as “a passionate, deeply felt account of the ways in which myths have reinforced the most harmful narratives of social control – or been unlocked to help lift them.”
In preparation for our own event, Morales took the time to answer a few questions for us on her life and work.
What inspired you to write Antigone Rising?
One inspiration was my students - they found things in the Greek and Roman myths, for example, affirmation for trans and non binary people, that made me take another look at the stories. Another was the increasing co-option of Greek and Roman antiquity by the far right - I wanted to explore how some of the ancient myths at least speak more readily to a progressive agenda. They are full of cautionary tales, extraordinary rebellions, and empathetic insights.
What has your experience in the classical field been like, and how has that experience shaped your work?
I am a first generation scholar, and was very lucky to be educated in England at a time when higher education was free. I had some brilliant and caring teachers at Cambridge University and my education there made me challenge the racism and other prejudices that I had been brought up with. It is one reason I am fiercely committed to the power of a good education to open minds and change lives. Without it (and without the model of an extraordinary aunt) I would likely be a narrow minded woman working in my family’s fish and chip shop. Being a classicist allows me to learn about how the world works and worked, how storytelling has enormous power, and how literature, art, and philosophy can make life better (and worse). There are many wonderful people in Classics: I have colleagues and students that I love and admire. It’s an enormous privilege to research and teach about the ancient world. It’s sometimes hard, of course. I went back to Cambridge as a faculty member and for a while was one of two women faculty members (out of twenty six). Academia was (and to an extent still is) a very male world. I spent a brief time at Arizona State University. When my department chair learned I was pregnant, he told me to book an elective cesarean over a weekend so that I need not take any time off for the birth (I had no idea at the time how brutal a demand that was). I have learned to value women’s colleges, women’s mentorship and friendship, and the many ways in which women and men can make changes for the better (hint: being outraged and making demands isn’t always the best way). Feminism has always shaped my work, but Antigone Rising is my most explicitly feminist book.
Do you think it’s important to make connections between the modern and ancient world?
Artists, novelists, and poets (as well as politicians) are making connections between the modern and ancient worlds all the time (in the book I look at Beyonce and Jay-Z’s APESHIT
video, Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, Spike Lee’s movie Chi-raq (a version of Lysistrata set in modern day Chicago), some fascinating statues in Mexico City, and a meaningful painting of Apollo in President Trump’s penthouse). I think all of these are an essential part of our dialogue with the ancient world. I also think it’s important to understand how ideas and stories from antiquity continue to underpin and authorize our own cultural narratives today, for better and for worse.
What do you hope the impact of your book will be?
I hope that readers will come away with a new appreciation of the magic of the ancient myths, and a fresh understanding of how they can be used to challenge misogyny, racism, lack of care for the environment, and how their insights be used to promote a more just and empathetic society. If that sounds rather ‘worthy’ then it may surprise you that I also hope that the book will prompt some readers to re-evaluate Ovid and not ‘cancel’ him because of his descriptions of rape. I hope will be surprising and engaging to readers across the political spectrum.
How does this work compare in terms of content to your other publications?
My publications vary widely. I have published some very ’traditional’ Classics scholarship, on ancient Greek novels, poetry and plays. In some ways, Antigone Rising picks up on, and develops, some of the themes in my Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. I have also published a book on Dolly Parton, her songs, and theme park Dollywood in Tennessee (Pilgrimage to Dollywood, Chicago University Press - the paperback is coming out in April). Both Pilgrimage to Dollywood and Antigone Rising are part memoir. In Antigone Rising, my daughter’s experience with school dress codes, my own experience of being a fat girl, and being of sexually assaulted, as well as the murder of our students a few years ago by a misogynist man in the so-called 'Isla Vista massacre' near the university where I work are all part of the story. It is a book constructed through careful academic research, but it’s born from rage. All of my books, I hope, show the value of seeing the complexity of a situation. That’s sometimes lost today in our Twitterfied culture.
Did you learn anything from writing Antigone Rising?
I learned so much: about alternative endings to the Antigone myth, about the #MeToo movement, about a female serial killer, about trans experiences. I was also struck anew by the many ways in which myths function to uphold power relations, and sometimes to subvert them. Most of all I learned that even when the political landscape seems unbearably bleak, and women’s rights are under threat, we shouldn’t give up hope.
The book club is scheduled for August 27th at 4P.M. EST, and a link to the event can be found here. We hope to see you there!
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.