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Making Medusas: Catherine Baker in conversation with Liz Gloyn

Written by Dr. Liz Gloyn and Dr. Catherine Baker |

Dr. Liz Gloyn (Royal Holloway) is one of the contributors to the recently-published anthology Making Monsters, with her essay ‘Caught in Medusa’s gaze: why does the ancient monster survive in the modern world?’ In this guest post Liz interviews Dr. Catherine Baker, who contributed a short story to the volume.

Catherine Baker is the author of the short story ‘The Eyes Beyond The Hearth’ in the Making Monsters anthology edited by Emma Bridges of the ICS and Djibril al-Ayad of Futurefire.net Publishing. I have been lucky enough to benefit from Catherine’s expertise in post-Cold War history, international relations and cultural studies as I have been working on my forthcoming monograph Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture; I was thrilled to learn that she had submitted a story to the volume and even more thrilled when it was accepted! Her version of Medusa takes an innovative and fresh perspective on the familiar story, so I caught up with her to find out more…

Arnold Böcklin, Medusa (c. 1878) Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Arnold Böcklin, Medusa (c. 1878) Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LG: What drew you to work with the story of Medusa?

CB: Initially, I didn’t want to work with Medusa at all – as soon as I saw the Making Monsters call, its interest in reworking female monsters from marginalised perspectives including queerness spoke to me, because queering up archetypes is A Thing I Do. I knew I wanted to explore what makes queer women want to identify so often with the witch or the monster or the sorceress. But Medusa’s the archetypal classical female monster, and I knew the editors would probably get more Medusa submissions than anything else, so couldn’t I find something more original than that? After weeks trying to think of female monsters in traditions I knew well enough to handle who’d also convey themes I wanted to work with, I gave in and accepted Medusa was who it was just going to have to be.

And Medusa brings the terror of her gaze, which I do know something about. So how could I start inverting the reader’s expectations enough to start telling a story of my own, and align it with themes of recognition and re-enactment that I like to work with? Let’s ask what kind of character would want to be looked on by Medusa, when that’s exactly what her myths forbid you to do… and that’s how I knew the story would start with Nysa, the protagonist, waiting for Medusa to turn her eyes on her. What’s made her long to be transformed like that? We’ll find out…

Roman mosaic from Piraeus depicting Medusa (2nd century AD). National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Roman mosaic from Piraeus depicting Medusa (2nd century AD). National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Image courtesy of Wikimed

LG: What did you find challenging about working within a story that has been told so many times before?

CB: The resonances of other ways the story has been told – because even when they worked against what I wanted to tell, I couldn’t pretend they weren’t already there. Every retelling of a myth, and every act of identification with a figure from myth, is crafted for a purpose – people select the aspects of the myth that best make their intervention for them, attach what they’re bringing from outside the myth, and what they do with the myth becomes part of the complex of associations that the hero or the monster drag behind them. Medusa has been reclaimed so often as a symbol of the monstrous feminine, or how women and their bodies terrify the patriarchy, that it was challenging just to devise a plot that wouldn’t have to go down the railroad of the sinister anti-patriarchal Goddess taking back her power. And I struggled with whether feminist reclamations of Medusa and her monstrousness had been so linked to the idea of taking back power for the cis female body that a Medusa story would end up with that kind of essentialism embedded in it.

The two resonances that constrained me most were, firstly, Perseus, and secondly, the idea of the Gorgons as the nearest thing Medusa has to an identity bigger than herself. Either Medusa had to meet her death at Perseus’ hands, or she’d have to escape her traditional fate and that would be the climax – divergence is the currency of retelling, and deviating from the myth that much would cost most of what the story had in its purse. Whatever Perseus stands for, Medusa has to embody its opposite, because that’s what the hero – if he is a hero – goes to slay. The Gorgons almost undermined the entire idea of writing about a protagonist who identifies with Medusa. Because in trans and feminist history, the Gorgons were an armed and dangerous group of anti-trans radical feminists who threatened to kill the trans sound engineer Sandy Stone in the mid-1970s if her all-women record label, Olivia Records, brought her on tour to Seattle. (Stone went on to write a foundational trans feminist essay that inspired another trans theorist, Susan Stryker, to write an essay and performance piece about her own affinity with Frankenstein’s Monster.) Knowing that history, how could I write a protagonist who wanted to become like Medusa, the most (in)famous of the Gorgons, without aligning her with violent hatred against trans women in the mind of a reader who’d remember that history when they saw the Gorgons’ name? That’s one reason why this story’s Medusa is a singular, feared woman, not one of a known species of monster, and it’s certainly one of the reasons that made me want the action to look ahead to future transformations of Medusa’s image, to tackle those and other resonances directly – while making sure the story had a trans woman in its world whose womanhood would be affirmed by the narrative itself, and spaces where other gender-variant people like her could exist.

LG: Medusa’s gaze is what makes her monstrous; how did you approach that in your retelling?

CB: Even before we get to the gaping wide mouth or the snakes-for-hair, let alone the translated naga tail that modern Medusas keep ending up with somehow, it’s because Medusa’s gaze is monstrous that we’re supposed to dread her. Nysa seeks out that monstrous gaze instead. She wants to have its terrible power turned on her. Because she’s had to learn that by the standards of her home environment – or what she perceives as the standards of her home environment – her own gaze of desire towards other women is recognised as a monstrous thing itself. What Nysa projects on to the myths she’s heard about Medusa reminds me of one of those secret chords of growing up queer: wanting to identify with the monster, because you’ve already been made to feel the deepest and most indescribable part of yourself is monstrous. And Nysa wants her outward form to reflect the monstrousness she’s certain that she carries inside, just like Medusa’s own form notoriously does …

…while in some ways, on her journey to find Medusa and become what she aspires to become through her encounter with her, she’s almost a counter-Perseus. Or at least, her own journey depends on three women (none of whom fit well around the heteronormative hearth) who all lend her their sight…

LG: How do you think your Medusa expands our sense of what she can be and what she can tell us?

CB: Integrating Medusa into a repertoire of themes that resonate with the kinds of queerness I’ve wanted to write about turned out to involve making sense of the feminisms that have reimagined her as much as it did making sense of her: until I understood what traditions I was inserting myself into, and what positions I wanted to take in relation to them, I didn’t know what ‘my’ Medusa could even have the possibility to be. Medusa isn’t a figure who’d ever been personally significant to me in the rolodex of mythological and historical archetypes I’d enjoyed transforming (whereas Athena, Artemis, Atalanta… I know, I know). My Medusa exists in the space of what we don’t know about her: where she might have come from, how she’s meant to look. And her meaning as a monster is already being constructed before the action even starts, by the people who have told stories about her around their hearths, and by the women who have whispered other stories as they recreate hearths of their own…

 


You can find out more about the anthology in which Catherine and Liz’s work features, and about the other contributing authors, by searching for #MakingMonsters on Twitter. Further details about the book are available via the publisher’s press page.