Georgia Poplett talks to author and visual artist, Valentine Carter, about their new book, These Great Athenians, the materiality of texts, breaking the genre of mythology as a non-binary writer, the sense of belonging that resides in myths, writing as a form of weaving and much more.
At Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, along a gallery lined by taxidermied birds, stands a decapitated statue. The plaque above her reads:
“The ‘Headless Lady’ was part of an Athenian grave monument, about 350-320 BC, possibly of Pentelic Marble. There should [sic] also have been a standing figure facing the seated woman and perhaps clasping her hand, and at the back there would have been at least one other figure. The living and the dead were not distinguished on such grave reliefs.…
Many great collections of classical sculpture were formed in England in the eighteenth century as a result of the Grand Tour. This sculpture however was not mentioned in any inventory of Felbrigg until 1863 and is not mentioned in any publication on the house. The ‘Headless Lady’ was identified in 1978. How she reached England from Athens is not known.”
The ‘how’ of it, to me, seems fairly clear: most likely (and as with many antiquities), she was graverobbed, carried off, sold, bought, and finally found herself here, in another mausoleum of a different nature. Perhaps, had I not been midway through Valentine Carter’s prismatic These Great Athenians (Nobrow Press’ Imprint 27) at the time of stumbling upon the Headless Lady, I would not have been so struck by her.
But here she was, head lost to time immemorial at the hands of some other marble pirate in the name of classicism. Her fragmentation fits into a long cultural tradition of the appropriation of Hellenistic womanhood, be it material, societal, or even – perhaps especially – literary. This tradition is the spool at the centre of Carter’s captivating and experimental debut.
These Great Athenians comprises sixteen voices, ranging from the fabled to the less familiar. There are the household names of Penelope, Circe, Athena; there is also Alcmene, Epicaste, and Maera. In lucid, lyrical verse, Carter expertly choreographs these characters, reaching through the millennia to conjure the women vividly to life. The text is not a straight retelling of Homer’s epics, nor does ‘reimagining’ quite cover it; the full title is Retold Passages for Seldom Heard Voices, indicating a process of curation in contrast to many other Greek mythos revisionist narratives of recent years.
The hard copy itself is visually bewitching. Illustrated by Avalon Nuovo, peach-colour fabric twists itself into delicate petals on a cover outlined by gold foil. Form, I will come to understand, is integral to Carter’s work. The opening Penelope stanzas, for example, wind back and forth across the page, emulating the movement of weaving and subdivided into the anatomy of a loom – Yarn, Weft, Warp, Fastness, Tram, Twist, Sett, and Figure. All are strung along a single syntactic thread: “Loss is always unfinished anyway”, which hangs, loose-end-like, from the preceding segment (22-34). Each speaker is assigned a different coloured sprayed edge, which fizzles at the long side of the page: violet for the women of Hades, blood-red for the goddess of war and wisdom, thunderous grey for the sea monster Scylla. And each section is framed by isolated stanzas printed on yellow full-colour spreads, which offer a poem hidden in plain sight when combined (beginning with “& how gymnastic love’s time is” and ending “we can re-tell ourselves again”) (39, 209). For Carter, writing is not just intertwined with the material – it is material. These Great Athenians walks a constant line between the physical and metaphysical, making it an astonishingly wide-ranging read, which nevertheless remains pinioned to the experiences of the women at its centre.
Carter calls me from their house by the sea, full of light and a far cry from sombre-skied London. Even as a fuzzy thumbnail in the corner of my screen, they are a wonderfully open presence. We discuss gradually de-cocooning after the last 18 months; I admit how terrible I’ve become at in-person eye contact. “It’s funny how you just get used to Zoom,” they agree. “Sometimes I don’t turn my camera on, I can’t be bothered to tidy my bookshelves, I’m not even in the nicest room in the house…”
The subject of living quarters lets me segue into my favourite line from the Preface: “There is a home in these myths for people who aren’t living comfortably in our hyper heteronormative world” (12). It’s a line which resonates particularly with me as a queer femme woman, and I’m curious if this nesting instinct – this need for belonging, fictitious or otherwise – was the jumping-off point that led to These Great Athenians.
“It feels like it’s the culmination of loads of interests and loads of work,” Carter begins. “I’ve always really loved the Greek myths since I was a kid, and I think, to be honest, my interest in them is not really intellectual or political. It’s that sense of worldbuilding that I’m really interested in.” For them, it’s the comics and superheroes treatment for the cornerstones of the Western canon. “I think Athena is brilliant and also slightly troubled, so she’s like a kind of angsty Daredevil. I think I carried that sentiment secretly with me…I used to just rampage around the countryside like Pegasus on my bike. They’re such great stories for kids.”
They are. My formative impressions of the Hellenistic divine originated from Disney’s 1998 Hercules: The Animated Series, in which the gods all glisten like fresh varnish and everyone speaks in a broad American drawl. “Oh my God, yeah!” Carter laughs. “I think it’s interesting that there are lots of classicists who are publishing these kinds of novels. I do feel a bit like, ‘Ooh dear, I haven’t studied the Classics!’ When I was a kid, I didn’t realise that…you could go to really fancy universities and posh schools and learn the language. I just didn’t realise that.” In many ways, however, this is the allure of These Great Athenians: it does not try, or pretend, to conform to the linear prose iterations of more mainstream texts. As Carter puts it, “I’m outside of that.”
The contemporary genre of feminist myth retelling is still dominated by such giants as Margaret Atwood, Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, and Natalie Haynes (to name just a few). The emphasis placed on the state of ‘woman’ within these texts is also still largely autobiographical, and overwhelmingly cishet. “Jeanette Winterson did Atlas a while ago,” Carter points out. But the majority of authors writing within this genre are, as they say, “white, straight, heterosexual women.” As a nonbinary writer seeking to break into a genre traditionally geared up both towards and by cis women, they do have “a slight apprehension.” “It’s not that I’m assuming I’ll get trolled. I don’t mind that I might be a sort of face for queer myth-retelling – because that would be a privilege. I think it’s important that people who are different can see themselves in things; in books, in TV programmes, in films. You know, even read things in newspapers about them that are not derogatory. I think it feels like a privilege to be part of that possibility.”
Myth retelling is an especially powerful space to do so: millennia of oral lore and transcription have created a palimpsest out of much of the Homeric canon. The source texts do not exist – perhaps never existed – in physical form, and their facsimiles have been historically modelled along androcentric and heteronormative axes, totally excluding those who fall outside of its margins. Perhaps this comparatively blank canvas, then, is what makes these stories such fertile ground for queer literary expression.
“We have to call back to [myth], to that idea of ‘we know who we are because we know where we’ve come from’,” Carter says. “For lots of minority groups, knowing your own history is really, really important, both politically and on a personal level.” I’m reminded of a remark they made earlier about the project being “many years in the writing” – within this context, not all of it their own. “There’s a lot of calling back and referencing the space that myths traditionally happen in, and then updating it, and one of the ways of doing that is to locate it in a physical space. And for me, I think one of the points of the book is to just open out that space as a safe space. Because safe spaces are really important, but they’re also really contentious now. The end scene [happens] in a toilet – I mean, it’s in a toilet, that’s quite funny I think, because myths are this canonical thing. So there’s an irreverence about [putting it in a toilet] that really appeals to me.”
Perhaps this finale is the most striking image of all Carter’s conjurings: the entire chorus of characters gathered in a women’s toilet, before re-emerging into their brutal worlds. It is, to my mind, a subtle and deliberate nod to an often-quoted excerpt from Atwood’s Alias Grace:
“You may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last. And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is … And finally beds are what we sleep in, and where we dream, and often where we die.” (247)
On multiple levels, the public bathroom is, to the twenty-first century woman, the nineteenth-century woman’s bed. “As a masculine female, public women’s toilets are quite a fraught space,” Carter says, pointing to Jack Halberstam’s work on the bathroom gender binary in Female Masculinity. “It’s one of the few spaces where I’ve been harassed or confronted. So for me, it was about reclaiming that as a safe space. And, of course, there’s a lot of – let’s be generous and call it ‘debate’ – about safe spaces for women, and public toilets are often held up as an example, which is just phenomenally ironic because it’s a rite of passage in the butch lesbian journey that you go to a public toilet and someone has a go at you.”
What also struck me about These Great Athenians is its Bechdel test adherence. “I [didn’t] want to mention Odysseus particularly,” Carter tells me. “But it’s impossible. These women’s lives are so enmeshed with his. Even Athena doesn’t do anything without him. She’s Athena, and it was just impossible. Calypso gets told she’s got to give Odysseus back; she’s like, ‘Why? I’m a god.’ Doesn’t matter, she’s a woman.” We both laugh at the contingency of godliness.
Odysseus may not be entirely omissible, so interwoven is he into the fabric of the epic; but he is certainly not part of the limelight. “I remember reading The Silence of the Girls. And then I turned a page, and Achilles had a voice. I wouldn’t have done that. And I can understand why [Pat Barker] did it, and it’s her book, and it’s brilliant, and it’s her right to write what she wants of course, and the reason I wouldn’t have done that is because I’m me. And I think that’s the difference – because that’s my life experience, I make different decisions. I make different decisions as a human being every day, therefore, as a writer, I make different decisions.”
This writerly idiosyncrasy is, arguably, a large part of what sets These Great Athenians apart. On first reading, I was hit by its sheer range – there’s streams of consciousness, verse poetry, transcribed speech – which reminded me of a comment George Saunders once made about the process of developing the innovative form of Lincoln in the Bardo: “It’s your stupid book, you can do whatever you like.” Carter is a visual artist, verse poet, and live performer, and this comes out most clearly in the structural makeup of the text. Like Saunders’ work, there’s a constant interplay between the book as physical artefact and textual content. How did they develop the various narrative strands into this eclectic form? “I’m not a genre writer at all,” Carter says, ruefully. “I think I forgot that [the form] was radical. I just forgot and cracked on with it, really. It was very character-led…I wrote Penelope first.”
Carter is currently a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, but the book started life as their MA thesis, which they took to workshops for peer review. They wanted “to test people’s tolerance for the slight changes and the repetition, because I was really into the idea of her redoing the shroud – because that’s so devious, and I found Penelope quite hard to relate to, but that was the way in for me. So, then I was like: OK, she’s a weaver, Calypso’s a weaver, and Circe’s a weaver. But they can’t have the same form because Calypso and Circe are witches, and that’s different. They’re not really subject to the same rules and conventions that mortal women are.”
As for myself, I was most taken by the stichomythic, lightning-wit transcripts from the underworld. In sections (fittingly, in the context of our Headless Lady) named for birds – Crow, Crake, Night-Heron, Storm-Petrel – cliques of dead women take a turn about eternity. As Megara wanders past the narrative eye with Epicaste (you may know her by another name), the narrator breaks the fourth wall to implore us to listen in:
“there she goes / oh yeah / she’s got a nerve / who / Leda / how come / I mean / what? / a swan / I thought it was Zeus / it was, as a swan / these gods / I know but Megara you wouldn’t / if it was Zeus / Megara! …
I feel sorry for her / do you? / everyone knows / do they? / there are pictures of it everywhere / are there / yes even in the future / I mean / we’ve all got something we’re not proud of / I don’t / you did marry Oedipus / your son” (124)
The effect is one of gossiping dowagers. And this is how, for all its gravitas, These Great Athenians wears its brilliance lightly. What made the pages fly through my hands was how frankly funny the narrative voice is; even through the darker themes of femicide and sexual violence, it never loses this waggish quality. This glittering wryness concentrates into a diamond-like grit when you consider the chilling prevalence of these same issues today.
Melantho – one of the twelve women hanged by Telemachus, and positioned by Carter here as the scarlet letter source of Penelope’s betrayal – is possibly the most “maligned” character in the book. “She is the most affected by that system in terms of being subject to that incredible, constant threat of violence,” Carter says, adding, “[There’s] this idea that she’s this awful, awful woman, but she’s not. She’s just trying to survive.” They wanted to give Melantho and Athena the same form, because “Athena is also incredibly oppressed. I mean, she can do anything – but she can’t. She can only do what she’s allowed to do.” I’m reminded of Calypso’s divinity, sold out by her own pesky womanhood.
Perhaps the most ambitious structure in These Great Athenians belongs to Scylla. Uncontainable on paper, she sprawls across 33 pages, inhabiting not only her own consciousness but those of the sailors she devours: “what is this a serpent a six-headed eyeless corkscrew of death-snake” (93). (Plotting a fictitious dinner party, Carter says of Scylla: “She’s my favourite. I’d tell her the wrong time so she came early.”) In Carter’s imagining, Scylla is the corporeal manifestation of female fury, who has broken out – both literally and figuratively – of the parameters of Hellenistic womanhood. She is spitting rage and seafoam and mariner’s death. She is the Headless Lady’s missing head.
All of the Great Athenians are traditionally ascribed female identities. But this shouldn’t limit how we conceptualise them now, says Carter. “I just love that [Scylla]’s no one and everyone all at the same time. More than the others, somehow.” Her monstrous metamorphosis pushes the boundaries of what we understand as womanhood to its brink: she is, literally, a cavernous all-consuming void, in line with what Barbara Creed characterised as the archaic mother, a non-human and genderless entity.
Carter sees similarities between Scylla’s metamorphosing nature and Athena. In fact, they largely think of Athena in nonbinary terms, something which they didn’t believe to be unusual until further down the line when cover discussions came up. “I’d just read something about women’s fiction that had slightly worried me. I kind of went, ‘I don’t want it to have pink on it, I don’t want it to have naked female form shapes or anything,’ because as a nonbinary person, that always puts me off, because I am nonbinary, I would really like this book to appeal to everyone who identifies as a woman, no matter what – you know, trans women who are just really starting out on that journey, right at the beginning and haven’t told anybody, I want them to find a home in this book. Or, you know, a woman that’s been married to the same man for forty years and had eight children who are all boys. I want everyone to find a home in there but for nobody to feel excluded. A bit of an ask for a cover, but I feel like we got there!” The final cover portrays this brand of disembodied femininity beautifully. “[Avalon] was really interested in the idea of weaving, but because looms are sort of two dimensional, it was difficult. So now you’ve got the cover which is the fabric all tied up to look like flowers.”
On the subject of this material culture, I’m interested in what the influence of textiles within the book – and within a broader Homeric context more generally – mean to Carter. During my research, I stumbled upon a definition of textile which I hadn’t come across before, as a term within the nudist community to mean someone who is a non-nudist. It felt oddly apt: we’re all born naked, and the rest is textile. And we can apply this same meaning to stories, which – much like material fabric – we can wrap ourselves up in, evoking once again that sense of homeliness.
Writing, Carter explains, is also a form of textile for them. “It’s everything: it’s a metaphor, it’s a practice. It was really the driver for the whole thing. I think stories are threads, and three of the characters are weavers. [So] reweaving the lines, on a technical level as a poet, is really interesting. I’m really into the idea that there isn’t an original myth, and that all versions of the myth contribute. You know, the Lévi-Strauss idea that a myth is a constellation, and all of the elements of that myth are connected and joined up together.” Carter references Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenology theory of orientation, adding: “Things move. I wouldn’t have described myself as nonbinary ten years ago, because it wasn’t a thing. But I was nonbinary ten years ago. I haven’t changed. Everything sort of moved around me. And I think the same thing applies to these stories, in that you are weaving a new story.”
So what does the process of weaving together a new story look like?
“I would say to anyone that wants to [publish a book] – because I’ve done it once, right? I’m an expert – most of the battle is getting to understand what your own process is and how it works. A lot of my process, at the beginning, involves sitting around, just letting my brain go through stuff. Then they coalesce in some way. I write a load of Post-it notes with things on them, where I’ve got all the ideas down, and then I can put them in a loose structure. And then I just start writing. I write quite quickly, and I think that’s partly because I’ve got a terrible memory. I think partly I write so that I can remember things.”
Writing to connect, writing to remember. We come back to the title of this piece: of knowing who we are because we know where we’ve come from; of writing as not only textile, but archive. “I have to write it in Times New Roman. That’s my only foible, really. I just have to let my brain get on with it, without interfering too much, because I’m not helpful. Not helpful at all,” Carter quips. “With this book, I did a draft, and I sent it to Harriet [Birkinshaw, the publisher at Nobrow]. It was the same sort of order, but its holding container was different. And I was just like, ‘I don’t like it,’ so I just completely ripped it up.”
I wonder if that wasn’t slightly heart-wrenching to do. Carter laughs. “Oh, I was terrified! But actually, she just went, ‘I’m not sure this is working for you.’ And she’d identified the same problems.” In this way it became a very collaborative editorial process, which was interesting for Carter, as “being read has always felt like part of my process. I always write with the intention of it being read by somebody who I don’t know. Like this sort of, not mythical, but constructed reader that I imagine I’m writing for. And it was interesting to have this new part of the process with somebody else. I think with my new book, it will be a slightly different process because I’ve had that experience.”
Their latest project is a combination of memoir and martial art, drawing on their interest in jujutsu and, like These Great Athenians, borrowing from a number of different forms. “The Pillow Book is a good example of it. One section might be a list, and one might be more of a diary. I was explaining it to someone, and I very jokingly said, ‘Oh, it’s my autobiography.’ And then I was like, ‘Why did I say that?’ Because actually, it’s about climate change. And it spans a long time, from Darwin to some point in the future. I just got really interested in climate change – how can you write without acknowledging it, really. It’s still got a sort of mythical sense, but what I’m really interested in is the more indigenous myths, and how they think about nature in a completely different way to Western thought.”
How and why we should engage with climate change on a literary level is particularly powerful coming from minority voices, bringing ideas of kinship to the fore. As Carter goes on, “You know, it’s patriarchal capitalism that has got us to this point. And that’s been of very little benefit to me. I don’t get any joy out of that at all, I just get oppressed and excluded. I am really interested in how much clearer you can see something from the outside. And I think, to bring us back to These Great Athenians, excluded voices – whether you’re excluded because of the colour of your skin, or who you fall in love with, or how you feel about your body – have a clearer perspective than somebody who is embroiled in what’s going on. That’s another reason why it’s really important that everybody who is outside can be heard, because it might be that one of those perspectives is the one perspective that saves the world. And it does need saving, doesn’t it?”
Valentine Carter’s These Great Athenians is published by Nobrow’s Imprint 27 and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
In honour of Georgia’s interview and the publication of Valentine’s These Great Athenians, we have two copies of this excellent text to give away. To win a copy like and retweet our tweet of the interview on Twitter, and follow Imprint 27 and Lucy Writers. On Instagram, like our post, follow both Lucy Writers and Imprint 27, and tag one friend in the comments section. The giveaway will close on Friday 8th October, 12am (BST).
Georgia Poplett would like to express her deepest thanks to Kate McQuaid and the team at Imprint 27 for an advance copy, and of course, to Valentine Carter for their time, grace, wit and warmth. Lucy Writers would like to express their thanks to Georgia, Valentine and Kate for this excellent interview. Feature image courtesy of Nobrow Press.