"I Wanted to Make Her Real": David Vann Reimagines Medea in "Bright Air Black"

Erin Kodicek on March 15, 2017

MadeaMany modern-day writers have been re-imagining ancient myths lately--Neil Gaiman took on Norse Mythology, Colm Tóibín retells Clytemnestra's story in a book coming out in May, and this month David Vann iterates on the beguiling but monstrous Medea in the startling and hypnotically poetic novel, Bright Air Black. William Congreve coined the term, "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Had he been referring to Medea, he would have nailed it, but she's more than the sum of her (arguably heinous) actions, more than a cardboard cutout of jealous insanity. At least, David Vann's version of Medea is, and that makes her infinitely more interesting, and 'real.' Here, he talks about how he transformed one of Greek mythology's most unsympathetic characters.

We all want to go back, to reach an earlier time.  But 3,250 years is far away from us.  Medea was ancient even for the Ancient Greeks.  They were looking back 800 years to imagine her, and they made her a demigod, her grandfather the Sun.  They thought of her time as the beginning, of culture and literature, but in fact it was already the end of an even older time, the Bronze Age.  Medea is a leftover and threat from that earlier time, and she's also a barbarian from a foreign land in the Black Sea, an outsider.  The Greeks made her terrible, killing her own two sons in revenge on her cheating husband, Jason.  And they made her unreal, escaping in a fiery chariot that rose into the sky.  But I wanted to make her real. 

I wanted to know what it felt like to live 800 years before the Ancient Greeks, before their written history, and I wanted to do it without demigods or fiery chariots.  So I sailed my own small boat through the Greek islands and along the Turkish coast and visited the archaeological sites.  I learned that there could not be lemons or silk in my story.  I couldn't use a metaphor such as someone feeling chained to someone because chains weren't invented yet.  I learned that most of how we think and imagine the world didn't exist yet in her time.  Stars are still only a mystery, and Egypt is the enormous cultural influence, the Greeks not yet formed.

Bright Air Black opens with Medea sailing away from her father with Jason and the Argonauts on the ship Argo.  She's already killed her brother and stolen the Golden Fleece, and even this fleece has a realistic explanation, from the practice of using untanned hides to collect gold from rivers.  The Argo, too, is a ship that could have existed, but it would have been an Egyptian ship, not Greek.  I had been lucky years earlier to be the captain of an ancient Egyptian sailing ship, a reconstruction for a film that you may have seen on NOVA, titled Building Pharaoh's Ship.  I was there for the construction, designed the rigging, and sailed it in the Red Sea, recreating voyages to the Land of Punt 3,500 years ago during Hatshepsut's reign.  I realized that type of Egyptian ship is what the Argo most likely would have been, so I described my own experiences as I wrote this voyage of the Argonauts with Jason and Medea.

In Euripides' famous play, Medea, we have only the end of her story, when Jason leaves her for the king's daughter in Corinth.  We're missing this earlier voyage and also her struggles against another king in Jason's home, Iolcus.  And in modern plays I've seen, the focus is always on a woman who is a bit crazy and certainly angry, and her relationship with Jason is everything.  She always kills her children in revenge.  But I wanted a woman who is not crazy at all, and her relationship with Jason is not as important, and she doesn't want to kill her children.  I wanted a woman who sees how bad the world was and still is, run absurdly by men as cruel and stupid as Trump, a woman who kills kings and tries to create a place for her children.  Medea is more powerful if she's real.

I hope that readers will immerse themselves in Bright Air Black and find a world seen from an earlier mind, and that you'll find Medea sympathetic and reasonable.  She worships Hekate and also Nute, an earlier Egyptian goddess, but she senses the limits of the gods, and I hope you'll see that without flying chariots or centaurs the world then is even more strange, more evocative.  The unreal bits cheat us and keep us from reaching back.  We need to sail the boat she sailed and walk the landscape she walked in order to find her.


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