Thursday, March 13, 2014

Guest Post: The Voices of Lost Women by Laurel Corona

“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed into the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing.”

These words, spoken by Dinah to her yet unborn female descendants in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, have been like a mantra in my work as a historical novelist.The women of the past have been lost to us largely because the bards and historians did not consider our lives to be an important enough part of the narrative to be worth preserving. It’s not entirely men’s fault though, as Dinah points out, because had women been more zealous about passing down our stories, perhaps those chains of memory would not have been broken. But we didn’t, or perhaps we passively accepted the version of history where we have done little more than darn socks, weep over our men, cook dinner, and bear children, and thus there is nothing worth mentioning about our lives.

I don’t believe for a minute women’s lives have ever been that predictable or ordinary. Every town, every family, must have had its standouts, the ones who would not stay quiet, or perhaps even stay home. The multitude of names in Vicki Leon’s series Uppity Women, speaks to the number of women who spoke up, acted out, and made their mark.

Renowned fifteenth-century Jewish courtier, philosopher and financier Judah Abravanel--a real historical figure, and the basis for the character in my new novel, The Mapmaker’s Daughter--once wrote that he would never have been able to accomplish all that he had without the support of his wife. He never mentioned her name. Scholars researching his family’s history identify his sons by name and recount their lives, and add that he may have had a daughter, but if so, her name is unknown.

I find this highly motivating. As a novelist, I can go where scholars fear to tread, outside of the realm of documentable facts into the world of the imagination. Which is more truthful in the absence of facts--to imagine the stories of women or allow their stories to remain untold because there are no records? Obviously, I choose the former. My names for the Abravanel women may be wrong, and the lives I invented (after copious research) may not be correct in every detail, but they conform to a larger truth. Every woman who ever lived did so day in and day out, with experiences and feelings much like our own. We all get angry, jealous, hurt. We have our disappointments, joys, sorrows, moments of bliss. I write with confidence that I am telling some woman’s story quite accurately, and giving a voice to many more.

When my children were small, I read to them from storybooks every night, but I never shut the book and said, “Let me tell you a story about my own childhood instead.” Or my mother’s, or my grandmothers’s, although by that point since they had never done this either, there was not much to go on. If it is not too late in your own life, consider how you can keep the stories of the women in your family alive. While you do that, I will continue to give voice to women of the past, even if the truth has to be invented.

About The Mapmaker's Daughter: A sweeping story of 1492 Spain, exploring how what we know about the world shapes our map of life Valencia, 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issue an order expelling all Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity. Amalia Cresques, daughter of a Jewish mapmaker whose services were so valuable that his faith had been ignored, can no longer evade the throne. She must leave her beloved atlas, her house, her country, forever. As Amalia remembers her past, living as a converso, hiding her faith, she must decide whether to risk the wrath of the Inquisition or relinquish what''s left of her true life. A mesmerizing saga about faith, family and Jewish identity.

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