Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

[GUEST POST] “Women Must Be As Strong As Elephants”: Maggie, Sally, and The Indigo Pheasant by Daniel A. Rabuzzi

© Kyle Cassidy, all rights reserved

Daniel A. Rabuzzi studied folklore and mythology in college and graduate school, and keeps one foot firmly in the Other Realm.

ChiZine Publications published his first novel, The Choir Boats: Volume One of Longing for Yount, in 2009, and in 2012 brought out the sequel and series conclusion, The Indigo Pheasant: Volume Two of Longing for Yount.

Daniel’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in Sybil’s Garage, Shimmer, ChiZine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Abyss & Apex, Goblin Fruit, Mannequin Envy, Bull Spec, Kaleidotrope, and Scheherezade’s Bequest. He has presented at Arisia, Readercon, Lunacon, and the Toronto Speculative Fiction Colloquium. He has also had twenty scholarly and professional articles published on subjects ranging from fairy tale to finance.

A former banker, Daniel earned his doctorate in 18th-century history, with a focus on family, gender and commerce in northern Europe. He is now an executive at a national workforce development organization in New York City, where he lives with his wife and soulmate, the artist Deborah A. Mills (who illustrated and provided cover art for both Daniel’s novels), along with the requisite two cats.

Find him online at www.danielarabuzzi.com.


Thank you John for inviting me to guest-post and for asking me to talk about the characters in my Longing for Yount novels (The Choir Boats and The Indigo Pheasant, published by ChiZine/CZP in 2009 and 2012 respectively).

The women-above all, Maggie and Sally-play the most important parts in the novels. Not that the men are inconsequential (James Kidlington, and Jambres the Cretched Man, to name two, are prime movers in the plot as well), but ultimately the action hinges on decisions made by the women. The women best understand the goal, and then mobilize the resources to meet the challenge.

Not that the women are simply the “good guys.” How dull that would be, and how disappointing a return to Victorian stereotypes of women as the sole carriers of virtue, grace and mercy! Oh no, I am interested in characters with strength and agency, even if the ends they pursue are ignoble. In all of Narnia, no one interests me more than Jadis, the White Witch. The matriarchs of Estcarp in the Witch-World can be ruthless, and the bene gesserit of the Dune universe repulse me with their eugenics program, but one must acknowledge their power (and they behave no worse than the men). I am grateful that Gregory Maguire gave us Elphaba’s back-story in Wicked. And so on.

Of course, women are far more prominent as protagonists (and antagonists) in speculative fiction than they were when I started reading the genre in the 1960s. As one feminist critic wrote in 1982: “As a child, I loved fairy tales. But I was never satisfied with their endings. What, I wondered, did the characters do when ‘they all lived happily ever after?’ …I dimly sensed that most adult women spent their lives in the nondelineated Happily Ever After, rather than the exciting time-space of story. That fairy-tale ending…contributes to the misery most traditional women are forced to endure.” (1)

By 2012, we have plenty of women propelling the action in story, increasingly taking over from venal, cowardly, and/or incompetent men; the phrase “kick-ass heroine” has become a cliché. Ripley (a revelation in 1979!), Xenia, Buffy, Lara Croft, Niobe in The Matrix, the “new” Starbuck (three cheers for Katee Sackhoff), Alice in Resident Evil, Selene in the Underworld movies, Katniss Everdeen… the list is long, and growing. (2)

As the tale of the McDoons and their search for Yount spooled out, I found first Sally and then Maggie coming to the fore. They competed with one another, and with many of the other characters. Their motives were hardly pure, and they were willing to use varied means to secure their ends. They could be brusque, cold, condescending, deceitful. In short, they were human. At least that is how they seem to me, though I am not sure I succeeded in wholly getting inside their minds. (“There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character,” as James Wood puts it.) (3)

As an author, I do not start by saying, “okay, for this character I will need a pinch of this, a dash of that, a soupcon of this other thing.” There’s nothing that conscious, let alone deliberate, about my process. As I have written elsewhere, I am an “imagist,” i.e., scenes, dialogue, characters come to me scattered and all a-hoo. I do not know the ingredients, much less the recipe. It is only now, well after the cassoulet has been made, that I am becoming aware of the influences that helped shape my Maggie and my Sally (and my Mrs. Sedgewick, and the Cook, and her niece, and Mei-Hua, and Afsana, and Fraulein Reimer, and on through the cast, including of course the Goddess).

With the luxury of hindsight, I realize that Sally and Maggie each in different ways and measures are kin with the impetuous Lyra Silvertongue of His Dark Materials, with Tenar and Tehanu of Earthsea, and with the headstrong Galadriel we meet in The Silmarillion. I see hints of Jane Eyre in them, of the Dashwood sisters in Sense & Sensibility, and Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. I detect emulation of Beatrice’s sharp wit from Much Ado About Nothing, and the astute judgment of Portia from The Merchant of Venice.

In Sally may be echoes of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Mariana (by her “lonely moated grange”), of Fuchsia in her room at Gormenghast, of Effi Briest, and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. In Maggie one finds perhaps a bit of Zahrah the Wind-Seeker, of the heroines in novels by Nalo Hopkinson, Aminatta Forna, Buchi Emecheta, of the voices that flow through the poetry of Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey.

I also see partial reflections of the characters created and portrayed on stage and in their music by Stevie Nicks, Missy Elliott, Kate Bush, Janelle Monae, Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, Patti LaBelle, Loreena McKennitt, Queen Latifah.

What I strove to depict in The Choir Boats and The Indigo Pheasant were women seeking escape from the bonds placed upon them. Sally and Maggie are tested by adversaries concrete and abstract, by foes external and internal. As Maggie’s mother tells her repeatedly, “Women must be as strong as elephants.” One of these two women will not meet the test; I wanted defeat embedded in the story, as part of the price for not embalming my characters in The Land of Happily Ever After.

You will have to read the novels to find out who fails and why, and how the other succeeds and the effect her success has on the rest of the characters.

———————————————————————–

(1) Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi, The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework (NY: Seabury Press, 1982), page 1. The author happens to be my mother.

(2) Who else would readers of Grasping for the Wind recommend? A few more favorites of mine: Katherine in Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword; Katsa in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling; Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series; and various heroines in books by Libba Bray and by Cherie Priest. Also, how about a nod to their grandmothers in the pulps: Jirel of Joiry and Red Sonja?

(3) Wood, How Fiction Works (NY: Picador, 2008), pg. 95. He goes on: “The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard” (pg. 96). So utterly true! I fear I may never be practised enough to liberate my characters completely from that jelly.

Comments are closed.