I can't make myself understood in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.
- The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, p.4.
The African-American work that enchants me happens to be a sleek novella, published in the last decade. Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, with the outline of a spider-eyed woman on a quirky blackish purple cover, is the most impressionable book I have read, written by an African-American author.This book does not shed light on any particular race, or, focus on any particular time frame. It is light and fluffy, like a bird in flight. It is not of any particular time; and, yet it is of all times.
The adventures of Odysseus; the story of his delayed return to his kingdom; that of the advances of the suitors in his absence, and Penelope's continued refusal of them; that of the execution of the suitors and the twelve maids upon his return; and finally that of the reunion of the estranged brave king and his devoted and patient queen - none of these are unknown. Atwood's book does not change the events, new events do not spurt up. Only the story teller is different this time around.
Atwood's novella gives voice to the spirit of Penelope who, by the virtue of the epic tale of Odyssey, has become an "edifying legend", a benchmark of chastity and of the devotion of a wife to her husband. It was in the starting pages that "Don't follow my example" (italicized in the original) echoed through my body and a mind like a tornado. It was like hammering down all the sculptures of ideas previously crafted. It was a call for something unknown, something new.
Penelope, in the epic as well as in Atwood's tale, is a character who never had a choice of speech. Her version, her story-making, as she calls it in the novel, is only shared once she has entered the kingdom of the dead. The neglected voice of a woman is however not the only perspective revealed in the process of repeated intense readings.
Isn't Penelope's story spoken in Hades, a metaphor for all the voices that have been erased or silenced or never heard? Her voice becomes all the voices in all eras, in all continents, that have struggled to find a listener. Penelope's choice to speak when possibly no one can hear her seems to defeat the very purpose of telling a story. Atwood makes Penelope transcend this necessity to have a listener.
It is here that an otherwise re-telling of a myth becomes a myth itself. A myth of undoing all that the senses may tell as true. A myth of letting the thoughts flow freely into flight. Someone, somewhere, someday, just might hear it in the winds.