Witches (Part 2)

Among the litany of ridonculous nonsense I had to put up with this week was a post about Shakespeare — specifically, about the ruination of Shakespeare by the (previously-by-me) respected Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival’s organizers are now commissioning translations of Shakespeare’s plays — that’s right, “translations” of plays written in an English that is, in the scope of the language, already rather modern — into contemporary diction.

This is harmful and stupid.

The organizers claim that audiences feel disconnected from Shakespeare’s language, that it’s too difficult to understand. The article I linked above makes the point, which I agree with, that usually the problem is that actors and directors don’t really understand the language well enough themselves to be putting it on their stage in the first place. I can’t even count the number of unfortunate productions I’ve sat through (at least until intermission) that were filled with people sawing the air with their hands and shouting dramatically at each other by the third scene, how many shows where the actors paused their sentences in the wrong place, not paying attention even to the punctuation in the script, much less to the depth of the meaning or the subtext.

This is similar to the problem I have with so many interpretations of Shakespeare which take his plays out of his time. Sometimes a director will set the play in a different time and place, but this only works when the themes and conflicts relevant to Shakespeare’s play are also actually relevant to the new time and place. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet had its flaws, but feuding families transported from Renaissance Italy to the gang-infested streets of 1990s Los Angeles county — that worked. Setting Twelfth Night in the 1980s — yes, the narcissism of Duke Orsino’s character writ large against a soundtrack that included David Bowie, Morissey, and New Wave, men and women in gender-ambiguous costumes and make-up — lovely.

But I once saw a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing set amongst the football players and cheerleaders of a college campus in the 1950s. Clever and interesting in some ways — and serious props go to the very young and ambitious person who wrote it, for certain — but that play is about a young woman’s virtue being a function of her virginity, and the disastrous break-up of her imminent marriage when her fiancé believed her to have been “not a maid.” How much of an issue was premarital sex among football players and cheerleaders in 1950s American colleges? Probably not a big enough deal for a girl to apparently die over it at the altar.

I get the argument, really I do. “Young audiences can’t relate to Shakespeare’s time so let’s set it in one they can recognize.” On the surface that might seem to get more people into the theater, but the result of this well-intentioned mountain coming to Mohammed is that those audiences might become less able, in the future, to understand and relate to Shakespeare as it truly is. As a high school English teacher, one who tries every year to help fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds appreciate the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s language and his historical context and the work’s inherent magic, I have to lament the decisions that take the Bard out of his moment. Sometimes, when not executed thoughtfully or well, these choices do my students a disservice and make my job harder.

Look, I’m not a complete snob. I know Shakespeare is challenging. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t still be reading and producing and watching it four hundred years later. The language is all he left us, and it is glorious. Take that away, and you’re left with Cliff’s Notes and one more trudge forward in the dumbing down of our culture.

If you really have a burning desire to contemporize Shakespare, hire authors to write novels.


The third witch, in a dress I would gladly wear -- and maybe that tells you something about my perspective -- posing on the carved cedar chest I inherited from my grandparents which sits in my library.

The third witch, in a dress I would gladly wear — and maybe that tells you something about my perspective — posing on the carved cedar chest I inherited from my grandparents which sits in my library.


Rebecca Reisert’s The Third Witch tells the story of a young woman who falls in with a couple of weird sisters scavenging a battlefield, a woman whose post-traumatic stress and ensuing ferocity inspire her to avenge the heinous wrongs wreaked upon her family. This domestic-drama-turned-medieval-thriller is an imaginative retelling of Macbeth from the perspective of a character who, in the play, is fairly minor. It’s an excellent read, and it enhances one’s understanding of the original in a way that gives audiences something new and fresh.

It doesn’t treat the audience like six-year-olds. It assumes their intelligence, their familiarity with Macbeth and his lady, and it asks them to consider all the ways in which Lady Macbeth can be a villain, all the ways in which a thane-turned-king can be ambitious.

This is a good book. A dear friend gave it to me for my birthday, and I remember picking it idly up one afternoon while I was checking my email just to browse the first chapter, fully intending to read it after the semester was done. I opened to the first page and began reading — and I didn’t look up again until chapter five.

Don’t bastardize the Bard. Give us true ekphrasis, something new in response which pays homage to the original’s depth and plumbs the profound alongside it, rather than instead.


The topic came up in one of my conversations today about the underrepresentation of protagonists of color in the YA literature being published here in the west. You may debate this all you like, if you want to. I know where I stand, and so I’m happy to feature this response by Iqra Asad to Na’ima B. Robert’s She Wore Red Trainers.


Keeping It Real: A Muslim Girl’s Reaction to She Wore Red Trainers


Growing up reading classics, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, I never knew until my mid-teens that mainstream books in English featuring Muslim characters even existed. Of course, I knew about the angsty South Asian novel with the usual conflict of East versus West. In my opinion, those books, featuring characters that either live Western lives in an Eastern setting, or a Hollywood plot with Pakistani setbacks, were in the same line as photographers who only show the “starving Pakistani beggar” pictures in their portfolio. I mean to say that they only show to the global audience what that audience expects to see. Not to say that the starving beggars of Pakistan don’t have a story that deserves to be told, but National Geographic, Reader’s Digest and other leading publications are already doing that. What about privileged, middle-class, educated me who lives a life outside the “angsty Pakistani novel” experience? I like what the Indian author Uma Krishnaswami said about Kipling still being considered representative of the West’s perspective of life in India. Similarly, these novels by Muslim authors with Muslim characters, while entertaining and thought-provoking to read, are not as relevant to me as my more recent discoveries in the world of Muslim novels.

Those discoveries are the work of some groundbreaking female Muslim authors. I would like to talk about one of them today. Na’ima B. Robert entered the publishing world with From My Sisters’ Lips, an autobiographical account with the narratives of some other Muslim women included. She founded SISTERS Magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women. She went on to write Muslim children’s fiction and YA, the latest of which is She Wore Red Trainers, from Kube Publishing. Honestly speaking, I managed to get it because it was only $1.99 in the iBooks and Kindle stores (but then I got the full-price paperback delivered to my Pakistani residence via Fabingo). The reading experience for me was, however, priceless. While she’s not Pakistani (she is, in fact, part Zulu and part Scottish), her stories of Muslim experiences in a British backdrop appeal to me. (As for my particular kind of Muslim experience in a Pakistani backdrop, you know what they say to do if you don’t find the book you want to read. I’m working on that.)

I am aware that not every reader of She Wore Red Trainers walks away with the same fondness for it that I have. Every reader brings their own personal viewpoint with them to the reading experience, and mine was that of a twentysomething-but-still-reading-YA girl thrilled to read a woman writer writing about Muslim teens.

How romantic is this “YA romance”?

The story is boy-meets-girl and happily-ever-after, but there’s a lot of “looking away so as not to stare immodestly” and “keeping away because premarital relationships are not Islamic” in the book. As one Goodreads review stated, it doesn’t feature the frequent and in-depth personal interaction between the hero and heroine as most romances do. However, in my opinion I think that is keeping it real as far as the context is concerned. As a girl who had to shake her head numerous times when asked by her American health care provider whether she had had any sexual partner (No? Really? Not ever? OK, then), I understood the “attracted from a distance” theme of the book. To answer the question, it’s as clean as clean gets. Sterile, even.

Also, it’s not really categorized by Amazon as a romance. It’s categorized under “family”. That should clear things up for you. However, to hook the youthful target readership, “halal romance” (“halal” being “Islamically permissible”) is the label to use. Trust me, we veiled Muslim girls really get a kick out of stuff like this. I think our main occupation really is “dreaming of marriage land.” There, I said it. People who know me as the reserved veiled bookworm can officially faint with shock now.

Who should read this book?

If the blurb appeals to you, read it. If you’re curious, read it. If you want to support this particular niche, I insist you buy it.

A comment about the ending

The ending is very fairytale and a tad unrealistic, but I accepted it, being an enthusiastic reader.

Is it a valuable contribution to the women writers’ narrative?

Yes, of course! As a female reader I want to read women writers writing about women, men, teens and toddlers going through all situations of this world. YA has a special place in my heart and seeing women writers thrive while writing YA really gives me a boost, both as a reader and as a writer.

Have you read it? Would you like to read it? Does this article remind you of a book you’d like to mention? Do share in the comments.


Iqra Asad is an American Pakistani, fresh out of dental school and writing her way forward in life. She blogs at http://iqrawrites.com/ and tweets as @iqrawrites.


To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Witches (Part 1)

It is October, and even though the temperatures here in my tropical part of the world have dipped only into the low 80s — and we’ll take it, happily, because it’s what we can get this week — the Hallowe’en season is in full bloom. This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season on my blog by covering the topic of witches.

The popular image of witches, of course, is kind of insane: hags with green skin, stringy hair, warts and toads, flying on broomsticks while cackling and manipulating other people’s lives in nasty ways. The closest thing I can imagine coming to that in real life, honestly, is a middle school bully. I suppose we can thank The Wizard of Oz for the green skin and Macbeth and Greek mythology for the rest. When I went to college I met real witches, actual pagans, and I discovered not only that witches were real, but that they had absolutely zero to do with the fantastically grotesque Cotton Mather holdovers imprinted on our Early American cultural DNA. As one person put it to me, “No, we don’t follow the devil. Satan’s a Christian thing.”

October always makes me think a lot about witches, what they’re about. Their image is everywhere — or images, since there’s not just one picture of them anymore. We’ll cover the “witch as archetype” unit in the spring in my AP Gothic Lit. class. I’ll try to lead my class to explore what literature’s view of witches says about the Human Condition, what the humanity or lack of it in those witches reveals about the authors and readers dissecting them. We’re going to hold them up to the sparkling light of analysis and see what filters out.

One of the most famous witches in our popular consciousness is, of course, The Wicked Witch of the West, a wretched fiend who would destroy someone else’s dog on a good day and whose obsession with fashion might lead her to murder. If you’ve never read Wicked by Gregory Maguire, I suggest you should. It was transformed into a Broadway musical, one of those things that puts an author on the map, and while I enjoyed the musical and am extremely happy for Maguire’s resulting success, it doesn’t hold a candle to the novel (which ended up being the start of a critically acclaimed book series).

If Maguire had been a less kind man, if he had been able to stomach such a horrendous historical figure, this book would have been about Hitler. Let me explain.

During the (first) Gulf War, a traumatically awful case involving two adolescent boys and a toddler boy they’d abducted and murdered was making gory headlines in the UK. I won’t go into the details of what they did to this child they lured away from his mother in a shop, but suffice it to say the bodily things they did to torture this child before they put him on a train track for him to be squashed would give Hannibal Lecter nightmares. They perpetrators, middle-school aged boys themselves, were caught, tried, imprisoned.

But they were minors, and so eventually they got out of prison, as young adults.

Now, their names had been splashed across the media for their heinous crime. But when they got out of prison, they wanted to start over in life. They wanted new names. There was a debate over whether they should be allowed to have new names, or whether they should have to be saddled with those marks of Cain forever.

This got Maguire thinking about names, identity, villains, sympathy. Those boys were in the news. Saddam was in the news. Maguire thought about writing a book about someone who had to live with a villainous moniker — and wondered what it might be like if that person didn’t truly deserve that notoriety. What would it be like to write that person as a sympathetic character?

Well, when you want to think of a name that inspires horror, what name do you think of? Hitler.

But Maguire, rightly so, couldn’t stomach the idea of imagining that particular figure in a sympathetic way and sure didn’t want to write a book that might lead there people to do so.

So then what other name inspires fear and loathing? (Remember, this was before Harry Potter was published.)

The Wicked Witch of the West.

So he wrote Wicked.


WICKED cover


I loved this book because it did what I’d been trying, as a writer, to do in my own work: it told the swept-aside story, illuminating Otherness in a profound way. It broke down a flat image and built it roundly back up again, creating something gorgeous and meaningful in the process. In Elphaba I found myself, a girl who had always been different but not in a way valued by any other kid with social standing. There’s so much more to this character, as Maguire imagined her, than a cackling “I’ll get you, my pretty.”


more to Elphaba than you think


Maguire’s writing is, as always, imaginative and intelligent. The story is good, but the writing is, too, down at the level of word choice and sentence structure.

If you’re looking for something witchy to read, I highly recommend this book.

The Roots of Destiny

In my AP Gothic Lit. class we’ve been studying Frankenstein. Sometimes my students come up with questions and discussions so fascinating I feel the need to share them. Today during a seminar discussion, I was inspired to suggest the following question. Please discuss (in the comments section).

Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein

Is destiny a function of egotism or irresponsibility?

“We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you?” the cheerleaders yell at one-third of our student body at a time. The children repeat the chant back to them: lower school’s high-pitched squeal as they indulge for a moment in sanctioned hyperactivity; middle school’s thick tenor as they toe the line between wanting to please their beautiful, smiling cheerleaders and practicing disaffection; the seismic grunting of the upper school whose voice is filled up mainly with the dark yell of the football teams.


I grew up and still live here in Texas, where some boys learn to play football before they learn to write sentences with punctuation. And after twenty years in education, most of it in a high school, there are three things I’ve done more of than most people I know: listen to commencement speeches, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and attend pep rallies.


This weekend is homecoming. Yesterday morning’s rally was typical fare: excellent gymnastics from our athletic cheerleaders to some of the most bastardized pop music I’ve ever heard; hilarious relay races performed by selected students; questionably funny/unintentionally offensive banter from the student emcees; cheering from the entire student body, the youngest kids always the loudest. There’s a certain persistent tension between wanting to support my student athletes, whom I genuinely like and appreciate for how hard they work in my challenging English class, and being a little put off by the showy displays of ego, the occasional misogyny, and the weird association some within football culture make between their sport and fighting a war. I find it difficult, sometimes, to reconcile that machismo with the thoughtful, earnest attempts to understand Shakespeare at their tender age, their noble, generous struggle to write the most engaging personal essays and the most thoughtful literary analysis they can. On Fridays, I want to ask them, Who are you, really? Which you is most you? How much of that stuff do you believe? How much of it do they, like Tim O’Brien says, feel in their guts? Which part of them is the most real?


football players drawing


But of all the debatably outrageous things I’ve seen at pep rallies over the course of my life­­––including, once, seeing a boy rip the water balloon-soaked t-shirt from his body in front of everyone––nothing compares to what we were subjected to when I was in second grade, and every time I attend a pep rally, I cannot help but think about it.


It was 1981 in Houston. That year, Reagan had entered the White House and survived an assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II had survived an assassination attempt, and we had launched the Space Shuttle program and with it, the collective aspirations of every Star Wars fan I knew, myself included, that one day we would personally explore the heavens. On a more intimate scale, Han Solo had taken the job of Badass Archaeology Professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lady Diana had married Prince Charles in the most Cinderella dress I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, and I’d won my first spelling bee. Our teacher had shown us a picture in the newspaper of a unicorn born in California, cementing my passionate belief that these mythical creatures were real, and no amount of skeptics claiming it was just a one-horned goat could sway my fervor. The world lay at our feet, rich with possibility and promise. I planned to be an Egyptologist and had my father wake me up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning so I could watch the funeral of Anwar Sadat on television, because I wanted to see him entombed in a pyramid.


At my small, private elementary school, we gathered together in the gym on Fridays for prayer service in the morning and a pep rally in the afternoon, festooned in the blue-and-gold buttons and spirit ribbons we could buy for a quarter each week and pin to our clothes to show support for our team. Some of my cousins also attended this school, and one of them, Craig, was in the eighth grade. I loved Craig, who was kind and fun and always had a hug for me when I saw him around campus, even though I was a little kid. He also played football, a fact I hadn’t realized until one day, at a pep rally, he and a bunch of his classmates and teammates were brought up onstage, put onto metal folding chairs, and blindfolded. What was about to commence was a kissing contest.


Now, remember that this was the barely-post-1970s, pre-AIDS era of kissing booths. Every carnival and state fair, on television and in real life, had one. Even our little parish’s church bazaar did, replete with a Farrah Fawcett lookalike inside it.


Farrah Fawcett

Doesn’t she look excited to be here? Come on, Farrah, give us a kiss.


So the idea that the boys were all going to be kissed at the pep rally was entertaining. They were blindfolded because they were going to judge the kissing on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest. They were instructed to keep their hands on the sides of their chairs. As the principal explained the rules, the boys grinned, huge bracey smiles stretching to the edges of the folded bandanas over their eyes. In their uniform navy trousers and white Oxford shirts, their pimpled faces largely obscured, it was hard to tell them apart.


Then came the kicker. The girls who were going to be kissing the boys, whose smooches would be evaluated by them, were our junior high teachers. That’s right, the middle-aged women who taught these kids grammar, theology, social studies, algebra were now going to plant their puckers on them, too. The one man on the academic faculty, the junior high science teacher, was exempt from this game.


The student body roared with laughter and glee. The boys, now trapped on their folding chairs by blindfolds and the cheering crowd, grinned or snickered or squirmed, but not a single one stood up or yanked off his blindfold or even held up his hand to halt the proceedings or ask a question. A few of them rapidly fidgeted their sneakers back and forth. Their chairs were spaced a few feet apart, so if they were talking to each other, I’m not sure much of it got through between the bandanas around their heads and the noise of the younger students, the children whom they, as eighth grade boys, were routinely told to man up in front of, to set a good example for as the leaders of the school.


The kissing started. One at a time, a teacher would go to her boy and smooch him on the lips. The crowd whooped and hollered. Then the boy would grin again, still blindfolded, and give his rating. Craig got the most laughs when he pronounced his religion teacher––a tall, stocky grandmother with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair––a fourteen. Soon the kissing was done. The teachers moved offstage, anonymous to the football players at least during the glistening moment of the pep rally. The boys were told they could remove their blindfolds, and their faces were red as they observed their fellow students cheering for them, laughter mingling with the yells. They were dismissed from the stage and left the daïs to be consumed by their classmates sitting criss-cross by grade level on the gym floor. It took a while for the noise to die down.


I don’t know who thought any of that was a good idea, but it never happened again, and frankly, by the time the next pep rally rolled around, no one was even talking about the kissing contest anymore. It joined the ranks of other inconvenient memories, pushed down out of the way like the fraying polyester ribbons we collected from one school year to the next, wore every Friday during football season. They were the things we believed we didn’t have to mention, the tattered flags we pinned to our sleeves next to the shiny new ones, entire outfits made of fluttering blue and gold strips to show that we, yes, we had the most spirit, we were the most dedicated fans, we would do whatever it took to support our team.

You might remember Jennifer Waldo’s name from earlier in this series, where she guest posted, quite eloquently, about the Divergent series and then the Pure series. She has one more YA book response in store for us, this time regarding Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits.




I have to admit, I was embarrassed to buy this book because the title and the cover looked so…cheesy.  But my own YA novel “pushes limits” on things like sex and I wanted to see what was out there in the market.

Honestly! I bought this for research…and then I fell in love with it. Continue Reading »

GOP Debates Haiku

So, here in the US the presidential campaign starts a couple of years before the election. And since everyone and their nephew has decided to run for the GOP nomination — with the exception of Rick Perry, who was doing it but who has since dropped out — we’ve been having debates. Big Kid Debates and Little Kiddie Table Debates (not my epithets), in fact. You have to be in the Top 10 to get into the Big Kid Debate, and the LKDs happen earlier in the afternoon for the lower-ranking candidates.

Back in July, HuffPo decided to quit covering Donald Trump’s campaign in the politics section. They’re still covering it completely, but just in the entertainment section, because Trump is, as they said, “a special case.” They didn’t want to give him credibility as a serious contender. Yet he manages to persist. Quite a phenomenon, as US politics seem to be filled with these days.

So back in 2012, I held a haiku contest on this blog during the Democratic nominating convention; it was fun and entertaining, and I’d like to invite you all to share your thoughts on the debates with us this time around. All political perspectives are welcome. Leave a haiku (any interpretation of that form you can validate) in the comments section below, and if you leave your email address too (or send it to me in a private message to forest of diamonds at gmail dot com with “GOP debates haiku” in the subject line), I’ll send you a free copy of Finis. (ebook) for participating.

Let the fun begin!



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 482 other followers