We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 19 by talking to our authors about what makes “Voyages” — and stories.
Lackington’s: A sestina is a type of poem with very specific rules related to its structure. “Sestina for Medea” applies at least some of these rules to a prose story. How closely did you adhere to the classical structure of a sestina, and in what ways did you depart from it?
AM: When I sat down to write a story about a voyage, my first thoughts were about structure. What would evoke a young woman leaving home, journeying to unfamiliar places, redefining herself? The sestina immediately appealed to me. A sestina uses polysemy to create a sort of beautiful progression out of repetition, and what is travel but repetition in pursuit of progress—putting one foot in front of another, packing and unpacking and repacking the same things, introducing oneself over and over to new people? The words, like the woman, are put into different contexts throughout the story. They change. And they stay the same.
One way in which I departed from the classical structure of a sestina was that I wrote an introductory paragraph that presents all six repeating words together, sort of a pre-envoi. I wanted a moment of integration at the beginning of the story, before the words begin to shift and shuffle and before this woman’s sense of self is tested. I wanted the envoi at the end to have the feeling of a reintegration.
Lackington’s: Medea is best known as a key character in the story of the Golden Fleece, helping Jason to obtain the Fleece then later marrying him and accompanying him back to Corinth. Do you see your version of Medea differing from how she is traditionally portrayed?
AM: Yes, it’s definitely a feminist reimagining of the myth. Mythic Medea is the Other. She is a barbarian, a witch, and a filicide—essentially a way to express “this is not how we do things here.” Euripides found her personal motivations, quite logically, to be rooted in her Otherness. The thing that intrigues me about the play is that it grounds her complaints in cultural differences around oath-taking and the power of women to make pacts on a par with men. In Colchis, Medea had that power. In her new context, she is retroactively stripped of it, her oaths with Jason are invalidated, and he is considered by Greek society free to marry someone else. So instead of “don’t kill your children; that’s not how we do things here,” you have “this tragedy occurred in part because of the way we do things here.” It’s a clash of cultural systems.
What I did was zero in on that detail—Medea having power at home that she does not have abroad—and apply it to a completely de-mythologized version of her. The woman in my story, like Euripides’ Medea, is stripped of power in ways she doesn’t anticipate. Her personal wealth disappears; she is forced to rely on this man she has fallen in love with, who, it turns out, sees her more as a tool than a partner. And critically, she does not speak the language of the land she is taken to and plunked down in. (What an enormous loss of power!) Yet she eventually finds a place in which she can be both potent and happy.
Lackington’s: Greek myths are often full of high emotion and drama: love affairs, murders, betrayals, and worse. Events like these occur in the margins of your story, but more of it is founded on very human feelings: the desire to travel, the alienation of being in a foreign place. Given the melodrama of the source material, why did you focus on these seemingly smaller concerns?
AM: Euripides took Medea, however partially, out of the Other and gave her grounded personal motivations. I wanted to take her out of the realms of myth and tragedy altogether and inject experiences I’ve had that echo (faintly or not) the themes of the play: the overwhelming helplessness I’ve felt when shopping for groceries in a foreign place, moving somewhere for my husband’s job only to find myself trapped in an apartment day after day trying to figure out what my role might be, and (in absence of a tragic ending) the gradual, satisfying process of belonging.
There’s room in the realm of smaller concerns for catastrophic action—the woman’s decision to rob her own family, her decision to leave the man and go out into the world penniless and alone—but because there is no longer a tragic destiny to be fulfilled, there’s also room for long-term growth and self-discovery. I wanted to see a Medea completely free of the deaths of those children, reflecting on the first part of her story and coming to understand the impulses of her younger self; a Medea who is compelling not because she is scary and inhumane, but because she is relatable and human.
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?
AM: When I read stories with unconventional structures or ways of getting at things, I almost feel like I’m doing something physically risky. It gets the blood pumping that way—I’ll never forget reading Kelly Link’s “Lull” in a gymnasium full of other people and feeling like my heart was going to burst out of my chest with delight. There’s an element of taking an active stake in the story, when it’s not so surface-level consumable, and I love that. I love the emotional payoff.
I also love that there are so many ways for stories to be unconventional, which leaves room for the satisfying traditional storytelling elements to coexist alongside the challenging ones. There’s so much out there! We should all be taking more chances when we read.
Alexandra Munck has filleted walleye on an island in Canada, hiked down a gorge in Greece, and gotten lost in a car park in Nottingham. She lives in Illinois and dreams of writing fantasy that is alive with robust constructed languages. This is her speculative fiction debut.