Mythmaking in the Modern World

by Vandana Khanna

Burning Like Her Own Planet (Alice James Books) is a collection of poems loosely based on Hindu mythology, primarily the stories found in the Ramayana, an epic poem surrounding the tale of Ram and Sita, their exile into the jungle, the ascension of Ram to the throne, and the ensuing drama that all that political strife has on a marriage.

If someone had told me that I would dedicate six years of my life to writing about myths, I wouldn’t have believed them. Truthfully, I was never a big fan. Growing up, I always got the Roman and Greek gods mixed up, and felt that there wasn’t much more to say about those stories that hadn’t already been said, in every possible configuration, for centuries. I was doubtful that I could offer a new perspective to this already full chorus of voices.

But inspiration, as we all know, comes from unexpected places. What first sparked my interest in mythmaking came in the form of a children’s picture book. I had a young son at the time, and we would read versions of these Hindu epics, stories about gods and goddess, with full glossy pictures next to them. I thought this was a good way to introduce him to Hindu mythology without complicated plots and hundreds of pages of text.

As I began to read more and more of these stories to him, what struck me the most was the huge absence in these myths. Mainly, where were the stories of the goddesses? In these books, women often became accessories to both the gods and the stories themselves—beautiful, loyal wives, daughters and mothers that had little or no agency. They were often “acted upon” by the “hands” of fate, by mercurial gods, by the always-present destiny, by monsters and men alike. I started imagining what these epics would sound like coming out of the mouths of these goddesses. I wanted to hear their side of the story—What were they feeling and what did they think about what was happening to them?

Once I started writing these poems, I immediately turned towards other poets for inspiration. As I was looking for models for my own book, I began to formulate certain criteria, otherwise I would be lost in hundreds of years of research.

One thing I realized early on was that I wanted to re-write these myths in a contemporary landscape—where goddesses were young women who happened to be “chosen” to be holy. I hope a contemporary reader can pick up my poems without knowing anything about the myths, the Ramayana or any of the ancient texts, and still glean something about the nature of these women’s lives. I want the poems to transcend what has already been written, transcend the reader’s limited knowledge, to a universal recognition: to feel the thumping heart of the goddesses, the blood thickening in their veins, the indecision of a hovering foot.

Of course, there are many examples in poetry of mythmaking or retelling, from the earliest English language poets writing about Hera and Zeus, about Persephone and Hades, on and on. From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in 1842 to H.D.’s “Helen” from the 1960s. These gods and goddesses were stately, remote, and still quite heavenly. They floated above us mortals. They were modern in so far as they employed a more contemporary sense of form and syntax, but still, the diction often clung to a certain antiquated point of view. They did their proclaiming from on high—maybe not quite Mount Olympus, but definitely from the same ancient zip code.

But even as I looked towards this very long, deep history of retelling myths—I was primarily missing the more contemporary feel of a god or goddess living in the modern world. I was looking for a model that took into consideration parking lots and cinemas, dance parties and blind dates.

I did a lot of digging around—trying different poets on for size and the one that fit the best, for me, was Rita Dove’s collection, Mother Love. I came back to it month after month as I tried my own version of re-telling and re-imagining, trying to weave the ancient stories with the more contemporary concerns of living in the world as a present-day woman, with all the expectations and burdens that come with it. I knew very specifically that my goddesses had a foot in each world—that of the ancient past and of the chaotic present. Here, the mothers and daughters were not simplistic, flat plot devices. They weren’t just recipients of whatever fate dished out, but made choices (albeit, not always the best choices). They had some semblance of agency.

Another important consideration for me was looking for a model of mythmaking that took into consideration the writer’s own identity as a non-white, non-male person living in the world. I wanted to find another writer of color who was writing myths from a woman’s particular perspective. I wanted to see how another woman of color wrote and rewrote ancient myths within this very specific lens, hoping to give myself enough courage to tackle these stories that sometimes, very literally, have been written in stone—that seemed untouchable and fixed.

I have always written from my own point of view as a suburban, immigrant woman and I didn’t want to change that for this particular project. These were stories that my grandmother would whisper to me when I visited her in Delhi, when I couldn’t sleep because I was missing my home with my toys and the neighborhood pool and 7-Eleven Slurpees. She made the stories come alive with the details: the rippling stripes of the tiger’s coat as it walked through the jungle with the warrior-goddess Durga on its back, each of her many hands holding tools with the power to destroy and create—the 10 demonic heads of Ravana, each showing off their fearsome teeth. This was the first introduction I had to mythmaking, and it left an indelible impression on me and as I wrote, I wanted to honor those stories while still making them feel personal and relatable.

So, when I came upon Rita Dove’s collection, it seemed to fulfill all I was looking for: mythmaking couched in a contemporary landscape with goddesses who had real life concerns, who spoke the vernacular of everyday life rather than in an elevated, distant diction. Poems that made the myths come alive, brushing the ancient dust from their characters’ jeans and t-shirts but that didn’t forget the always-present origins of their stories. A poet who wrote from a very specific perspective as a woman of color about women.

One poem that I think especially serves as a good example is called “Missing.” Here, the Persephone myth is updated to reflect the contemporary concerns of a young woman. From the opening lines of the poem, the daughter is cast as a typical teenager who hangs out with her friends and doesn’t call home when she’s late: “I am the daughter who went out with the girls,/never checked back in…” the speaker says in the opening lines. And from there, her abduction by Hades is given the modern depiction of missing young people everywhere, the dreaded language of the abducted and missing as in the all too familiar phrase of “last known whereabouts.”

We also get elements of the original myth with references to recognizable details such as “petals” and “lost child,” all anchored by a mother’s undeniable grief. The poem becomes an intersection point between ancient myth and contemporary missing child tropes. We get all the set design of the real world with the myth as foundation from which the new version can rise and bloom. And, as an unasked-for boon, we get all of this in the form of a sonnet (the book as a whole recasts this myth through a sequence of sonnets). The poem becomes a discrete, personal accounting of a whole myth, encompassing a long tradition of storytelling both ancient and modern, focusing on mothers/daughters/women and girls all in fourteen lines. The poem is able to breathe life into a centuries old story, bringing the drama into suburban kitchens, TV rooms, and basements.

I found myself transfixed by the juxtaposition of real world and myth, the seamless way one bled into the other—as if this might be the natural progression of a myth, to begin in the past amongst crumbling ruins, and find itself in a suburban teenager’s bedroom. The blending of high and low culture, of hanging out with friends all the while Hades’ shadow casts a dull inevitability over the whole scene. A missing girl that is returned, a mother that is devastated with worry and loss, the footfall that is in a state of suspension, always hovering, caught between two worlds. It was in these quiet, intimate moments where our breath pauses, where we take in the “scene” that we are able to connect with this myth on a human basis—where we can picture ourselves as both mother and daughter, picture with “horror,” with a “knot in our hearts,” as carefree youth is put into peril. Where the threat of violence is in the air, passing through the story with smoke that refuses to fade retelling after retelling.

I hope my goddess poems will be able to live in a parallel universe with Dove’s Mother Love—though they are about different women, different trouble, and literally worlds apart, I want my poems to work within this newer tradition of mythmaking, bringing these stories out of the crumbling past into the fluorescent present. I too, tried to modernize and give agency to the young women populating these myths—having them move beyond the archetype, so they become women with bones and muscles and hearts that ache, that remind us all that they, too, are part human, part divine.

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