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Scribe Publications is thrilled to be publishing The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley in August 2018. This novel is a contemporary feminist retelling of the Beowulf story, and is an epic, intelligent, trenchant novel that is both steeped in mythology and has much to say about our current political and cultural climate.
When I started to write The Mere Wife, it was because I’d been thinking about the foundational myths that’ve shaped our messed-up contemporary society. I got interested in the ways that monsters have often been invented wholecloth out of people who are simply disempowered, in order to further agendas both colonialist and sexist.
Beowulf is a story like that. The poem is, on its face, a story about a Good Man confronted with several levels of profound evil he must fight, at considerable risk to himself, in order to save his society. We’re familiar with narratives based on this theme in all kinds of literature, whether the monsters are literal or figurative—from The Odyssey to news accounts of American police officers ‘defending’ white citizens from young black men.
In Beowulf, Grendel and Grendel’s mother are inhabitants of the area where Hrothgar decides to build Heorot Hall, bringing soldiers, drinking, shouting, and what we’d now call gentrification to a wild, strange, and already inhabited place. The history of colonisation has often been aggressively marketed as one of betterment rather than of invasion, and in thinking about the history and future of America, I saw Heorot as a mostly white gated community, an aspirational suburb, encroaching on land that was already the historic land of people of colour.
Many stories about monsters are actually stories about people who have something another person wants. What better way to claim ownership of someone else’s belongings than to declare them inhuman, and yourself a hero? Again, the history of America, and of the world, is riddled with tales that describe similar actions. Declaring thieves and murderers heroic defenders rather than monstrous invaders is a convenient tradition in racist, sexist, and classist societies.
The Mere Wife came out of all of this. I was interested in modernising Beowulf and telling the story from the perspectives of Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar’s wife, who are, in very different ways, victims of a society structured to serve men and money. To my eye, the original poem is a tale of toxic masculinity and violent colonisation, of yearning for power and of lawbreaking by men who consider themselves heroic. It’s a story, as well, of maternal love and rage, of resistance against injustice, and of, ultimately, complicated communities. The Mere Wife is a feminist rendition of the classic story, placing women at its centre—Grendel’s mother, Dana Mills, is a former soldier, an injured veteran of foreign wars, and the soldiers of police officer Ben Woolf’s army are the white matriarchs of suburbia, invested in defending the toxic structures that have supported them. Willa, based on Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow, is a suburban hostess, the keeper of the peace, but within her boils rage at her confinement as a good wife and mother. Dylan, Willa’s son, is a young boy who, in his love for Gren, challenges the structures that have surrounded him. As for Gren, he’s a small child with brown skin—and as we know, in America, that’s long been enough to get someone perceived as a monster.
I wanted to get into the old story and shake it up, making something new with the old ingredients and new context. At present, America has a president loudly declaring himself a hero and everyone else a monster, at every opportunity. I mean, if you’re a hero, in that classical and misunderstood sense, and there are no monsters, who will you fight? Women and children? The poor? The desperate? (Yes, as has been made extremely clear by this moment in American politics.) There’s a reason the vulnerable are being declared monstrous right and left in our world right now, and it is part of a single tradition, one of mythic storytelling. The Mere Wife—and my forthcoming new translation of Beowulf—are my attempts to sort out what the old stories really said about heroes and monsters, and what those stories actually mean to us today. I think they’re as relevant as they ever were, and perhaps even more so.
‘With a sharp eye and a deft flourish, Maria Dahvana Headley reimagines one of our oldest stories to give us a chilling, elemental vision of our latest selves. The Mere Wife is a bold, stunning riptide of a book.’—Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife
‘The Mere Wife is an astonishing reinterpretation of Beowulf: Beowulf in suburbia—epic, operatic, and razor-sharp, a story not of a thick-thewed thegn, but of women at war, as wives and warriors, mothers and matriarchs. Their chosen weapons are as likely to be swords as public relations and they wield both fearlessly. They rule, they fight.’—Nicola Griffith, author of Hild
‘Maria Dahvana Headley writes—with crackling headlong sentences that range among old plots and news observations—about a world that earlier today seemed too familiar. Master storyteller, brilliant stylist, a writer with this sort of command of language is a delight to read. Here’s a book to call up an old story in the newest possible way.’—Samuel R Delany, author of Dhalgren and Dark Reflections.
‘The Mere Wife is a work of magic. A wild adventure, a celebration of monsters, myths, and the power of mother-love. Imagine a writer so bold, so ambitious, so about it that she challenges Beowulf to arm wrestle. That writer is Maria Dahvana Headley and let me tell you something, she is here to win.’—Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling
‘Maria Dahvana Headley translates the excesses of contemporary life into the gloriously mythic. This is not just an old story in new clothes: this is a consciousness-altering mindtrip of a book.’—Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble
‘Maria Dahvana Headley is a gift, a genius, and an absolute wonder; I would follow her anywhere.’—Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
Scribe Publications has also acquired Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical feminist translation of Beowulf, described by originating publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux as one that transforms ‘the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two are entwined [and] justice is rarely served’. Beowulf will be published in the second half of 2019.
Read the first chapter of The Mere Wife here.
For your chance to receive one of 10 advance reading copies of The Mere Wife, email Sarina@scribepub.com.au with ‘The Mere Wife ARC’ in the subject line. The first 10 people to respond will win a copy.
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