I’m delighted to welcome Tamara Agha-Jaffar to Linda’s Book Bag today to tell me about one of her books as I happen to know it’s Tamara’s birthday. So, happy birthday Tamara!
Staying in with Tamara Agha-Jaffar
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Tamara. Thank you for agreeing to stay with me.
I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I love to talk about my passion for mythology and for women’s role in myth.
It sounds like I’m in for an entertaining evening. Which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you brought it?
I have brought along my first novel, A Pomegranate and the Maiden, based on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone because this is the myth that launched me on my writing career.
(That sounds like a good choice to me!)
I was a professor of English for a number of years, and among the courses I taught was a course on Women Literature in which I included selections from Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. I love the poem because it focuses primarily on women, specifically a mother and her daughter. I encouraged my students to interpret the myth as metaphor and to recognize how its themes have an enduring relevance. The myth of the abduction of Kore/Persephone and its aftermath speaks to us on many levels: how to cope with trauma; the nature of the mother/daughter relationship; the stages of grieving; the impact of gender on our perspectives; the differences between male and female socialization; communication styles; etc. etc.
My students became so enamored with the myth that they encouraged me to write a book deconstructing it so others can benefit from its insights. I took their advice. My first book was born: Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth (McFarland 2002). This non-fiction book is an analysis of the myth from a feminist perspective.
(It sounds incredibly interesting. I love the way in which your students prompted your writing. It seems fitting somehow!)
The whole time I was writing the book, I kept thinking I would love to write a work of fiction based on this myth in which each of the characters speaks in the first-person point of view and describes the events from his/her gendered perspective. So as soon as I retired from academia in 2013, I plunged right into writing my first novel, A Pomegranate and the Maiden.
What can we expect from an evening in with A Pomegranate and the Maiden?
A Pomegranate and the Maiden retells the story of Demeter (the goddess of the grain) and her daughter Kore/Persephone (the goddess of Spring) from multiple first-person points of view. It begins with Kore/Persephone as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. She attracts the attention of the god of the Underworld, Hades. He colludes with her father, Zeus, to trick her into opening a chasm to the underworld from which he emerges, kidnaps her to his deathly realm, and makes her his bride.
Learning of her daughter’s whereabouts, Demeter experiences the stages of mourning. She even engages in displacement by trying to appropriate another woman’s infant to fill the void she feels at the loss of her daughter. When that attempt is foiled, Demeter goes on strike and denies the earth its fertility. The ensuing famine forces Zeus to submit to her demands by releasing Persephone from the underworld.
Although Persephone is eager to emerge from the underworld, she intentionally swallows the pomegranate seeds Hades pops into her mouth. Eating food from the underworld commits her to return. So Persephone returns to the underworld for four months of every year. Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter during those four months and refuses to let anything grow. Winter ensues. Persephone’s emergence from the underworld is the catalyst for her mother’s joy. Spring ensues.
That is the outline of the myth in a nutshell. A Pomegranate and the Maiden explores each character’s psychology and gendered thoughts as they come to terms with the events. For example, Demeter is portrayed as the possessive mother who doesn’t want her daughter to grow up. Kore/Persephone wants to break away from mother’s binding constraints and find her own way. Zeus is the patriarch who tramples over a mother’s rights. And Hades is the lover who catapults Persephone into gaining independence from mother.
I first released the novel in paperback (2015) and then on Kindle. I recently released an audiobook version with me doing the reading (2018). I had a lot of fun doing it.
(It sounds to me, Tamara, that you have been able to explore the myth through so many different perspectives. Fascinating.)
What else have you brought along and why?
I have brought along my other books.
The first one is the non-fiction book that set me on my writing career: Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth.
I was still a Professor of English when this book came out. I became very interested in the depiction of women in mythology and religion and wanted to develop a new course focusing on women’s roles in myth and religion. I searched for a multicultural text that would work. But when I couldn’t find exactly what I needed, I wrote my own text book. Women and Goddesses in Myth and Sacred Text: An Anthology (Pearson 2005) was born. It is a multicultural text with excerpts from The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Hell, the Enuma Elish, and many other selections including those from Western, Asian, Islamic, Christian, African, and Native American traditions.
When an author conveys their absolute passion for a subject it really inspires me to read their work. You’ve certainly piqued my interest Tamara.
I have also brought along my second novel, Unsung Odysseys (Kindle 2016) I love anything Homer and have read The Odyssey many times. I thought it was about time we heard the voices of women who interacted with Odysseus as he made his trek home to Ithaca. Among the voices we hear in my novel is the voice of his wife, his mother, his nurse, the goddess Circe, and the nymph Calypso. Their collective voices provide an alternative perspective on Odysseus and his exploits.
Finally, I have brought a photograph of one of my favorite statues. It is Bernini’s statue of the abduction of Persephone. My husband and I were on vacation in Italy a few years ago. We went to the Borghese Palace in Rome because it houses paintings by Carvaggio, one of my favorite artists.
I was on the lookout for Carvaggio’s paintings when we entered one of the beautifully ornate rooms at the Borghese in which were displayed Bernini’s incredible statues. They were astonishing—all the more so because I wasn’t expecting anything quite so spectacular. There was his statue of Aeneas with his father and son as they escape from the burning walls of Troy, Daphne escaping from Apollo, and an amazing statue of Hades kidnapping Persephone.
The statue is over 8 ft tall and absolutely breathtaking. I love how Bernini captures movement as Persephone struggles to get away and Hades digs his hand into her flesh to prevent her escape. The detail, the size, the whole composition blew me away. I love anything Demeter/Persephone, so this statue was the icing on the cake for me on what was a wonderful vacation.
It sounds like the perfect trip for you! Thanks so much for a really interesting evening Tamara. I’ve so enjoyed staying in with you and Happy Birthday!
Thank you Linda.
A Pomegranate and the Maiden
A Pomegranate and the Maiden is a multi-faceted re-telling of the story of Demeter and Persephone as told in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. The many characters speak directly to the reader, presenting multiple perspectives of the same event. Among the voices we hear is that of the mother grieving for her lost child, the daughter struggling for independence, the father who tramples on a mother’s rights, and the lover who resorts to nefarious means to win his beloved. Each perspective is deeply rooted in the character’s psychology and gender. Woven within their narratives are stories familiar to readers of Greek mythology.
Against the backdrop of our own culture, which still diminishes the value of motherhood and marginalizes women of all ages, these voices speak to us through the centuries and offer new ways of seeing the world we inhabit.
A Pomegranate and the Maiden is available for purchase here.
About Tamara Agha-Jaffar
Tamara Agha-Jaffar has a Ph.D. in English Literature. She has been in academia all her professional life, serving as professor of English, dean, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. She retired in July 2013. In 2004 she was named Kansas Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and received its CASE Award for the Advancement of Teaching. In 2010 she received The President’s Call to Service Award for her volunteer work in the community.
Tamara and her husband are empty nesters living in Kansas. She enjoys retirement and spends her time doing the things she loves best: reading and writing.