It’s not often that remarks in a student newspaper go viral. The very first set of questions posed to writer Sarah Underwood in her interview with one called Felix was “Did you read The Odyssey? And if so, when?” Who knows why the publication made an enquiry that most writers worth their salt would find insulting, but they were on to something. Underwood had not read Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek classic that has been translated and retold many times by many voices, when she wrote a novel that drew from it. In her own words: “I actually started and finished writing without sitting down and reading the whole thing.” An author behaving with the blasé confidence of a highly opinionated and highly ignorant book-influencer – you can imagine what ensued.
Online books “discourse” on any given week is messy and drama-filled – but now and then, there’s consensus. Writers, readers and scholars are suitably aghast by Underwood’s nonchalance. They are agitated that she got her foot into the infamously bolted doorways of publishing without trying too much, when great efforts fail; they are also agitated by an uncaring work ethic and the implications of the same.
Classical scholar Olivia Waite warned in a brief Twitter thread that “…if you aren’t careful with your sources, you’re going to let in white supremacy”, talking about how Nazis have drawn from Scandinavian, Greek and Roman mythologies and that these stories have been used in skewed agendas. The uses of mythology in grandiose narrativization – and the incredibly violent consequences of these – are certainly not unfamiliar in India, either.
Inspecting any belief about collective consciousness will often show that we usually know less than we think we know, and that what we do know is widely divergent, based on our internal desires and principles as influenced by larger currents and exposure.
When it comes to stories that inform the collective consciousness, recorded text does not have greater weightage than oral narrative. But we think it must. In India, this is especially true of epics. As many scholars and storytellers say, the Ramayana in one’s head is a mix of Doodarshan’s televised serial and Tulsidas’ religious scripture, not the text attributed to Valmiki, yet most do not trace or make these distinctions.
There’s an argument to be made that Underwood chose a subversive method of approaching a text she says she found impenetrable, drawing from it without deferring to it. In its own irreverent way, Underwood’s honesty is refreshing – even as the chagrin of those who are under-recognized for their work and gatekept out of opportunities is utterly valid.
I would be open to reading Underwood’s queer feminist imagining of The Odyssey. As a writer, one who spends extensive time in research, I scoff. But as a reader, one who just wants to enjoy a story, I shrug. There are translators, notably of poetry, who don’t even know the source language, but whose work I’ve admired. Admittedly, there are multiple levels of problematic engagement in all these things: among the publishing industry, literary circles, creators and readerships. But that’s also part of the pleasure of literature: something to chew on, even at leisure.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in June 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.