Edie Meidav to host panel of novelists on anti-heroines in Berkshire Festival of Women Writers


GREAT BARRINGTON -- When did you last read about a woman making her own choice -- or see one in a movie -- a woman standing straight, holding onto the feeling that she knows what she has to do?

Edie Meidav wants to find more of them.

"How do we find a voice when we're facing a huddle of turned backs?" she asked, over a cup of coffee in Hudson, N.Y.

She has found voices to join her in conversation in the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

Meidav, a novelist in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and writer-in-residence at Bard College, will moderate a conversation on "The female rebel: Women writers on the anti-heroine in fiction" with novelists Rebecca Chase, Rebecca Godfrey and Rebecca Wolff.

Meidav writes the kind of independent women she is looking for.

Her most recent novel, "Lola, California," centers on two high school friends, one a foster child and one the daughter of a charismatic West-Coast cult leader.

"They have been newly set loose on the world," she writes. " ... Masters or meteors: two girls at seventeen."

As the novel opens, they meet again in their 40s in the California landscape where Meidav spent her childhood.

"You have to put some of yourself onto the page," she said. "If you deeply care, then the readers deeply care."

A woman with the grit to be a writer will care about women who feel a need to think, to touch the world and speak out. So Meidav has gone looking for them.

She is teaching a course on the "anti-heroine" -- with a group of "women and two brave men" -- reading the stories of strong women from Medea onward.

"We're discovering that strong women end up dead, crazy or cast out," she said.

But look past Lady MacBeth -- who is writing strong women now?

What is an anti-heroine?

She may be unlikeable. She doesn't fit. She obeys her own moral code. She may rebel -- she may act independently. She often has a kind of innocence, Meidav said, "a child's thinking that change is possible."

Not many women writers she knows explore likeable and unlikeable characters.

"I've always admired firebrands," she said.

An anti-heroine may make a choice that goes against the choices of the people around her, and the reader may sympathize -- like Scout Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" standing up for her father as he defends a black man in an Alabama court in the early 20th century.

Or she may make choices, sometimes in extreme circumstances, that challenge the reader -- like Sethe in "Beloved," a slave who escapes to freedom and then, caught by slave hunters, kills a child she loves rather than let her children be recaptured and forced into slavery.

An anti-heroine may have strengths and flaws; she may be a sympathetic character who "wants to do right but is bending toward transgression" -- or a character without redeeming features.

"There's only one thing I'm absolutist about," Meidav said: "You have to be awake when you're making a moral choice."

When a character makes a choice that will hurt herself and others, an honest writer needs to recognize the consequences of what she does.

"When characters are doing bad things, when the reader is watching a character self-destruct, I hope the reader has a chance to experience moral catharsis," Meidav said, "to question their own choices."

The character, or the story, may make a greater arc, she added. The story may follow a character through a painful time, through the fallout of a destructive choice, until she finds a new stability.

"When you put love into the equation," Meidav said, it becomes a landing pad.

She praised the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers for the community of writers and readers it wants to build. A writer needs a group of writers, she said, a literary and progressive community, open-minded and full of curiosity. And she valued having a group of women writers to talk with.

"Women writers are cultured to think of themselves as male writers," she said.

She grew up in the Bay area admiring the Beats -- the pantheon around Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore were her local writers, as Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson are to Western Massachusetts. Later, she discovered the Romantics, the male British poets the Beats looked to.

Women writers, she said, don't have that kind of lineage of one generation of writers looking to another.

And writers need other writers. Writers need to be social, she said.

She came from California, from a "wide open and floating" landscape, where a hiker on a bare hill above the coast may feel the land dropping away beneath her feet, and the landscape seemed to emphasize the way people lived -- constantly having to choose and intent themselves.

"If we invented a heroine who embodied our society's woes now," she said, "what would she be like?"

If you go ...

What: Edie Meidav moderates a panel on ‘The female rebel' with panelists (shown here with recent novels):

Rebecca Chase, novelist

‘Leaving Rock Harbor' -- In 1914, 14-year-old Frankie Ross and her parents move to a coastal Masachusetts mill city and become caught up in a labor strike.

Rebecca Wolff, novelist and poet

‘The Beginners' -- 15-year-old Ginger Pritt becomes fascinated by a couple who have moved to her rural town -- an her attempts to trace their pasts lead her to the history of the Salem witch trials.

Rebecca, novelist and journalist

‘The Torn Skirt' -- Sara shaw goes looking for Justine, the outlaw of her high school class -- and heads into danger.

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Blodgett House, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Alford Road, Great Barrington

Admission: Free

Information: berkshirewomenwriters.org


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