Kate Abbott: Berkshire Festival of Women Writers inspires a heroine for today


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

We were sharing coffee at the Swallow Café in Hudson, N.Y., to talk about her panel in the Festival of Women Writers. (I'm determined to explore Hudson further before the summer ends -- I was parked almost outside the Spotty Dog bookstore, and I had no time to go in. As a former-industrial-growing-arts town, it reminds me of Pittsfield. And the Swallow has the best apple turnovers I've tried in a long time.)

Well, what would she be like?

She would face our tendency to split into groups that will not speak to each other, Meidav said.

She referred to a study that said a child exposed to something before the age of 5 -- a language, a place, an idea -- will not grow up to become afraid of it. An American toddler who watches cartoons in Mandarin or learns catch phrases in Arabic may grow up feeling that China or Jordan is simply a part of the world.

If she lived here, our heroine, would she try to get people to talk from the outside, or would she belong to two groups, two classes, two backgrounds, two countries -- a foster child given up by her teenage birth mother and adopted by a professor? A teenager learning she is gay, knowing her parents will reject her? A first-generation college student whose family want her to drop out and get a job?

And could she convince the people that belong to different parts of her life to talk? Imagine her in a class at BCC -- in a studio in Hudson -- in a paint-spattered room where a volunteer acting troupe rehearses around a battered sofa -- trying to find a way.

Stories may make a way -- in writing, in drama, in music, in painting. A local theater gives teenagers a place to talk, and the time to build trust, and they evolve a play from their own stories. I hear the story of someone in a group separate from mine, and she becomes someone I know, someone I can share a cup of coffee with. And I'm like the child watching a cartoon and thinking halib is the Arabic word for milk, and there's a woman my age holding a child, or reading a poem, or dancing -- and how can she be frightening?

And I feel lucky, because someone has helped that story get to me. Someone who knows about her and about me has thought about that story, and made it a shape that fits into my life, and put it somewhere I can find it. This is our heroine's job, if I understand Meidav's idea.

And our heroine is an everyday woman with a backpack and a pencil sharpener and coffee stains on her shirt, a woman with too little time and too much laundry, no fairy-tale dragon-tamer. But what she is trying to do takes courage. She may get hurt, especially if she belongs to the groups she is trying to talk to.

And not everyone tries.

Once, in California, Meidav once reviewed a show of "women painters" -- and she felt that the painters in the show had no relation to each other except that they were women. The curator had not linked their work -- had not chosen paintings that spoke to each other -- had not created a conversation. The show felt jumbled together.

That often happens, she said, when creative women are linked.

All the more reason to create the conversation between them. All the more reason for women who will make it happen.


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