Right now, I'm looking at an image of the Hindu god Ganesh. He sits on my printer, just four inches high, a brassy gold with Hindi or Sanskrit -- I don't know which -- lettering beneath it. He was a gift from a Nepali student who knew kindred spirits when he saw them. Both Ganesh and I love sweets. Both have the belly to prove it.
Ganesh. We have the same body type.
Ganesh is the god of new beginnings; he is also the remover of obstacles. Just right for almost any endeavor, really, but especially appealing to me these days as I start work on my next book, VOICES, a novel in verse based on the life of Joan of Arc. I say "start", but in fact, I've been working on the book for several months. And yet, it still feels as if I am at the beginning. Many obstacles. Not the least of which is understanding Joan herself, whose story is inextricably enmeshed with religion, history, and her own mythology. In writer-speak: expository material.
The trouble is I am not interested in exposition, which is just one of the reasons my history teacher winged a piece of chalk at me in the eighth grade. What I am trying to find out is what was inside her. What was it that allowed a peasant girl who could neither read nor write get to the son of the king of France, let alone convince him and an entire cadre of military types and priests -- all men -- that she should lead his army against the English, whose army held half the country.
Chalk. Soft, yes, but surprisingly hard when it hits you in the side of the head.
At 17, Joan had to completely reinvent herself. She left her family never to see them again. She cut her hair. She donned men's clothes. She had never even ridden a horse, let alone lead an army into battle. A girl, and not even a modern girl, winning soccer games or training to become an astronaut, but a girl in The Middle Ages, when it was believed that menstrual blood caused metal objects to rust.
Talk about yer obstacles.
A flapper. True story: The iconic hairstyle was inspired by Joan of Arc. Not sure about the fringe. (Or the hemline.)
I'm telling most of Joan's story through non-human voices -- her sword, her armor, even her virginity speaks. To complicate matters further, the book is in verse -- and not just any verse, but forms that were popular in The Middle Ages: villanelles, sestinas, triolets, all of which have rigid, patterns of rhyme and meter. Because few of the book's voices speak more than once -- each poem is a new beginning.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the seriousness of Joan's short biography. All of my life, people have told me I'm funny. (I heard a comedian say once that in order to be funny, you have to have suffered a lot of humiliation. Uh . . .no problem.) In fact, one of the elements that readers seemed to love about BULL was its humor. (Thank you, by the way.)
But Joan's story is nothing to snigger at. At thirteen, she heard a voice that told her she had been chosen to raise the siege at Orleans and to pave the way, militarily, for the dauphin to be crowned at Reims. Against impossible odds, she succeeded. At nineteen, she was burned alive at the stake, having been abandoned by the very king whom she had saved. To write such a serious book unnerves me. It's a departure. A new beginning.
Paintings of Joan often show her in a skirt. This one by Ingres is from 1864. The truth is Joan wore men's clothes. It seems we still can't allow her to be who she was.
But considering all that is happening in our world today, my whining about such things is, well, at the very least, unflattering. The changing climate and its consequences. The human suffering around the world. A narcissistic racist in The White House. An unhinged leader in North Korea. These are real problems, ones that people of good will face with dread at the beginning of each new day.
I am not a Pollyanna. (Remember that humiliation I talked about?) But if an illiterate, adolescent girl can lead a king's army, restore France, and end a bloody war, can't we, collectively, muster up a little courage to fight against our current obstacles? Joan of Arc was alone. We have each other. And let's not forget about Ganesh, who is not only the god of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles, but also the god of wisdom.
How odd --and affirming -- that these two beings, one an illiterate girl from The Middle Ages, the other a Hindu God with the head of an elephant, may have more to say to each other and to us than we realize.
Fight the good fight, pals.
Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.
His only obstacle is deciding where to take the next nap.