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Being a Woman Part II: The Mystical Side

The Huffington Post, September 4, 2012

What does it mean to be a woman? Caitlin Moran's hilarious feminist memoir How To Be a Woman offers one perspective--the journey from wearing cheap menstrual pads through suffering the torture of high-heeled shoes to being told that sitting on her boss's lap will get her a promotion. But there are many other aspects to being a woman--to being human--that can't be expressed through memoir. For an alternate narrative experience, read the novel The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby--a lyrical, luxuriantly mystical meditation on being female.

Ruby maps the experiences of three generations of women in 1970s Long Beach, California who are out of sync with everyone around them and who yearn to fit in with conventional society. Diana, an alcoholic single mother, restlessly moves around with her two daughters, Ruthie and Dolly, based on the cycles of the moon. When she dies, the two girls are taken in by nuns at an orphanage. On the cusp of adolescence, Ruthie is sexually assaulted and then bullied as a "slut." Years later, Ruthie meets Graham, a mysterious Scottish fisherman who understands her as no one ever has. Their daughter, Naida, likewise is bullied and marginalized, and desperately searches for a sense of home.

The Salt God's Daughter is astonishing and unusual because selkies--mythical shape-shifting creatures who are human beings on land and seals in the water--are part of the story. In the otherworldly universe Ruby creates, the existence of selkies do not detract from the authenticity of the characters. Quite the opposite: the myth sharpens the characters' humanity.

The genre, magical realism, offers Ruby the opportunity to illuminate select experiences of womanhood--date rape ("Did I deserve it because I never said 'stop'?"), motherhood ("How can I be a better mother than my own?"), and caregiving ("If I can't take care of myself, at least I can look after the welfare of others"). These experiences certainly are not the sum total of any woman's life, and many women never experience them at all. But Ruby's novel comes as close as possible to achieving a deep understanding of the possibilities of being female.

I interviewed Ruby by phone to ask about her unconventional narrative choices.

I'm intrigued by your decision to frame this story within the selkie myth. What inspired you?
My mother, who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is a musician and artist. She used to play on the guitar a famous folk song "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry." So I grew up with the selkie myth, which has roots in Orkney, Scotland. There are many versions of the myth. In the version I learned, a woman is searching for love and she draws to her a man from the ocean, a selkie. She falls in love with him and has his child but he mysteriously disappears. He later returns with grave demands. She is forced to accept the circumstances of the relationship.

To read the rest of this interview, click here.