By Pia Orense
A lovestruck Miranda, in the third act of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” tells a young man that she wants to be his wife. “If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow / You may deny me, but I’ll be your servant / Whether you will or no,” she says, a profession of love so submissive and unconditional it’s almost disconcerting when read with modern-day sensibilities.
So what happens when that character gets adapted for 21st-century young adult readers? This: “If you call me princess again, I WILL scream.”
That headstrong “princess” would be Miranda Prospero, the character conjured up by Mount St. Mary’s Humanities student Kim Askew ’15 MA and her writing partner Amy Helmes for their debut novel “Tempestuous” (Merit Press). In their Twisted Lit series for young adults, Shakespeare’s plays are retold from the female protagonist’s point of view and retooled so that those roles are no longer passive, secondary or subservient.
“We wanted strong female heroines and while Shakespeare does have some, a lot of the plays are about male characters. We thought, ‘Let’s take a female character and see how she would respond to the same situation,’” says Askew.
The literary motif of female empowerment is key to several works recently authored by students and alums of the Mount. For these Mount storytellers, an emphasis on the female protagonist’s journey to finding her own strength is partly a reflection of the author who brought the character to life.
A powerful woman is definitely the principal character and the driving force behind the science fiction series “Alien Novels” (DAW). Author Jeanne (Gerrard) Cook ’83 writes about Kitty, who, alongside aliens posing as humans, fights evil beings from taking over the universe.
Kitty is as quick with her quips and as spunky and smart as her creator. Cook, who writes the sci-fi series under the pen name Gini Koch, says her heroine inherited a lot of her own personal history and personality quirks. For example, Kitty’s job as a marketing director echoes Cook’s 25-year career as a marketing professional at IBM. Kitty becomes a full-time member of the alien diplomatic society and a mom at the same time, just as Cook juggled raising her child while working full time in corporate America and writing fiction on the side.
“I’m in every single character I write, especially the villains,” says Arizona-based Cook, who graduated from the Mount with a bachelor’s degree in international business. “I don’t know how you can write without a piece of you in them.”Askew agrees, “All of our characters have something of ourselves. Or maybe it’s something that we wish we had.” Askew, who works as the content director at the Fashion Institute of Merchandise and Design in Los Angeles, says her experience growing up in a military family moving from one country to another shows up in the main character of the upcoming fourth book in the Twisted Lit series. Puck, a female interpretation of the fun-loving spirit in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is a foster system survivor. “Puck is displaced, trying to find a home. Even though I had a strong family home, I didn’t have a sense of place,” says Askew.
While a woman’s quest in literature “often follows a pattern similar to that of the journey of the male hero, there are some important twists,” says Professor Millie Kidd, director of the graduate humanities program.
The search for identity is not always about escaping the restraints of society, which is typical of the male hero’s journey; it may be about connecting with the self through relationships and through community. “Stories told from the female point of view help to reshape the way women are perceived by society, thereby tearing down the boundaries between individual and community,” Kidd says.
For Allison Chaney ’09 MS, her work reflects not just who she is, but also who she is not. In “I’m L.A. Woman,” one of the poems included in her recently published book of poetry “Queen Me” (Poehemian Press), the first-person voice rejects the stereotype of a woman living in Hollywood: “I am not your re-invention / I am not a size zero / I am not your lesson or false shaman’s shuffle.”
“It’s about false expectations of what you’re supposed to be like as a woman, particularly one living in Los Angeles,” she says. Chaney already holds a master’s in education from the Mount and is working on her second graduate degree. She is currently in the humanities program at the College but will be switching to the new MFA in creative writing program in the fall.
There are other woman-centric poems in “Queen Me,” including one about Dorothy of the “Wizard of Oz” (which was filmed in Culver City, Calif., where Chaney lives). Her two novels in progress are told from the female point of view, and a TV pilot she wrote for a class at the Mount centers around two sisters. “Everything is about empowering yourself and learning to believe in you as an individual,” she says. “It’s what matters.”
The woman’s discovery of her own strength — physical, mental and spiritual — is an important theme in the works of Askew, Cook and Chaney. There may be some romantic entanglements along the way, but there is no echo of Miranda’s unrestrained declaration of love in “The Tempest.”
“Most young adult fiction is about the romantic happy ending,” Askew says. “Amy and I wanted ours to be about empowerment, about how the character figures out who she is and what she wants to be. Maybe she ends up with the guy or maybe not, but I don’t want the story to work out just because the character met the man of her dreams."