Growing Up with the Odyssey

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The Odyssey helps me think about home, less as a particular place than as a state of mind. My daughters go to good schools downtown. Does it matter? Kids also like to be scared—by not-mothers who are witches or Sirens, or not-father giants who might eat you up, or dangerous not-pet monsters and beasts with six heads, or by a world where you might be drowned, trapped, kidnapped, or find yourself making a terrible, irrevocable mistake, like eating a mysteriously forbidden food like the Cattle of the Sun. Like our school play, most of these adaptations zoom through Odysseus’s return to Ithaca; his slow, gradual consolidation of power while in disguise as a beggar; his violent, bloody revenge on the suitors; his reunion with his son, his slaves, his wife, and his old father; and his continuing effort to establish dominance on the island. But Hinds is an outlier in the field. The Ithacan books are a sustained reminder that home might not be a matter of geographical location. One is tortured to death, several are hanged, others are forced to scrub the blood of the massacre from the master’s palace floors. The second, the showstopper, was the sequence in which the giant Polyphemus the Cyclops, played by the school headmaster, has his single eye gouged out by Odysseus and his gang. The powerful, sometimes hostile, sometimes protective gods of Olympus allow children to reimagine their own teachers and parents as beings who have enormous power over those smaller than they are, beings who are immune from normal pain and who spend much of their time squabbling among themselves. I left behind a beloved best friend and traveled to a world where many things had to be learned all over again, starting with the daily routines (here we had to sit cross-legged on the rug for attendance, not upright on plastic chairs) and handwriting (my scratchy, illegible scrawl was no longer acceptable). How can strangers become friends, or the other way around? I have returned to some of these children’s retellings as an adult and have discovered even more, such as the excellent graphic novelization by Gareth Hinds, which includes every book of Homer’s original. Our class spent many happy hours in the art room constructing the one-eyed mask out of papier-mâché, trying to make it look appropriately monstrous with lavishly applied poster paint. I had already discovered that daydreaming, playing pretend, and books could take me to places where my anxieties melted away. My real self is with my American family and the sunflowers I planted this year in my Philadelphia garden. From the   Odyssey, adapted by Gillian Cross and illustrated by Neil Packer, published by Walker Books in 2013. This kind of reduction makes the Odyssey into a story about an isolated human (with his band of undifferentiated sidekicks) who faces extraordinary obstacles. They’re just beginning to glimpse the fascinating facts that words can mean more than one thing, and things may not be as they seem—which is why the funny trickster (like Anansi the Spider, Brer Rabbit, or Bugs Bunny) is always popular. As people who have only recently begun to forge boundaries between reality and playing pretend, children often relish literature that allows them to reflect on the relationship between the two worlds. But it is experienced very differently by every other member of his household, including his slaves. The first was the scene on Calypso’s island, where Odysseus is stranded for seven years in the company of the goddess, unable to get back to his family. The transition was hard at first. At school, I was lost and homesick; but at home, I often felt equally lost. Helen was a nonspeaking role, and my beautiful sister spent her single brief dramatic appearance being tugged across the stage by the sweaty little boy playing Paris. Somewhere else, there was a world of fantasy in which a person with patience, determination, brains, and the right kind of divine help could achieve wonderful things and discover temporary homes—an idea I found enormously comforting. I still love magic. There were two big highlights of the production. These versions of the Odyssey taught me that the most interesting things happen in the spaces in between: not in the war or in Ithaca, not in school or at home, but somewhere else. I have lived in the United States for the past twenty years, and I turn back to the Odyssey when I try to make sense of the fact that my home is not in my native homeland. What is it to be an insider, or an outsider?  
When I was a shy, awkward eight-year-old living in Oxford, England, I was moved to a new school. When Odysseus finally returns home, he remains in disguise as a homeless old beggar and only very gradually reveals himself to those who have remained loyal to him, including his son, his wife, and his bereft old father. In many children’s adaptations, the central story is how Odysseus is trapped in the middle, between Athena (Odysseus’s   supporter and, literally, “mentor”) and Poseidon (enraged with Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops)—a theme that felt truthful to my childhood experience of adults. Most children’s adaptations shield young readers from the fact that other people may be just as difficult to deal with as storms, gods, witches, or monsters. My parents—an academic and a writer—were busy and distant. My beloved adaptations of the Odyssey pointed me to the possibility that one might yearn for home without actually wanting to spend much time there. As a child, I used to spend many hours pretending to be an orangutan or a gorilla, till my jaw ached with the effort; I loved that Odysseus could transition so easily from being somebody to being nobody, and back again, and that Athena could be male or female, young or old, in an instant. I had some dark moments when my younger sister, she of the gorgeous blonde ringlets, was cast as Helen of Troy. But I had no good reason to be jealous. It was a Church of England school, and the teachers made us sing cheerful songs about “sharing and caring.” We learned to make pot holders, quiche Lorraine, and lumpy ashtrays out of clay—talents that are still more or less the pinnacle of my domestic abilities. I wonder if it is possible, or even desirable, to be like Odysseus: to remain, or to become again, the person I was decades ago, or to establish a permanent sense of belonging. Like many adaptations of the Odyssey for children, my school play focused primarily on Odysseus’s wanderings, not what happens when he reaches Ithaca. Odysseus comes home slowly and sporadically, by gradually re-creating or reinventing his identity. He reestablishes his most important relationships and proves that he can act like himself by telling long, elaborate, often false stories, and then stringing his own bow to slaughter the suitors. As an introverted child, I wasn’t able to articulate how the Odyssey connected with my deep feelings of unbelonging. In an old photo, an elegant ponytailed Calypso and I, in my wristwatch and elaborate tinfoil headgear, kneel beside the giant’s prostrate body. What is cultural difference? I was Athena, the most kick-ass goddess of them all. At the same time, I feel a certain kinship with the little British girl I used to be, and I still love the threads in the Odyssey that appealed to her. We all create identities for ourselves through our actions and our relationships, our disguises and our words. By far the most exciting thing that happened that year was the school play: an ambitious adaptation of the Odyssey, enacted by us children. Though Odysseus is the hero (acted by our class troublemaker, a clever, rowdy British Pakistani boy on whom I had a secret crush), I was vastly more powerful, and I got to tell him exactly what to do. My sister and I learned early on that silence was the easiest way to avoid their displeasure. I live with my three young daughters in a nice detached house on a leafy street in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood dominated by middle-class professionals and hipsters. But people often forget that more than half of the original Odyssey happens in Ithaca, where suitors have invaded Odysseus’s home.  
Emily Wilson is a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania. Our version featured a lot of fun limbo dancing and (of course) calypso music. I find myself constantly thinking of the Odyssey’s disturbing recognition that one person’s identity and sense of belonging may come at a huge cost to someone else. Emily Wilson’s new translation of the   Odyssey   appears in our Summer issue. All children know what it is like to struggle with transitions, to miss home and family, to feel powerless and lost, to encounter strange new places and cultures. I felt lost, as if in a foreign island or out at sea in a storm—although in fact, the school was only three blocks from my house. For Odysseus, this homecoming is a triumph. After playing Athena, I was inspired to read the ancient Greek stories for myself, starting with the adaptations by Rosemary Sutcliff and Roger Lancelyn Green. Is it about where you are or where you come from, how you behave or the stories you tell? A few blocks further west and further north, there are far higher rates of poverty. Read an excerpt from her new translation of the   Odyssey   here. Children love the scene with Odysseus in the Cyclops’s cave, when he claims his name is Noman—so when the poor blinded giant cries out that “no man is killing me,” his friends conclude that there is no need to help him. But there were good things in this strange new world. I made a new friend, a girl with an adorable freckly smile. I still want to be Athena—competent, powerful, and with the capacity for self-transformation. They naturally prune away all the extramarital sex (between the seven years he spends in bed with Calypso and his year with Circe, Odysseus had plenty), and they eliminate most of the violence, focusing instead on the fantastical dangers encountered by Odysseus and his men on their journey: the Sirens who lure him to listen to their song forever; the lotus-eaters who are too stoned to remember their goal; the man-eating, six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis; the cool witch Circe, who turns men into pigs; the trip to the land of the dead; the god Aeolus with his bag of winds; and, of course, the Cyclops. Here, she remembers performing in a child’s production of the   Odyssey   as a girl in Oxford, England. I only knew that I felt at home in the world of Odysseus’s wanderings—because it was a story of not being at home. On stage, the boys playing Odysseus and his henchmen pretended to twizzle the eye out with a broom handle—an unrealistic but deeply satisfying performance of aggression against our ultimate representative of adult authority. The hero’s return to Ithaca—where his forgettable wife was laboring over a pot holder—felt like a tedious afterthought. They like stories about disguise and transformation; they know from recent experience what it’s like to mutate from speechless, floppy blobs into competent, thoughtful people.