10th Anniversary Interview The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
In the introduction to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, you let your readers know what you would like for them to take away from the book. “My hope is that the book will be an opening for you . . . that something in these pages will make a tiny explosion in your heart and that you will see the things you’ve hungered for all along as a woman.” What is it about Dance that agitates or creates a need and desire for change?
I believe what sparks passion is that the book is introducing readers to the lost history of the sacred feminine and to the jolting idea that God can be visualized in feminine ways. The first time you really get that, it turns your world upside down. You rarely see a lukewarm reaction to it. The book is also pointing women home, to a lost place in their own soul. That may be part of it, too. Whatever it is, it has been moving for me to see readers respond like they have. At book signing events for my novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, there were always women who showed up, clutching The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Sometimes they would break into tears when they asked me to sign it. I know this is not about me, and it’s not even about the book, except in the sense that the book opens something for them. The reaction is about them, about their own waking experience.
Did you always get this kind of passionate reaction to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter?
Not always. In the beginning, there was also resistance.
One of the more memorable instances of that was in 1996, the year Dissident Daughter came out. I was speaking about the book at a spiritual formation conference that was being held at the mother house of a community of Catholic sisters. I should mention that they were not sponsoring the conference, only providing the facility for it. It was attended mostly by Protestants and an equal portion of men and women, and it turned out that more than a few of them were not happy about my topic. A lot of controversy got stirred up. One afternoon while seeking refuge in the library, I was summoned to the office of one of the sisters and found myself standing before an elderly nun in full habit. She had her arms crossed over her chest. She did not look happy. She said, “I understand you’ve been speaking about the Divine Feminine.” I said, “Yes’mam.” Then she said, “And I also understand you’ve kicked up quite a hornets nest.” I nodded. “Well,” she said, “I just wanted to tell you that it’s high time people realized that God is more than two men and a bird.” Then she gave me the most wonderful, subversive smile and sent me back into the fray. I’ve never forgotten her. So yes, there were pockets of antagonism along the way, but I have to tell you—there was also, from the very beginning, an audience who passionately embraced the book. What amazed me wasn’t so much the volume of the people who read it, as the passion with which readers responded to it. For every opposing reaction I got, there were a hundred reactions like that of the elderly nun.
Have you noticed changes over the years in the way traditional religious culture in general has responded to the sacred feminine?
When The Dance of the Dissident Daughter came out, it seemed that much of the dialogue about the sacred feminine was more or less circumscribed to seminaries and places where feminist theology was discussed. It just hadn’t reached the pew of the average American. But over the last decade, I’ve witnessed a substantial shift. Now we are seeing this escalating progress in which the feminine is sweeping into our imagery and conceptions of the divine. There is still a feminine wound within religion, but it is being slowly healed. There are more and more people waking up, redefining their theological concepts, and expressing their voices. When you really stop and take it in, what we are witnessing is an entire sea change in spiritual consciousness—the return of the feminine.
Do you think that The Dance of the Dissident Daughter had an effect on this shift?
I am remembering something that Rilke said, “Again and again some people in the crowd wake up. They have no ground in the crowd and they emerge according to much broader laws. The future speaks ruthlessly through them.” Looking back now over the past ten years, I wonder if perhaps there was a little something like that going on with The Dance of the Dissident Daughter—the future speaking through it, I mean. My book, though, was just one voice among many.
How did your own journey with the sacred feminine continue after The Dance of the Dissident Daughter was published?
My journey continued not just internally, but quite literally. About a year after The Dance of the Dissident Daughter came out, I felt nudged to return to Greece and to take my daughter, Ann. My awakening had come about in part because of Ann—through the event in the drugstore that I describe at the beginning of the book—and then it turned out that The Dance of the Dissident Daughter played a part in waking up Ann’s spiritual searching. So, off we went, just the two of us. It was the summer after she graduated from college, the summer I turned fifty. To say we were ripe for something is an understatement. We trekked all over Greece exploring the Divine Feminine, and of course, we ended up exploring ourselves and our mother-daughter relationship. That was the beginning of a whole series of pilgrimages to sacred feminine sites that went on for the next several years. Two friends and I led the trips, taking groups of women to England, France, Switzerland, and back to Greece. There’s no doubt I was wanting to expand and solidify the experiences I’d written about in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, but mostly I was motivated by how hungry women were for sacred feminine experience. A groundswell of awakening was going on, but there were so few ways for women to come together, to encounter images of the Divine Feminine, and to initiate themselves into the realm of the female soul.
How did you encounter the Black Madonna?
That actually came about during these pilgrimages. I first saw her in Greece when I came upon an icon of a dark-faced Madonna. I became intrigued and began seeking her out. I found her especially prevalent in France. The Black Madonna was probably the most impacting discovery I made during those pilgrimages. I never expected her to seize my imagination and even my heart, the way she did. All I know is that I became deeply affected by her images and her history. In a way she’s the inheritor within western religion of the Great Goddess of the ancient world. I find her to be an extraordinary fusion of the Christian Mary and the old Goddesses. And because of that she has some very unique layers of meaning—her sense of justice and inclusion, her dissidence, her immense compassion, her connection to the earth and the body. There’s something wonderfully untamed about her. She became a kind of bridge for me, an image of the sacred feminine that began to integrate my experience.
What is the most common question readers have about The Dance of the Dissident Daughter?
Typically it has to do with how their marriage or relationship can survive their awakening. I understand this. When I was waking up, I felt like I couldn’t go back to how it was before I became conscious, but at the same time I felt afraid to go forward partly because of how it might affect my marriage. Feminine spiritual awakenings can bring such beautiful gifts to women, but they can also bring upheaval. Think about it—there has been so much female silencing, and then all of a sudden a woman finds this freedom to express who she is, what she feels, and what this wound is about. And the wound is not just about her own personal life; it’s about something deep in the feminine psyche. So yes, when women wake up, often there’s anger, and it’s difficult for husbands and partners to face. They can be bewildered by the whole thing. I think we have to have some compassion for that. I don’t have a neat answer for how to go through the process with one’s relationship intact—I just know somehow it happened to me. I think if we can hold the tension of this hard place with as much love, patience, waiting and consciousness as possible, then sometimes something shifts. But you know, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s just no formula. In the end my husband went through his own deep changes and here we are.
You turned to fiction after The Dance of the Dissident Daughter was published. How did that path unfold?
It was during the journey I went through in Dissident Daughter that I discovered my desire to write fiction. Believe me, this was very unforeseen. It’s true that when I first began to write at the age of thirty it was with the desire to become a novelist, but I never really developed that desire. I put it aside and went onto write non-fiction, primarily my own story. So the impulse was buried for a long time. I think there was something about the experience in Dissident Daughter that dislodged it and caused it to resurface. I imagine it had to do with the quest for my own voice and creativity, for ways of expressing myself that were native to my own soul. Clearly, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter is the hardest book I’ve ever written, but when I finished it, I felt incredibly freed. It brought me to a new threshold in my creative life in which I felt absolutely compelled to take up fiction. (Not that I wasn’t also completely intimidated by the idea.) After all those years, I came full circle, back to my original desire. I recall a story I love about Jung. One of his students came to him and asked: “Professor, could you please tell me the shortest distance to my life goal?” Without hesitation Jung replied, “The detour.” There seems to nearly always be a necessary detour in the creative life. I took one. And I have no regret about it. In fact, there is part of me that believes I could not have written my novels if I had not written Dissident Daughter.
How did the journey you wrote about in Dissident Daughter influence your novels?
It definitely impacted my novels, both of which address the terrain of women’s souls and the transforming power of the sacred feminine. In The Secret Life of Bees, there’s a Black Madonna who functions as a sacred feminine presence. She is the symbolic heart of the story and the source of my character Lily’s healing. There is also a community of women in Bees which becomes like a womb– Lily is reborn through those women. Likewise, the roots of my second novel, The Mermaid Chair, are also in Dissident Daughter. Once again, the community of women turns up and takes on the role of helping to transform the character. The real core, though, of The Mermaid Chair is Jessie’s feminine spiritual quest for self-belonging. This same quest is a large part of Dissident Daughter—the journey to come home to oneself as a woman, to find one’s voice and creative flourishing, one’s own solitude of being.
With the huge success of your novels, your schedule must be a lot more hectic than before. How do you make time for your contemplative side?
Trying to find the right balance between the complexity and pace of life and my need for simpler, quieter rhythms is a major theme for me. I grapple with it a lot. The world is hurtling by and I don’t think the soul is designed to keep up with that. The soul thrives when it’s in synch with a deeper, slower pace. This is true of my creativity also. I’ve always had a deep hunger for contemplative experience. A long time ago, I came upon Wordsworth’s reference to “spots of time” in his poem “The Prelude.” I think he was talking about brief, intimate epiphanies that are slightly out of time, but also in time. Sometimes all I can manage are just these spots of time—little moments during the day in which I carve out a bit of solitude or being. Even that returns me to my true self.
I noticed that monasteries or places to retreat have played a large role in your life. How important are sacred places to you?
Immensely. I started going to monasteries back in my thirties. People used to tease me sometimes about my maiden name Monk and the fact that I had this tremendous affinity for monastic places. I found monasteries to be places that vividly tend to the innate longing in us for the divine. I don’t go to monasteries so much anymore, however. The natural world has become my sacred place, particularly the dock behind my house which overlooks a marsh creek. I really don’t think there are separations between the secular and the sacred. It’s all divine. In other words, we don’t necessarily have to go to monasteries to find our sacred place. We just have to find the wherewithal to be awake where we are.
Why do you write? Why is it important to you to share these stories with the world?
When I wrote The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I had a need to bring about wholeness and healing in myself. I think I began with the impulse toward personal wholeness, trying to express some conversation I was having with my soul. But the amazing thing, the really gratifying thing, is that seeking wholeness in oneself can serve the wholeness of others. I’ve said this many times—I write not so much to cause people to know things in their heads, but I write to affect their hearts. I believe that the heart is where the most potential for change lies. The seat of the will is in the heart, and that’s where I want to go. I certainly want to enlighten people and make them think, but mostly I want to get to their hearts. One of the most direct ways into the human heart is a story.