Her friends call her a polymath. South African-American writer and activist Gerda Saunders has her collection of short stories, Blessings on the Sheep Dog, lauded by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee for its “cool intelligence, laconic wit and deep feeling”.
As associate director of Gender Studies programme at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Ms Saunders has been instrumental in foregrounding complex issues of motherhood, which she thinks might not have made it to be a topic in routine feminist discourse. On top, her forthcoming debut novel, The Last Pieta of Michel Agniolo, promises to give a peek into the psycho-sexual torments of a great artist by deftly weaving historical facts into a fictitious narrative. In town on a personal tour, she spoke to The Hindu on all the above.
“I took about 10 years to write it, but later edited it down by half. Set in Michelangelo’s time (that of the Reformation), its two major tenets have come out of my broader background. First, our Gender Studies programme deals with how characteristics of persona, such as gender and sexuality, intersect with markers of personnel, such as class, race, ethnicity and the like. Michelangelo was a homosexual man, but in those days it was referred to using the Biblical word sodomy. In Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo is portrayed as one who had a huge crush on a high-class prostitute and not as one who loved the company of man. My interest lies in his sexuality. I also look at the position of women during that time,” says Ms. Saunders.
She did a lot of spadework before framing the narrative. “The time-line of Angelo’s life is known. Wherever history was known, I kept to it,” she says. And, wherever mystery lingered, she knitted together imagination and her readings of his works, especially the last ‘Pieta’ that he was presumably working on during the last days before death.
Deriving the character of a young lady housekeeper from the historical figure Anguissola Sofonisba, who the artist mentored from a distance, Ms Saunders seeks to propound her theoretical hypothesis of how safe a woman would have been in the house of a man who was not interested in women “as women working for men at that time stood a grave chance of being treated as a sexual object”.
Ms. Saunders argues that the sheer masculinity of his works should not be missed. “A private man, he felt envious of Leonardo Da Vinci, another homosexual who publicly flaunted his ‘boy’,” she says.
In the novel, the lady housekeeper is depicted as gradually gaining his confidence and respect thanks to her drawing skills. As in the last sculpture ‘Pieta’, where a standing Mary has Jesus leaning on to her as if rising from the dead, this woman (the housekeeper), half his age, rises to be a mother-like figure in the novel.
As one who grew up in South Africa during the time of the apartheid, Ms. Saunders thinks duty-bound to work on a novel on the life of the Bushmen of Kalahari who became extinct in 1850. “They only kept a thin line between life and death and my story starts with the death of the last of them,” she says, confessing to working on it simultaneously.
Activism is her forte, too. Last year, she chaired a series of monologues on motherhood as part of the department’s annual women’s week. Called ‘Mommy monologues’, it had community members—single parents, gay couple who adopted kids, a Hispanic woman with step children and the like—presenting their experience of motherhood, a far cry from the high-brow ‘mummy wars’ of affluent women activists.
The department is going to have a similar programme this year as well.
“Our foundations are political,” she affirms. And even as California debates on Proposition 8 that abolished gay marriage and provoked protests galore, she takes it as her duty to tell her students how it fits in constitutionally, and in the history of Civil Rights.