Being a Woman Part II: The Mystical Side--"The Salt God's Daughter" by Ilie Ruby

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.

As I was growing up in the 1970s, I became aware of the patriarchal patterning of the folktale, specifically as it relates to the idea of a woman waiting and longing for love to change her, for the male character's actions and choices to decide her destiny for her. I came of age in the riptide of feminism, and feminism informed the way I began to think about the song. It was difficult to watch my own mother, like many women, as she struggled with the changing expectations and roles for women. When I set out to write this novel, I thought it would be interesting to give the folktale a feminist perspective.

Many novels begin with questions. In this case: what would happen if the female character took her power back? How would this affect her identity and her relationships? The story evolved into a re-imagining of the selkie myth. The folktale is a natural vessel because it illuminates the power of submerged desires and hidden identities in a shifting landscape, and the theme of things we don't see or speak about often having more control than we know. It's interesting to me, the way our identities evolve throughout our lives--how we're forced to reconfigure our idea of "self" as the demands on us change.

The reason that "magical realism" appeals to me is that it creates a fantastical crucible that brings to light not only the lovely moments but also the gritty realities of the human experience.. I prefer to call the genre "mystical realism" or "ethereal realism" because the elements that are woven into the work are often more spiritual than magical.

There are hints throughout the novel that a divine presence is controlling the action, and that the divine presence is female. Were you trying to make this suggestion?
I wasn't trying to craft a female divinity as much as I was trying to reflect the divinity of the characters in the story. The characters struggle with finding a home in the world, finding their places in the universe. It isn't so much about the gender of God as much as it is a way to wrestle with questions, "What is our purpose? How can we make a difference? What is our impact on humankind?"

Diana and Ruthie and Naida all feel "different." They are all marginalized and search for a way to embrace all that they are. To me, this is what feminism is all about. Motherhood and the workplace are important aspects of feminism, but metaphysical issues are pivotal aspects of feminism, too. I wanted to look at the ways in which we all attempt to feel at home in, and make sense of, the world. We all feel different at times; we all are marginalized at times and believe that we are not like everybody else. Ironically, this is a universal feeling, one that is part of the human condition, and an issue that is just as relevant for women today as it was fifty years ago.

The mother-daughter bond is at the heart of the book. Were you influenced by your experience of motherhood or daughterhood?
I've always been interested in the world of motherhood, and with the way that motherhood is experienced across generations. These questions are at the forefront of my mind: How do we pass on our stories to our children? Do we mother based solely on what we learned from our own mothers? What patterns and practices do we maintain and what do we do differently? How do we mother when we didn't have a mother--or if a mother was lost or sick or struggling?

For me, becoming a mother, and in particular having an adolescent daughter, influenced the writing of this story. While of course many things are different today, some aspects of girlhood are timeless. As Ruthie and Graham say in the novel, a mother is a girl's first love. But there's often a natural break in that relationship, and it occurs for different people at different times. Children grow and define themselves on their own terms, both because of--and in spite of--love. So at some level we are always trying to close that separation, and that comes through in all our relationships.

How is it that Graham immediately understands the centrality of the mother-daughter connection for Ruthie?
Part of the mystery of this person is his unworldliness--he is the bridge between animal and human, and because the mother-child bond is primal for all creatures, he knows this on an almost spiritual level. For Ruthie, Graham is that person met once in a blue moon, about whom we think, "This is the person I've been waiting for my whole life. This person knows me and loves me for who I am, for the things I don't say, and for the things that even I have not yet accepted about myself." He comes in not as Ruthie's guide or savior but as her partner--one who helps her recover those things she lost when her virginity was taken.

When Ruthie is raped, she never says "stop," which haunts her for many years. Why did you choose to write about her rape from this perspective?
When I wrote the novel, I was thinking about Ruthie's story in the context of the '70s and '80s, a time when the fallacy of the "romantic rape" was being exposed--this is reflected in the way that Ruthie grapples with her attack and pregnancy. Recent comments in the media about victims of "legitimate rape" rarely getting pregnant brought to light the fact that rape in our culture is still an issue that requires a great deal more understanding, and at the very least, education. Interestingly, while researching this book, I came across production notes about a pop culture storyline--that of Luke and Laura from the soap opera "General Hospital," a program that was catapulted to the top of the ratings charts in 1979 by an audience of millions of adolescent girls. There is an episode that features a "romantic rape," which was blocked and staged to somehow lessen the severity of the crime, to keep the characters sympathetic to a female audience. Today, we see how much more work still needs to be done in regard to our culture's views of female sexuality.

My goal for the character of Ruthie was that she learn self-preservation. She grows up having to mother her struggling mother, and having to put her own needs aside. She becomes very good at looking out for other people. I think that any child who grows up in this way must re-learn self-preservation as an adult. Ruthie must learn this lesson, and the women she meets along her journey, and Graham, help her do it.

Toward the end, Ruthie says, "The events of my past could be rewritten." Do you believe this is true?
I believe strongly in second chances, and in the power of human beings to rise up, recover, and redefine their lives. Of course you cannot change the past, but you can write a new story for yourself, so that when you think back, the past is not the only story you remember. Ultimately, Ruthie's story is one of hope and resiliency.

The Salt God's Daughter is now available online and in bookstores.