Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World
From Sappho to Toni Morrison, an homage to writers who have wielded the power of the mind in language with uncommon virtuosity.
By Maria Popova
“The absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell,” Emily Dickinson wrote. So great writers bewitch us with their work long after they have absented themselves from the world. The enduring bewitchment of thirty such titans and trailblazers of the written word, Dickinson herself among them, is what author Taisia Kitaiskaia and artist Katy Horan honor in Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers (public library) — a lovely compendium of impressionistic sketches, fusing biographical facts with flights of the invocational imagination to celebrate such enchantresses of literature as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Sappho, Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, and Emily Brontë — women born “before they invented women,” as Ursula K. Le Guin put it in her brilliant unsexing of literature.
Accompanying Kitaiskaia’s wondrous spell for each writer, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s word portrait of the love of her life, are a haunting painted portrait by Horan — a fine artist specializing in folkloric, fairy tale, and mythological art — and a brief list of recommended reading for an initiation into the respective writer’s world. What emerges is a most unusual memorial of talent and a vibrant testament to Toni Morrison’s wisdom from her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Anaïs falls asleep in her sunken glass ship. As she dreams, her many selves rise from her body. They have dark owing hair, and eyes blink slowly all over their faces, chests, and arms. Some collect seashells, others chart the sun’s movement. Some keep house, make lace, pursue lovers. Another operates a printing press. Before dawn, the selves gather around the sleeping Anaïs, kiss each other’s eyelids and mouths, and dive back into the single body like the mermaids they are.
Crossing the street on a rainy day, Virginia leaps easily from one pool of consciousness to another. She loves these puddles, the creatures wrapping around her ankles in each. But before she can get to the next street, Virginia sees her own pool: it floods with rain, rises higher, becomes a deep, turbulent river. She will not survive this one.
Carried along in her river, Virginia’s body becomes a lighthouse — a tower of perception with one large eye, illuminating all she sees with rich, buttery vision, transforming bottom-feeding fish and debris into objects of beauty and meaning.
Before Virginia is pulled under forever, a wolf cub leaps from the lighthouse’s eye, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. This is Virginia’s only child. The wolf daughter fights her way to the bank of the river. She survives.
When she brushes the carpet, Emily imagines she is smoothing the moors for Heathcliff’s perfect feet. He’ll come in, Emily dreams, like the winds she walks against — muscular gusts, clenched hands snarling under her coats.
What do the ants whisper to Emily as they climb the ruined trees outside? She puts her ear to the bark and listens. She will join their palace… She will be their ant queen… She will pit them against other ant queendoms… She will watch their love and war play out.
Emily makes a telescope from ice and twine. Through this tunnel, she stares into her own eye until she sees a galaxy, and through the galaxy until she sees a stranger’s eye.
Octavia takes a break from writing to water her plants. The potted heads, of various races and humanoid species, totter on thick stems and wave their leaves at her as she enters the greenhouse. She feeds them from her pitcher.
Buying groceries, Octavia looks around at the people putting cabbages and apples into their carts, and sees what will one day overtake the innocent scene: communities overpopulating, mutating with violent need for food, power, and sex.
Walking back from the store, Octavia covertly tosses the seeds she always keeps in her pockets into her neighbors’ yards. Seeds that won’t save us but urge, We can do better.
After Stalin threatens her family, Anna fires up the cauldron: in go the ripped pages of forbidden manuscripts. The sodden papers become bandages for the wounded. The bitter broth — gulped down, so the words are never forgotten.
The deaths of Anna’s people are woven into her shawl. She sucks on these silver threads during the famine to stay alive.
Anna waits in line for rations of potatoes, cabbage, and milk. When it’s her turn, the government official slips Anna a strange object. “You must tell our story,” she says. Anna looks down and sees a golden egg. She can hear the wild heart of her nation beating inside.
Sappho is the hot green insect in every jealous quarrel, zinging between you and your lover, agitating the ions, biting your skin and making you seethe, raising the hair on the cat’s back.
Sappho is the beautiful woman you lock eyes with across the party. She has a garland and a sweet voice, and no matter how many times you try to get closer, she eludes you. Finally, she approaches, only to push a piece of papyrus into your hands and slip out the door. All you can make out is you burning in perfect handwriting. The rest of the words are illegible.
Sappho is a pair of wings — pearling between pigeon blue, moody emerald, and golden white — smoldering in a hidden cave. The wings disappear from time to time, reappearing in young girls’ closets. How seriously each girl puts these wings on in the mirror, readying herself for the pain and pleasure of love.
Gertrude is a spider, weaving a web of funhouse mirrors. Flies trap themselves by staring at their warped reflections, which repeat, repeat, repeat.
For Gertrude, each word is a hedgehog in a metal cage. Gertrude bangs at the cages with a stick; the noise is deafening. The hedgehogs grow feathers, slink into worms, shrink into dragon flies — anything to get out. Only then is Gertrude satisfied.
You can still catch glimpses of Gertrude in miniature, living on in her salon’s paintings. There she is, holding hands with Alice B., hobbling off into the shadow of a Cézanne apple. Skiing down the curvy hip of a Matisse nude, yelling with high-pitched glee.
After she loses most of her family, Mary experiments with potions to bring back the departed. She places her mother’s papers, locks of her children’s hair, and a tiny model of her husband’s sailboat into a vial. Pours in seawater, buds from the garden. Shakes.
Queen Toni sees — cleaving from the skin of every person — the child they were, their parents, great-grandparents, all the way to the first human. She can see this ancestor’s original hurt, carried around in the generations like a splinter in the spleen.’
With her mind, Toni ferries her people’s unsettled ghosts across hostile rivers, carves smooth blue boats for them to travel in. Builds shelters to cradle their rest before the great migration.
Toni is at velvet ease at her throne. Her supplicants line up to present offerings of rubies, roast duck, wild flowers. But one approaches empty handed: he tells Toni a joke instead. Everyone gasps. Finally, Toni lets out a big, rumbling laugh and joy flushes through the palace.
Complement Literary Witches with an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science and artist Judy Chicago’s iconic tribute to women in creative culture, then revisit the picture-book biographies of remarkable women whose work has transformed our world: Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Nellie Bly, and Virginia Woolf.
Published February 7, 2018