JSU Newswire
Jacksonville, Alabama

Author of 'Ahab's Wife' to Read

From Saltire, the Friends of Houston Cole Library Newsletter

February 21, 2003 -- On Monday evening February 24, 2003 at 7:30 p.m., the Friends of the JSU Houston Cole Library will sponsor a reading and talk by Birmingham-native Sena Jeter Naslund.

Naslund, whose Ahab's Wife, Or, The Star Gazer, appeared to critical acclaim in 2000, has completed a subsequent novel, Four Spirits, set during the years of her own youth in Birmingham, Alabama when the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four young black girls. Currently, she is in residence at Montevallo University as Visiting Faculty. She is director of the short-term residence MFA program in Creative Writing at Spaulding University, editor of Louisville Review, and is also a Distinguished Professor on the faculty of University of Louisville.

The wide success of Ahab's Wife was accompanied by a flurry of interviews and book signings. In an interview with New York journalist John Woodley, available on line at MostlyFiction.com, she details both the flash of inspiration that made possible her long commitment to the project and the meticulous research that details the rich life behind her heroine, Una Spenser, who begins her narrative with an opening sentence that has since been called one that rivals Melville's own, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." The sentence, the subtitle, "Or, The Star Gazer," the image of a widowed wife searching for her whale-captain husband, and the large scope of the book came to her in an instant, doubtless prompted, she has explained elsewhere, by her daughter asking why there were no women in the Moby Dick they were listening to on tape. The novel is rich with details that tie it to Melville's Moby Dick, yet it creates a world for her Una that intersects with famous historical people, especially Margaret Fuller and Frederick Douglass. (Even Nathaniel Hawthorne and the young, precocious Henry James make appearances.)

Naslund explained to Julia Oliver, who interviewed her for First Draft, The Journal of the Alabama Writers Forum, "I loved both the original writing and the revision process--every minute of it. I fell strangely in love with this book and wanted to be with it, or in it, as much as possible." Indeed, many readers feel the same, as if they want Una's experiences not to end, so vivid and variable are her life's journeys. For the well-read reader, the novel has special rewards in store. In the opening chapters, Ahab's Wife indirectly invokes both the surprises Ishmael encounters when he's obliged to share a bed with Qeequeg and the classic scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin¸ in which Eliza escapes to her freedom across the ice flows. (Naslund admits her anti-slavery scenes were trimmed in her final draft but that aspects of her black characters fighting for their freedoms found their way into her next book.) Moreover, Una directly calls up lines from John Keats and Shakespeare and consciously compares herself not only to her namesake in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, but also to Shakespeare's romance heroines, longing for an alternative to tragic outcome in a world where all seems bleak around them. Ahab's love letters to Una are also sprinkled with Shakespearean allusions.

Naslund's earlier novel, Sherlock in Love (1993), makes a clever twist on Watson's tales of the famous detective. Her collection of stories, The Disobedience of Water, creates a mix of characters and voices, some indebted to her background in music and art. The title piece, she explains to Oliver, turned out to be a "preliminary sketch" for Una, a "contemporary woman" that experiences a version of Una's 19th century story.

Ahab's Wife, Or the Star Gazer has reached at least its 20th printing in paperback. It was selected for Yale's Freshman year reading list. Sena Jeter Naslund has previously given talks at Pell City, Sylacauga, and Calhoun County Libraries (sponsored by the Alabama Center for the Book), as well as points around her native Birmingham. She was a recipient in 2001 of the Harper Lee Award, presented at the Monroeville Alabama Writers Symposium, where she spoke of her girlhood memories of frequenting the Birmingham Public Library. The Alabama Library Association voted her Fiction Writer of the Year in 2001. Copies of Naslund's books will be available for purchase and signing. Refreshments will be served.

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