Author Annabel Lyon imagines ancient women

On Sept. 17, York University’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Annabel Lyon reading from her novel The Sweet Girl (2012). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

Realistically, then, the life of an ancient woman is foreign to me, utterly foreign.  Utterly, dangerously foreign, for a fiction writer; it’s almost beyond my imagining.  I can put myself in the mind of Aristotle with much greater ease, ironically, than I can put myself in the mind of his daughter.  And yet that’s precisely the problem I’ve set for myself in the sequel to The Golden Mean, the book I’m currently writing [The Sweet Girl].


            from Imagining Ancient Women
by Annabel Lyon

Annabel Lyon thinks “Aristotle is awesome.” After writing her Giller award-nominated novel about the ancient philosopher, The Golden Mean, she decided to explore the life of ancient women.  The result was The Sweet Girl, a novel that takes place near the end of Aristotle’s life and follows the remarkable journey of his little-known daughter. On Sept. 17, Lyon read from her work and shared her thoughts on the process of writing as part of the Canadian Writers in Person series.

LyonhsAnnabel Lyon

Lyon believes that Aristotle was way ahead of his time with an exploratory mind and holistic view of the world. Yet, he was nonetheless a slave-owner who typically regarded women as a lower life form, not altogether different than housecats. Despite her admiration for the great thinker, Lyon thought to challenge his views by creating Pytho, a fictional version of his daughter, a character that sees beyond the limitations of her time period. She is often referred to as the eponymous “sweet girl” because that is what she is expected to be, but the sharp-minded girl sees herself much differently.

Though Pytho has a loving and engaging relationship with her famous father, Lyon kills off Aristotle fairly early in the story so as not to overshadow his daughter, to allow her to be tested on her own merits and opportunities. After travelling to Greece to do research, the writer was surprised at how many options there were for a woman of her class. Many women were literate and numerate because they often had to manage households, and even small businesses. They could be doctors and midwives, and procure positions at a temple, which gave them political power while still maintaining a home life. Prostitution was also an option at many levels, but often these women were also educated in order to engage intelligently with their powerful suitors. Because of the liberty of imagination, Lyon chose to throw Pytho into all of these situations to see how an ancient woman might have lived.

sweetgirlimageThe author resists the stereotypes of historical fiction, which she feels are often centred on a syrupy love story where the contrived female characters are either “spunky” or waiting to be rescued, and everyone speaks in a British accent regardless of time and place. As such, Lyon chose to give Pytho’s story a more realistic and less tidy ending because to do otherwise, would be to “cheat the reader’s intelligence.” While she endeavoured to make it historically accurate, she was also able to take many liberties and in some scenes play with the reader’s sense of reality by introducing mythical elements.  This reflects the tension between Aristotle’s rationality and the realm of gods as experienced by people of that time because, as in the ancient stories, Pytho encounters an immortal or two on the way.  Despite the challenges she puts her character through, Lyon does admit to giving her the gift of freedom to pursue her intellectual interests within the context of her world.

When asked about her process, Lyon says that she works from an outline and relies heavily on the three-act screenwriting structure, which in fact goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Through this filmic approach, she externalizes her character’s experiences through action and gesture, even though it is a first-person narrative. Lyon admits that Pytho’s narrative voice is not that far off her own voice at that age, that of a smart and sardonic sixteen-year-old, though her character’s interests (and tastes in men) couldn’t be more different. It’s not surprising to find pieces of the author throughout her work, because after all the best advice of ancient Greece is to “know thyself.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.  For a full schedule of upcoming writers this year, see the story in the Sept. 15 issue of YFile.