November 07, 2017
Kingdom of Women’s main character, Averil Parnell, is the world’s first female Roman Catholic priest. We learn early on in the novel that she’s the lone survivor of a massacre of 22 women who were about to be ordained. Why give her such a traumatic backstory?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. The backstory was part of what came to me with the character. And since it shaped her life, it shaped the plot in fundamental ways. She probably wouldn’t have started to have religious visions, or had an affair with the most unsuitable man possible, if she weren’t so traumatized.
Which raises the question: who is a suitable person for a Catholic priest to have an affair with?
Ha! Presumably no one, since they take a vow of celibacy. But you’d think a priest would want someone who’s understanding and comforting and supportive—and preferably non-Catholic, or at least not a parishioner. Someone other than a violent, sociopathic serial rapist.
And the violent sociopath is a Catholic.
Yes, Averil has a great deal in common with John Honig, weirdly enough. That’s one of the things that torments Averil about the affair. Beside the fact that she doesn’t even like him.
What’s with the epigraphs?
I love epigraphs. I know there are people who dislike them, and I hope it doesn’t put them off. A lot of the epigraphs are from writings by medieval European women, mostly mystics. Averil was a historian of medieval Christianity, before the massacre put an end to her scholarly career. The epigraphs give a good sense of the kind of work she would have been immersed in, and also gives an idea of the breadth and variety of women’s religious experiences at that time. Her own visions don’t spring out of nowhere; she’s one of a long line of visionary women.
Other epigraphs come from the U.S. history of radical activism, including the Black abolitionist David Walker (“It is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty”). And then of course there are the epigraphs from the Bible (I love those disgruntled women complaining to the prophet Jeremiah) and from non-canonical gospels.
It’s funny how relevant some of these were. I had put a lot of thought into Averil’s age at the opening of the novel, bearing in mind how long since her ordination, how many years are covered in the rest of the book, etc., and decided that she’s 43 as the novel opens. Then I found that quote from Hildegard of Bingen: “It was in my 43rd year … that a voice from heaven addressed me: O fragile child of earth, ash of ashes, dust of dust, express and write that which you see and hear.”
And then, in the midst of Averil’s obsessive affair with John, we have this epigraph from Hadewijch of Antwerp, whose work Averil had specialized in: “Sometimes also the evil spirit is the cause of sweetness.” It couldn’t be more apt.
You describe the book’s setting as a “slightly alternate near-future.” Have current events caught up with the things you imagined?
I started working on drafts of the novel well before 2000, but then I would set it aside for years at a time while I got my MFA and finished my short story collection. I started submitting it to agents and publishers in 2012. Obviously the Roman Catholic Church still doesn’t ordain women. But in other ways, it’s been kind of eerie how certain aspects of the novel seem more relevant now. I couldn’t have foreseen that The Handmaid’s Tale would be made into a hit mini-series after all these years. Also, in Erda (the former North Dakota, before it seceded), the president is a Black woman, and that’s part of what brings all the foaming-at-the-mouth racist misogynists out of the woodwork. They form a revitalized armed white-supremacist movement called Aryan Revival, with covert help from the U.S. government. At the time I thought that up, I had definitely not foreseen Barack Obama’s career, or the toxic response to it.
About the title: have any mansplainers pointed out that the word “kingdom” by definition can’t be “of women”?
That’s been explained to me. I’m so grateful.
You’re half-Puerto Rican, but your main character isn’t Latina. Could you talk about that decision?
Several answers to that. One is that Averil isn’t a fictionalized version of me. Second, I definitely pictured all the members of the novel’s central triangle—priest, assassin, rapist—as white, with white privilege forming part of their lives’ trajectory. On the other hand, one of the main secondary characters is a Black woman. And the original Erda (before it expanded after the war) was this lovely, hippie-ish utopian community that, besides being non-patriarchal, was also majority-people-of-color. Given my own upbringing, with Puerto Rican relatives and African-American neighbors, that feels like a very safe and loving environment to me.
ROSALIE MORALES KEARNS, author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis Press), is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. She’s the founder of the feminist publishing house Shade Mountain Press, author of the story collection Virgins and Tricksters, and editor of the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. A product of Catholic schooling from kindergarten through college, Kearns has a B.A. in theology and an M.F.A. in creative writing.