Former Defense Department General Counsel Appointed Harvard’s Top Lawyer


Democracy Center Protesters Stage ‘Emergency Rally’ with Pro-Palestine Activists Amid Occupation


Harvard Violated Contract With HGSU in Excluding Some Grad Students, Arbitrator Rules


House Committee on China to Probe Harvard’s Handling of Anti-CCP Protest at HKS


Harvard Republican Club Endorses Donald Trump in 2024 Presidential Election

From the Boston Book Festival: ‘Deconstruction of Myth’ Panelists Refresh Myths for the Present

The Boston Book Festival’s panel “Deconstruction of Myth” featured authors Emily Wilson, Ha Jin, and Susanna Moore, moderated by author Dawn Tripp.
The Boston Book Festival’s panel “Deconstruction of Myth” featured authors Emily Wilson, Ha Jin, and Susanna Moore, moderated by author Dawn Tripp. By Courtesy of Isabelle A. Lu
By Isabelle A. Lu, Crimson Staff Writer

Dozens assembled at the Church of the Covenant on Oct. 14 for the Boston Book Festival’s panel “Deconstruction of Myth,” which featured authors Emily Wilson, Ha Jin, and Susanna Moore. Moderated by author Dawn Tripp, the three panelists discussed revisiting existing myths and histories, as well as representing politics, gender, and violence through alternative lenses.

The three presenters kicked off the discussion with readings of their latest works. In Susanna Moore’s excerpt from her historically inspired novel “The Lost Wife,” the heroine Sarah Brinton reflected on her interactions with the Santee Sioux during the Sioux Uprising of 1862.

As her heroine questioned her own preconceptions about Native Americans, Moore read, “The idea of who is civilized and who is not seems to refer to many things, religious customs, and what stories we tell and the way food is prepared.”

Next, translator Emily Wilson raised her arms to the ceiling as she chanted the opening of Homer’s “Iliad” in its original Ancient Greek. Asking attendees to listen for each version’s rhythms, she followed up with a reading of her English translation. Wilson’s aim of conveying Homeric poetry’s “clarity and emotional directness” came through in her striking phrasing.

Lastly, Ha Jin’s excerpt from his novel “The Woman Back From Moscow” followed a newly established Chairman Mao’s 1949 stay in Moscow during treaty negotiations with Josef Stalin. As Jin wryly narrated Mao’s demands for a wood ball mattress and squat toilet, the audience laughed. Through a lighthearted portrayal of a politically mythologized figure, Jin’s reading eroded Mao’s powerful persona.

All three excerpts altered cemented practices of writing history. Wilson aimed to combat other translators’ unnecessary additions to Homer’s language, Moore brought cross-cultural sympathy to the violent history of the American West, and Jin shed light on narratives hidden by the Chinese Communist Party.

“What I love about these three books is that they each have taken these kernels of humanness and retold, translated, a structure that might have been more fixed in our minds,” Tripp said.

“Retold, translated, restored, but also in my case, made up,” said Moore, prompting laughter.

“Sometimes you have to change history,” added Jin, who had made minor timeline changes for the sake of his narrative.

The authors also discussed using artistic license to explore the unsaid aspects of historical accounts. For example, historical figures’ true feelings and opinions may have been left out of official records to fit a broader agenda or timely social norms. As a result, modern authors can fill in the blanks to infuse emotional truth into myth.

“Over time, and very often, language evolves a kind of crust, or rust, over experience,” Jin said.

The importance of new translations is to strip away this rust and reach the original emotional impact of the work. In an anecdote about erotic research for her 1995 novel “In the Cut,” Moore described her belief in removing all sensory descriptions, leaving space for the reader’s imagination. Wilson likened Moore’s point to the Iliad’s nondescript sex scene between Helen and Paris. The panel concluded that the direct, undescriptive language of these works enables the open presentation of power dynamics and relationships.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, one attendee asked the authors about how they consider their own inherent bias when retelling historical moments, especially given their unique power to retell the story of the past to a modern audience. In her answer, Moore discussed her active attempts to give 19th-century characters voices that weren’t “pedantic” while also considering how people thought differently in the past. In her novel, the main character had to first believe the mythology she learned about Native Americans, then deconstruct it.

Wilson concluded that empathy to all characters and readers was essential to responsible translation, as well as attention to multiple truths — not just accurate word choice, but accurate tone, characterization, and rhythm. Jin added that treating a book as an object of art, rather than a simple historical rehashing, made the narrative’s logic and appeal to readers important.

“You want to transcend history,” Jin said. “You want to make the book stay for a long time.”

Wilson offered a counterpoint by citing how Homeric heroes’ quests for glory are often impeded by the uncertainty of the future and the overwhelming power of nature.

“So who knows? Maybe we’ll all be forgotten,” Wilson said.

While their stories may not last for eternity, all three authors lengthened their lifespans for contemporary audiences. The panel expanded attendees’ understandings of myth and the ways writers could deconstruct and reconstruct them. From religious mythology to national myths about institutions and identities, Wilson, Jin, and Moore boldly reexamined and refreshed established histories.

—Staff writer Isabelle A. Lu can be reached at

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.