An interview at Eltham Bookshop

For the launch of The Freedom of BIrds I was fortunate to be interviewed via Zoom by Robert Verhagen from Eltham Bookshop in Melbourne. Here are some of his insightful questions and my answers too!

Can you tell us about your latest book?

‘The Freedom of Birds’ is the tale of two French storytellers and a runaway girl travelling through fairytale lands and Italian theatres at the fall of Napoleon’s Empire. It is about unconventional families and finding the people you belong with, about love in times of war and about people fighting back against oppression.

We think of Europe as a collection of countries. How different was Europe in the 1800s? And how difficult was it to reimagine Europe in recreating Remi, Pascal and Saskia’s travels?

I had to get my head around how the area that we know of today as Germany was really just a collection of feudal land holdings all paying tithes to the Holy Roman Empire until Napoleon takes over. The ‘landgraves’ or each local king signed an alliance called the Confederation of the Rhine and they were then made to follow French rules. Whatever Napoleon says, goes, and he puts his brother in charge in Kassel. Also, Italy was not the unified country we think of today – at the time of my story, it was separated into Kingdoms, some controlled by Napoleon. And the Republic of Venice was separate again. Really difficult to think of ways of describing all this without overwhelming the story with geography lessons!

Retelling old myths is currently fashionable. There have been many recent releases which flip or subvert old fairy tales to increase representation or challenge the original story. Why do we think of stories as fixed, and has this always been the case?

When my travelling storytellers meet the Brothers Grimm they are incensed that the stories they are telling will be trapped inside a book. And we do think of them today as the Grimm’s tales when in fact they were folk tales that the Grimm’s collected as part of a growing nationalism, a response to being ruled by the French. Some of those folk tales originally came from France, but over the years, they have changed with successive retellings. For instance, when the story Little Red Riding hood was created in France its moral was for young ladies to be wary of sly, charming men, but in the Grimm’s version recorded a century later it has become a tale for children to behave and follow their parents advice. My character Saskia is inspired by a Little Red Riding Hood who can save herself. As Saskia says, “where are the stories telling boys not to become wolves.” Retelling old stories lets us challenge some of those morals and societal expectations with changing times.

In The Freedom of Birds, characters like Colombina issue a call to arms for artists to use their art for change. Do you think that art is, as Orwell said, always political?

Colombina is a performer and a painter and she is very politically motivated. She certainly wants to say something meaningful and achieve change and the Commedia dell’Arte as an unscripted form of theatre beloved by her people and banned by Napoleon is a perfect vehicle for this. I think all artists want to say something with their work.

I like to use the personal to reflect the political events of the time because I think it helps us make sense of them. In ‘Into the World’ my main character wants independence and autonomy so she disguises herself as a man and travels around the world at a time when the French people are overthrowing the monarchy in the first French Revolution. Josephine in ‘Josephine’s Garden’ wants security and stability and she mistakenly thinks Napoleon is going to give it to her, and so does the French nation. And in ‘The Freedom of Birds’, we see the fall of an Empire playing out in the background, we see the impact of dominance and oppression on the ordinary people affected by wars, and we see it in the personal struggles of our three characters as well. Saskia has a possessive ogre to contend with. Pascal and Remi have their close friendship with its uneven power balance.

History is sometimes seen to be a linear thing with a general trend towards upward progress. However, there is a moment where Colombina lectures Remi on the power that women have over their own lives. Can you tell us who Veronica Franco is, and whether we can ever take for granted that today’s liberties are tomorrow’s assurances?

Veronica Franco was a published poet and high-class prostitute in Venice in the 1500s and she is something of a hero for my character Colombina. I wanted to include mention of characters like Veronica and Olympe de Gouges because these were real women writing about inequality and injustice from centuries past and I think it shows that some women were absolutely thinking about their freedom and the constraints of their time and fighting for equality even 100’s of years before the suffragettes. Colombina is partly inspired by her and partly frustrated because she feels like she is still fighting the same battles. And as you say women have experienced this over and over again, advancement comes in the form of more freedoms in education say, or divorce laws, and then it is taken away. Even the campaigns for the vote took a depressingly long time. In France, they began fighting at the French Revolution in 1790 but didn’t get the vote until 1945!

What did you discover in the writing of The Freedom of Birds about women who went to war?

Oh yes, that was so interesting. I put some notes at the end of the book about some of the real life women who had disguised themselves as men and gone to war at that time. Some of them were fighting for their homelands in Poland or Prussia against Napoleon for several years before discovery. Usually they were turfed out after they were found to be in disguise, but one Prussian woman was promoted to sergeant even after discovery. Some went to find their husbands – one British woman I read about followed her husband to war in France, never found him, ended up staying as a soldier because it was a good life. The army fed and clothed her, and I think she was in the forces for 15 years before discovery. Another Russian woman was kicked out once and went back a second time. So, like women who disguised themselves as men to go sailing around the world, it was also possible in war, and the reasons were many and varied including that it was a way to make a living, to have independence.

THE FREEDOM OF BIRDS by Stephanie Parkyn, published by Allen & Unwin, is available from ELTHAM BOOKSHOP and all good bookstores.

Eltham Bookshop can ship anywhere – please contact +61 3 9439 8700

Eltham Bookshop, 970 Main Rd, Eltham VIC 3095, Australia

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