Author Brit Chism grew up around strong women. He had two sisters and was also the only boy in a neighborhood of girls.
So when Chism, 65, began writing his first collection of short stories two years ago, he revisited these relationships with the women who made an impact on his life. He wanted to create a space for women’s stories to be told.
“Too often I’ve heard that there are no stories with women protagonists, especially in movie roles,” he said. “I grew up in the 1950s around strong women at a truck stop in Mississippi. So I’ve always found women fascinating. Culturally, women have been seen as powerless, but I saw them differently abled, and able to use whatever power they had in different ways than men.”
He’s also always been fascinated by how women communicate.
“Women use language differently,” Chism said. “I’ve read from Harvard’s women’s studies…that women communicate to preserve relationships, whereas men communicate to win.”
This inspired his story collection, Mnemosyne’s Daughters, which was released earlier this summer by Breaking Rules Publishing.
All of the protagonists in his stories are women, and the collection also draws from Chism’s interest in Greek mythology. Many of his stories are based on these ancient myths, bringing them into a contemporary setting.
“If a writer can get to the kernel of truth in these old stories, usually it’s power – wielded by women, or over women – then the bones of the tale may be sound and can act as framework to flesh out a 21st century tale,” he said.
It first struck him that many of these female Greek characters – Medea, Jocasta, Eurydice – would make great fodder for modern stories after hearing a news report about a Georgia mother who drowned her two children to appease her new boyfriend, who didn’t like them.
“They called it ‘The Medea Syndrome,’” Chism said. “Mistakenly. Because Medea’s motive was revenge on her husband, Jason. Her self-esteem was tied up in her relationship to him. Her value in Athens was tied up in her marriage to him. It was all about patriarchy.”
In the myth, he said, Medea killed their two children as well as their husband’s mistress, Glauce.
“Her final act of revenge was to steal the boys’ bodies and ride across the sky in a chariot of fire so Jason, her husband, could never have closure,” he said.
Chism added, “It struck me that she was a powerful and thoughtful and conniving woman – what a fascinating story. I always go for analyzing the power structure, a woman’s will to power. What was the motive then, and how can I translate that into a story for well-educated, 21st-century women today.”
While many of his stories focus on retellings of Greek myths, “the outlier” in the collection is “The Crab,” a ghost story set in New Orleans, he said. “The Crab” tells the story of an old woman from “down-the-bayou” in Terrebonne Parish who dies while on a trip to New Orleans.
Chism, though born in Mississippi, spent periods of his life in New Orleans and San Francisco. A longtime nurse, he came to St. Petersburg in 1997, at the end of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, he said.
“I had a friend who had reached the end of his life. We had been friends for 27 years over time and miles,” he said. “I thought I would like to spend some time with him, and if he needed help I would do what I could.”
Shortly after moving here, he began volunteering at the Salvador Dali Museum.
“It opened up a creative world for me, the arts, painting, sculpture,” Chism said. “My living had been in healthcare sciences, which is a whole different approach to the world.”
After retiring two years ago, he decided to start writing. He’d taken creative writing courses in college, “but I didn’t feel I had had life experiences enough to tell an interesting story,” he said.
His decision to start writing in recent years was “a matter of legacy for me,” he said. “Leaving something behind after I’ve gone that says, yes, I had a generative life despite no children. I can answer in the end, yes, it is ok to have been me.”
All of the proceeds from Chism’s book will go to Breaking Rules Publishing’s scholarship fund in support of LGBT youth in St. Petersburg. The book can be purchased here.
Chism will also be the featured author at the next LGBT Book Club co-hosted by Metro Health, Wellness & Community and literary arts organization Wordier Than Thou set for Wednesday, Sept. 13, 7 to 9 p.m., at the LGBT Welcome Center, 2227 Central Ave. Find more information on the event here.