The pages of history are always full of gaps and errors – and often it’s women who are omitted from the world’s memory. Some of history’s most powerful, exciting and fascinating female figures were once decorated and celebrated people in their time, but their adventures seem to have been either hidden or lost.
Look through the history books, as long-standing Bookie pal Nina Telegina has done, and you’ll see what we mean. But in her amazing show Renegades, she tells their stories, remembering and celebrating some of those women we have forgotten.
Margate Bookie chats with Nina about her upcoming show, how she’s brought some of history’s great women back to life and how we can all learn something from these extraordinary women.
What’s it all about?
Renegades tells the stories of famous women you’ve never heard of: pirates, arsonist nuns, warrior queens, rebel leaders and more. These women did truly extraordinary things – which, if they’d been men, would have made it into history.
Consider Zheng Yi Sao – the most successful pirate of all time, who commanded a fleet of 70,000 pirates and ruled the South China Sea. Or Julie D’Aubigny, a 17th century French sword fighter and opera singer who lived enough adventures to fill several Hollywood films.
This solo show weaves together the tales of four remarkable women, encountering lots of others along the way. It’s a blend of storytelling, stand-up, and spoken word, but its backbone is solid historical research.
What’s your inspiration behind Renegades?
I was writing a poetry piece about epic heroes. I needed lots and lots of heroes to put in the poem – but when I looked up lists, I noticed that they were all men: Hercules, David, Lancelot… It made me wonder if there had ever been female epic heroes.
So I turned to Wikipedia – the font of all knowledge. It turned out that not only have there been female legendary heroes (like Queen Semiramis, who gets into my show), but there have also been many real women who were considered heroes in their day. They were leaders, rebels, outlaws, pirates, adventurers. Most of them were famous – for a time – but their fame died with them.
Later on, I got in touch with researcher and editor Alison Kuznets, and we worked together for months looking into the history. We were especially interested in how these women had been wiped out of our cultural memory. There are many threads to the forgetting, which I also explore in my show. It’s a complex topic, but it’s fair to say that women get forgotten much more readily and more frequently than men.
Who really stood out for you?
Julie D’Aubigny – she was an absolute rock star. Born in 1673, Julie ran away with her fencing teacher, travelled through France singing and giving fencing demonstrations in taverns, until she met and fell in love with a young woman. The young woman’s parents disapproved, so they locked her away in a convent. Julie didn’t care – she snuck into the convent, and rescued her girlfriend. They stole the body of a dead nun, hid the body in a bed, and set the convent on fire in a bid to fake the girlfriend’s death. As the room was burning, they escaped out the window.
The authorities didn’t take kindly to this, and sentenced Julie to death. She evaded capture, and eventually got through to King Louis XIV – who granted her a royal pardon and allowed her to join the opera. And that’s just a small fragment of her amazing story.
How did it feel, bringing these great women back to life?
Empowering and enraging. On the one hand, it feels amazing to know they existed. I often think about how much I’d have gained if I knew about these women when I was younger.
On the other hand, it’s infuriating. These stories have been wiped away precisely because they concern women. Some of the women were deemed too improper to talk about. Some were wiped out by sexist and racist narratives. And some even survived in cultural memory for a long time – but only as caricatures and villains.
We live in an age when stories about powerful women are making a comeback – but this isn’t the only time people have tried to resurrect their memories. Catalogues and lists of extraordinary women have existed throughout the centuries. They were especially popular in Europe when queens came to power, and their ability to rule was questioned. Catherine the Great, or Queen Victoria, for example, would lean upon past examples from legend and history. Many books cataloguing remarkable women date back to times when an important queen was in power.
But even when their memory was reignited, the cultural space given to famous women would disappear very fast. Extraordinary women are forgotten much more quickly than extraordinary men. And this is incredibly frustrating. The impulse behind Renegades is to try and do something about it – to remember them in a way where their stories might finally stick.
What’s next for Renegades?
Big plans! I hope to take it on a festival tour this summer, (though that is subject to funding). I intend to bring the project to as big an audience as possible. My research collaborator, Alison Kuznets, and I are also working on turning the project into a non-fiction book. So watch this space!
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