Jason Porath Talks Tough Mothers and Rejected Princesses
With the blogosphere on fire and the news media following the trends set, the past year has shown that strong women, are prominent in the world and they are everywhere and has always been. This truth has only become more relevant with #MeToo Movement, and the recent array of books which showcase the talents of many female creatives, only shows their staying power. As this movement grows, its allies include those who seek to spotlight the unknown, underrepresented, the under told heroes of our past. One such author who aims to bring this to the forefront is Jason Porath. He started the Rejected Princesses blog a few years back to highlight forgotten female heroes. Since then, he has put out a collection named after the blog and recently released another volume, this one dedicated to matriarchs who possesses ferocity and grace, entitled Tough Mothers: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs. I recently got a chance to interview this “truth-teller “and found a humble author.
Graphic Policy: What was your inspiration for your Rejected Princesses blog?
Jason Porath: My mom. She’s an utterly brilliant, tenacious badass – but she felt like an aberration growing up. She was born in Kentucky in the 40s, and was constantly told boys didn’t like smart women. She never had a connection to this endless line of brilliant, bold women, and felt like something was wrong with her because she was different. I can’t go back in time and give this book to her then, but I can give it to kids who maybe feel the same as she did.
GP: How was the research? Anything you were more than surprised to find out about?
JP: It was difficult – I think there’s 200-some-odd citations at the back of the second book, and more than 300 in the first one? Very time consuming.
One of the things that really surprised me when writing about (Armenian Genocide survivor) Pailadzo Captanian was how few first-hand accounts of the Genocide were written in the immediate aftermath of it. She had written one of the only ones, and it was never translated to English. I ended up finding a copy of it, photographing every page, using software to turn those pictures into (very rough) text, and then getting two dozen bilingual readers to each take a chunk of the book and translate it. They’re finishing the last parts up now. I plan on donating the translation to Armenian groups. The copyright on it is a bit baffling but hopefully they can find a way to use it.
GP: Has your research lead you to travel to different countries just to find out more? If so, any personal stories you can share?
JP: Not yet – the life of a writer is not a lucrative one! I am heading to the UK later this year for a convention, though, and I hope to visit a couple sites while there – castles defended by rad women, that sort of thing. There’s a statue of Boudica in particular that I’d love to see in person.
GP: I read in your blog, you have over 2,000 different women you have yet to illustrate, how do you choose who goes into the next book?
JP: I keep a massive spreadsheet that tracks a lot of different things about each potential entry – era, maturity rating, geographic location, religion, and other representations like LGBT and disabilities. I then have a column that shows the totals. I aim for maximum diversity, without having stories that are too much an echo of one another. I’m not always successful, but I do try really hard.
GP: Which one of these heroines—within either of your books: Rejected Princesses or Tough Mothers— do you think would make a great movie (just like along the lines of Wonder Woman or Black Panther etc.)
JP: I think most of them would be great movies! In terms of ones that audiences would go wild for, it’s hard to top Julie d’Aubigny, the bisexual sword-slinging opera singer from 17th century France. WW2 spy Noor Inayat Khan deserves a movie more than almost anyone I’ve ever written about, but given how her story ends, it wouldn’t be the feel-good hit of the summer.
GP: On your website, you offer prizes to readers if they catch an error in any of your entries. Can you tell me about the first prize you gave and why?
JP: The first official prize I gave out was for a correction on (hideously evil Merovingian queen) Fredegund, where a reader asked about how she could have sought sanctuary in Notre Dame before Notre Dame was built (answer: there was a church there prior to Notre Dame) . It wasn’t the first corrections I’d made though! The first twelve entries I put on the site were sourced purely from Wikipedia and riddled with errors. I made a huge batch of corrections after that. I’ve come a long way since then as regards research.
GP: What can you tell me about the women of Tough Mothers?
JP: I think our society tends to picture mothers as kind of just support systems for families, lacking in other pursuits or interests. The women I write about were far more than that – doctors, musicians, politicians, even pirates. I really try to show all the good, bad, and ugly of their personalities, and bring them to life as actual people, instead of just “person X’s mom.”
GP: Since we just celebrated Mother’s Day, what is one intangible you can credit your mother for giving to you?
JP: Man, what didn’t my mom give me? I’d credit her with giving me her temperament, her curiosity, her perfectionism, and her unstoppable work ethic.
GP: The importance of your two books underscore your belief in equality of women, so would you consider yourself a feminist?
JP: I’d be happy to say so, but I believe that’s a title you earn, not a hat you decide to start wearing. There’s nothing fishier than a self-described male feminist. If others would like to describe me as a feminist, nothing would make me happier.
GP: With the rising of the #MeToo movement, do you think your work has become even more important?
JP: I’d hesitate to use the word “important,” but maybe “resonant.” There are a great many women reckoning with some very heavy struggles – to the extent that I can give inspiration in the form of heralding historical women who also struggled but came out victorious, I’m happy to.
GP: What do you want readers to take away from your books?
JP: That not only can women do anything, they already have. That we’ve been systematically cut off from a shared history that should be everyone’s birthright. That those who don’t fit the mold aren’t alone, and never have been.
GP: What are you working on next?
JP: I continue posting new entries online all the time! I am looking into collaborating with librarians and academia, making more of my research publicly available, and collecting my comics into school-usable formats. I’m also percolating various fiction concepts and seeing where they go. After four-plus years of nonstop historical research, it’s a much-appreciated break!