For a continent named after the myth of a rape, to be forced to look anew at itself through women’s eyes is a refreshing and necessary concept.
— Laura Bates, ‘Introduction’ to Europa 28
Edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleaves, Europa 28, published by Comma Press, brings together 28 women – a group of artists, writers, scientists and entrepreneurs – to share their perspectives on Europe and its future. Taking its name after the myth of Europa, the anthology comprises essays, short stories and think pieces on this theme. In her introduction, Bates bluntly states that ‘Women see things differently.’ This is perhaps a understatement, as the anthology goes on to demonstrate, with Europa 28 showcasing women whose individual approaches to writing Europe are as various as they are engaging.
What is ‘refreshing and necessary’, as Bates puts it, about the collection’s re-appropriating the rape of Europa myth (Zeus abducts Europa in the form of a bull and carries her to Crete) is its exploration of our relationship with the continent. Hughes and Cleaves successfully detach us from a long tradition, particularly in Western storytelling, of men writing land as woman – a tradition historically of conquest, ownership and colonial rule. Considering that women make up less than half of the European Parliament, it is natural to wonder what the state of current affairs would be if more female voices were represented.
The collection, entirely written and edited by women, is all the more inclusive for its diverse array of subjects; its scope not being limited to writings on politics, sex and gender. It is women’s writing yet not writing solely about women. Annalies Beck takes us through Brussels, in the company of a Europhilic Umberto Eco, in a pre-9/11 world, concerned with how to raise the new generation of Europeans. We travel to Ireland and learn of Lisa Dwan’s interpretations of Beckett, and her interactions with Gerry Adams. Zsófia Bán takes us back in time to 1823 to tell the story of the depreciated Sadi Carnot.
Neither is the collection limited to investigating Europe in its current state. Leïla Slimani, in her beautifully translated ‘Our Mediterranean Mother’, manages to go beyond the borders of Europe as we know it, and speaks of a future that englobes the Mediterranean. She shares her experience as a journalist in North Africa, during the breakout of the Arab Spring, and suggests her own vision of what Europe must strive to become: ‘Europe must no longer be defined by Christianity or by exclusive, irreconcilable national identities, but must return to the Greek matrix that unites the two sides of mare nostrum.’
Elsewhere, on the subject of irreconcilable national identities, Sofía Kouvelaki calls for empathy and compassion, pleading the case of child refugees displaced from their homes. ‘In what kind of world do we want to live?’ asks Kouvelaki. Perhaps a world where all children are given the care they need, she suggests, regardless of their origins and their religious backgrounds. This is how you build the future – a claim which the anthology at a large does not shy away from making.
These women play with form, concepts and ideals. Nora Nadjarian’s heart-warming ‘Hummingbird’ unfolds over four acts, and artfully explores language, geography and identity: ‘One day, years later, he went into an Armenian grocery store in Vienna or Berlin or Paris or London or around the corner from a very cosmopolitan, beautifully tree-lined avenue. In this shop, there are things of which his soul is made.’ The European cities melt into one as a man tells riddles in many languages. People, place and history are deeply connected, from Vienna to London, enriched by free movement, in the cultural and commercial exchange of the soul.
Elsewhere, Asja Bakić, in a wonderfully amusing piece of short fiction, studies Europe from a strange and unexpected point of view. Retreating as far away from humanity as possible, Bakić poses the question of what it means to be European. Her character, an outsider of indeterminable nature, is given the opportunity to live as a human in Europe (of course, an ‘alien’, in legalese, refers to any foreign national residing in a host country). The outsider comes to a conclusion: ‘It seemed to me that Europeans were different beings too. We had a lot in common: we regarded human suffering from a respectable distance, with curiosity. We learned, but laboriously.’
Not all of the texts are as entertaining or deeply thought-provoking; some are essays, in the most practical sense, and are purely educative. Saara Turunen’s contribution, a brief memoir piece, is lost to some of the grander narratives of Europe. Though moving, it remains bordered by the detail of an extremely personal experience of love and travel, and so feels overshadowed by comparison. Europa 28 is an odd collection in this way; yet it very much succeeds as a whole, precisely because of the internal differences it presents and supports. The pieces are so varied in nature and theme that the editors’ choice to anthologise them alphabetically according to country rather than generically seems the only logical one. Europa 28, as such, allows each essay or story to speak for itself, as part of an anthology, isolating it in a manner that articulates the paradox of the European project: the assertion of the sovereign individual as an abiding member of a collective union.
Although technically due to the alphabetical order of the anthology, it seems fitting that the United Kingdom should come at the very end. (Unsurprisingly, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union looms large throughout the collection.) Hillary Cottam’s text is short and to the point, calling for a social revolution. But more importantly, Cottam theorizes on how to build a collective future: ‘To grow together we must create new stories, new spells and experiments that give birth to new possibilities.’
Europa 28 is a collection of texts by 28 brilliant women, whose voices and ideas, expressed elegantly, with great passion and poise, re-inscribe the myth of Europa with a selection of contemporary narratives that point us towards the horizon. Informative, touching, and occasionally funny, the book is enough to make one optimistic about the future.
Words by Laila Obeidat.
For more information and to buy Europa 28, visit Comma Press’s website.
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