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Medea's Ghosts: Cherríe Moraga and Euripides on the Body's Tragedies

Nancy Worman

Columbia University

Cherríe Moraga's The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea (1995, 2001), reinvents the original character as a Chicana lesbian, outcast in a near-future dystopia in which the former U.S. territory has been divided along racial and ethnic lines. Unlike Euripides' Medea, Moraga's plot is something of a ghost story, with the murderous mother wandering mentally from her present existence in an asylum and the other characters effectively haunting her. In this spectral past Medea had been exiled for her sexuality to Phoenix, which has become a borderland space for those who don't or won't belong. There she lived with her lover Luna and her son Chac-Mool, intermittently hassled by Jasón, who is in Moraga's play as in Euripides' an imperious opportunist.

While some scholars have focused attention on Moraga's emphasis on the violent consequences of ethnic prejudice and others on her treatment of the theme of matricide (e.g., Arrizón 2000, González 2007), I want to consider the ways in which Moraga's play unsettles embodiment and thereby identity. González frames her study of A Hungry Woman as an investigation into the 'dis-affirming' powers of gothic aesthetics, emphasizing the disruptive, resistant aspects of this Medea's sacrifice of her child. I aim to turn this insight in another direction by taking a closer look at the abject physicality of Moraga's character, as well as raising questions about how her figure illuminates aspects of Euripides' hero. Such a thesis hinges on the fact that abjection, as Julia Kristeva has theorized it ([1980] 1982), challenges the boundaries of the self (see also Ahmed 2004). It also takes cues from Judith Halberstam's (1995) insight that monstrous bodies are patchwork and that this captures something essential about identities, especially those that inhabit borderlands of various sorts (see also Minha-ha 1989).

As I shall show, if Euripides' Medea prods the edges of the human by presenting the eponymous character as chafing at the confines of her mortal existence, Moraga's 'hungry woman' is a paradigm of bodily dissonance. She trails multiple shadowy inhabitations through the play. As her former selves echo around her, they voice in strikingly embodied terms the fears of an aging beauty, a jealous lover, a fierce mother, and an abandoned wife, as well as the sensory experiences of radical displacement that result from her many losses. This includes her past activism, with which Moraga, in a pointed renovation of the sorcery and heroism of the ancient Medea, gives a keen political edge to the infanticide.

If this seems like wishful thinking for this violent character, Moraga's engagement with indigenous figures such as La Llorona, the eternally weeping mother of pre-Hispanic mythology, underscores a central cultural terror found also in ancient Greek myth: that wronged mothers may turn on or otherwise lose their children and refuse to recover, to rejoin and conform. That is to say, Medea's story contains at its core this radical rejection.

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Indigenous Voices and Classical Literature

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