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Jeffrey Eugenides is an American novelist. Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1960, he is the youngest of three sons. He knew he wanted to become a writer as a teenager when he studied James Joyce’s
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
in literature class. As someone who is part Greek and part Irish, he identified with Stephen Dedalus, the Irish protagonist with a name inspired by Greek mythology. Eugenides attended Brown University, where he studied English literature, and later received his MFA in Creative Writing from Stanford University. His first novel,
The Virgin Suicides
, launched in 1993 to critical acclaim. Eugenides began work on his sophomore novel,
in the late 90s, but he struggled to find Cal’s narrative voice. He did the bulk of the work on the novel while living in Berlin after receiving a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published
in 2002 to positive critical reviews. The novel won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2007, Oprah Winfrey made
an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Eugenides currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University.
Eugenides decided to write a novel with an intersex protagonist after reading the posthumously published memoir of Herculine Barbin, an intersex teenager who lived in the nineteenth century. He found the memoir overly vague and wanted to create his own tale. “Intersex” describes a broad range of genetic conditions that cause a person to have androgynous reproductive organs or genitalia. Eugenides’ protagonist, Cal, has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes people to undergo dramatic physical changes, from archetypically feminine to masculine, in puberty. When Eugenides learned that this condition often occurs in isolated populations because it is caused by a recessive genetic mutation, he decided to bring his Greek immigrant heritage into the story. Reaction to the novel from intersex activists has been mixed. While some activists feel the novel tries to humanize intersex people, others believe the book does more to exoticize them. Activists have also criticized Eugenides for not speaking with any intersex people while researching the novel, instead relying on medical research and his imagination to conceive of an intersex life.
Once he decided on an intersex protagonist, Eugenides drew inspiration from Classical Greek mythology in crafting
. First, he uses the myth of Tiresias, a blind prophet of Apollo who angers Hera after hitting a pair of mating snakes with his staff. In punishment, Hera transforms him into a woman. Tiresias later finds the snakes again and transforms back into a man. Eugenides also uses the myth of Hermaphroditus. In the Roman poet Ovid’s
, which was based on earlier Greek myths, Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite who physically merged with his beloved, the naiad Salmacis, so that they need never be separated. Over the course of
, Cal has a complicated and troubled relationship with his body, reflecting these two myths’ very different relationships to gender fluidity and change. Adding to Cal’s complicated self-image, Eugenides uses the myth of the minotaur, in which Apollo punishes King Minos by causing his wife to have a child with a bull. Minos locks the resulting son, the half-bull and half-man minotaur, in a labyrinth and feeds him prisoners. Cal relates to the minotaur because he believes himself to be a mutant product of incest.
Because Eugenides wanted his intersex character to live in contemporary times, he went from Greek mythology to Greece and used his own family history as an influence. Eugenides’ father is the son of Greek immigrants from Asia Minor, just like Cal’s father. Parts of modern-day Turkey became “Hellenized” (influenced by Greek culture) after the conquest of Alexander the Great in the third century BCE. By the 20th Century, the Turkish Ottoman Empire controlled the area. In World War I, the Ottoman Turks joined the Central Powers. After the Allies (primarily Britain, France, and the United States) won the war, they sought to divide the empire and ordered Greek soldiers to take the city of Smyrna from the Turks in 1919. This military action resulted in the Greco-Turkish War, which ended with the burning of Smyrna in 1920 and which Eugenides portrays in
. Although some Turkish sources claim that Greeks or Armenians set the city on fire in order to make the Turks look bad, most sources agree that the Ottomans started the fire. Also consistent with Eugenides’ portrayal, the Allied ships present in Smyrna’s harbor at the time had orders to ignore refugees and even played military music to drown out their screams.
Like Eugenides, Cal grows up near Detroit, Michigan. Eugenides has commented that he is fascinated by his hometown because he believes it distills many themes of United States history into a single place, with its history of industry, labor movements, and fraught race relations.
follows the rise and fall of Detroit in the twentieth century. Detroit flourished in the early 1900s as Henry Ford and other automotive pioneers set up factories in the city, establishing Detroit as the automotive capital of the world. Because of the city’s proximity to Canada, Detroit also became a hotbed of alcohol smuggling during Prohibition. Detroit’s abundant jobs made it a major destination for black Americans during the Great Migration, the period between 1916 and 1970 when black Americans began moving to northern urban centers in order to avoid the harsh racial segregation of the American south. This shift in population triggered a racist backlash, and Detroit became extremely divided along racial lines. The inequalities faced by black residents resulted in riots in 1967, which prompted more “white flight” from the city center. In the mid-1970s, the high price of gas caused Americans to buy smaller, foreign cars, leading to the decline of America’s automotive industry and Detroit itself.