Books interview: Serinity Young

The author of on the figures, real and mythical, who sparked her flights of imagination

June 14, 2018
Serinity Young

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

The Eloise series by Kay Thompson and, of course, Nancy Drew. And comics, comics, comics. I was attracted to curious, adventurous girls and women, who seemingly existed only in fiction.

How did you get interested in the ‘women who fly’ who form the subject of your new book?

It was mainly through iconography that I began to notice flying women, starting with the Winged Victory of Samothrace [statue] at the Louvre, but especially in Hindu and Buddhist art, with their abundance of airborne apsaras, dakinis and yoginis.

Where did you turn for details of the lives of the real women you describe?

Primarily the individual lives of saints composed in their lifetimes or shortly thereafter. For Asia and the Middle East, Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn’s Women in Daoism; Farid al-Din Attar’s Muslim Saints and Mystics and Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi’s Sufis of Andalusia; and Buddhist biographies of female saints. For women aviators, Susan Ware’s Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism is a wonderful study of the early days of aviation, as are Wendy Boase’s The Sky’s the Limit: Women Pioneers in Aviation and Deborah Douglas’ United States Women in Aviation: 1940-1985.

Which theoretical texts have proved most useful in analysing the figure of the flying woman?

Marina Warner’s Monuments and Maidens taught me how to read female images and contextualise them within their societies. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Women, Andro­gynes, and Other Mythical Beasts was eye-opening in the connections it made between female imagery in the East and the West. Mircea Eliade is now somewhat out of favour, but his Patterns in Comparative Religion is inspiring to anyone interested in connections across the spectrum of human religious experience. Berthold Laufer’s The Prehistory of Aviation searched out the mythical and imaginary history of flight from the beginning of time and from all corners of the world.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

Michael Dirda’s memoir, An Open Book: Chapters from a Reader’s Life, to my nephew. It recounts his experience of reading from childhood through college in all genres of literature.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

The Complete Essays of Montaigne and volume 4 of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past are ongoing reading that I have no intention of rushing. Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is just the ticket to a world where much cannot, and should not, be easily explained. Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure is an intimate sharing of delight in books I’ve read and a stimulus to broaden my reading. Wendy Doniger’s The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry covers much of the same mythological territory as my book, though from a completely different angle. Mark Norell and Laurel Kendall’s Mythic Creatures: And the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them is a lovely blending of science, history and the human imagination.

Serinity Young is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. Her latest book is Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females (Oxford University Press).

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