CULTURAL CONTEXT. Dr. Yurie Hong presented via Google Meet to a classroom of students on Apr. 24. She said the presentation’s “genesis [came] in a paper I presented in 2019…[about] how being a minority can be an asset when looking at classics in a modern world.”

Gustavus professor uses classics to place contemporary gender issues in context

Dr. Yurie Hong, a professor of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies from Gustavus Adolphus College, presented on how classic narratives can be used to more deeply understand contemporary personal experience.

Hong examined issues of arranged marriage and other forms of accepted institutionalized rape by discussing her grandmother’s life and two literary narratives: “the Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” a hymn from ancient Greece and Kindred, a novel by Octavia Butler.

With “the Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” Hong established that the myth of Persephone’s abduction and eventual transformation into the Queen of the Underworld functions as a metaphor for women’s sexual maturation. The myth demonstrates how this experience is often one of shock and pain but one for which women receive “compensation” in the form of social identity, economic family stability, and eventual gratitude for their sacrifice. This is illustrated when Hades abducts Persephone and attempts to seduce her with a promise of power and gifts. Hong argued that, despite some cultural differences, ancient Greece and the US are both too accepting of girls’ negative experiences of sex. She shared data from a study that showed that 66% of U.S. youth report wishing they had waited longer to have intercourse for the first time and that American girls’ first time sexual experience was often driven by “peer pressure” in a male-determined relationship where male pleasure was prioritized and reciprocity was rare.

Live in the struggle, not with a goal to be finished and be done with it, but to embrace the struggle itself to keep going and to keep learning and growing.

— Yurie Hong

Hong unpacks Kindred as a more visceral example of the rape and reward pattern… but one in which Butler challenges the narrative of a necessary sacrifice by addressing the “psychic cost of accommodating oneself to such oppressive conditions.” Hong talked about the protagonist’s willingness to risk erasing herself to kill a rapist whose actions resulted in her family line and how those decisions illuminate the humanizing and dehumanizing potential of power structures and personal investment in family trees. Engaging with the past challenges readers to think about what Minneapolis therapist Resmaa Menakem calls “dirty pain, where we push our pain onto others” and invites listeners to consider “the clean pain of healing.”

“What lies between appreciation and complicity or maybe even commemoration and condemnation?” Hong asked. “For me, it’s two things. First, a commitment to ambivalence is the only real position of honesty, integrity, and empathy…it’s important to be able to wonder openly about alternate pasts and present where our humanity is not the only center.”

The second thing is to “cultivate an impulse to approach the past not so much as a place to get answers or the easy, self-affirming pleasure of judgment, but to approach it as a set of experiences and perspectives, to explore in the spirit of curiosity and deep humility.”

Hong ended the presentation by saying that our approach to engaging with the past and using it to think about our present and future should be to “live in the struggle, not with a goal to be finished and be done with it, but to embrace the struggle itself to keep going and to keep learning and growing.”

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