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Writer Karen Essex brings centuries-old controversy to IC with fiction flair

BY KERY LAWSON | JUNE 15, 2009 7:26 AM

Her text traces a set of statues from ancient Greece to early 19th-century Britain, and Karen Essex’s fourth novel, Stealing Athena, will bring the centuries-old controversy to Iowa City.

Essex will travel from California to Iowa City to share the novel. She will read at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. today.

The latest in Essex’s growing collection of historical fiction, Stealing Athena follows the lives of two women — Aspasia, mistress to Pericles of ancient Greece, and Mary Nisbet, wife to Lord Elgin of 18th-century Britain.

“My idea for the book was to have one woman participate in the creation of the Parthenon and another woman 2,300 years later participate in the Parthenon’s destruction,” Essex said.

The book examines the women’s lives, one in Greece and one in the time of Napoleon. But Essex said what holds the story together are the sculptures. Her novel couldn’t come at a better time; the centuries-old debate rages on the rightful ownership of the Elgin Marbles.

In a few days, the Greek government will open a museum on the Acropolis in which all parts of the remaining sculptures could be reunited, said Carin Green, the head of the classics department.

In 1801, Englishman Lord Elgin got permission from the Ottoman government to take whatever he wanted from the buildings on the Acropolis — including the Parthenon. The British government purchased the pieces, mostly sculptures, in 1816 and they have been in the British Museum since, Green said.

“The question of whether the Elgin Marbles belong to the UK or to Greece raises many difficult questions at the intersection of cultural heritage and international law,” Green said. “ What does it mean to ‘own’ something?”

In addition to the historical side of the Elgin Marbles, Essex said, she is also dedicated to the forgotten history of women.

“One of the best ways to put women back in history is to imagine them into books about the past,” Green said.

But while the sculptures have been preserved throughout history, Essex said, women’s stories were not so lucky.

“I set out to tell the stories of women who have influenced history, because traditionally, we’re left out of the history books,” she said. “My mission has been to retell the stories of powerful women and bring their true accomplishments to light.”

Paul Ingram, a buyer for Prairie Lights, sees further potential for her book’s popularity.

“It’s a historical fiction for women that will make a great book-club book,” he said.

Tonight’s reading marks Essex’s first time in Iowa City, lauded as the world’s third City of Literature.

“Whenever Iowa is mentioned to a writer, we all think of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” Essex said.
Essex’s publicist, Sarah Cantor, shared her excitement.

“We’re looking forward to the event, because I’ve heard wonderful things about Iowa City. It sounds like a unique literary destination,” she said.


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