Maria Dahvana Headley’s acclaimed translation of “Beowulf” declares its contemporary bent in the very first word — “Bro!” Headley revitalizes the Old English epic poem with contemporary language and a feminist slant that brings female characters from the sidelines to the fore. Headley is also the author of the best-selling novel, “The Mere Wife,” which was inspired by a Beowulf character, and the memoir “The Year of Yes,” among other books. The Idaho native currently lives in Charleston, S.C., with her partner and son.
BOOKS: Has the pandemic influenced your reading?
HEADLEY: When I was growing up in Idaho my dad was into dystopian narratives. Much of my childhood was spent reading different kinds of end-of-the-world narratives, like “Earth Abides,” by George R. Stewart, which was my dad’s favorite. It’s about a measles plague that leaves behind a kind of Adam and Eve of people to start over the human species. Because I was raised with that novel as a key text, there’s something about it that depressurizes the current situation for me.
BOOKS: What did you read to distract yourself?
HEADLEY: I have been reading mostly poetry, especially because you can read a little bit of poetry when you have a toddler and get it into your system. Mary Jo Bang, who translated Dante’s “Inferno,” has a new translation of his “Purgatario.” It’s amazing. It’s an annotated translation chock-full of references to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. I’ve also been reading Phillis Wheatley. She was an enslaved black woman writing in the 1700s. She became a famous poet then but she’s not taught in American curriculums now. She’s been shunted off to the side.
BOOKS: What were the highlights of your reading last year?
HEADLEY: I read Natalie Diaz’s “Postcolonial Love Poem.” It’s a personal history in poem form. It’s about a marginalized life, and the margins are the most interesting part of history. I also read Miller Oberman’s “The Unstill Ones,” also a book of poetry. It’s a combination of contemporary poems and translations of Old English poems. I read “The Future of Another Timeline,” by Annalee Newitz, which is about female time travelers who are revising history. It starts in the ’90s and has a real nostalgic feeling for me because I was a teenager then.
BOOKS: What did you read as a teenager that stuck with you?
HEADLEY: I happened upon “The Hearing Trumpet” by Leonora Carrington, who was a surrealist painter and writer. I happened on it because it had a paperboard cover which had a great feel, something you never think about with one-click shopping. I didn’t really know anything about surrealists then. The novel is full of wild characters that are very elderly women. It’s also filthy and funny. It’s exactly what you want to read as a teenage girl, but it’s about women in their 90s.
BOOKS: When did you first read “Beowulf”?
HEADLEY: I read it in high school. But the memory of it is that it was disappointing to the max. I was always looking for the exciting “Beowulf.” When Seamus Heaney’s translation came out, I felt that was somewhat that way, but it still didn’t feel as thrilling as it could be.
BOOKS: Do you like books that scare you?
HEADLEY: I write scary books but I’m totally afraid of scary books. I can’t read horror books and some are beautiful, like Joe Hill’s. I read some of his that I loved but I had nightmares. Lately I’ve been reading “Ring Shout” by P. Djeli Clark, which came out this fall and is about a fantastical itineration of the Ku Klux Klan. I also read a little bit of “The Only Good Indians,” by Stephen Graham Jones, which is also very scary but very beautiful writing.
BOOKS: Do you have any tricks for reading scary books?
HEADLEY: Bright lights. I’ve been reading in a bright room while my toddler watches the cartoon “Puffin Rock.” He watches this kindly show while I’m reading a scary book about a fantastical KKK. We’ll see how long this works.