It’s London Bookfair. Peirene and I hurry from one half-an-hour meeting to the next, up and down stairs, from one exhibition hall into the next. After years of attending international bookfairs
with painful feet I have finally learnt my lesson: I’m wearing flat, comfortable shoes. The Nymph, too, has given up on high heels. In fact she appears to have given up on glamour all together. No make-up, no lipstick, hair pulled back into a ponytail and she’s wearing an unassuming brown, knitted dress. ‘I’ve made it myself,’ she told me proudly in the morning. ‘Stayed up all last night to finish it.’ I acknowledged her efforts with a not too sincere ‘Impressive.’

And now the dress is coming apart. This slows us down as Peirene has to stop every few steps to gather the lose strings.

‘Peirene, why don’t you go home and change,’ I suggest with impatience in my voice. ‘I’m happy to do the next few meetings on my own.’

‘No, no. It’s meant to disintegrate. It symbolises my own psychological “unravelling”. She makes inverted commas signs in the air. ‘I feel imprisoned in the patriarchic system.’

I stop in my stride. This sounds like the onset of a depression. I pull the Nymph to a nearby empty table, sit her down and fetch us two coffees.

‘What’s up, Peirene?’ I study her with concern.

‘Nothing.’ She shrugs her shoulders nonchalantly. ‘Only that the book market appears to be inundated with memoirs and novels written by 50+-year-old female writers from Western European countries all talking about freeing themselves and about being defined by the patriarchic system. They are “emotionally unravelling” they claim. And they are hailed as the top of the pops feminists. So I’m trying to fit in.’ She takes a big gulp from her coffee.

‘And? Do you feel what these women feel?’

The Nymph shakes her head. ‘Actually no. The ideas sound so 1980s. Stuck in time. Repeating the same phrases, the same stories, the same complaints. We have heard it all before. Sort of retro feminism. Yet the books sell like hot potatoes. So maybe I’m missing the point.’

I laugh. ‘That makes two of us. But I don’t think we are missing the point. It’s just that people love to hear what they already know.’ I pause for a moment. ‘But, Peirene, rather than wasting our energy with trying to fit into something we don’t appreciate, shouldn’t we instead celebrate that we have a truly exciting feminist text on our list?’

‘Which one is that?’ Her eyes widen in astonishment.

Shadows on the Tundra of course. Written by a young woman in the most unfree situation one can imagine – in a Gulag. Yet her mind was free. If anyone wants to understand a strong woman they should read that book.’

For a moment Peirene is quiet. Then she lifts her head . ‘And I’m sure if Dalia were still alive and could have turned up at this bookfair, she would not have shown up in a hand-made dress. She would have had more pride.’

I nod my head.

The Nymph blushes. Two hours later she’s back in full glamour, with sparkly earrings, jingling bracelets and in a bright red, brand-new dress. And for the rest of the bookfair she doesn’t stop talking about Dalia – an amazing woman who survived the Gulag and then wrote our new Peirene book: Shadows on the Tundra.

(Image by Judi Cox, creative commons)