Today, September 6, 2012, we at Vela celebrate the first anniversary of the magazine. There is much to come, but before we get to all of that, we offer these six short retrospectives on how and why Vela came to be and what Vela has meant to us, as writers of travel-inpsired creative nonfiction, and as writers who happen to be women.
In her lovely book Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime (Harcourt, 2006), Patricia Hampl writes: “For all the fevered efforts of traveling artists and writers, the only people who could hope to gain extended access to the forbidden domain of the harem, that tabernacle of perfume and spice, were women.”
She writes then of one the first female travel writers, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband became the British Ambassador to Constantinople in 1717: “Lady Mary’s view of the harem was exactly opposite of those of the men who either never saw it (Ingres); who beheld it only briefly—perhaps as a tableau expressly arranged to meet a Western visitor’s expectations (Delacroix); or whose exotic couplings were purchased retail (Flaubert).”
Lady Mary had not been so shocked by a room full of reclining nudes as they had been of her and her corset. “They believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband,” Lady Mary wrote home. By Hampl’s interpretation, “the cloister of the harem, as far as Lady Mary could tell, was a free space for women, a private environment ruled by women’s taste, devoted to women’s ways, where no husband or father could interfere.” Hampl takes this in a startling, and yet uncanny direction: “Harem life offered a woman not servitude and imprisonment, but opulence and astonishing personal freedom…The harem, the women’s private quarters, provided not a caged life, but a silken chamber, something akin to what Virginia Woolf two centuries later would memorably call ‘a room of one’s own.’”
Vela is the word for candle in Spanish, and it is also the word for sail. For me, the word contains both the close, private light, and vast possibility. In English, it is the name of the sails on the constellation Argo Navis. It is rooted in the Latin word for curtain or veil. Lady Mary, it turns out, loved to go out in public veiled. She felt free that way, to move about, to be an outward-looking body, rather than a body looked upon. Hampl writes, “This, paradoxically, was liberty.”
At Vela, we have a very public face: the essays and articles that we write and publish on our pages. This face is not at all meant only for the private realm of women, even as it pulls back the curtain on those “tabernacle[s] of perfume and spice” to which only us women have access. But what goes on in our own inner chamber—the letters we write one another about our works-in-progress, about the challenges of achieving balance between our artistic lives, our “real world” jobs or lack thereof, our travels, our writing successes and disappointments, and our romantic and family lives—is where the candle burns. Behind the veil, we are not “tied up…in little boxes the shape of [our] bodies,” as one Turkish woman described the mechanism behind Lady Mary’s ramrod posture. Rather, we are feeling out our own forms and shapes and voices.
Three centuries after Lady Mary wrote about the Ottoman Empire, and nearly one century after Virginia Woolf sounded her call for a room of one’s own, we are still trying to get out of the corset and into the creative wide open. Of course, like the imposed posture, we all wish we didn’t need the curtain or the veil, that there was wind enough to fill our sails. But in the meantime, Vela is our silken chamber, our free space, our own room.