Jessa Crispin on the amazing Aquarius writer Freya Stark and her Mercury – she was Sun in Aquarius square Uranus in Scorpio & Mars in Aries square Venus in Capricorn – a Zap Zone in motion.
“You have left your props behind you, all the furniture of your life, the barricade of things and people erected by yourself and your forebears against the attacks of circumstance; and circumstance is now all about you.” – Freya Stark
When we think of travel writers, it is easy to come up with a long list of men: Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Wilfred Thesiger, Lawrence Durrell, Bill Bryson. Travel and adventure is seen as such a manly thing, the great explorer wandering into mystery and uncertainty and coming back with stories to tell. And, men are always quick to tell you, it just isn’t safe out there for a woman on the road.
Screw that, and bring me all the books of Dame Freya Stark.
Born in Paris to a Polish/German/Italian mother and an English father, she spent most of her childhood in Italy. So already she was getting accustomed to crossing borders and trading in one language, one set of customs, one way of life for another. Then a terrible accident at 14 in which her hair was caught in a machine that left her hospital-bed bound, getting numerous skin grafts while she read the entire contents of a library.
As soon as she recovered, she was off, teaching herself Latin and Persian and Arabic and going to school to learn history. At 30, she went to Beirut, and her life as an adventurer began.
Each travel writer finds themselves drawn to a particular region, a place that beats and sings in the heart, and for her it was Arabia. Her writings on the region, from Western Iran to what is now Yemen and was then called Hadhramaut, are full of adventure and excitement, but they also showcase the fact that Stark saw the people around her as people. In a time when colonial Britain’s official viewpoint of the region was paternalistic dismay, Stark depicted the generosity and friendliness of the people. To her they were not “The Other.” They were human beings, different but therefore all the more interesting.
She was born when Mercury tipped over from Capricorn to Aquarius. (Which means that her Mercury is right on top of my Midheaven and do not think I do not treat her books as if they were my own personal guru.) So it was coming out of this patriarchal sign of empire and ambition, into a more humanistic, universal way of thinking. That is greatly reflected in her writing, as is her tremendous air sign grand trine (Sun in Aquarius-Saturn in Libra-Pluto/Neptune in Gemini) that gave her a powerful intellect. She wrote in an essay, “There is no essential difference between the various human groups, creatures whose bones and brains and members are the same.”
Her intellect was put to work as she was enlisted in the World War II effort in the propaganda effort. She was stationed in Syria and put to work trying to convince the Arab nations to join the war on the side of the Allies or remain neutral. She suffered her own war-related cataclysm. Her memoir Dust in the Lion’s Paw opens with Stark learning that the dear friend who had spontaneously proposed marriage was killed in the war only two days later. Grief-stricken, she threw herself into her work and her writing.
Stark would be enough, just as a person, enough of an inspiration, enough of a person whose picture you would pin on your wall and say “more like her, more like her” ten times when you wake up in the morning, but her writing is absolutely stunning. She can paint a picture of the desolate desert landscape like a master, she can teach you the entire history of the Roman empire without it ever dragging down into that stale classroom atmosphere, and she can have you sobbing alongside her in her memoir and cheering her victorious overcoming of odds. She is it, ladies and gentlemen.
Which is why it is baffling to me why most of her books have been out of print for so long — until now, IB Tauris finding the wisdom to create the Freya Stark Collection and start putting them out one by one — and her name so obscure. She deserves to be celebrated and sung. Her memoir is essential. The Valleys of the Assassins, a region everyone thought was probably just made up until she went and found it, is tremendous. Her books of history will win over anyone who finds the ancient world dull and full of a bunch of dead white guys. The Lycian Shore, where she got herself a boat and sailed the ancient trading routes along Turkey, is an account of someone actively trying to engage with and understand where we as a people came from.
Freya Stark lived to be 100. She loved the world, and it loved her back so much it could barely bear to part from her.
Jessa Crispin is the editor of Bookslut and Spolia, and her book, The Dead Ladies Project, will be released by the University of Chicago in the Fall of 2015. If you’re interested in a tarot reading, specially designed for writers and other creatives, contact Jessa here.
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