Homecoming: A reading and discussion series for veterans, military families
● By Richard Gaw
Homer's Odyssey, generally considered to be the sequel to the Iliad and composed in the 8th Century B.C., tells the story of Greek hero Odysseus and his valiant, decades-long struggle to return home to Ithaca after fighting in the ten-year Trojan War.
His troubles really begin when Odysseus finally reaches his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, only to find that while it is known by others that he had survived the war, it has been assumed by many to have died on his ten-year journey home – gone and forgotten – and that because of that assumption, Penelope has been pursued in his absence by an unruly group of suitors.
In between, Odysseus lives with the knowledge that good men have died in war, and yet he has survived. It is the battle of reintegration, one that every veteran who has ever returned from active service has had to fight both internally and externally.
For five hour-long sessions beginning May 14 at the Kennett Library, the themes of the book will take center stage in a reading discussion for veterans, their families and the general public.
“Homecoming: A Reading and Discussion Group for Veterans, Active Military Members and Their Families,” will explore the Odyssey under the guidance of Shanyn Fiske, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Rutgers University, and Winden Rowe, MS, a Kennett Square clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in combat and non-combat trauma.
“I have been teaching Homer for 14 years at Rutgers, and my pedagogy has changed through the years, because academia has changed,” Fiske said. “I've started teaching the text differently as the years have gone on, and last semester, I had a small lecture class about the Odyssey with 32 students, of which about five or six were veterans, who all sat rapt with attention. I wanted to see if this text could be read with a broader audience of veterans and military families.”
Rowe's interest in helping to moderate the discussion came from from personal experiences. On her 18th birthday, Rowe's father, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force who did two deployments to Vietnam, presented his daughter with five books, one of which was Homer's Odyssey.
“As a teenager, I went through this phase of being adamantly against anything to do with military life, because I had seen what it had done to my family,” she said. “What my father was trying to communicate with me from the five books was to help me understand who he was, and that was the catalyst for a total shift in our relationship, and the eyes that I saw him through.
“I learned that by changing my relationship with him over time that there are people who are unable to verbalize what their internal experience is, but if there is an avenue that is provided for them that they can relate to, they can achieve a change and healing process, and it doesn't have to be by way of telling their story.”
Promotion of the series has been sent to several military and veteran organizations, but perhaps the largest – and most under-served group that will likely connect with the book – will be the families of returning veterans.
“Homer's Odyssey is not just about Odysseus' homecoming, but also about Penelope's staying home and getting to know her returning soldier again after 20 years, and their child, Telemachus, who was a baby when Odysseus left for war,” Fiske said. “There's this moment in Book 16 when Odysseus sees his son for the first time, and there's this moment of recognition, but it's also embedded in estrangement, where Odysseus realizes that he doesn't really know who his son is.”
While Fiske and Rowe plan to use this session as a pilot project for future book studies and readings targeted to veterans and their families, they enter into “Homecoming” with the intent to let the conversation drive itself.
“What drives my motivation is that I am interested in how people will respond to the text,” Fiske said. “Winden and I don't see this as a clinical session, but rather, a discussion about a story. I don't ask students to disclose who they are, but in my previous teachings about the Odyssey, they have actively come out in the course of discussion to say, 'I was deployed, and this same thing happened to me when I came home.'
It's a fascinating narrative, and I hope that it will provide a context in which to just talk to each other and share our experiences.”
The five-session discussion is free open to all veterans, military families and the general public, and will be held at the Kennett Library from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. To learn more about the reading series, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.