Review & Interview With the Author: Black Widow Bitches
By Kat Ward, Hometown Pasadena, with interview by Thelma Reyna, publisher.
Opposed to a draft, the U.S. President asks each American family to send one volunteer to fight. A daring woman Army general, Jennifer Reed, proposes a bold move: training women for full-fledged combat in elite, all-women military units. Despite tremendous odds, her plan is grudgingly accepted, and the history-shattering 135th Airborne Division – the “Black Widows” – are born in the not-too-distant future.
Q: What about your new novel might be considered prophetic?
A: Two aspects. First, our nation recently removed all the barriers to qualified women in the U.S. military being in full combat. Our Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, formalized this major change in 2015. But more than four years ago, I was writing about this being a reality, showing what this looked like, with our American women being transformed from “green recruits” to full-blown soldiers. Second, my novel depicts a world where terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are able to take over much territory in regions of the world, like parts of Europe, Mideast, and Africa. When I began writing this book almost 10 years ago, such terrorist groups weren’t on the public radar as they are now.
Q: Tell us about your book’s heroes, these “Black Widows” who broke the proverbial “glass ceiling.”
A: The feedback I get from readers is how authentic, how believable, the characters are. The women are diverse, representing every ethnic and socioeconomic group, every cultural group, in our society. The top “stars” of the book, for example are a Latina graduate of West Point, a lieutenant who hailed from the “barrio” and who had gang connections in East Los Angeles; a young Black woman who grew up rich and privileged in Chicago’s Gold Coast; a virginal, mousy Midwestern, ultra-religious White girl; a dirt-poor, young White woman from Alabama who was domestically abused; an Iranian-American devout Muslim, who saved the lives of many of her comrades; a brave, beloved Asian officer, and so on. These women face discrimination from the military high command as well as challenges amongst themselves. For example, some LGBT soldiers are bullied by other women. Some face gang issues, race issues, and so on. I show these women soldiers on and off the fields of battle, so you’ll get to really know them. The focus of my novel is their huge transformation from fearful rookies to brave warriors. You’ll be able to believe these Black Widows are genuine heroes.
Q: The book’s main character is a Latino officer. Tell us more about him, since having such a hero in an American war novel is relatively rare.
A: To my understanding, there are very few American combat novels in our nation’s history with a Latino protagonist. Elias Marin, my book’s male hero, is symbolic of a leader who falls from grace due to his own failings, and who then has the choice to redeem himself or be undone by his own pride. At the beginning of my book, before the Black Widows unit is established, Elias makes a choice that ultimately costs many human lives. Disgraced, humiliated, his dreams destroyed, he is punished. But soon he is given a chance to step into an untested arena to train the new, all-female army division, a job no male soldier wants. Elias, as readers will see, is a complex character: incredibly strong, but we see him breaking down and weeping in several parts of the novel. He is cold yet sensitive, not the conventional hero, but more akin to what real heroes are probably like: good, conflicted, afraid, and strong. An authentic hero and role model.
Q: Why was it necessary to create all-female fighting units? Why not just integrate the women with their male comrades?
A: The answer, sadly, is based on reality, not fiction. Despite the fact that America’s military has admitted women in certain areas for a number of years now, including military academies, physical and sexual assaults on women are still a major concern. Women can’t rise through the ranks as the men can, because of tremendous prejudice regarding their abilities. Women in the military academies are harassed, and rape is not uncommon. In my book, these facts are used by the male opponents of the Black Widows to prevent women getting into combat. But the proponents of creating the Black Widows point out that, with all-female units, these obstacles and abuses will not be an issue. Similar to research that shows how students in all-girl schools develop greater leadership abilities and achieve more highly than in heterogeneous schools, this all-female model seemed reasonable.
|Thelma Reyna with Victor Cass at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena CA|
Q: Women advocates might argue that having a male leader as the main hero dilutes the “women’s empowerment” that might otherwise distinguish your book. Are they right?
A: I’ve heard this expressed already. I can understand why women feel this way and I respect that perspective. But I was trying to reflect reality. When our military first integrated Black soldiers over 100 years ago, there were not enough Black officers to train new recruits, as was also the case in the Civil War with our Black soldiers. So, until there could be a critical mass of Black officers, White officers were used for training. In my novel, women volunteers sign up in droves for the Black Widows, defying expectations. Because of WWIII’s intensity, our military is being drained, so the U.S. needs all these recruits, but there simply aren’t enough airborne-trained women soldiers, especially at the officer level, to train them. So male officers have to be practically bribed to take on this unconventional assignment.
Q: Have you received any blowback from the book’s title, Black Widow Bitches? Last I looked, the “b-word” is still much reviled, especially by women.
A: Yes, starting with my editor, and my family. My novel is a tribute to the strength and resilience of women from all walks of life. It celebrates how ordinary people, even downtrodden, disempowered women, can rise to great heroism, can do amazing things they never dreamed they were capable of. It celebrates how women can enter into a “man’s world,” a place they were excluded from and told they could never earn entrance into–and succeed! I know that the title might appear to diminish that. But the title is meant to be ironic. It comes from the snarling, hate-filled villains in the book, who were battered by the Black Widows. The terrorists had never seen strong women take control, and they hated the persistence and skills of the Black Widows. To them, through much of the book, these American women are “Black Widow Bitches”—a shallow, monotone, cliché depiction of women that reflects the denigration women have always experienced. Hearing themselves called this, my women soldiers are energized to crush the monsters these enemies are.
Black Widow Bitches is available through directly from the publisher at GoldenFoothillsPress.com. It is also on Amazon.
Adapted from article originally posted in www.Hometown-Pasadena.com by Kat Ward.