Why pomegranates?

Before I wrote the novel, I hadn’t noticed pomegranates, particularly. They were slightly astringent, sweet fruits that I could never peel well. And the thought of eating seeds seemed like too much work. Wait a minute. I’ve never really tried to peel one, I thought. I’ve only eaten pomegranates as a garnish here and there. And they have that lovely ruby color. Why not try it? I learned to harvest the seeds easily by holding the pulp under running water, and have enjoyed them tremendously ever since.

And then I began seriously cultivating Eve’s Garden.

As I constructed subplots and tried to deepen the meaning of the garden in the novel, beyond the easy reference to the Bible, I explored possible symbols and came across the pomegranate (Punica granatum) again and again. The significance for my character, Evangeline, the Romani herbalist and midwife, was immediately transparent: The pomegranate is thought to have originated in the region from Northern India to Iran, the area in which our Romani ancestors also originated (India) and then became slaves and forced conscripts (modern-day Iran, or ancient Persia and the Ghazni empire); and it also can be an abortifacient or contraceptive, in the right proportions and in the right combinations. (Do I need to say this is not medical advice? See your doctor, please.)

In these regions, femininity is covered, hidden, and often exploited in modern times, but celebrated in many of the ancient cultures that gave rise to the modern world.

The word “pomegranate” derives from the medieval Latin for “apple,” “pomum,” and “granatum,” or “seeded,” and thus seemed appropriate for background imagery when the rapist-turned preacher Lewis Allen rails against immodesty after an episode from the novel in which Eve, the central character in my novel, and her friend, Beverly, have one of their early experiences with boys. Hypocrisy and horticulture mix well in literary symbolism. (“Punica” refers to the ancient Phoenicians, those intrepid merchants who spread the pomegranate’s cultivation across the Middle East and Mediterranean. The pomegranate is extensively grown in South China and in Southeast Asia, where it spread along the route of the Silk Road, perhaps brought by sea traders .Kandahar in Afghanistan is known for its high quality pomegranates. And the fruit is widely popular in drier climates, such as Arizona and California.)

It is the ancient meaning for “Punica” or pomegranate as “apple” that many scholars believe was at the root of the apple in the Garden of Eden, a location which many consider most likely to have been in the pomegranate’s native habitat of Central Persia.

For me, that knowledge of good and evil is a metaphor for the fruit of the womb, which can be both blessing and burden for women. Which is ours alone to figure out.

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Mortality’s Pink Slip

Today I spoke with a young romni (Romani woman) about finding my gr-gr-gr-grgrandmother’s name on a list of slaves on a Barbados plantation, and also about our attempts every year to persuade the UN’s office of Holocaust Outreach to include us in their annual remembrance ceremony. We both cried a bit. 

 

Tonight I read the poem by Rachel Hadas, “Pomegranate Variations,” with these lines:

 

The fruit we pass around is recollection

. . . .

Mortality’s pink slip,

ticket to a certain season . . .

 

In my novel, Eve’s Garden, Eve’s grandmother, Evangeline, explains to her children how her Romani ancestors came through such oppression as being driven out of their homes by arson, were denied housing and safe passage, and were ultimately sold into slavery. She plants for the children cuttings from the pomegranate trees grown by her own grandmother, trees from which she harvested the fruits, processing the seeds and pulp into extracts to help her neighbors, in that time before pharmaceuticals, to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Those same neighbors turned against her, the same lack of charity experienced again and again, experienced even today, by Romani families in France, in Italy, in Hungary, and more places, but especially in parts of Eastern Europe. 

Today, as we observe the anniversary of the night when the remaining Romani women, men, and children were murdered in Auschwitz, I think of my ancestors, what they have endured and overcome to bring us here. And what yours must have done to bring us alive, together, to this moment.

Mortality comes for us all. Compassion takes but a moment, but may be remembered for a lifetime, and celebrated for many lifetimes. May we live so that they survive forever. 

 

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