Silk has a mystique like no other fabric. It is sheer and strong, absorbs and insulates well, enhances the beauty of the people who wear it or the objects that it surrounds. It is a true luxury valued in many world cultures, and gathered from the secretion of moths. In the opening chapter of Destiny Kinal's novel "Burning Silk" -- entitled "The Seduction of Scent" -- young Catherine Duladier has been assigned by her family to negotiate with Le Fournier, France's leading parfumier of the early 19th century, who seeks to replicate and amplify the scent of the female silkmoth. Her communication with the Great Nose, as he was known, is as much olfactory as visual or audible. Her Huguenot family fears that he is seeking to steal secrets of silk production, in which men and women carried out their labors with as much of a gender distinction as the moths did in their mating. Catherine does not reveal the family's secrets but she comes to know of a plot against Le Fournier. She is raped and flees back to her family, praying for strength in a secret language. As the first chapter ends, she emigrates with others in her family to establish the House of Duladier in America.
In the first years of the 19th century the silk trade was flourishing from China to Pennsylvania. The delicacy of the silkworms is matched by the care necessary at each step in the breeding process. To protect and harvest the silk strands proper facilities are necessary -- a magnanerie, in which the insects are under the watchful eye of the maîtresses. The women communicate in Dialog -- an "internal channel...evolved over millennia of working in the silk" -- and it allows them to be supportive not only in their work but also during the stress of childbirth and in their love of other women. But the social mores and economic opportunities of the time make it difficult for even as skilled a woman as Catherine Duladier to start a magnanerie of her own. The French women's relationship with the matrilineal Iroquois and the example of the utopian religious communities of the Burned-over District of New York gives them inspiration and the silk farm is established. The final third of "Burning Silk" parallels the human adventure with the growth of the silkworms.
I have discovered where Kristiana spends her time. I asked the Madonna to let me see, and She does, in my dreaming. Kristiana has become one of the beasts, spending her time in the wilderness, with Marguerite's house her waystation. She seems to prefer night to day. I have entered her breast (thanks be to you, Madonna!) and found that she does not fear what is wild, only what is human. I give her more attention and kindness when she is en magnanerie, aware that she has taken her own path to salvation, not knowing what it is. I have forfeited knowing how she has protected herself. She has left her girlhood behind like the worms their outgrown skins; no one should mourn their passing.
-- from "Burning Silk"
This is the first novel by Destiny Kinal , a resident of Waverly, NY. Destiny (which her biographical sketch notes is her real name) is a long-time social activist, former member of Students for a Democratic Society and the anarchist group The Diggers, as well as having worked in marketing research. She is a proponent of bioregionalism, which she describes as the "understanding that one's love of place, centered on the home watershed, its seasons and all the creatures and plants that define one's home uniquely" and is a founder of the watershed organization Carantouan Greenway on the Susquehanna River. She is also the leader of the Reinhabitory Institute and sitio tiempo press.
"Burning Silk" was a finalist for the 2010 International Book Award and is the first in Kinal's Textile Trilogy. "Linen Shroud", set in the Civil War era, will be published next year, to be followed by "Oil and Water".
Destiny Kinal joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about everything from silkworms to Dialog, and to answer listeners' questions. To join in the conversation call during the live 1:00 PM broadcast to 888/359-9754 or send an e-mail to OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.