From the Cosmos: How I Met Tapputi
How I met Tapputi: Sometime in 2019 I stumbled upon a Cosmos article discussing Tapputi Belatekallim. I was astounded that I hadn’t previously learned about the first-named perfumer in recorded history:
We know little of Tapputi’s background or personal life, but history has left us with one of her recipes: a fragrant salve for the Babylonian king. In this fascinating relic, Tapputi takes the reader through the step-by-step routine necessary to produce a royal ointment containing water, flowers, oil and calamus, which may either refer to lemongrass or a reedlike plant that is still used in perfumes today.
I was immediately curious. As a longtime perfume collector and beauty journalist with a deep appreciation for ancient cultures and historical fiction, I began considering who this woman was. What else might we know about her? But it wasn’t until summer of 2020, amidst the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic, that I decided the time was right to finally pursue a long-gestating creative project (or two, the other is HERE).
Take Her to School
Upon exploring MFA curricula, I learned that a full length novel could be the final thesis requirement. As such, I immediately thought of two things: historical fiction and Tapputi. I usually gravitate to historical fiction as a reader, and my life’s most robust passion is perfume. Could this be my opportunity to write a novel with the added guidance of seasoned instructors and fellow authors? Could I really write about a 3200 year old woman, of which we know so very little?
Imagined Assyrian Queen, from learningsites.com
I stopped and considered all of my years writing about perfume and the knowledge I had amassed as well as my longtime desire to tackle a novel. “Why not?” was the only response I could think of. So, in autumn of 2020 I began an MFA in Creative Writing. I have been developing Tapputi ever since.
But what was it that so intrigued me? It wasn’t so much that she was a woman, for I’ve long understood the hidden histories of female and queer contributions to science and technology. Or maybe it was precisely because she was a woman that her story needed to be told? Also, I think it was the fact that I could actually name someone from so long ago who might have shared my own curiosities about aroma. That we knew her recipe, her title, her eventual legacy, but little else so intrigued me. There seemed to be a lot of room to fill in the gaps with imagination.
But WHOA! That’s a scary task! Who am I to take on another person’s story? How could I possibly get all this right? Would the genre of historical fiction afford me any allowances? And the amount I’d need to learn about both an ancient civilization and their perfume chemistry seemed staggering. Insurmountable? Mad?
Call me mad for I’ve started the climb. With every book I finish I realize I’ll need to read two more just to get a handle on my topic. I’ve enjoyed the first steps but am not sure I’ve found a steady pace just yet. I think I still need to survey my surroundings before I move any farther.