Fan Fiction, Oral Narrative, and The Book

Fan Fiction, Oral Narrative, and The Book
By Derek Newman-Stille

Last night, at a panel on fan fiction at Can Con in Ottawa, I began thinking about fan fiction as something connected to oral narrative and our human history of storytelling. I connected fan fiction to my past research in Classical Greek Literature and thought about the relationship of fan fiction to the multiplicity of versions of stories in classical myth, and also connected it to my current research in Fairy Tales, which also exist in versions and have a complicated relationship to the idea of the book (particularly since people like the Brothers Grimm took multiple versions of fairy tales and sought to book them down into single texts). 

I want to start by thanking my fellow panelists Erin Rockfort, J.M. Frey, and Genevieve Hebert-Jodoin for engaging with me in a discussion around these ideas and for critically questioning them and exploring them with me. Their expertise and knowledge were incredible

The notion of fan fiction depends on the idea of having one singular text – a book – as the source for a story. It depends on the idea of art as property and depends on the notion of the author as the singular creator of a text. In the context of the wider world and the history of storytelling, this is actually a rare phenomenon and a distinctly modern, western phenomenon.

Storytelling comes from oral narrative, from telling tales out loud. These stories rarely exist in singularity. Stories are told again and again with variations and each storyteller modifies their story to adapt to their own voice, but they also adapt their story to their audience, responding to the particular people in their audience and particular events in a community. So a single storyteller’s tale is likely to shift in the telling and retelling. This is some of the magic of oral narrative – the ability for a story to adapt, be changeable, mutable, shifting to tell the story that the teller feels the community needs. As an example of this for modern Western readers, when you read a book to a child, generally you will adapt even a book so that the story fits with that child and their particular circumstances, so the character becomes “a ginger haired girl, just like you” and she faces bullying just like the child you are reading the story to. As we tell stories, we adapt and shape them to the purposes they need, to tell the stories children need to hear at a particular moment

This expresses the adaptability and flexibility of story itself, and expresses something intrinsic to storytelling – that each time a story is told, elements shift and new aspects to the story are brought to light while others disappear.

For most of our history as human beings, stories have existed as oral narrative, as tales told aloud, and actually, in the West, even though we frequently identify stories with the notion of a single-authored book and intellectual property, the vast amount of stories we encounter are actually still oral narrative. We call them gossip. We tell stories constantly about the people around us, unwittingly shifting and changing them in the retelling. Our memories change too in the retelling and our knowledge of the “truth” of a story will shift as we remember details differently.

So there is an intrinsic shiftability and malleability to stories. They aren’t static, but rather change. So, the notion of a single-authored propertarian story is something quite unusual. The book can be perceived as a stagnation of a story, trying to halt it at one particular moment and preserve one single telling.

Even texts like the Iliad and Odyssey, which are perceived as being canonical, are tales frozen at a particular moment and ascribed to the poet Homer. Yet, these tales existed as oral narrative, being told and retold and shifting with each telling. When the Iliad and Odyssey were written down, they still existed in multiple versions with multiple small differences. Even today, these texts exist in multiplicity because each translator provides a different version.

The nature of the book is contentious. It can be seen as something that stops the adaptability of a text, but even early books had different versions. When books were copied by hand, they shifted in the writing, with scribes often changing words, missing words, or substituting words. Once we have the invention of the printing press, there is a bit more consistency and sameness in versions of stories.

The printed book allows for propertary rights and a more intense ownership of a particular story, but there is still the human impulse to tell, retell, and adapt stories. We have a desire to see versions of texts, to make texts our own as readers and to retell them in ways that preserve that adaptability of storytelling. Fan fiction, to me, is an acknowledgement of the adaptability of text, the power of a text to exist in polyphony, and be subject to the mutability of oral narrative. So notions of the primacy of a single text are distinctly modern and western, and they attempt to halt a story from its adaptability, from something built into the act of storytelling itself.

Frequently, fan fiction is perceived as bing something distinctly modern, but it is something that is intrinsic to storytelling – adding to our stories as they are told and retold, adapting them to our particular cultural moment, our needs at the time of telling, and the particular audience we want to reach. Fan fiction is just another part of the living narrative that is characteristic of storytelling, and it allows for a text to shift, grow, and change. 

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A review of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kai Cheng Thom decided to include the word “Memoir” in the title of her book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, yet she also cleverly weaves fantasy elements into her text, telling stories about the death of the last of the mermaids, the mythic First Femme, ghosts, and a magical Trans woman who casts spells on her sisters. She weaves fairy tales into her “memoir”, revealing the problems of Cinderella narratives for Trans women, discussing doctors who are so unlike fairy godmothers (always wanting something in return for their transformations), telling tales of goddesses, escapees from towers that trap them, and the magic of the everyday.

Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir is meant to complicate the idea of memoir itself, and especially the tropes of the “Trans Girl Memoir”, which is so often about a person discovering that they are Trans, leaving her home and ending up suffering on the street, becoming the victim of abuse. Thom’s Trans memoir is one filled with magic, but it is also about fighting back – about never being a victim and about coming together as a community to protect each other. Her tale evokes the magic of connections with other Femmes.

She tells her tale through prose and poetry, through letters and dramatic scripts, and through sharing the histories of other Trans women on the street (often narrated by someone else). Her narrator is someone who hungers for their stories like we do as the reader, but she also filters those stories through her own knowledge, her own craving for a place to belong and a people to belong with. Yet, despite her craving for belonging, we are told that the narrator is an escape artist, and, perhaps she even escapes from the text in a way, leaping from the simple veracity of the mundane world and into a space where fantasy is a more powerful truth than Truth.

This is not a Trans woman’s memoir. This is a story about stories… about our need for stories. Its a story about the fact that there are stories behind the stories that are told. It is a collection of myths from the street, urban myths. It is a collection of truths. Kai Cheng Thom complicates the idea of Truth in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, teaching us that some fictions speak greater truths than works that claim to be collections of truth. She teaches us that in the act of storytelling, we transform ourselves, and in the act of hearing, we create community. She shares her love of storytelling with us as readers, reminding us that the veracity of a story doesn’t matter so long as it shares and tells us truths about ourselves through the act of reading.

Kai Cheng Thom uses the word “Memoir” in her title to complicate memoirs – to illustrate to us that there are no simple truths and that truths are always shifting, changing, and transforming. She illustrates that life is a fantasy made up of our collective stories interweaving with each other and creating magic.

Thom’s narrator tells us “Someday, I’m going to gather up all of the stories in my head. All the things that happened to me and all the things I wish had happened. I’m going to write them all down one after the other, and I’ll publish a famous best-selling book and let history decide what’s real and what’s not.” This is a tale that invites the reader into the process of truth-making, using the term “memoir” to invite questions about what is true and to whom.

To discover more about Kai Cheng Thom, visit her website at https://kaichengthom.wordpress.com

To discover more about Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, visit https://metonymypress.com/product/fierce-femmes-notorious-liars-dangerous-trans-girls-confabulous-memoir/

A Gingerbread House Waiting For An Old Lady

A Gingerbread House Waiting For An Old Lady

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “Path Of White Stones” in Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins (Exile, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

We like to assume that we own our houses – that we select them and buy them and that they become ours… but don’t we also become theirs? Aren’t we swallowed whole by our houses and digested over the years, becoming what they make of us? 

Kate Heartfield’s “Path Of White Stones” asks how our houses shape us. Borrowing from tales of old women and their houses like Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga, Kate looks at the way that sometimes our ginger bread houses aren’t traps for others, but, rather, they trap us. 

Kate explores ageing and “adult living” communities and the way that these communities isolate ageing adults, promising them a get away from the business of everyday living… but illustrates the way that these communities facilitate a separation from the rest of the world and allow bigotries to arise. “Path Of White Stones” asks what happens when people are cut off from the rest of the community and segregated and how this shapes their ideas of selfhood and Otherness. 

Kate examines ageing femininity and questions the tropes of the “old woman”, creating a protagonist who is aware of the stereotypes and resistant to simple narratives of selfhood. She uses her tale of ageing, home, and community to invite critical questions about how we understand ways of living while ageing. 

To find out more about Kate Heartfield, visit https://heartfieldfiction.com

To discover more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to get your own copy, visit Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

In The Shadows of Giants

In The Shadows Of Giants

A review of Liz Westbrook-Trenholm’s “White Rose, Red Thorns” in Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm intertwines multiple fairy tales in her story “White Rose, Red Thorns” while giving complexity to the characters involved. She tells a tale of a giant’s tiny human caretaker and a young thief named Jack who looks far too much like her former lover, Snow, though with male features instead of female. 

The giant’s caretaker finds herself trapped between the cruel world of giants in the clouds and the cruel world of humanity below, at home in neither space and always having to hide who she is. Westbrook-Trenholm reminds readers that older women often have to hide their power in order to not be considered threatening for having it, and the giant’s caretaker has to use cunning to make herself seem weaker and more insignificant than she is. 

Westbrook-Trenholm tells a tale of loss, mourning, and hiding, but also reveals the hope that can come from letting go of secrets and embracing who you are. “White Rose, Red Thorns” is a beautiful mix of fairy tales, combined in a way that exposes the magical thread that runs through them. 

To discover more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to get your own copy, visit Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

Woke Beauty

Woke Beauty

A review of Nicole Lavigne’s “Fairest Find” in “Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins” (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nicole Lavigne tells a tale of a prince who measured his life by the fairy tales he was  told as children and finds himself confused when he encounters the complexities of life outside of story books. “Fairest Find” is a meta narrative commenting on traditional fairy tales and the problematic ways that they simplify the world.

Lavigne plays with the Sleeping Beauty tale, transforming the passive princess awaiting true love’s kiss into a powerful woman unwilling to let others decide her destiny for her. Lavigne invites readers to question the de-voicing of women in fairy tales, pointing to the need to tell tales that raise questions about consent and choice, tales that critique patriarchy and parental power. “Fairest Find” is about empowered women taking control of the tales that are told about them and instead telling their own tales, rich with their own complexity.

To find out more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to buy your own copy, go to Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

Planted

Planted
A review of Richard Keelan’s “The Waltzing Tree” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins” (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Richard Keelan’s “The Waltzing Tree” is a suburban fairy tale about loneliness and transformation. It is a tale about overcoming the distance that traditional modes of masculinity place between our bodies and the fear of vulnerability that is part of those notions of masculinity. “The Waltzing Tree” explores complex intimacies and the resistance people often feel to types of intimacy that aren’t considered traditional.

Keelan tells a tale about care-giving and care-receiving between a man and a transformed tree, opening up uncertainties and complexities in their interactions and understandings of each other. Both share the property that the man has moved to – he because he has bought the land and the tree because their roots were planted in that ground long before the man moved to this space. This proximity allows them to both struggle with ideas of home and what it means for them to share this space and to cope with others infringing on their privacy. 

The man, Johnathan, is only able to let his tight control of his masculinity and senses of propriety slip because the tree, David, still identifies as a tree and represents a complex gender identity. Johnathan fears what contact with David may mean, even while he is trying to rescue them. 

To discover more about Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins, visit https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com

And visit Exile Editions’ website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

No Longer Isolated

No Longer Isolated

A review of Robert Dawson’s “Iron Jenny and the Princess” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile Editions, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy tales have a propensity toward a “happily ever after” that results in a heterosexual marriage… yet that excludes a lot of people and suggests that only straight identities can be happy identities. Robert Dawson’s “Iron Jenny and the Princess” presents readers with a princess, Topaz, who has never had a desire to marry and whose mother tells her that she will either wed or be put in jail. Dawson explores the collision of duty and personal desire, of family and freedom examining the systems of controls placed on princesses.

Topaz is a princess who has always been different, always looked at as rough and gruff, yet when she is on her own, she is able to sing and be herself and to express more of herself than she can to others. It is in seeking isolation in her kingdom’s labyrinth that Topaz finally meets someone she can relate to: Iron Jenny, a woman made of iron.

As occurs in many fairy tales, Topaz has to prove herself to be worthy of marrying a prince by completing multiple tasks… and all of these tasks are related to her perceived eventual domestic role. Yet, Dawson writes a character who challenges assumptions about women’s work and about a princess’ role, offering a tale that disrupts heterosexual patriarchal ideas and presents characters with more nuance, complicating the idea of the “happily ever after” and a woman’s role in that traditional fairy tale ending.

To find out more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, visit http://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and check out Exile Editions’ website at https://www.exileeditions.com