Tales of Her Own

Tales of Her Own
A review of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (Joanna Cotler Books, 1997).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue casts a web around traditional fairy tales, drawing them together into one narrative thread by having a character from each tale introduce the next tale as her own. Characters both narrate and are narrated about. These are tales about the telling and about the power of narration itself to reveal, conceal, and create the self.

Donoghue invites her characters to ask who is allowed to tell their tales and who is constructed through the telling of tales. Characters resist the narrative ark of “tradition”, imagining new possibilities for their own deviation from the text. 

These are liberating fairy tales, opening up possibilities, and giving women voices in these tales where the traditional tales limited the options open to women. These are tales of shifts and changes, allowing women to chart new territories through the fairytale landscape, changing their circumstances. Often set at the cusp of womanhood, these tales explore the relationship between bodily and social transition. 

Donoghue evokes the power of witches, those othered and ostracised women, for changing the world around them, opening critical questions, and encouraging women to recognise their power. She resists the impulse to tie her stories up with a heterosexual “happily ever after”, and instead imagines new narrative possibilities, creating lesbian couples, women content to be without sexual relationships. 

Her tales reimagine Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, The Goose Girl, Rapunzel, The Snow Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid. Donoghue illustrates that an intensive knowledge of folklore allows one to play with the tropes of the tradition, imagining new possibilities. 

You can discover more about Emma Donoghue’s work at http://www.emmadonoghue.com 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 67: A Discussion of Sandra Kasturi’s The Animal Bridegroom

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore the folkloric poetry of Sandra Kasturi’s collection The Animal Bridegroom. I explore Kasturi’s poetic re-imagining of several fairy tales and the power of the spoken word.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

img_0564-2

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Goosed Into The Truth

Goosed Into The Truth
A review of Tim Wynne-Jones’ “The Goose Girl” in Black Thorn, White Rose Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Prime Books: 1994

By Derek Newman-Stille


Tim Wynne-Jones’ “The Goose Girl” is a re-telling of the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the same name, but it is also a discussion of the nature of re-tellings and of the nature of “truth” itself.. His story is told from the perspective of the Prince, who narrates his encounter with the young princess and the chambermaid. As in the Grimm Brothers narrative, the princess and chambermaid switch clothes before the castle and the prince assumes that the chambermaid is the princess he is supposed to marry and that the young princess is a peasant girl, who he finds work for as a goose girl. The prince is deceived by a change of clothing and has to uncover the truth through interacting with both chambermaid and princess to discover the truth behind their presentation of selfhood. They are clothed in fiction.

Wynne-Jones narrates a tale of successive fictions. After living the experience of encountering the faux princess and the goose girl, he hears a peasant narrating her version of the tale, and, even though he interrupts her at times to ask her to narrate the truth, she is bound by the nature of fairy tale tellings and imbues her story with symbolism.

In the prince’s own narration of his events, he also invokes other fairy tales, illustrating that a fairy tale understanding is not just a feature of peasants, but is something embedded into every aspect of his culture. He plays with the idea of finding out the truth about which woman is a peasant and which a princess by placing a pea under a mattress and discovering which one of the two is unable to sleep, invoking the princess and the pea narrative in order to discover his own truths and the truths that he has been denying – namely, that he knows that his lover is actually the chambermaid rather than the princess and that the goose girl is the true princess. He resorts to fairy tale understandings in order to interpret his own unconscious, illustrating the symbolic power and value of fairy tales to get at hidden truths. 

Despite the prince’s correcting of the “facts” of the tale told to him by the old woman conveying folk tales, through his entire narrative, he resisted these facts, ignored truths and relegated them to the subconscious. 

Tim Wynne-Jones’ “The Goose Girl” is a tale of inconvenient truths, the power of stories, and the nature of fairy tales. He plays with the idea that there are truths in stories and that there are stories in the truths we are told. He reveals that there is often torture involved in uncovering undesireable truths. 

To discover more about Tim Wynne-Jones, visit his website at http://www.timwynne-jones.com

Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?

Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?
A review of Michelle West’s ‘The Nightingale’ in Once Upon a Galaxy Edited by Wil McCarthy, Martin H. Greenberg, and John Helfers (Daw, 2002).
By Derek Newman-Stille

image

Michelle Sagara West (here writing as Michelle West) takes Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” from once upon a time into the (un)Happily Ever After, transforming myth into science fiction. Andersen’s tale is one of nature versus artificiality, pitting the natural songs of a living nightingale against the regularity of a clockwork nightingale. Both are able to produce music, but the variety and passion of the biological Nightingale surpasses that of the artificial.

Michelle Sagara West plays with this contrast between the natural and artificial by setting her tale In the future. West introduces the nightingale to the audience first, narrating from her perspective. She is constructed entirely as an object of the Emperor, an extension of his power and a symbol of his absolute control. She lives for the Emperor, uncertain even of her own selfhood.

West plays with the Orientalism of Andersen – his portrayal of China as autocratic, distant, wealthy, and violent – by instead situating her Emperor in a galactic setting, a setting that can comment on Andersen’s racism while also allowing her tale to play with themes of autocracy, wealth, and violence without replicating Andersen’s racism. The Emperor in West’s tale has literally distanced himself from human experience by altering his body, becoming something distant and quasi-mechanical. His obsession with music arises from the power that music has to make him feel some tinge of his humanity. This is an Emperor who desires control over all things, so the power music has to present diversity, uncertainty, and fluctuation has been regulated in the form of his android songbird who has been imbued with all of the galaxy’s latest musical trends without the chaotic uncertainty of music.

West’s songbird, just like Andersen’s nightingale, submits to the Emperor, making herself an object of his pleasure and desire and an extension of his will. She is caged just as Andersen’s nightingale is, but West’s songbird is a combination of images of escape and reminders of captivity. She is trapped in a castle on a planet where flight is forbidden and, moreover, she is given wings, but forbidden to ever use them. Creating them as a symbolic reminder of her captivity. She is forbidden contact with anyone other than the Emperor, secreting a poison that is fatal to anyone but him and is programmed to only love him.

Yet, unlike the mechanical nightingale from Andersen’s tale, West’s songbird is able to hear and experience the music of a human singer, hearing her voice and opening herself to learning from this singer and therefore experiencing the intwined nature of emotion and song, the human ability to express feeling through voice. In order to learn this interweaving of song and feeling, West’s songbird has to find something inside of herself that is fundamentally foreign to her.

West plays with ideas of permanence versus ageing and mortality. West contrasts the rigidity and stagnancy that comes with permanence against the changeability that comes with mortality, allowing her artificial songbird to be emotionally awakened by a love that is born through music. West illustrates that myth or fairy tale, like song, is an expression of human mortality and is a flexible and open to fluctuations as song, allowing The Nightingale to drift from a mid 1800s tale to a tale of futurity and speculative fiction.

You can discover more about Michelle Sagara West at http://michellesagara.com

Home is Where the Chicken Legs Are

Home is Where the Chicken Legs Are
A review of Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant (Candlewick Press, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille


Masha’s tale begins with stories from her grandmother about the witch Baba Yaga. Her grandmother was once kidnapped by Baba Yaga and had to outwit the witch in order to gain her freedom. Masha, delighted by these tales sees her grandmother’s life as one of adventure and wonders why she would have ever left Baba Yaga.
Masha’s father has recently been re-married and she discovers that although he never seemed to have time for her outside of work, he has time for his new wife and daughter. She feels out of place in her own home and when she runs away, she discovers a new home, but one that is unsettling and unsettled both by its strangeness and its propensity for walking around on chicken legs. Baba Yaga tests Masha to see if she is clever enough to get into her house before she is willing to take the girl on as an assistant. 
In order to cope in the fairy tale setting of Baba Yaga’s world, Masha must call upon all of her folklore and fairy tale knowledge to outsmart beasts, magic, and impossible tasks. Her life is one that has become enmeshed in the reality of fairy tales, shaped by their premises that have a logic all their own. 
Emily Carroll’s artwork weaves the mythical with the modern, blending the strange with the modern. She uses comic frames and backgrounds that meld and mesh the magic of a grimoire with the magic of needlepoint (an appropriate mixing because Masha tells us that her own grandmother acquired a needle and thread from Baba Yaga’s hut in her youth). For Masha’s remembering of fairy tales, Carroll switches to strong, simple colours with silhouette-like qualities to paint the tales with a sense of otherness and a sense of reverie. 

As much as this is a tale of wandering, it is also a tale of locating oneself, of finding oneself through tales and adventures. McCoola and Carroll’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant is a tale that reveals the power that fairy tales have to make us look at ourselves and our lives anew. It is a tale of self-discovery and a reminder that fairy tales can unlock doors of self discovery as easily as Masha opens the doorway to Baba Yaga’s hut. 
To discover more about Baba Yaga’s Assistant, visit Candlewick Press at http://www.candlewick.com/essentials.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=076366961X&bkview=p&pix=y 

Fairy Tales Estranged

Fairy Tales Estranged A review of Sandra Kasturi’s “The Animal Bridegroom” (Tightrope Books).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  
“The Animal Bridegroom” leaves a breadcrumb trail of poems to bring the reader through cultural myths and legends to a place of self-reflection. Sandra Kasturi uses fairy tale themes to open a pathway into the deep woods of myth, where she explores the changeable power of stories, their ability to shift and change like the seasons. 

In her poem “The Gretel Papers”, Kasturi invites the reader to look at the impact of fairy tales on the characters. Fairy tales normally don’t explore beyond the happily ever after, but Kasturi invites us to ponder what would happen to the young protagonist of Hansel and Gretel after Gretel has killed the witch and has to live with the long term effect of her actions. Here we encounter a Gretel who has experienced a lifetime of depression and post-traumatic stress.

In “Chaos Theory”, she explores the way that we live surrounded by myth, enwrapped in a w world of words and stories that shape us and that we can’t escape from. We are made up of the cultural stories we are told.

In “Verses for the Lost”, Kasturi uses the Red Riding Hood myth to remind all of us that we are lost in the forest and reminds us that there are no final destinations in life and that everything is always changeable (including grandmothers who wear their wolf suit on the inside).

In “Five Cantos from the Prayer Book of Aphrodite”, the reader is drawn into questions about love and its complexity, invited to imagine the diversity of love and the notion that some people’s horror is the adoration of others.

“Carnival Perpetuel” highlights that the Cinderella tale is a tale about time and the passage of time. It explores the way that we imagine ourselves into the future and, especially, highlights the way that women’s time is structured in a patriarchal world, exploring the demands on women’s time, the devaluing of women’s work, and the notion that women are always structured as existing in a temporal framework, always at risk of running out of time since women are told in our society that their value only exists so long as they are young. Kasturi teaches us about the dangers of wishing for a better life and that these wishes often serve to continue current oppressions of women.

“The Animal Bridegroom” reminds us of the significance of fairy tales and the power that narratives have to shape our lives. She brings attention to the changeability of the world and its tendency to shift the narratives we tell ourselves. Sandra Kasturi weaves a spell of words around the reader, performing a difficult type of magic – the magic of transforming the way we think about the world around us.

To discover more about “The Animal Bridegroom”, visit Tightrope Books at http://tightropebooks.com/the-animal-bridegroom-sandra-kasturi-w-introduction-by-neil-gaiman/

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

By Derek Newman-Stille

prod_029

Fairy tales always exist in multiplicity, in versions. There is never one TRUE version, but rather a fluid polyphonic group with multiple voices sharing different takes on the same tale. Fairy tales possess the magic of changeability. Born in oral narratives, they have the power to shift and change with each telling, adapting to new tellers and new audiences. They resist the idea that there can be only one truth and illustrate that there are always multiple truths, each with different messages that speak to different people.

 

Fairy tales are delightfully slippery and whenever people seek to pin them down, they adapt, change, and modify themselves to speak to a new generation and a new group of people.

 

We create our fairy tales to tell us about ourselves, to learn from our own imaginative words and explore our boundaries. Fairy tales let us walk out into the darkening woods of our own subconscious and see more of ourselves, the selves that we tell into existence when we sit around a camp fire.

 

In our fairy tales, we encounter strange beings – beasts and otherworldly entities and animals that act far too much like we do – but these encounters are always with ourselves, always about us colliding with murky mirror images of ourselves, and those mirror selves always have something to share, something to teach to us.

 

Our fairy tales shift from generation to generation to capture our new ideas, interests, perspectives, and our anxieties. But what fairy tales do we need for this age? What should we be telling ourselves to learn and change?

 

Now when we venture into the woods, it is not the wolves that Red Riding Hood should fear, but they should fear us because of the damage we have done to our animal neighbours. Tales of commoners who become princesses have reinforced the oppression of women and made sure that we don’t critique wealth because so many people believe they can go from commoner to royalty, so how do we change that tale? We have told tales of desiring youth and fearing old age, so how do we switch it so that we can desire our own aging? How do we tell tales of enchanted apples when they are sprayed with chemicals and waxed?

 

We are storied animals, composed by the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and, most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves to get us through each day.