Not Malfunctioning

Not Malfunctioning

A review of Fiona Patton’s “I Am Not Broken” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In our ableist society, disability is treated as a flaw, as a malfunction. In “I Am Not Broken”, Fiona Patton explores the problematic assumptions about disability by abstracting the image of malfunctioning onto a robot who has been deemed to be malfunctional and is preparing for disassembly. By making this parallel, Patton explores the way that our society assumes that disabled people are “broken” and not capable of fulfilling a social role. Patton critiques ideas of bodily conformity by pointing out production lines and challenges ideas of standardized testing by pointing out that it can’t encompass the complexity of individual value. Her tale is a challenge to power structures that try to force a singular normative system and fail to recognize the power of complexity.

Although using a robot for her tale, Patton’s tale is wholly folkloric. She evokes the feel and experience of folklore by using repeated phrases and a cyclical story structure. As much as this is a story about a robot’s transformations and learning about themself, it is also a tale of animals and the teachings that they impart on a wayward traveller.

Patton breaks the bounds of simple definitions of folklore or fairy tales by brining her story into the galactic realm and teasing her story out with science fictional elements.

Patton opens up the potential for empowerment through diversity and of power through communal activities and working together toward resolutions that work for a wider number of people. “I Am Not Broken” is a story of resistance and reflection that invites the reader to expand their understanding.

To discover more about Fiona Patton, visit http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?796

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

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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

A review of Nathan Caro Frechette’s “Skin” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (2018, Exile)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Selkies are creatures from Scottish folklore (but also noted in the Orkneys and Shetlands) who are capable of transforming from seal to human by shedding their skin. In many selkie tales, female selkies are stolen from their watery home when a man steals their seal skin and then keeps the skin hidden away, forcing his new selkie bride to do his bidding. These are generally coercive tales where women (or their children) have to escape from the control of the skin thief by finding out where the skin is hidden and stealing it back to disappear into the ocean.

Nathan Caro Frechette reshapes the selkie mythos in his story “Skin”, which plays with the idea of skin and identity, turning the tale into a Trans story of self discovery and resistance. Frechette keeps the coercive element of the tale, but instead abstracts it onto the protagonist’s mother, bringing attention to the way that parents of Trans kids frequently try to control their children’s identities and prevent them from expressing their gender identity.

Using the figure of the Selkie, Frechette examines the way that Trans people are often cut off from the history and culture of other Trans people, exploring the idea that the abundance of cis-gendered (non-Trans) culture and the lack of representation of Trans culture has an impact on Trans youth, particularly as they search for a connection to others in their community.

Frechette, himself a Trans man, examines features of Trans identity through Ron that cis-gendered writers would not have the experiential knowledge of. Frechette examines what it is like to explore the world as a Trans person and examine the oppressions (whether intentional or unintentional) a Trans person experiences through things like misgendering, dead-naming, and erasure. Frechette is able to bring his real world experience of chest binding and feelings about bodily identity into the character. But this is not just a tale of gender dysphoria – Frechette examines the gender euphoria that comes when someone genders us by using our pronouns and names and accepts us for who we are.

“Skin” is a powerful story that tells a Trans tale of transformation and examines the power of folklore and fairy tales for expressing identities that have been traditionally underrepresented. Frechette writes his story to speak to a Trans audience, which is powerful since many people write Trans stories with a cis-gendered audience in mind and he proves that tales don’t need to be written for a cis-gendered audience to speak to a wider public because this tale is a tale that can speak to anyone who has examined their identity.

To discover more about Nathan Caro Frechette, check out his page at https://nathancarofrechette.ca

To discover more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com or check out Exile publishing at https://www.exileeditions.com

Queerly Ever After

Queerly Ever After

A review of Ricky Lima’s Happily Ever Aftr (Lime Press, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

She grew up in a kingdom filled with toxic masculinity… perhaps that’s why she thought she could make a princess love her by kidnapping her.

Happily Ever Aftr explores the traditional fairy tale motif of a princess locked in a tower… but adds a twist. The princess is imprisoned by another princess. Princess Gretchen grew up in Castle Grimhold as part of a family line of kings who have kidnapped princesses to be their brides. So, what else was there for her to do but carry on the family tradition and kidnap a princess to be her bride. Once Gretchen reveals that her intention is to marry Princess Emily, her family takes issue not with the kidnapping, but with Gretchen’s desire to have a bride instead of a groom. Gretchen begins to learn ideas of consent from Emily and explores her own identity and its relationship to her role as the princess of Grimhold.

Ricky Lima uses the image of cell phone dating apps and texting to shape his tale of princesses in love (or captured by love), exploring ideas of princes who believe that they are entitled to women’s bodies and perceive princesses as objects and damsels in distress. With this use of dating apps as text, Lima makes a parallel between antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity and how these are played out on dating apps. Happily Ever Aftr uses a magical, fantasy setting to point out realities of how men objectify women on dating apps and the toxicity of “bro culture”.

Although Princess Emily keeps asking for suitors to rescue her, she is more than able to save herself through her own quick wit and tough attitude, but first goes through numerous suitors who are beheaded trying to rescue her. It is only when she encounters a prince who needs her to rescue him that she is able to finally express her own power.

Happily Ever Aftr calls into question the many “happily ever after”s offered by many traditional fairy tales that portray a passive princess being rescued by a prince and marrying in perpetual heterosexuality. Instead, the comic plays with assumptions about gender, assumptions about power, and assumptions about sexuality.

To discover more about Happily Ever Aftr, visit https://www.limepressonline.com/product/happily-ever-aftr

Not Grimm… But Grim

A review of White as Milk, Red As Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth – a translation of the ‘lost’ fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, translated by Canadian scholar Shelley Tanaka and illustrated by Canadian illustrator Willow Dawson.

Through The Twisted Woods

Not Grimm… But Grim

A review of Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

When I first read the fairy tales recorded by Bavarian folklore collector  Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the tales seemed whimsically short and light even though many of the tales featured the grim characteristics of fairy tales like abuse, murder, violence, hunger, and torture. This underscores the power of translation and the influence that it has on the way we read folk narratives. Simple things like word choice, tone, or presentation on the page can shift our readings of fairy tales.

When I encountered Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, my reading of von Schonwerth’s tales changed drastically, and I attribute…

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La Befana

Here is a holiday story for you this December. Renaissance Press is creating a tour of different websites where authors can showcase their fiction and they invited me to participate and share a short story with readers.

 

This post is part of the Renaissance Holiday Blog Roll. Find out what it’s all about here and check out some other great stories!!

 

I hope that you enjoy this story and others!

 

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La Befana

By Derek Newman-Stille

My Dearest Daughter,

We witches have a long tradition and it is a tradition of magic, but also a tradition of misunderstanding. Words are our magic – they shape the world around us, change it, sing it into something new… but words have also been used to trap us, contain us, erase us.

Words of condemnation provoked the burning times. Words spoken out of fear have constantly hounded us, plagued us, and hunted us.

So it is with a heavy heart that I write these words to you, my sweet Sofia, my first and only daughter, because they are words that lay a heavy burden. And the first burden will be the loss of the name that I gave you, pronounced you into existence with.

Now, as I was for many years, you will be called La Befana.

You know what the name means. Some say it is borrowed from the Feast of the Epiphany, but it has a longer line than that. It is the name of the Yule witch, the witch who guides the depths of winter.

You know of La Befana from the ornaments on our tree, the little ones that you used to make out of felt, pounded into the shape of the Christmas witch, old and wandering like the winter itself. But, your job will be more than filling shoes with candy or lumps of coal. Your job will be one of sweeping. That is why you carry your broom. Your job will be to sweep away the cobwebs and dust of rage that settle in homes, that collect in the corners and under the beds… the bits of emotional detritus that fall off of human beings and cling to them if they are not careful.

It is a thankless job.

You will only be remembered for bringing the sweets placed in shoes, which, as you know, a mother does for her children. You may be left a small glass of wine or a plate of food as an offering, but these are only tokens and generally eaten and drunk by parents. They are empty gestures now.

Your thanks will be knowing that all of the darkness of winter is cleared away for joy – to bring something new into the houses you visit and give people a chance, even just a small one, to escape from the shadows of their past. You will be bringing chances of renewal.

Our myths have changed over time. They have shifted to fit new myths and new stories, but our traditions go back over the ages. Now they tell a story that La Befana was found by the three wise men, the magi on their way to search for Jesus. They say that the Magi asked her for directions since they had seen his star in the sky but couldn’t see it any longer. She provided them with shelter from the night, a clean place to rest because she, with her broom, was the best housekeeper in the village. They say that she would have gone with them to see the new child, but she initially told them that she had too much housekeeping to do, locked into her matronly duties as she was, but later in the night she changed her mind, overcome with a desire to see this new child and sought out to find him, but wasn’t able to. So now, she is doomed to wander the world searching for this new baby, this perceived bringer of light, and so she leaves treats for the good children that she comes across in her search. She would come to act as a caretaker for all of the good children of the world the same as she desired to do for the new infant.

Of course, that is only one of the stories about us, and one that imagines us to be immortal rather than believing that we are a sisterhood passing our traditions down from one generation to the next. We date back to before the stories of Jesus and other legends with roots in Ancient Rome, where we were given our duties by Stenia, the goddess of the new year and purification. We were her priestesses, charged with cleaning out ritual impurities and cleansing spaces to make way for new changes and create a place of magic. We would collect twigs from her sacred grove to cleanse with, forming them into a broom and sweep the floors of the temple, not just removing the dirt from the temples, but removing something more complicated, a miasma.

You will find a broom. You probably remember seeing it around our home when you were a girl. It is the dusty old one that looks like twigs held together to a branch. You will need this. It isn’t just a broom, it is a collection of trees – of new growth. It is a manifestation of bringing new growth into the home. You will eventually add your own twigs of new growth to it, contributing to the broom of the new with the broom of the old. The original twigs came from the goddess’ grove and who knows if they still remain. Twigs fall out and new twigs are added. Of course, you will not be able to bring them from the grove. You will have to add them from the trees and bushes that speak to you on your travels… and they will call out to you. You won’t be able to mistake them.

You will start to look like I did… a hag. It is part of the act of cleaning out so much of the past. You become the past that you sweep. Your wrinkles and crevices become a map of all of the histories you sweep out. You will have the permanent look of soot on your face and body that I did. Some of what you sweep away will stick to you, bringing you half into the shade.

No one tells bringers of light that they will have to walk through the shadows and that the shadows sometimes cling to us. But you will still be able to be a creature of cheer. You are the Christmas Witch.

Dear Befana,

I wish you so much luck and joy in your quest because there is so much joy to be had and you need to revel in that joy. Drink the wine that remains as offerings that parents don’t gobble away first. Take time to see the happy smiles on children’s faces as they wake to sweets left in their shoes because it isn’t the treats that matter – it is what you have done, that sweeping away of collected miasma. And remember me. We are all La Befana. When you crawl across rooftops and down chimneys to sweep houses of detritus, we are all sweeping them with you. But don’t let words define you. Don’t let even my words define you. I feel as though I have pronounced a doom upon you, and perhaps I have. We have been at risk so many times before for what we are. People see the shades that cling to us. They see the soot before they see that we are cleaning for them… and everyone seems to fear an older women. They fear that knowledge we have acquired over the course of our lives. They fear that we know something that they don’t… and, of course we do. You will know more than all of us, just as your daughter will eventually know more than you. We add our wisdom generation after generation. But there is always something lost as well. I hope that you understand why I am allowing that loss and the important role you have.

Your mother, always and forever,

La Befana

Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and shadow. Demchuk tells tales that connect the mythic to industry, proving that the mechanical can’t fully succeed in chasing the creatures of the human imagination back into the dark, and may, in fact, give them a space to thrive. The Bone Mother brings together Rusalka, ghosts, golem, mirror monsters, Baba Yaga figures, and other manifestations of Slavic myth and makes these figures into family secrets, hidden differences that dwell in the blood rather than the imagination. He ties these fairy tale figures in with circus freaks and those who defy social and biological norms, bringing out the diversity of the human form. The most dangerous quality of this mythical world is normalcy, which tries to turn everyone into simple, uncomplicated forms, denying diversity. All of these figures who could be called monsters only serve to show a mirror to humanity, illustrating that we are the monsters for trying to enforce conformity. 

To find out more about The Bone Mother, visit ChiZine Publications at http://chizinepub.com/the-bone-mother/
To discover more about David Demchuk, visit http://daviddemchuk.com/ .

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