Shifts and Changes

A review of Tony Pi’s “Swan’s Grace” in Anathema Magazine isssue 1 (2017)By Derek Newman-Stille


Tony Pi’s “Swan’s Grace” is a complex intersection of fairy tales, drawing on features from The Wild Swans, selkie tales, and from fox shape-shifter tales to create a powerful narrative that explores the relationship between human and animal. Fairy tales frequently explore the complexity of human experiences around the natural world and our strange desire to position ourselves above other animals on our planet. Yet, on some level human beings recognize that we fundamentally are animals, and we see the power of animal experiences, which is why we create so many tales of animal-human shape shifting.

Tony Pi’s animal tale brings together multiple human-animal shifters, blurring the boundaries we place to separate ourselves from the complexities of animal experience. He examines the beauty of the animal experience, revelling in images of flight, while creating a complex mythology and cultural history for his swan shape-shifters. This is a world of ancient gods of chaos that have been locked away, but linger close to the surface, waiting for ancient enmities between foxes and selkies to break down the barriers that keep them trapped. Like many fairy tales, Pi’s is one of secrets, with a narrator who only knows fractions of her history and the mythology that shapes her. She is a swan princess who learns bits of mythology for her own purpose, learning about Basilisks only because her people are able to gain powers from the mythical creatures they encounter. She learns about the mythical underpinnings of her world only so she can gain further abilities, but, like many fairy tale heroines, she learns that things are much deeper than they appear on the surface, and she learns that every gain comes with incredible sacrifices. Knowledge comes with a price, but acting without complete knowledge always causes deeper sacrifices. 

“Swan’s Grace” is a tale about the power of patience and learning, a reminder that the world is more complex than it may reveal on the surface.
To discover more about Tony Pi’s work, visit his website at https://tonypi.com
To discover more about Anathema Magazine, visit http://www.anathemamag.com 

The Yellow Brick Road Less Travelled

A review of Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die (Harper Collins Publishers, 2014).By Derek Newman-Stille

Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die is a tale of travel as much as it is one about the killing of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Amy Gumm grew up in Kansas just like Dorothy did, but unlike that heroine of a classic story, Amy wasn’t seen as a personification of sunflowers and rainbows. She was a kid who was teased about living in poverty and called “Salvation Amy”, gossiped about constantly by the other kids in her school. She lived in a trailer with a mother who told Amy regularly that she ruined her life, and Amy had to constantly help her mother out after she passed out drunk each night. 

Paige’s narrative is one of travel, illustrating the parallel lives of Amy and Dorothy, two girls who wanted to get out of Kansas. The only difference between them is that Amy isn’t sure she wants to go back to Kansas. From early youth, when her mother told her that their trailer was like living in a travel adventure to her voyage to Oz, Amy always desired travel. Dorothy Must Die is a travelogue for a girl who couldn’t get out of Kansas until a tornado picked her up and dropped her into a narrative she was already familiar with from television.

The Oz that Amy is dropped into has changed. Dorothy returned to Oz after her travel back to Kansas, but she has changed from the girl who just wanted to go home into a power-hungry tyrant who rules Oz with a gingham fist. Dorothy has been mining Oz of its magic, leaving holes in the realm and gathering all magic to herself. She has enslaved all of the peoples (and animals) of Oz.

Amy’s experience of her mother’s addiction has prepared her to deal with Dorothy, a woman addicted to magic. Paige problematically links greed with addiction in this narrative – the constant desire for more. Addiction isn’t a desire for more. It is a compulsion. Dorothy is a character who constantly wants to be somewhere and someone else, not satisfied with the way she is or the way things are. Amy has some fear of becoming like Dorothy, of moving from wanting a better life for herself to wanting everything.

Amy and Dorothy form distorted mirror images of one another, full of the potential for a switch in positions, a change in their ideologies. Amy has been asked by the witches of Oz to assassinate Dorothy, but in the process of confronting her, perhaps Amy has more to learn about herself.

To find out more about Danielle Paige, visit her website at http://daniellepaigebooks

Tales within Tales

A review of Malinda Lo’s Ash (Little Brown, 2009)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Ash (2009)

 

Malinda Lo’s Ash is a narrative of change where everything is in flux: people, life/death, and the environment. Lo creates a chimerical narrative where nothing is certain.

 

Ash is living her own fairy tale at a time of conflict. The wealthy in her society have started adhering to a new religion espoused by philosophers who resist the old green witch religion that embraced fairy tales as part of its belief system. Ash’s own parents were on opposite sides of the debate – her father an adherent to the religion of the philosophers, and her mother believing in the green witch and sharing tales of fairy abductions with her daughter. Ash is shaped by the beliefs of her mother, and finds herself caught in a fairy bargain that could lead her into the fairy realm. This change in religion brings up the classic subject of the Cinderella tale – class change. The class changes of this narrative aren’t just about a girl transcending her perceived class, but about class ideologies themselves changing as religion and class become intertwined and fairy tales become an aspect of the lower class that are disparaged.

 

Yet, the fairies themselves, the subject of fairy tales, still adhere to their aristocratic ideas and Ash ends up coming into contact with the fairies, experiencing their ideas of ownership and their exercises of power. She is given the opportunity to become a fairy princess, though that bargain comes with uncertainty about the fairy world.

 

Like most Cinderella stories, time plays an important factor in Ash, but it is even more exaggerated in this tale because there is an intrusion of fairy time, and the idea that time in fairy runs differently than human time.

 

This is not a tale of ballroom dresses and the marriage of princes. In this tale, Ash wishes for a hunting outfit, a way to change her world by dressing as a Huntress and running with human hunters. She is not someone who relies on her potential lover to free her from the bonds her family has placed on her. Instead, she makes her own way in the world by forging alliances with others and ensuring that she has her own wishes met.

 

Ash is a tale of the transformative power of love, but also the transformation of the understanding of love. Love for many people in the tale means ownership, but Ash discovers that love is expansive, and contains multiple meanings. She discovers that love, for her, means doing anything in her power to bring happiness to the Huntress, the woman she loves. This is not the fairy tale love of ownership and obligation, but instead a love born from mutual respect.

 

Ash is a queer Cinderella tale, and one that questions and challenges the traditional narrative.

You can discover more about Malinda Lo at https://www.malindalo.com/

Rage

RageA review of Serena Valentino’s Poor Unfortunate Soul (Disney Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Poor Unfortunate Soul, the last book in this series by Serena Valentino wasn’t as powerful as the other two tales, and part of that may be because Ursula didn’t have the same sort of sympathetic portrayal that the Evil Queen or the Beast did. Valentino’s Ursula was a creature shaped by understandable rage, but unlike the other villains with greyed morality, Ursula is portrayed as distant, a figure of rage from afar rather than the close-up pain and frustration we feel with the protagonists of the other two books.

Valentino provides a background for Ursula that allows us to understand her anger, frustration, and pain, giving us a glimpse into an undersea world where she was constantly ostracized for her appearance in a realm that could only accept one particular body type. She resisted this bodily narrative, being herself even though she was pushed to the fringes of her society for it. Ursula in Valentino’s narrative is the sister of King Triton, king of the mermaids and Ariel’s father. 

Ursula’s rage is justifiable in this narrative since it comes from the pain of years of isolation. It is also the kind of powerful rage that could be transformative, and that could overturn a kingdom that reinforces a strict status quo. Valentino hints that King Triton’s patriarchal control is at the centre of Ursula’s pain and rage, noting that the king imposes beauty standards on the women around him, a male hegemony that positions women as beings to be looked at rather than to wield power. This could have been a powerful feminist tale tale with Ursula challenging the patriarchy and trying to push for an overthrow of a system that disempowers its public, and it seemed to be building toward this at the start, but there is a sudden shift in the narrative toward positioning Ursula as a creature distant from the reader instead of the reader getting the chance to see the world through her eyes. We get pulled out of that dark potential where change is possible and thrust onto the surface while we watch the status quo become re-established.

To discover more about Serena Valentino and Poor Unfortunate Soul, visit http://www.serenavalentino.com/projects/ursula/ 

Hooked

Hooked
A review of Garth Nix’s “An Unwelcome Guest” in Troll’s Eye View edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking, 2009).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Garth Nix’s Rapunzel isn’t a girl who is easily trapped in a tower. She isn’t willing to sit passively waiting for her prince to arrive. She climbs into the witch’s tower, using her hair and a grappling hook woven into it… but her hook also comes in handy as a weapon.

The witch’s cat Jaundice wants desperately to be a fearsome beast, an evil servant of a wicked witch, but her “wicked” witch would much prefer dinner parties to danger…. and Jaundice is much more interested in returning mice to their nests than eating them. But what does a not-so-wicked witch do when she has a trespasser, especially one who is not easily intimidated like Rapunzel?

Nix reverses the trapped narrative of Rapunzel, making the witch the woman who is trapped by her respect of guests… even unwanted ones. Politeness is tough, especially when there are brownies and other spirits around who will take offence if a guest isn’t treated with respect.

To discover more about Garth Nix, visit http://www.garthnix.com/

Home is Where the Monsters Are

A review of Delia Sherman’s “Wizard’s Apprentice” in Troll’s Eye View edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking, 2009)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy tales frequently deal with ideas of children being lost away from home. Frequently, their parents are cruel but aren’t depicted as the villains of the tales, excused of their mistreatment of children. Delia Sherman’s “Wizard’s Apprentice” explores a young person who is perpetually trying to escape from home and from the violence of his home. Sherman explores the notion that home is not always equated with a sense of comfort, care, and safety. For people who are abused, home is frought with the sort of horrors that fairy tale children encounter out in the woods. Home can be a space populated by monsters. 

Sherman complicates notions of home, reminding her readers that violence is not something distant, but frightfully close and present. Sometimes the only option is to escape the monsters of home, and sometimes the only way to do that is to find someone even more frightening because what frightens bullies more than someone stronger than them who refuses to be bullied.

Sherman gives her protagonist, Nick, a chance to find himself and forge a new type of family structure for himself, complicating simple ideas of family and home. She creates a family based on shared knowledge and opportunities to find new methods of overcoming seemingly impossible conditions, using magic to complete household tasks that wouldn’t be possible without learning. Nick is a dynamic character, able to shift perspectives as easily as he learns to shift shapes. 
To find out more about Delia Sherman, visit http://www.sff.net/people/kushnersherman/sherman/

Critical Re-Writing Assignment

Critical Re-Writing.By Derek Newman-Stille
I am currently teaching a course at Trent University on Fairy Tale revisions, and one of the assignments I asked students to complete was their own re-writing of a fairy tale. I wasn’t certain about the response from students because I knew that creative projects are often criticized in academia. I was worried that they may not take this assignment seriously. However, I balanced this with the potential power that I saw in re-writing as a critical, questioning action.

I was at a meeting of the American Folklore Society in 2016 and noticed that many of the people I encountered who were doing critical work on fairy tales were also involved in creative projects – either doing fairy tale revisions, erasure poetry, or visual arts. Through conversations with these academics who harnessed the critical power of creativity, I began to observe that their creative projects frequently gave them new insights into the fairy tales they were exploring that they may not have gotten through simple analysis. I wanted to harness this for my own students, to see if they could use critical creativity to re-envision the fairy tales they were examining and gain new insights through acts of shifting the voice of a character, shifting the time period, shifting the personality of a narrator, playing with gender, with ability, race, class, and orientation. These creative shifts could open up new analytical positions about the way that these tales construct identity.

After doing analyses with students about the way that identities, social perspectives, and social constructs were manifested and reinforced in fairy tales for the first half of the course, I asked students to put some of these critiques into practice and do a critical revision of a fairy tale. They had already, by this point in time, been asked to do an analytical close reading of a fairy tale, so my hope was that they would be able to use these analytical lenses to explore their fairy narrative.

Since many students were uncertain about creative writing and questioned whether they had the skills to do creative writing, I decided to have them do a “pass the story” activity in class first. I passed out (at random) the titles of fairy tales they had read in class. Students were then asked to begin writing their own take on the fairy tale, leaving enough of the original tale in their revision to let the next student know what tale it was while also not giving it away too easily. After writing for about ten minutes, I then asked them to pass their story to the next student, who would add to it, and so on until I asked the students to conclude their tale. This activity gave them some confidence in creative writing and allowed them to feel that they could write a tale on their own.

The creative writing assignments I got back varied, some exploring single tales and some exploring multiple. Students examined constructions of gender in fairy tales, the role of food, ideas of hunger and poverty, critiqued the heterosexual happily ever after, questioned tropes of ageing, critically engaged with ideas of the rural. These tales represented an engagement with theory and text.

In some cases their creative critical re-writing was stronger than their close reading assignments, allowing them to explore textual issues. Where many of them were resistant to ask the critical question “why?”, their creative assignments interrogated the question of why certain images were prevalent in a narrative, why characters were positioned in certain ways, and why different tropes were employed in the narratives. There was a shift in the STAKES of the narrative: instead of the narrative being about someone else’s tale, the tale now became THEIRS. It became something that they were invested in constructing, and so their process of rewriting also became a process of reinvesting themselves in the narrative and in what the narrative was saying. This was no longer the work of the Grimm Brothers, it was their own.

The act of critically writing allowed students to examine what other fairy tale revisions are doing, how they are adapting the tale and what allows the tale to be so open to adaptation and fluidity.