Fairy Tale Autobiography?

Fairy Tale Autobiography?

A review of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Pandora Press, 1985).
By Derek Newman-Stille

In Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson creates a complicated tale of intersecting narratives, mixing elements of fairy tale, legend, and biblical verse into autobiographic elements from her own life. As much as this is a tale about Winterson’s own upbringing in a Pentecostal evangelical household and discovery of her lesbian identity, it is also a narrative about the way that our lives are shaped by stories. Autobiography and fiction interweave in a conversation that at times is contradictory, but always revelatory. 

Winterson’s abrupt switches to fairy tale narrative in the middle of scenes of her own life shape the intrusive and yet complementary power of stories to inform us and shape our lives. She reveals the way that her own tale has been shaped by stories, largely those from her mother, who begins by telling her that she is special and has a significant role in the world to shape the lives and beliefs of others, and those of her church, which tells her that she needs to sell religion to others the same way as one would sell a used car, and later tells her that her attraction to women comes from demonic possession. Narratives from evangelical voices seek to shape who she is to become, trying to mould her and her identity into the narratives they want to tell. WInterson acknowledges this narrative influence through her focus on their stories about her life, weaving them into her autobiographical elements, but also by titling her chapters after the books of the Christian Bible, frequently paralleling her life narrative with the biblical titles. She begins with Genesis, telling her own origins and early memories, moves on to Exodus and her experience of seeing the world differently once she is able to attend school, and continues through Leviticus, Numbers, Dueteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and concluding with Ruth. 

Yet, throughout the autobiographic elements of her tale, up pop fairy tales to open new insights into her experiences, converting them from biography (an individual experience) into fairy tale (an archetypal quality defined by its relateability). Tales provide moments of insight, intruding like a spell into her life with the words “Once upon a time…”. Her tales vary, telling stories of princesses who learn from old hunchbacks the secrets of magic, but frequently don’t end in the typical fairy tale ending and instead resolve themselves in princesses living simple lives away from the complications of royalty and the expectations and controls that come with being special. These tales help to elucidate Winterson’s own exploration of selfhood and the narrative of exclusion and exultation that was applied to her early in her life. Fairy tales occur at transformative moments in her narrative, offering counterpoints to a singular narrative and pointing out the polyphony in any story. Rather than creating a sense of the heroic and transcendent, these tales evoke the power of resisting the sense of being special.

The complexity of fiction storytelling works as a counterpoint to Winterson’s mother’s simple binarisms of good/evil introducing the idea that story presents a complicated morality, that one needs the context of story to explore moral systems that can’t be easily dualistic. She uses fairy tales to disrupt ideas of a singular perfection, situating a prince’s search for the perfect, flawless bride into a philosophical discourse about whether perfection and flawlessness are mutually dependent. 

Winterston complicates the assumed easy divide between fairy tale and real life, illustrating that our real lives are made up of tales told by us and about us. She complicates ideas of history, pointing out that history is also constructed as a truth narrative, but is changeable, shifting, and uncertain. She invites questions about her own life through Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, pointing out the narratological slipperiness of our lives and the shifting, unstable, and transformative aspects of identity. Like the fairy tales she includes in her narrative, life itself is able to contain a spark of transformative magic and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are constantly move and change. 

Winterson resists calling her book autobiography, listing it as fiction despite its close parallel to the events of her life to disrupt the easy binarism and duality of truth/fiction, real/fairy tale, history/story. Her personal narrative has already been shaped by simple dualities that others have tried to impose on her, attempting to fit her into simple boxes of saint/sinner, saviour/demon, good/evil, inside/outside of the church she grew up in. 

To discover more about Janette WInterson, visit http://www.jeanettewinterson.com

To read more about Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, visit http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/book/oranges-are-not-the-only-fruit/ 

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A Signing Snow White

A Signing Snow White

A review of Roz Rosen’s “Snow White” in Deaf Culture Fairy Tales (Savory Words, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Roz Rosen’s Snow White is a Deaf princess born to hearing parents. Her parents don’t know how to act around a Deaf daughter and decide instead to call a doctor, who tells them that the princess needs a speech therapist to be taught to speak English and speech-read instead of learning ASL and teaching it to Snow White. 

Snow White tries to explain to the Queen that the attempt to force her to learn spoken language is preventing her access to other education, but is told that she needs to adapt to a hearing world. She is told to sit on her hands and forced to use sound to achieve her needs. When people spoke around her, they refused to include her in their conversations, telling her “later”. 

As occurs in Snow White tales, the Queen becomes jealous of Snow White’s beauty, but she ads to her discrimination of the princess by saying “I will not be outdone by a deaf-mute”. 

When Snow White is able to escape from the Queen’s clutches, she finds herself at the home of seven Deaf Dwarfs who have an immersive Deaf home with lights that flash instead of relying on sound and the regular use of sign language. These Dwafs, rather than being miners, turn out to be human rights advocates who work for The National Office of Deaf People and fight for the right to quality accessibility, access to employment, the right for Deaf people to own land, marry, and have children, and access to sign language for children. They introduce Snow White to the world of Deaf culture, giving her a world that runs counter to the audist, ableist world that she came from. 

When Snow White is poisoned by the Queen and awakened by a Prince, the first thing that she does is sign to him. When he indicates that he doesn’t understand sign language, she immediately goes back to her poisoned sleep, unwilling to be awakened into another world of audism and ableism. 

Rosen’s tale reveals a sense of wonder and magic beyond the regular fairy tale kind – a magic of finally discovering that there is a whole world of Deaf culture available and that there is an escape from audism and ableism. This is a tale of transformation, but not transformation brought about by a kiss, but, rather, transformation wrought of understanding and access to language and human (or Dwarf) rights.

To find out more about Deaf Culture Fairy Tales, visit http://www.savorywords.com/dcft-by-roz-rosen-2/

A Deaf Cinderella

A Deaf Cinderella

A review of Roz Rozen’s “Cinderella” in Deaf Culture Fairy Tales (Savory Words, 2007)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Roz Rosen tells a tale of a Deaf Cinderella who has been encouraged in her use of sign language until her mother dies and her hearing step mother and step sisters prevent her from using her own language. Indeed, from the moment she meets Cinderella, the stepmother feels disgust at her step daughter for being death, describing her as “burdensome”. Despite talking about her as a burden, the stepmother forces Cinderella to do all of the work around the house, refusing to learn sign language and instead yelling at her step daughter. 

Cinderella experiences extreme isolation in her inability to express herself to her family and their prevention of her using her own language. She is only able to sign when she is by herself, engaging in sign singing with the animals around her while she works, tying a close bond to her animal friends and expressing her need for a change in the oppression she is experiencing every day of her life. Her community of animal friends refuses to let her give up on her dream of a change in her life, signing at her that she can make the impossible possible. 

When Cinderella encounters her fairy godmother, she discovers that the words her animal friends have been signing to her are a magic spell and she uses them to transform her rags into a magnificent gown. When this Cinderella finally meets her prince, she fears that he won’t accept her once he discovers that she is Deaf and will treat her the way that her stepmother and stepsisters have. But, when he sees her sign, he responds in sign, telling her that his kingdom uses sign language on the battle field. Before she can share details about her identity with him, she is forced to leave and loses her glass slipper on the steps.

This Cinderella is able to distinguish herself from other women in the kingdom not by fitting into a glass slipper, particularly since her stepmother breaks the slipper, but, rather, through her ability to use sign language and she and the prince are able to create a kingdom of access by making sure that ASL is taught throughout the kingdom, preventing others from experiencing the isolation of being surrounded by those who can’t or won’t speak to them. 

Rosen’s tale is one of linguistic isolation as much as it is about being treated as a servant. It is about a denial of access to Cinderella’s language and culture, her ability to express herself, and her ability to be part of conversations around her home. This is a tale about a revision of a society that privileges spoken languages into one that provides a space for bilingualism, allowing for ASL (standing for Amina Sign Language) and English. Rosen’s Cinderella doesn’t just change social status as many Cinderella characters do in fairy tales, rather, she changes the status of Deaf people in her kingdom, creating a space where language multiplicity is the norm.

To find out more about Deaf Culture Fairy Tales, visit http://www.savorywords.com/dcft-by-roz-rosen-2/

Signs of a New Beginning for Little Red Riding Hood

Signs of a New Beginning for Little Red Riding Hood

A review of Roz Rozen’s “Little Red Riding Hood” in Deaf Culture Fairy Tales (Savory Words, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille
 
In ”Little Red Riding Hood”, Deaf storyteller Roz Rosen recasts Red Riding Hood as CODA (Child of Deaf Adult), and as a “GODA” (Grandchild of Deaf Adult). Rosen envisions her as someone who has grown up bilingual, speaking English and Sign Language, and someone who takes pride in her bilingual status and ability to communicate in two different modalities.
 
When this Little Red Riding Hood encounters the Big Bad Wolf, she recognizes him as part of Deaf culture, an individual who has more in common with the Deaf community than he does with hearing wolves. This is a huge discovery for the Wolf himself, who hasn’t encountered Deaf culture or a Deaf community before. But, just as he is communicating with Little Red and her Grandmother, the hearing Woodsman appears and tries to assert his authority over the situation.
 
Rosen’s tale is one about Deaf community and a resistance to the attempts by hearing people to impose their ideas over that community. This is a tale of “Nothing About Us Without Us” and a reminder of the history of hearing people trying to impose their ideas and perceptions of situations onto Deaf people.
 
Rosen’s “Little Red Riding Hood” invites a happily ever after of Deaf people making decisions for their own community. It is a tale of communication and the power of communication to forge communities.

To discover more about Deaf Culture Fairy Tales, visit Savory Words’ website at http://www.savorywords.com/dcft-by-roz-rosen-2/ 

Under the Slippers

Under the Slippers

A review of Sarah Pinborough’s Charm: A Wicked Cinderella Tale (Titan Books, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

What does it mean to live your whole life imagining court life and fantasizing about princes and castles only to be offered everything you’ve always wanted? What does it mean to grow up in a household where your stepmother and stepsisters come from noble bloodlines but you come from more humble origins? Is beauty or noble blood more important?

Sarah Pinborough’s Charm transforms the quintessential Love at First Sight story into a gothic romance, populated with hidden truths, secrecy, locked doors with hidden keys, curiosity, jealousy, dusty old turrets, and dark corridors hung with cobwebs. Pinborough explores the darker side of Cinderella, warning her readers of the danger of getting everything you wish for and pointing out that sometimes the dream is better than the reality you dream of. 

Pinborough highlights the potential problems of Cinderella’s magic slippers, pointing out the issues of consent for a Prince who has been forced by magic to fall in love with a woman that he couldn’t even recognize outside of her slippers. She asks what happens when the slippers come off and the prince goes back to his non-spell-addled self. Court life isn’t the dream that Cinderella imagined and full of a lot more darkness than she had envisioned. Just like her slippers, Cinderella is about to discover that her imagined perfect life is nothing more than outer dressings.

To discover more about Sarah Pinborough, visit https://sarahpinborough.com/

One Drop at a Time

A review of Sarah Pinborough’s Beauty (Titan Books, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille 

In Beauty, Sarah Pinborough draws on the dark ink of multiple fairy tales, pulling them together into a cauldron to remake them into a new tale with a twist. She draws together resonances between traditional stories, looking for those murky edges where they can connect together, weaving a tapestry between Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Red Ridinghood, and Rumplestiltskin and pulling together their grim possibilities. 

Pinborough twists these tales, leaving threads of familiarity for her readers, but weaving them into a new, uneasy tale.

Pinborough challenges some of the characteristics that people frequently associate with fairy tales, using the voice of her Little Red Ridinghood character to call attention to the difference between peasant narratives and those of nobles, drawing attention to the problematic ideas of consent around the kissing of a Sleeping Beauty, pointing out the dangerous nature of love-at-first-sight and its relationship to ideas of control. Beauty invites questions about wishes and the danger associated with getting the things you ask for. It points out the dangers of privilege. It plays with the allure of magic and the complications that come with power. Beauty is a tale of warnings and an invitation to constantly ask questions, particularly when things seem to come far to easily. 
To discover more about Sarah Pinborough, visit https://sarahpinborough.com/

Consumable Folklore

Consumable Folklore

A review of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (William Morrow premium printing, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods begins with a quote by folklorist Richard Dorson exploring ideas of immigration and the tales that people bring with them when they migrate. Dorson states “one question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands”, and Gaiman answers this inquiry in the form of a story, the perfect response to a question of how stories change as people migrate. This sense of migratory folklore suffuses the book, and Gaiman’s writing is as much a philosophical dissertation on the nature of storytelling as it is a fictional story about a human encounter with the gods. 

Gaiman explores the idea that America is a space where gods are swallowed up, forgotten as they are digested in a capitalist rush toward the newest, best thing. In order to emphasize this rapid change of gods, Gaiman introduces new modern gods born of capitalism, a god of Media, Dot Com Start Up gods, and gods of commerce.

Gaiman focuses his tale primarily on gods and the myths that surround them, but brings in elements of folklore as disperate as conspiracy theories, tales of aliens, urban legends, vyrkolas, fairies, and even the lies people tell to make themselves seem more interesting. These all meld and blend together through the power of Story, something that is invested with belief, disbelief, and fascination all at once. 

Gaiman even explores the myth of nations, the communities formed through a loose shared belief that a group of people deserve to occupy a certain geography and the stories and institutions they create to belong there. This myth seems to hold the most sway for Gaiman since his gods seem to be bound by national boundaries and other versions of those gods exist in different nations. Gaiman’s text delves problematically into areas influenced by colonial rhetoric as he explores different migrations to this ‘new world’, and although he does acknowledge that indigenous beings have a presence on the landscape, he frequently puts these beings into the categories of defeated old spirits and suggests that they don’t occupy the same standing as gods. Gaiman identifies indigenous spirits with the landscape rather than with the people, and the Buffalo spirit that visits his protagonist, Shadow, tells him, for example, that it is a creature of geography rather than a god. This problematically continues images of aboriginal people associated with the land and portrayed as fading in waves of colonialism. Gaiman structures his text around waves of immigration, portraying American as a land of immigrants rather than an invaded land that has original occupants that still remain on it, though oppressed. Indeed, the character Wednesday (who is a god) suggests “Nobody’s American. Not originally” erasing the aboriginal inhabitation on the American landscape and their claims of original occupancy. 

Gaiman explores the myth of progress and how this has made Americans forgetful, particularly as they rewrite their own history and forge their nation out of the history they want to believe occurred. He reminds readers that we are in a constant process of creating new stories that we tell ourselves in order to understand our place in the world, continually revising our folklore to make it relevant to us, or abandoning it in favour of new tales.

Yet American Gods is suffused with magic. Every page reads like an invocation to ancient and new gods that haunt the shadowy places of our imagination, reminding us that we need stories to survive… and that our stories need us to survive. He reminds us of the magic of metaphor, the way that metaphors are creative acts that give birth to new gods of the imagination, new ideas seeking a form. His gods are physical manifestations of ideas, embodied stories, or, as the character Jesus suggests in the story, that gods are memes. He asks us “Have you thought about what it means to be a god? IT means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to recreate you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.” For Gaiman’s Jesus character, being a god is being a fluid creation of the human imagination. Gaiman puts a huge burden on storytellers, the burden of creating new gods, of building new myths for us to live by and understand ourselves through. 

Gaiman’s America is a place where ideas are constantly clashing and reforming, a place where ideas from multiple people melt together and pour themselves into the moulds that are needed at the time only to be reforged again. 

To discover more about American Gods, visit http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/Books/American+Gods/ 

To find out more about Neil Gaiman, visit http://www.neilgaiman.com