A review of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making (Square Fish, New York)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Like L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carrol, Catherynne Valente creates a modern fairy tale invested with the collision of traditional elements and modernity. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is imbued with all of the whimsy and wonder of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland and the estrangement from the mundane world that adds a taste of awe to the concept of the fairy realm. Her Fairyland is not a place of perpetual tea parties, gowns, and cordial attitudes, but is rather a place that heightens the reader’s and the protagonist, September’s sense of displacement. Everything is open to question in this realm of fluidity, change, and mystery and the landscape itself is written over with a sense of whimsy.
Valente links two types of whimsy tales – the fantastic, and island narratives. Her story is a portal story, a passage from one world into another (Fairyland), but this sense of the mysterious, the separate, and the exotic is highlighted by the further representation of Fairyland as an island that can be circumnavigated. Literature about islands tends to have this sense of exoticism, constructing islands as places of escape from the realities of the world, places of separation from the normal, and places where limits can be tested. Being surrounded by water, they are often portrayed as locations of isolation and distance and are encoded with metaphors of separation, often written over the water as a distancing tool.
September’s experience of Fairyland is marked by a sense of loneliness that has shaped much of her life and she encounters other isolated and lonely beings who feel cut off from the “normalcy” of their society. She is able to create bonds between these lonely beings and feel a sense of belonging. It is through her island encounter – through her encounter with the isolation of the island – that she is able to create community.
Valente’s Fairyland is a much more distant island, requiring the passage out of our world to reach and when September passes through the barrier between worlds (which she has to go through a fairy immigration officer for), she is dropped in the water near the island shore and has to swim her way onto the island. Valente reinforces this shifting nature of the shore by having the beach shift constantly – not from the tides, but rather from the shifting nature of the landscape itself from sand to gold and jewels, representing the uncertainty of island borders.
September is a character who is shaped by what she has read. Her extensive reading of fairy tales and fantasy has given her a perspective of what she should expect from her own tale and this knowledge both guides her and also deceives her. She is constantly searching for confirmation that she is “special” because she knows that special kids are the ones that are chosen for fairy tales. She fears that she is ordinary and therefore keeps seeking confirmation of her Otherness, and yet she also doesn’t want to experience the separation that comes with Otherness. She uses her knowledge of tales to guide her path through the realm, realising that in tales people who seem to know where they are going eventually reach their destination, so she plays her roles, acting as though she knows where she is going so that the landscape shifts to bring her to her destination. By doing this, Valente is playing with narrative itself, critically questioning the assumptions underlying fairy tale narratives and inviting the reader to develop a critical inquisitiveness that allows them to challenge tales.
Valente constructs a travelogue into the fairy realms, a tale of adventure, and yet it is also a tale of sacrifice, blood, and loss, confronting the realities of isolation, feelings of abandonment, and the horrors of being rejected from a world where one finds a space of belonging.
Through the Twisted Woods (TTW): You have written fairy tale inspired fiction in the form of works like “Equus” (which features a Kelpie), in your novel Blasted, and in your unicorn bestiary story. What needs to be involved in adapting Fairy Tales for new cultural contexts?
Kate Story: I think it’s important to try and think about what function the tale served in its originary context. Of course that’s sort of impossible. But if you try – for example, by doing research on the culture and/or period that spawned the image or the tale, and getting as wide a view as possible of that, and talking to people who come from that culture (if possible; obviously you can’t talk to ancient Sumerians) – you start to be able to imagine how it affected people when transmitted as part of living folk culture.
And then you have to leap from that. What grabs YOU about the story or the being presented? Why does it scare or attract you? What’s YOUR cultural context?
I’m always a bit nervous when people freely adapt (for example, vampires are lovely and glow a bit and fall in love with humans and that goes well) although I am always willing to be argued out of an opinion. I think it’s important to have some kind of respect for the full power of a tale. That being said, I adore retellings from “the monster’s” point of view where the dominant narrative gets turned on its head. Fairy tales are a very potent source for this kind of work. Do we really hate the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, now that wolves are in many places endangered? But I suspect it’s probably always going to be more interesting – even if, say, the wolf ends up being your protagonist – to begin by really going into the woods and fully exploring what’s frightening about wolves and woods. You’ll only write a better story by doing that work.
TTW: When we have spoken before, you mentioned that you hadn’t initially viewed Blasted, a tale about fairies, as a speculative fiction tale. Why do so many people view anything involving fairies to be a fantasy story, and how does Blasted construct itself as something different?
Kate Story: Yes, I was really surprised at first when Blasted got tagged as speculative. Now I’m surprised that I was surprised. But it’s worth noting that in Newfoundland, where I am from, nobody thought the novel was speculative when it came out! The fairy elements in Blasted come from oral and folk culture that I grew up with, so I, like many Newfoundlanders, was familiar with the tropes of the fairy elements in the novel. Those things just live in me. I don’t remember learning about them. If you didn’t grow up with stories about being fairy-led, and changelings, and so on, you wouldn’t have that context and you’d think, I suppose, that I just made it all up or borrowed things from fantastical tales.
I really think it comes down to what your lived folk culture is. Everybody has a lived folk culture. I was surprised to discover that many of my settler peers here in Ontario really hadn’t heard of fairy stories, but supernatural elements still exist in their imaginary narrative lives. In southern Ontario there are a lot of ghost stories. Ojibwe people I’ve talked to have more stories about little people, and being what I’d call fairy-led. So do people from almost every other culture whom I’ve asked about this. In my completely unscientific and spotty investigation, I have concluded that actually it’s weird and exceptional, on a global level, to NOT have some version of “little people” narratives. But if you don’t, I suppose you see anything involving fairies or elves as fantasy, in the Lord of the Rings or Tinkerbell sense.
TTW: “Equus” is a steampunk tale, but also a fairy tale story. How do fairy tales meet steampunk and what allows them to blend and mix together?
Kate Story: I don’t know if they do mix, really; that’s just how my brain works. There was a Tor book review of the wonderful Clockwork Canada anthology (of which “Equus” is a part) that didn’t feel the different elements worked together in “Equus” – I believe the gist of the review was that having the different modes in one story confused the reader in regards to the focus of the story. For me, though, steampunk and fairy mix well, because part of the enchantment of steampunk is also its problem. We might fall in love with the style and atmosphere of Empire, but if we leave out a sense of what Empire also destroyed, we are doing ourselves and the world a disservice. It’s an incomplete picture. Every empire has its slaves, and its damage, whether inside or outside its borders. A lot of more political steampunk deals with this directly, and I love that.
For me what happened was simply that researching the protagonist of “Equus” – Sir Sandford Fleming – I realized that I really liked this guy. I’d expected not to, for some reason. He’s all over the place here in Peterborough – there’s a college named after him that we all call “Sir Sandbox,” he’s got the Victorian beard, the whole nine yards. I expected him to be stuffy, an easy target in terms of me writing a story exposing the problems of Empire. I thought I was going to write about him and time – he invented and tirelessly promoted the idea of worldwide standard time zones, the system we use today. It was my partner Ryan who told me that he’d also surveyed the Newfoundland railway – a route the Newfoundland government of the time chose not to follow in the end, but nevertheless, I got very excited. I had no idea he’d ever even been to Newfoundland. He’s one of these Empire types who did far more in his lifetime than anybody has any business being able to do.
So then I started thinking about time, and space, and the railway. And the Scottish connection started to feel more important. I have a great grandmother whom I am named after, Katharine McLachlan, who came to Newfoundland from Tighnabruaich. We grew up imbued with a real sense of the imaginary Scotland, this place “we” were “from.” I’ve also visited the place where Fleming was born and raised, Fife. I grew up reading and imagining the conquering of the Scots by the British: running down a hill wearing a kilt and swinging a claymore and being mowed down by bullets, that kind of thing. Mass graves and lost language. I have English ancestry too, but as a kid and angry misfit teenager I did find myself attracted to the Scottish heritage (which I also have on my mother’s side): an Imaginary Scots, if you will. And it’s interesting to research how very well the Scottish people took on Empire – there were these ideas that the Scottish were congenitally suited to engineering and machinery, etc. Many Scots were involved in the success of the Industrial Revolution.
Fleming, on the surface, seems like an apex of this kind of success. But when you delve into his life there is a bit of a mystery. A nervous breakdown, perhaps. When you see all he did, it isn’t at all surprising that he would burn out – he took on a tremendous load, an impossible task, when surveying what became the Canadian railroad in the west, and ended up having his hands tied due to shifts in government, etc. He went to Newfoundland shortly after that. I started wondering what might happen if his past in Scotland, the realities in Newfoundland at the time he was there, and his recent possible breakdown in the Canadian West all met and mixed. And the spectral came in there, the Kelpie. They scare the hell out of me, kelpies. I wondered if the presence of the annihilated Beothuk peoples on the island, plus Fleming’s past, might not open some door into the unseen. In a way, the Fleming of the story becomes a sort of sacrifice to the cost of progress, of Empire. Even he, who benefitted so much from Empire and in some ways personified it, has to pay a price. The fairy elements continue to exist, under or alongside the Empire, and sometimes, they clash.
The fairy elements represent a lot of things in that story – the physical body, the landscape, suppressed Scots indigenaeity, actual Indigenous concerns and rights, and the effects of carving up the land into parcels of time and space. The costs of technology are not only environmental. The costs are inscribed on our bodies and in our hearts, whether we know it or not.
Maybe that’s a heavy load to pile onto a short Steampunk story. But I tend to synthesize. More and more keeps coming in.
TTW: What makes Fairy Tales and stories about fairies so adaptable to multiple narratives?
Kate Story: Well, they’re just so interesting on so many levels. There’s simple aesthetics: tiny human creatures with wings, or glowing white horses with one horn, are just fascinating and beautiful somehow. I am often attracted to hybrid human-animal creatures: centaurs, satyrs, mermaids, and so on. And talking animals. They’re usually a good sign in a tale – if the protagonist has animal helpers you know they’re going to be all right. I wonder if there isn’t some way in which our relationship to the animal that is us is so ambivalent that we have to work through these imaginary creatures to understand our relationship to the world. We are these dangerous, clever animals, animals who, in dominant culture, tend to deny our animality.
I think too that there are deep narratives that run through us all. That’s certainly not my idea – lots of people have theorized very eloquently about that and I’ll say no more except that fairy tales work on that very deep level. Something in us is magnetized to those narratives, something deep and essential.
TTW: There are horror elements in “Equus”, what is it about fairy stories that allows them to be so terrifying?
Kate Story: The unknown! We can’t know what’s just beyond the campfire – or just beyond the glow of our many screens. When we let ourselves think about it, it can be overwhelming. We think we are in control of our lives; that’s very comfortable. Over and over again, though, life drives us to our knees. And coming to terms with that – with the reality that the unknown is far vaster than the known – is part of growing up. I am not trying to be smug about this. The unknown is actually terrifying in its vastness. Very wise people spend their whole lives aligning themselves to grasping the reality of the vast unknown. Most of us run away. But if you can approach the unknown with curiosity rather than fear, things open up. Fairy stories offer a way into the horror of the unknown that is, at least, contained within a narrative.
TTW: The theme of abduction appears strongly in many fairy stories. What do you think influences our interest in tales of fairy abductions?
Kate Story: I imagine there are many aspects to this. One is wanting to be special, chosen. Life is hard and we want to think this is happening for a reason. So, our parents are awful because maybe they aren’t really our parents, or maybe we’re actually a wizard, or benevolent aliens have had their eye upon us for some time, or in another world we are kings, or because we suffer so much in our innocence, the unicorn will trust us. Abduction comes in there sometimes – it explains the strangeness of our sense of not-belonging.
Also abduction helps frame change and difference. A person was familiar; then they were taken away, and even though they came back they were never the same again. One could posit that some of these stories came about as a way to explain mental illness, or addiction, or grief; or physical aliments that remained mysterious. I don’t like to dwell on that kind of explanation (it depresses me when people say, oh, Changelings are just babies with fetal alcohol syndrome) but I think there’s real power in the human need to explain difference. That can happen with medical narratives, or fairy stories. Or both.
TTW: Fairies are both similar to us and completely foreign. How do we explore narratives that are both close and distant at the same time?
Kate Story: For me it’s a kind of constant shifting between myopia and hyperopia. I bring some aspects of fairy into too-sharp focus, get obsessed with that, then shift to another, equally-skewed perspective. What grabs me right now about this bit of fairy lore? I may try to link it to things coming up in my emotional, intellectual, personal life, or not. But the key is as you say in the question: the fact that fairies are familiar yet so strange gives us this total freedom in terms of our imaginative identification with them. We can go off on tangents, employ fairy-images in a variety of shifting and mutable ways.
TTW: I was excited to discover that Newfoundland has an ongoing fairy tale tradition that is thriving. What experiences did you have with this tradition?
Kate Story: My experiences were pretty indirect, although I think that would be true for most Newfoundlanders. My father was an influential figure in the academic life of the province – he was one of the authors of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, and had a lot to do with the very fine folklore department at MUN (Memorial University of Nfld). I grew up with a lot of very excited and possibly drunk academics over at the house, from all over the world, talking about folklore and identity. The discovery of L’Anse Aux Meadows, all that. My father told me about being fairy-led. He was out hunting, then found himself in a place that was completely unfamiliar – tall trees, strangely-hued, etc. He said he panicked, broke into a run, then fell on his face. He lay there with his eyes closed, telling himself, now George, you know what this is. He felt around in his pocket for a piece of hardtack that he knew he had, and ate a bite. After chewing on it for a while (it’s bread, but kind of like plaster) he opened his eyes, and knew where he was, and that was that. He was a sort of superstitious person, but also a very fine and respected scholar. So I grew up knowing that it wasn’t “stupid” or “backwards” to believe in or experience this kind of thing. Then too I guess I heard stories from other relatives, and heard them on the radio, etc. I lived at the foot of the Southside Hills, and everybody always said there was something about them. You weren’t supposed to stay out in the fog or the fairies would get you.
TTW: How did the fairy tale tradition influence your novel Blasted?
Kate Story: I ripped it off entirely. I pulled on my own memories, and my own experience of that epic landscape (I spent hours and hours up on the Hill as a kid), and also did lots of research. Barbara Rieti’s AMAZEBALLS book “Strange Terrain” is a huge source, among others.
TTW: The tradition of “The Blast” in Newfoundland Fairy tradition often involves a form of disablement of the person who is encountered by the fairy. How is disability implicated in these tales?
Kate Story: In the form of a change that comes from something without, something beyond human control. And then the blasted body internalizes the blast, oozing foreign objects like feathers, pine needles, twigs, etc. There is often a sense that the blasted person changes emotionally too as a result of the blast.
TTW: With the tradition of “The Blast”, contact with the fairies is seen as a threat. Why is fairy contact seen as a contaminant of humanity?
Kate Story: I am not sure it’s always a contaminant, although sometimes it is. Definitely the strangeness, the otherness of fairies, comes out in a lot of the encounters. We aren’t meant to mix. It’s different from the Icelandic Huldufólk which, I gather – although I know very little about them – are often seen as benevolent. I grew up with a sense that we exist alongside fairies. You have to know and respect certain things or you will get in trouble. And often the thing to know is to stay away from them, don’t try to engage with them. They are tricksy creatures. There was always a sense too that the fairies are fading. That there was some golden age of fairy existence that is ending now. So the threat, if it is one, is diminishing. All the more reason to take care.
TTW: How does geography shape fairy tales?
Kate Story: Well, in terms of fairy lore there does seem to be a geographical element. Some places seem to spawn fairy stories more than others. Maybe some places really do create a sense that Others are near (one is tempted to talk about ley lines etc. but I don’t know enough about them to do so). Definitely the sorts of encounters I grew up hearing about happen in liminal spaces – not your back yard, and not sheer wilderness, but a place that you sort of know where people have periodic or light interaction with the landscape – places you go to pick berries, for example, or hunt.
In the story “Equus” I was interested in the attempt to survey the first Newfoundland railway – the way railroads bisect and define and cut up the land, and change time – you could travel so much faster by rail than before. And too the Beothuk presence – or absence – was more recent in Sir Sandford Fleming’s time. I wondered if it would be more palpable. I was fascinated by the sense of this boreal forest that is so vast, and itself like a living thing. Maybe otherworldly creatures are the land’s eyes and ears and hands.
TTW: Why do you think fairy tales are so enduring? What makes them adaptable to new audiences and new cultural contexts?
Kate Story: Great plots! Often weak on character, though. But the recognizability of certain character types is a draw (innocent child; good girl; bad witch; evil king; sad prince… one could go on). So it’s easy to redraw them in present contexts. They are as close to universal narratives as we have, perhaps. Now of course I think a lot of people encounter fairy tales in not even the Disney re-mixes, but more like a Shrek-style pastiche. The whole story isn’t there any more, just ironic fragments. I find this sad, but maybe I’m just old.
TTW: Could you let us know about any projects you are working on currently regarding fairy tales or fairy traditions?
Kate Story: WELL! I am working on something about mermaids but it’s really recalcitrant. Dorothy Parker keeps trying to get into it. And over then next two years ChiZine Publications will bring out two of my novels: an SF novel based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” called An Insubstantial Pageant; and after that, a young adult fantasy novel probably called Antilia where folklores come into physical being: every story, every ghost, every fairy you’ve ever thought of. Which can be really groovy, baby, but also really really scary. Oh, and you are trying and failing to save the world. I hope to scar generations of young readers with this one.
Kate Story is a writer and performer. A Newfoundlander living in Ontario, Canada, her first novel Blasted (Killick Press) received the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic’s honourable mention. She is the 2015 recipient of the Ontario Arts Foundation’s K.M. Hunter Award for her work in theatre. Recent publications include short stories “Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” (Carbide Tipped Pens, Tor Books); “Unicorn” (World Fantasy Award-nominated Gods, Memes, and Monsters, Stone Skin Press); “Show and Tell” (Aurora Award-nominated Playground of Lost Toys; Exile); “Equus” (Clockwork Canada; Exile); and her story “Demoted” was featured in ChiZine Publication’s Imaginarium: Best Canadian Speculative Writing 2015.
Derek Newman-Stille (interviewer) is a PhD student in Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek conducts research on representations of disability in Speculative Fiction. He is the creator of the Aurora Award-Winning website Speculating Canada.
Through the Twisted Woods interviews speculative fiction writer and non-fiction writer and editor Kate Heartfield about her recent story in Clockwork Canada called The Seven O’Clock Man and the story’s ability to re-tell and explore the French Canadian tale Bonhomme Sept Heures. We discuss ideas about adapting Fairy Tales to Steampunk, the horror quality of Fairy Tales, colonialism, ideas of order and chaos, the function of time in Fairy Tales, the use of objects in Fairy Tales, and the relationship between Fairy Tales and the social control of children.
Click on the link below for our interview
To find out more about Kate Heartfield, visit her website
Through the Twisted Woods interviews author, storyteller, and performance artist Marie Bilodeau about French Canadian Fairy Tales, minority languages and cultural preservation, the endurance of Fairy Tales, cultural appropriation versus translation, Celtic Fairy Tales, rewriting Fairy Tales onto modernity, the Fairy Apocalypse (or Fairypocalypse), mapping fairy stories onto new geographies, performance and storytelling of fairy tales, considering the audience for fairy tales, and magical objects in fairy tales.
Click on the link below for our interview
You can discover more about Marie Bilodeau on her website
Through the Twisted Woods interviews Chadwick Ginther, author of the Thunder Road Trilogy about his reimagining of Norse mythology and a post-ragnarok world. We talk to Chadwick about Norse mythology, Winnipeg, the way that Folklore is both highly regional and yet has the ability to move beyond its original geographic context, superheroes as a modern mythology, mapping folklore onto a Canadian landscape, the endurance of myths, monstrosity, Loki and gender fluidity, Trickster figures, and the ability to map folklore onto modern tales.
Click on the link below for our interview.
You can discover more about the work of Chadwick Ginther on his website