Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Research

Writing Outside Your Demographic: Cultural Appropriation

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when a work (a written work, an image, a film, a dance routine, a show, a Halloween costume) takes and displays some aspect from a culture without regard for the meaning and/or the context of that aspect within the culture.

From Sanaa Hamid's project, Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation

From Sanaa Hamid’s project, Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation

Some examples:

A lot of these examples interact with colonialism and oppression: People traditionally associated with colonizing forces are trying to put on and take off oppression like a costume. This is the difference a white person between dressing up as a naughty nun for Halloween and dressing up as “a Mexican” complete with serape, sombrero and large fake mustache is that the naughty nun is ingrained in Western white Catholic culture, who have often been oppressors, whereas folk that look like this hypothetical white person have traditionally oppressed people who look Hispanic, and moreover the shorthand for “Mexican” bears little relevance to actual Mexican people living in the world today.

Are there subtlety in this? Maybe. Consider the Washington, D.C. football team versus the Seattle Seahawks. Both use Native American imagery for their team logos. Considering that the Washington, D.C. football team uses a racist epithet that is associated with the slaughter of Native American people, the Seahawks logo is pretty darn respectful in comparison. And in general, I think it’s sort of fine. But it’s interesting to look at the history. It was originally designed by a Los Angeles-based artist in 1975, and even though Quinault artist Marvin Oliver offered the NFL a redesign that “depicted regional art principles in the design,” the logo remained.

Martin Oliver's Seahawk logo design and the final 1976 design

Notes from King County Arts Council, 1975

The Seahawks logo was later redesigned to bring it even further away from traditional forms, although once again, Coastal Salish artist Shaun Peterson has some suggestions about how to redesign it incorporating Coastal Salish design elements. There is some debate about whether Coastal Salish influences on Seahawks fan gear is beneficial or a quick road to cultural appropriation. It bears thinking about. The threads of oppression and colonialism run deep in this country, and it’s  important to look closely at how they interact with our daily lives, especially if you’re not being actively oppressed or colonized.

 Perhaps Everyday Feminism’s Jarune Uwujaren said it best:

People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.

So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

How does cultural appropriation show up in fiction?

Let’s stick with discussing Native Americans in fiction. I’d like to discuss one of the more culturally ubiquitous examples at the moment, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.

the-twilight-saga-new-moon-powerpoint-background-14In the Twilight books, Meyer chose to set them in Forks, Washington because it’s statistically the rainiest place in the US and vampires like avoiding direct sunlight. Logical enough. Also in the books, the local tribe, the Quileute, are secretly werewolves. Classic werewolf vs vampire action, right?

But…because the vampires are white and the werewolves are Native, there is an added dimension of a) vampires as civil and cultured and werewolves as animalistic thus b) white folks as civil and cultured and Native folks as animalistic, with a side of c) colonizing forces as civil and cultured and Native peoples as animalistic and also as closer to nature. Compare this to the Cullens fighting their own natures by trying to avoid murdering people; resisting the natural for the spiritual (which is the opposite, apparently) is seen as the high road.

The Burke museum in Seattle has a fantastic online exhibit called Truth vs Twilight. It calls attention to the tropes that Meyer, consciously or unconsciously, evokes in her portrayal of Quileute people in her books. The shirtless, jort-sporting Quileute boys manage to uphold the stereotype of sexualized, “hot” non-white people as a counterpoint to “classy” white people who won’t have sex until marriage. The exhibit also points out the often-repeated point that the Quileute tribe has not actually made any money off of Twilight, despite their name being (quite legally) plastered all over a bunch of merch. Some Quileute members have engaged with the publicity to further public education about the tribe. However, at its core the Twilight series does nothing to help the trope of the Imaginary Indian:

The most common representation of Native Americans in modern media suggests American Indians as vanishing or as an imaginary thing of the past. Though Twilight has garnered many fans for a contemporary, somewhat glamorized depiction of the living Quileute through the shirtless wolf-pack boys, the series still categorizes the Quileute as imaginary werewolves rather than as real people.

I found myself wondering about Stephenie Meyer’s thought processes when it came to world building. And thankfully, she’s written quite a bit about just that. Here she describes the genesis of Jacob (Quileute werewolf/secondary love interest):

Jacob’s development into a major character was a strange journey. Originally, Jacob was just a device. In Twilight, Bella needed a way to find out the truth about Edward, and the conveniently located Quileute Tribe, with all their fantastic legends, provided a cool option for that revelation. And so Jacob was born—born to tell Bella and Edward’s secret.

(emphasis mine)

One Meyer decided to develop Jacob, did she sink into the Quileute culture? Did she visit? Did she think about what it means to be a white Mormon woman writing about Native Americans? Here’s what she had to say about her process in drafting New Moon:

Lots of people give me more credit than I deserve; they think I knew Jacob was a werewolf from the very beginning. This is not the case. Twilight was supposed to be a stand alone novel, remember. There was no thought of werewolves in my mind as I wrote it. The Quileute (Quill-yoot) legends Jacob tells Bella in chapter six of Twilight are all genuine Quileute stories that I learned when I was researching the tribe (which is a real tribe with a truly fascinating and mystical history). All actual Quileute legends, except for the vampire myth about the ‘cold ones.’ I latched onto the wolf story (the actual Quileute legend claims that the tribe descended from wolves transformed by a sorcerer) because it fit with my sketchy knowledge of vampires and werewolves always being at each others’ throats (ha ha, pun intended).

(again, emphasis mine)

I’m not sure if Meyer understands how glib she sounds here. Legends don’t exist in a vacuum. Goodness knows I’m all about wild recombining of fairy tales from different cultures. But it seems as if she figured out the wolf connection to the Quileute, went “wheee!” and didn’t really bother to look much further.

How can I avoid cultural appropriation?

In a word, research.

Research, for the record, does not just equal endless Googling. It involves reading whole works that may only peripherally relate to yours. If you’re a writer who’s just sold a vampire novel for a huge advance, it might involve visiting the location of said novel and/or interviewing tribal elders of the tribe that you want to use in your novel, for example.

Writing research is not always different from scholarly research: you’re going to want a variety of sources including as many primary sources as you can find. Novelist Michael Gruber talks here about some of what he read in researching his novel, The Return:

I read The Old Gringo. I read a lot of Mexican poetry and a handful of novels and some general histories of Mexico and anthologies of Mexican writing. I pulled a lot of journalistic material from the web about the drug wars in Mexico. For the Vietnam stuff, I read a number of descriptive and first-person accounts of the war the US Special Forces fought in Laos and the standard ethnography of the Hmong people. Plus the usual research about the guns and equipment mentioned.

We call Wikipedia “a good jumping off point” or, when snarky, “home of the C- research paper.” When I was writing a short story set in Cuba in the mid 1500s, I ended up finding journal articles about family structure in Africans shipped to Cuba, the shipping manifests of slave ships to Cuba throughout the 1500s, and a rather comprehensive book about Cuban sociopolitical structure from 1400-1800, written by a female historian in 1910. This took more than a Wikipedia search. I actually used the library. I used Google maps. I looked at historical maps. I did a lot of reading about Santeria, from sites run by modern-day Santeros. Could I have done better? Yes. I wish I’d had time to read more Cuban literature, and I would have had this project been a longer process.

Look at examples art and writing from the culture you’re writing about. Also, look at examples of the culture you’re writing about being represented well or in a positive light. Here are some resources that the Burke museum has identified as good examples Native Americans being represented in popular culture.

If it’s possible, try visiting the places you’re writing about. Can you imagine what it might have been like had Stephenie Meyer gone up and spent some time with the Quinault? She did spend half a day at La Push after her novel had been released. If you can’t go yourself, maybe talk to people who have been (or better yet, who have lived there). This isn’t always possible, I know. But the closer that white people, for example, can get to looking at other cultures as they exist in the world and not the White Imagination*, the better literature we’ll have and the more we’ll be able to decolonize the literary world.

And that seems like a pretty darn worthy goal.

 

*which I will write about at some length later, but believe it or not I need to do some research first….

A Ray of Hope…

Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:

SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights

illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition

So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.

magic card

This is accurate.

In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.

So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.

But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”

*cougheveryDisneyPrincesscough*

So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.

The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial  reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”

"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."

Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.

Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.

illustration by Kay Neilsen

Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.

Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.

Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.

Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)

By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.

1001 nights vess

Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.

There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:

Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.

I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

So, Disney Princess movies.

I know you have a range of feelings and thoughts conjured by the term. In our culture, whether it’s nostalgia, irritation, boredom, hatred, glee, adoration, or nausea, Disney Princess movies probably mean something to you.

And I’ve got to take down everyone’s favorite darling today, my friends. The one that people say, “Well, I don’t like Disney Princess movies much, except….” Especially to my smart, bookish female friends, I apologize. (Here’s David Tennant looking sad to make you feel a little better.)

I am really so, so sorry.

We all know Snow White is creepily racist and Sleeping Beauty is a classic Damsel in Distress with no personal agency. We all know Cinderella’s Happily-Ever-After doesn’t deal with how creep-ass her baby crazy father-in-law is or what kind of a living hell her stepmother could make her life after marriage, much less how it’s a little weird to marry a dude you’ve met once.

But Disney became more enlightened later, I hear you cry. They started to have heroines that were active and intelligent and interesting. No beauties sleeping here!

Oh, yes. So it would seem.

But I’ve got to take down Beauty and the Beast. Because, ladies, for smart and bookish folk like us, it perpetrates a major lie.

…a delicious, delicious lie...

First of, we all love Belle:

*I* wander around town with my nose in a book too, but hey, that's me.

As a nerdy girl, I can connect to Belle. We’re introduced to Belle and her vague social awkwardness, bookish yearning, and awesome ability to outwit assholes with cunning. This is one likable, awesome girl.

I also hang around farm animals as part of my job every day. Clearly, Belle and I have plenty in common.

Unfortunately, this movie is not about Belle, or what she wants, or her getting what she wants.

Belle says that “There must be more than this provincial life,” and doesn’t really know what that might mean for her. She’s reading a lot of adventure stories, and seems to like the ones that have a lot of swashing and buckling. She is entranced with the romance in one of the stories with the Prince in disguise, which sets up her romance with Beast. “She doesn’t know it’s him ’til Chapter Three!” But she’s reading Count of Monte Cristo type adventure-romances, not Jane Austen type domestic tales. Clearly, Belle wants adventure, travel, and maybe some love, too.

Let’s keep in mind that Belle is not an ordinary peasant in the French countryside. She’s an inventor’s daughter. Her father makes crazy interesting stuff all the time. He is actually “something more than this provincial life.” Like most Disney heroines, Belle does not have a mother, nor any apparent grieving for/ongoing connection with her presumably dead mother. She puts all her love and energy into her father, but doesn’t think that *she* could be inventing things too, or seeking out actively the types of adventure that she reads about in her books. She has always believed in her father’s dreams–she says as much. But has he believed in hers? Has she dared to seek support in her dreams, aside from her dream of having more books?

…not that rampant book acquisition isn't a totally legit goal, too….

So who’s story is this, then?

From a storytelling perspective, it’s Beast’s. Allow me to go all Joseph Campbell* on your ass. (Actually, I’m going to go a bit Christopher Vogler on your ass, because he has adapted the monomyth to be a little more useful and less gendered. You can check out his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers if you want to know more.) The arrogant and unnamed Prince get a Call of Adventure in the form of a hideous old woman’s request for aid. He refuses the call, and with the Supernatural Aid of the enchantress, he is transformed into the Beast and thus over the threshold into the “special world” of his adventure.

Well, what about Belle? I hear you cry. Didn’t she get a call to adventure in the form of her father being abducted by the Beast? Yes, that happened more than a quarter of the way through the movie…and it wasn’t Belle’s call. Belle’s call was Gaston’s marriage proposal, which she refuses in order to pursue her dream of romantic adventure. The tragedy of the story is that Belle’s dream is ultimately tamed and made banal, much as Beast himself is made into a dull, Fabio-esque human prince at the end.

But let’s pause for a moment on Belle’s choice to save her father and enter the Beast’s servitude. This is one of the few active choices that Belle makes during the movie: she rides out to find her father (with an active, masculine horse that takes up a lot of screen time) and volunteers to take his place. Unlike the traditional fairy tale, in which her father comes back and tells her that he has bargained her away without her knowledge, Belle gets a choice in this version of the tale. We like that she gets a choice–she is active and a mistress of her own destiny, yes?

Well, it would be, if she was the one with the character arc and purpose for the rest of the film. The central section of the film is Beast campaigning strategically to win Belle’s affection.

Ladies: Read out loud to your abusers. It will help with the Stockholm Syndrome.

Beast is the one making active choices throughout the section of the film when Belle is in the castle. He campaigns to win her love, and thus serve his own ends by breaking the curse. The Ordeal (or midpoint) of the film comes when Belle wanders up to Beast’s chambers, he scares her away, and then follows her and rescues her from the wolves. Had Beast not made the choice to rescue Belle, the movie would have ended about halfway through with a gory wolf-related death, since Belle was not a match for a pack of hungry wolves. Beast then was close enough to Belle to make connections with her via showing her things she enjoyed–books, mainly–and learning table manners.

Belle, in the meantime, is going more or less with the flow. She reacts to external circumstances in a logical way, but she is a reactive character rather than an active character. Heck, good ol’ Gaston has more of an active campaign to get what he wants than Belle does. I mean, who thinks sending his future father-in-law to the madhouse is the best way to win a woman’s affection? (…not that it’s unappealing, I’m sure, but the point is most men have more self-control.)

I will win the girl with cunning use of chest hair!

Gaston’s obnoxious pitchfork-and-torch mob forces Beast to make his ultimate choice that brings about his death and resurrection. Beast commits the ultimate act of selfless love: he lets Belle go even though he knows he may die. Beast is unquestionably heroic. Belle, on the other hand, gets saved by a damn teacup. Seriously. She and her father would have been screwed without a teacup with an axe.

He's got an axe! He killed your family!

So at the end of the movie, Beast has nicely completed his character arc, becoming the Master of Both Worlds. He can be a Prince, but also love and be loved in return. Also, he got to live again with sparkly lights. Yay for Beast. Belle, on the other hand, may or may not have found more than the provincial life she was seeking. Sure, she has a castle full of servants and a nice husband and a library. But adventure? Debatable. Did she get what she wanted, really? Maybe. Maybe not. In many Disney Princess movies, the heroine states a vague yet passionate wish at the beginning that they do not explicitly reveal. Let’s hope it was a man, ’cause that’s what they’re getting.

Marriage and Happily-Ever-After. Totally the same thing. …right?

Still, the message here is disturbing. Smart, bookish women need only to find a monstrous man to tame, and all their dreams will come true. If there are no compatible men in your hometown, geek girl, simply go find a lonely guy with few social skills and change the crap out of him. It’ll work.

Fairy tale scholar Karen E. Rowe points out that “Romantic tales thus transmit to young women the rather alarming prophecy that marriage is an enchantment which will shield her from harsh realities outside the domestic realm and guarantee everlasting happiness.” I would like to think that we geeky ladies are beyond such and obvious trap, but how many of you wanted to be Belle?

I would be a bit remiss in my duty as an internet literate human if I didn’t include this gem as a finale (check out the whole series!):

Please, let me know what you think. Do you have hope for Belle, or these Disney stories? What reactions do you have to Disney Princesses?

—————–

*With whom I issues. At length. But that is, as they say, another tale for another time. Suffice it so say that he’s got a handle on Jungian male psychology and his monomyth is an appropriate vessel to pour the story out of.

The Child’s Ballads

Let me tell you about them.

Because, thing is, they are where all the bad-ass women of fairy tales have been hiding all this time.

Note who is seducing whom here.

First, the basics:

Compiled by Francis James Child in the mid to late 1800s, the full title is actually The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and it is a collection of just that. Also they are all free and online, so that’s neat.

You probably know some of these ballads; for one, all the Robin Hood ballads are in it. Tam Lin is one of the more popular ones these days. A heck-ton of the ballads have been covered by 60s folk rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Simon and Garfunkle’s (and others’) cover of “Scarborough Fair” also comes from the Child’s Ballads. They’re little-known, and yet oddly pervasive. I know I listened to a bunch of them as a kid, so the stories got stuck in my head. They’re a good repository for British fairy lore, for one.

For another, the Child’s Ballads have some wacky wacky gender-swapping as compared to the rest of European fairy tales. The Germans and French have a cycle of “animal groom” tales, e.g. Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, the Frog King, and Snow White & Rose Red. The English and Scottish have what’s effectively a cycle of “animal bride” tales. They usually go something like this: There is a monstrous woman and/or a woman who’s been turned to a dragon. (Often she’s under some evil spell, sometimes she’s just a witch.) A man has to come along and be nice to her, and then he is rewarded. Alternately, he’s a jerk and she punishes him. Here’s one about a man who acted sensibly in the face of grisly destruction:

A much nicer ending than many tales of monstrous women. “Them sireens loved him up and turnt him to a toad!”

***

The ballad of Tam Lin, in particular, gender-reverses the classic “Prince saves damsel-in-distress” trope. Here’s two versions of the ballad, the more traditional Fairport Convention version and a wacky bassline double-voice new version by Tricky Pixie:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68xxI3az5BY

Despite the ballad’s title, “Tam Lin” follows the character arc of Janet, Tam Lin’s lover. Tam Lin, on the other hand, is a prisoner of circumstances and needs Janet to rescue him. While Janet herself is not a majorly dynamic character, in that she is brave and strong throughout the ballad, she does follow the footsteps of the hero’s journey and is the clear protagonist of the ballad.

Throughout the tale, Janet shows agency and in full control of her actions and choices. Janet shows her true spirit during the ordeal scene, where she declares, “If that I gae wi child, father,/Mysel maun bear the blame.” Janet takes responsibility for her actions and makes clear choices, including the choice to keep her child once she knows Tam Lin’s earthly parentage.

What am I doing? Oh, just waiting to steal my man back from the Faerie Queen. Like a badass.

Tam Lin is reactive and passive through much of the ballad. He displays agency related to his child: he stops Janet from aborting their child and tells her how to save him from the fairies, emphasizing, “I am your bairn’s father.” He would have been unable to escape the Fairy Queen and teind to hell had Janet not chosen to go to Carterhall. Even the method of Tam Lin’s entry into the fairy world is passive: He fell from his horse and was taken in by the Fairy Queen. Like many princesses in Grimms’ fairy tales, Tam Lin is valued by the Fairy Queen for his physical assets: “I am sae fair and fu o flesh I’m feared [the teind] be mysel.” Tam Lin’s character is defined less by him doing things and more by him being things, i.e. a father, a human, a teind payment.

Instead of a damsel in distress saved by a knight in shining armor, the ballad of Tam Lin reverses the paradigm. The damsel pulls the knight in shining armor off his horse and holds him through magical transformations until he regains his humanity. Janet pulling Tam Lin to ground reflects her agency as well as her particularly feminine, “grounded” sense. While Tam Lin’s metamorphoses are similar to many animal husband tales, few of such tales have a heroine who goes on a campaign to rescue the “animal” husband. For example, Beauty goes to the Beast not because she wants to save the Beast, but out of loyalty to her father. Beauty is a victim of circumstances. Janet aims to misbehave (and to save Tam Lin).

***

Aaaand that’s what I think about in my spare time. Which is why I’m going to grad school and rewriting fairy tales, obvs.

So, in conclusion, check out the Child’s Ballads. There are strong and/or excitingly monstrous women, and we don’t have enough of those in fairy tales, damn it. The ballads are written in pretty heavy Scots dialect, so just mutter along in a Scottish accent and you’ll be fine. If reading them is too heavy sledding, you can always listen to Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and Pentangle on Youtube.

Stop looking at me, Swan.

creep-ass swan

It's thinking about murder RIGHT NOW.

After exhaustive research, I have come to the following conclusion: swans are creep-ass.

I think swans are physically weird. This is a totally personal bias based on me being terrified of geese as a small child. My preschool had a farm right next to it, and geese (and once, a cow) would sometimes escape into the school grounds. Those fuckers were mean and as tall as I was; no way in hell I was gonna get near them. Besides, one bit my teacher, and they don’t even have real teeth, just burning ire. So, I still don’t like long-necked birds of any kind; the way their necks go is creepy. There’s a specific deformity of the finger called the Swan’s Neck.

Other than being physically weird, birds are connected with the souls of the dead, which heads us into questionable territory. Specifically, stories with swans in them tend to take weird, weird turns.

First up: Swan Lake. Swan-obsessed magician makes beautiful girl into swan. Okay, fine. There’s an imprisonment and/or necrophilia metaphor going on there, whatever. (Really: in the ending variation where the princess in condemned to be a swan forever…isn’t that a kind of death?) But the prince? I know he fell in love with the Swan Queen when she turned back into a human. But I think he was a bit of a swan fancier to begin with. Suspicious.

Speaking of swan fanciers, Jove. As in the rehashed Greek Ovid’s Metamorphoses version of Zeus. Now, to begin with, he was a weird dude. He liked to have sex, willing or not, with more or less anything that moved. He had some very weird sex brags (“one time I fucked a pregnant chick so hard she set on fire”; “one time I seduced some hot girl in the form of a cow”). He was like a more heterosexual and less classy version of Jesse Canon from Tominda Adkin’s series Vessel. Anyway, Jove gets his eyes on this girl, Leda. He seduces her (the nice term for “rape”, usually) in the form of a swan, which is weird even by hentai standards. Then apparently they have kids, and some parody of a family life. Family life with birds. Like you do.

leda swan children

Doesn't she look sick of it all?

That brings us to my third piece of Swan Creepass evidence: the tale with many variations known as the Six Swans, the Twelve Brothers, and other titles. It’s about a girl whose brothers are turned into swans for various reasons (Dad wants her to inherit the kingdom; the bros are turned into swans to escape actual death). Her job is to rescue them; the condition is that she must not speak or laugh for seven years, and also make shirts for her brothers out of some odd or unpleasant material (nettles, starwort, depends who you ask). Usually she succeeds, often with the sleeve of one shirt unfinished, so that one brother is left with an arm and a wing for the rest of his life.

I was thinking about this during a workshop about metamorphosis at the Richard Hugo House, and I wrote the following:

 Every Sunday, Laura would go to the shore of the lake to look for her brothers.
The swans at the lake had innate enough trust of her to swin right up, hop out of the water, and eat the chunks of bread she provided them out of a large plastic bag with a twist tie. Sometimes there would be a jogger or a dog and the swans would get spooked and flap out into the vast expanse of water, but most times they’d be bold enough to steal a piece of break right out of her hand.
She bided her time with the nettle shirts. You have to make sure a wild animal really trusts you before trying to wrestle a shirt meant for a human onto it. Besides, making cloth out of dried nettle was hard. The hippies down at the co-op must think she drank more nettle tea than any of several gods. They never said anything, even on weeks when her hands were still red and blotchy with stings. Baking soda was her #2 co-op purchase.
The day came when she had to put the shirts on or give up, be alone forever. The day marked by a red square on her calendar. She took the usual bag of bread and a backpack filled with the nettle shirts. She waited for the swans to come gliding over the water. She scattered bread and opened the sipper to the pack slowly, so as not to startle the birds.
The movement was quick, when she finally dared to do it. Woven nettle held in sweaty fingers, unable to feel the stings any more, a twist of the wrists, up and over the long struggling feathered neck. Wings beating, wind rushing past her face, her eyes, blinding her so that she never saw exactly what happened, if there was some moment that was half feathers and half skin, but in any case she was suddenly holding in her arms Richard, her eldest brother, naked except for the knit shirt made of strung-together dried leaves.
He was gasping for breath with a desperate look in his eyes, muscles under his skin still pulling against her, trying to escape. She released him, tried to not to glance down at his nakedness, and looked into his yees. For a moment her heart dropped; he wasn’t making eye contact and was breathing hard. What if he was still a swan inside his head? What if she’d revived him only to lose him to shock or insanity? She should have brought blankets. She should have brought real clothes. Richard knelt by the edge of the water and threw up noisily. The other swans had scattered.

And so. Swans. The ever-present reminder of death with weird-ass necks.

black swan murder

See? Murder. Told you so.

The Divine Comedy

Let me tell you about a project I once did. I funded it with grant money, which means it must be good, right?

The original concept was grand and sweeping: A three-part graphic novel script based on Dante’s Divine Comedy (in my head I imagined all of the issues, bound together as one large and epic trade paperback with all three stories running parallel to each other). In reality I finished part one (Inferno) and drew out the first issue. Still! It’s a great concept, and I enjoy playing with it from time to time.

In the original Divine Comedy, Dante* writes himself walking through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, guided by various supernatural entities. The Dante character is quite fallible and affected by his spiritual journey and surroundings. For example, he becomes a total jerk as he descends farther into Hell, and saves face as he ascends the mountain of Purgatory.

In my version, I have a character called Annie, like to me in personality and hometown, but unlike me in family circumstance. (Somehow she sprouted a three-child catholic family. Her siblings are kind of like Jungian personality aspects of her. Don’t ask me, I just wrote it down.) I’m not the first one to think of a modernized Dante story. The illustration at the top is from a series by Sandow Birk, a radically modern translation with amazing illustrations that parody some of the original woodcuts.

The overall structure of my tale goes like this: Hell is childhood. Purgatory is young/middle adulthood. Paradise is age. Certainly as a young adult about to graduate college, I felt like I was standing at the base of Mt. Purgatory, getting ready to climb.

So I wrote what I knew: Conifer, Colorado. Childhood. Hell. I have a script for all of my version of Inferno. Who knows, I may get ’round to drawing the rest of it. I am afraid I’ll have to start over: I have the script but the drawings are in an archive in Colorado and I believe the original scans of the drawings disappeared in the Great Computer Theft of ’07. Serves me right for not backing them up, eh?

But in the meantime, I wanted to share excerpts of the research I did on Paradiso. What research, you ask? I interviewed various people over 50 about their take on the nature of Paradise, not the heavenly concept so much as the earthly one. I also asked them how their definition of success had changed since they were 20…that was a healthy thing for a 20 year old to be asking when she’d be plunged into the “real world” the next year…

So, over the rest of January, I am going to listen to and blog about these interviews. I will post selected edited transcripts as well; clearly, I’m not going to use the names of the people I interviewed, as my permission does not extend that far. Perhaps they can get names from Paradiso instead.

Until the next interview from Paradise….

*Note: Dante is one of the only literary figures who had a first and a last name, but GOES BY HIS FIRST NAME. We don’t even call Shakespeare “William”. But Dante is not “Alighieri”, he’s “Dante.” How cool is that? He’s like the Madonna of the 1300s.

Synchronicity of the Day

Note: Revising poems is hard. Never again will I make Spideman Comic strip style promises at the end of blog posts.

I think it’s about time you met the main characters of my book. Some of you know them in passing, but I’d like to properly introduce you.

PENNY is a delightfully awkward girl. She’s always lived in the shadow of her sister, CASSIE, who paints and is cool and hangs out with the really exciting emo kids at school and manages to fool their mother about her whereabouts in ways that Penny just plain can’t get away with. Penny feels weird cursing and hates smoking, but nevertheless cult-worships her sister. Therefore, she’s pretty messed up when Cassie mysteriously disappears one November day. That same day she meets a bizarre, garrulous boy named ROBIN, who acts like a Shakespearean idiot most of the time but has a punch that even the hardest gangsters at school learned to respect. With his influcence, Penny increasingly becomes convinced that Cassie was actually stolen by the fairies. Penny has a hard time convincing her mum of that, though, and the investigator in charge of Cassie’s case, JERRY CROSS, thinks she’s insane. He’s troubled by strange dreams, though, that suggest Penny might just be right…

While writing this morning, Pandora pulled up a song by the British folk-rock group Steeleye Span called “Seagull”. Here are the lyrics:

Penny is shining beneath a bright light
With another resting beside her
Maybe the light one will come back tonight
With the memories she carries inside her.

Chorus:
Seagull, Seagull, Three three in a bed.
Seagull, Seagull, Three three in a bed.

Penny the hero, Penny the fool
The gold watch she gave me I’ll treasure
They say that it’s only a game after all
Apart from the pain it’s a pleasure.

Chorus

Penny is silent when fortunes are lost
She knows there is nothing worth saying
You’re all alone when you’re counting the cost
Is it more than a game you’ve been playing?

Chorus

***

I LOVE it when this kind of thing happens! This fits amazingly well with the plot of my novel. Hooray.


She’s Not There…

I thought it was bad when my Dad turned into an abusive monster, my parents split, and my Mum dragged us back to America. I thought it was bad living in the most shite town ever, Colorado Springs. Hell, I thought it was bad when my sister Cassie disappeared off the face of the earth and everyone said she ran away with her art teacher. But it was worse almost when she came back, three years later. Without aging. Without memories. Without herself.

That’s Penny speaking, by the way. She’s one of the protagonists of my new novel. You’ll meet more of her in posts to come.

Novel No. 2* is an interesting novel for me to write, in that it’s nothing like the process I went through for Freedomland. I more or less figured out on my first draft what I wanted to do with Freedomland, including how I wanted it to end. With this one, it’s all up in the air. I have a lot of things a-brewin’. One thing that I’m working with is how to keep the more supernatural bits of the story ambiguous–treading the fine line between true crime and fantasy. (i.e. is Cassie stolen by a crazy man from the mountains, or the fairies?) Think of it like an episode of the X-Files: There’s a Mulder explanation of my story and a Scully explanation.

That being said, I love it when I find stuff that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. I recently read about Capgras Syndrome, a dissociative disorder in which a person of otherwise sound mental health is convinced that someone close to them (usually a relative) has been replaced by an exact copy, viz. a clone or changeling. It’s fun when I find a scientific explanation for exactly what my character is going through! …even if I have a fantastic one as well. No reason they can’t sit side-by-side for a while….

*a.k.a. Changeling, a.k.a. The November Queen, a.k.a. What the Hell am I Going to Call This Book

Cannot Be Unthought.

When I went to undergrad at Colorado College, I was a writing tutor. I remember one day a girl came in with a literary theory paper about The Cat in the Hat. Her assignment was to pick a critical point of view and analyze The Cat in the Hat from said point of view. She’d picked Freudianism. I will forever think of the fish as the superego and the cat as the id. And I won’t even get into the stuff with the mother’s dress. Forever and ever when I see that book, I’ll be thinking about Freudian psychology. (This is awkward, when my day job is teaching preschool…)

Anyway, my point is that there are just some things that once seen, cannot be unseen.

So, with all this research for “Changeling”*, I am reading a lot about fairies and fairy tales. With that, I am reading a lot of original fairy tales and Grimms’ mildly-edited versions of fairy tales. And let me tell you–they’re a doozy.

So far, here are my top five ridiculous fairy tale moments:

5. In the 1800s Grimms’ version of the Frog Prince, she does not kiss the frog to make it turn into a handsome prince. She gets grossed out and throws it at a wall. It still turns into a prince, and not even one with broken bones or anything.

4. The tale “The Twelve Brothers” bothers me on several levels. Sure, at the end the evil mother-in-law is put into a barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes and dies a horrible death, but even before then, something’s off. The plot centers around this princess who has twelve brothers that are supposed to die when the girl is born so she can inherit the kingdom. The method of death isn’t really touched on…the king in the story just decrees that they shall die and make twelve coffins for them. Not an award-winning parenting move. No one questions him, either!

3. The story “The Maiden Without Hands” revolves around a maiden who was accidentally promised to the Devil by her father. The Devil tells the father he has to make her stop bathing, and then later chop off her hands. Apparently, if she has clean hands, the Devil can’t get to her. Was this a message about handwashing?

2. “The Castle of Murder” was left out of the Grimms’ manuscript entirely for being to disturbing, apparently. It’s about a shoemaker’s daughter who’s being courted by a very nice young man with a nice castle in which he kills his dates and has his creepy old servant scrape out their intestines. This cautionary tale is possibly relevant for when your children learn about online dating.

1. Another one of the fairy tales that the Grimms cut entirely because there was no way they could sanitize it is called “How the Children Played at Slaughter.” It’s about kids who watched their farmer parents butchering meat and then decided it’d be a really good idea for one to cut the other’s throat with a knife. Then the mother got so angry that she stabbed the one who’d killed the other, and then hanged herself. And their dad died, too, out of misery that his whole family had murdered each other randomly. I’m not entirely sure what the moral is, aside from “don’t be an idiot and die.”

I highly recommend picking up a book of fairy tales: Hans Christian Andersen, Grimms’, Italo Calvino’s Italian tales, or the Andrew Lang collections (Green Fairy Book, etc.). It’s an entertaining and disturbing experience.

*My goodness, I need a better title. I mean, not only is it a one word title that’s also a major motion picture (as Freedomland is), but it gives away a major piece of the story. Now, there are some works that give away the ENTIRE story in the title, e.g. Snakes on a Plane or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…so “Changeling” isn’t quite THAT obvious, but still. I need something better.

Blatant Balladry

So, I suppose it’s time I talked about Novel No. 2. It’s tentatively titled Changeling, because I love me some single-word titles. Currently, it consists of a few more than 50,000 words of text (thanks, NaNoWriMo), a couple of outlines, and a bunch of research into the wacky, wacky world of British folklore.

Specifically, I’ve been doing some serious reading of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the late 1800s, a.k.a. the Childs’ Ballads. It turns out that most of the things I was really nerdy about as a kid (Robin Hood stories, some aspects of Arthurian legend, Steeleye Span, and a boatload of British fairy tales) all come from these ballads.

A surprising number of these ballads have wicked strong female characters in them. They aren’t always, y’know, moral, but they are often pretty badass. Consider the heroine of The Elfin Knight…some otherworldly prettyboy rides up and says, “La di dah, you can’t have me until you make me this totally magical and impossible shirt, ’cause I’m so fabulous, prance prance.” (or that’s how I read it, anyway.) Her response? “Okay, ask the impossible of me and I only ask the same of you. Fair!” She’s having none of his tomfoolery. The Childs’ Ballads are chock full of badass ladies like this.

To further make my point, and in honor of National Poetry Month, I present to you a version of The Elfin Knight. It’s pretty heavily Scottish/difficult to read, but persist! I beg you. You’ll totally recognise it, or at least you will if you listen to Simon and Garfunkle. Helpful notes: 1. If you can’t figure out what it’s saying, try pretending to have a heavy Scottish accent and see if that helps. 2. A sark is a kind of shirt. 3. Maun=must.

There are many, many versions of this song. I have chosen this one because it’s semi-intelligible and totally channels Tiffany Aching.

2D.1	THE Elfin knight stands on yon hill,
      Refrain:	Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
	Blawing his horn loud and shrill.
      Refrain:	And the wind has blawin my plaid awa
2D.2	‘If I had yon horn in my kist,
	And the bonny laddie here that I luve best!
2D.3	‘I hae a sister eleven years auld,
	And she to the young men’s bed has made bauld.
2D.4	‘And I mysell am only nine,
	And oh! sae fain, luve, as I woud be thine.’
2D.5	‘Ye maun make me a fine Holland sark,
	Without ony stitching or needle wark.
2D.6	‘And ye maun wash it in yonder well,
	Where the dew never wat, nor the rain ever fell.
2D.7	‘And ye maun dry it upon a thorn
	That never budded sin Adam was born.’
2D.8	‘Now sin ye’ve askd some things o me,
	It’s right I ask as mony o thee.
2D.9	‘My father he askd me an acre o land,
	Between the saut sea and the strand.
2D.10	‘And ye maun plow’t wi your blawing horn,
	And ye maun saw’t wi pepper corn.
2D.11	And ye maun harrow’t wi a single tyne,
	And ye maun shear’t wi a sheep’s shank bane.
2D.12	‘And ye maun big it in the sea,
	And bring the stathle dry to me.
2D.13	‘And ye maun barn ’t in yon mouse hole,
	And ye maun thrash’t in your shee sole.
2D.14	‘And ye maun sack it in your gluve,
	And ye maun winno’t in your leuve.
2D.15	‘And ye maun dry’t without candle or coal,
	And grind it without quirn or mill.
2D.16	‘Ye’ll big a cart o stane and lime,
	Gar Robin Redbreast trail it syne.
2D.17	‘When ye’ve dune, and finishd your wark,
	Ye’ll come to me, luve, and get your sark.’

This, and so many more are available in awesomely accessible format at Sacred Texts.

And I’m spent. More fairies, balladeering, and tomfoolery later.

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