In this post, I recap and reflect on the Sydney Writers’ Festival session ‘Once Upon a Time: Myth & Fairytale‘, which was held on Saturday May 24 2014 at Walsh Bay.
On my way to the festival, I felt like a heroine in a fairy-story.
I forged my way through echoing tunnels
passed high castles
stopped to speak to a rose
… and wandered up and down the steps of an empty tower (wrong wharf at Walsh Bay) until I finally walked beneath some fluttering pennants and came upon a crowd of people adorned in bright colours.
If I was in a fairytale, I would probably have been the first sister in the tale – the one who is easily turned aside from her quest by selfishness – as I looked aside from my quest for the right venue, distracted by the desperate need for coffee. And then the bookshop. And taking photos of the water, and the fabulous outfits surrounding me, and the internal debate of wanting a second coffee & cake vs already not being able to afford the five books I wanted.
All the same, I was pretty close to the front of the line, and soon shuffled in with the rest of the bustling, rock-concert sized crowd.
I was so, so excited about this panel, even though I knew nothing about two of the authors. All of the panelists turned out be extraordinary speakers, lucid and passionate in the discussion of their art. The discussion ranged from the place of fairytale in Australian literature, the role of myth in Indian political discourse and popular fiction, Aboriginal traditions in the past and present, and the uses of fairytale in escaping, interrogating, or enforcing a dominant ideology.
I had intended to live-tweet the session, which I love to do, but I couldn’t keep up with the words and ideas that were flying back and forth. Since I can write by hand faster than I can type on my phone (I was born in the 80s not the 00s) I began frantically scribbling, trying to capture, on paper, some tweet-sized chunks of what was being said. I didn’t always perfectly note down who said what; it was such a meeting of like minds that the panelists picked up the ball of conversation and rapidly tossed it to one another.
As each of the authors tended to loop back to particular themes, I have grouped my recapture of the session loosely by author rather than chronologically. The panelists included Vikram Chandra, Tony Birch, Cornelia Funke, and Kate Forsyth, with Judith Ridge as facilitator. Throughout the session Judith Ridge gently interjected with questions that expanded the reach of the discussion, or instead brought it back to the personal, which was great.
Australian author Kate Forsyth discovered the Grimm brothers’ collection of fairytales when she was ill in hospital as a child. She told a great story of how her mother, just before leaving her alone in the gothic, alienating space of a hospital, gave her a red leather copy of the Grimm fairytales. You can read about Kate Forsyth’s particular affinity with the story of Rapunzel here. It’s a fairytale in itself.
Kate Forsyth told the audience that she loves the boundlessness of fairytales: anything can happen, and to anyone. A prince can be turned into a frog; goose girls are revealed as princesses. She said that she was drawn eto the beauty (especially of place and language) in fairytales, and to the fact that this beauty is always accompanied by danger, peril, and darkness.
Speaking of her recently re-released novel Dancing on Knives, Forsyth (who has been writing novels since she was 7) said that she had actually begun writing it at 16, and worked on it all through her young adulthood, putting it away in a drawer with the first Eileanan book was published. Dancing on Knives was finally published 10 years ago, but has now been re-released by Random House with a new cover. (As a fan, I felt a bit abashed, I thought I’d just picked up a new book by a favourite author but I hadn’t even known it already existed!)
Dancing on Knives is Forsyth’s only book set in contemporary Australia. Its heroine is a young woman with agoraphobia, who feels, as Forsyth put it, “out of her own world” when trying to interact with society. The novel draws, as its title implies, on Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairytale of The Little Mermaid, who pays for her human legs in pain.
Although the book is set in Australia, Forsyth was firm about the fact that the book does not draw upon Aboriginal fairytales, because those are not her stories to tell. Forsyth said that in Australia, we have to be sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation. She pointed out that she has Aboriginal friends who are writers and who would never think of using the stories of another mob in their writing – and she feels the same.
As Judith Ridge reminded the audience in her introduction, “one person’s fairytale is another person’s sacred text.”
Tony Birch also started by telling us a story, about growing up by the Yarra. His grandmother used to tell stories to scare the children away from the river. She told them about the Yarra Rat, which had enough poison on its one tooth to poison a thousand people. If they went swimming in the river, they would get bitten. And there were the death trees. Children in the water would be ensnared by skeletal death trees and pulled under for ever more. Birch said the stories never actually stopped him from swimming in the river, but he swam fast to escape the Yarra Rat!
And of course, these stories, like all fairytales, were more than warnings, and much more than lies, because they captured essential truths about the river. There are snags below the water, and the river genuinely had been poisoned by the industrial revolution. And there really were snags under the water.
In his current work as a writer and a mentor to other Aboriginal writers, Birch is working with other writers to tell Wurundjeri stories not to frighten, but instead to give respect to the river.
Birch explained to us that the Wurundjeri have interchangeable words for “wood” and “boat”. Sure, that seems obvious, since boats are made out of wood, but Birch began to explain how much more there is to it. Personally, I recommend that you simply go right now and read his story “The Boat Becomes a Heart,” which draws the trees and the boats and the river all together and along another river of past and present stories.
When a child or a young person died, the funeral tradition of the Wurundjeri was to send the child to the river in a sacred canoe. The canoe, made of a tree, goes back to the tree, and takes the child back to the forest. Seriously, read this story, the link takes you straight to it:
Tony Birch: The Boat Becomes a Heart
I should probably point out here that the theme of the ‘Once Upon an Time’ session was inspired by the 2013 fiction issue of the Australian literary journal Griffith Review. It features stories by both Birch and Forsyth, along with many other Australian authors.
Vikram Chandra began by telling the audience that in contemporary Indian fiction, the use of myth and fairytale has quite different implications. The mythology of classical India is present in culture in a way myth not present in the West. Chandra gave the example that in India, myth is often present in public discourse. Politicians can use tropes from myth and people recognise them.
Chandra himself was told the myths of the Mahabharata all throughout his childhood. (Judith Ridge asked Chandra to clarify here: they were indeed told, not read, to Vikram by older members of his family). Chandra said that what he remembers is how at the end of each tale, the good guys would triumph, and he was told they ‘ruled happily for a few years, and then they had to go into the mountains and die.’ So he was always aware that even the good guys had to die.
Growing up, Chandra felt what was traditional (such as the myth) was set in opposition to the modern. He eventually saw this division “as a trap.” For him, those stories provide a way to talk about colonialism in a different way, a way that realism cannot achieve. ‘Tropes of realism,” Chandra noted, “are colonised themselves, inhabited by the rational and the modern.” I so want to listen to some of his lectures on creative writing.
With his novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Chandra thinks of himself as writing a literary re-appropration, taking the modern English realist novel and doing something very different with it. At the same time, very interestingly, he pointed that myth is far from innately subversive – he mentioned a hugely popular Indian fiction series that reuses Indian mythology very successfully, and generally in a very conservative way; with the divine hero characterised as almost a bourgeois ideal. (I did not write down the name of the series. Damn academics talk fast!)
This was definitely a point where the conversation started looping and threading from one presenter to the other, so I here is what I captured of the final weaving:
Yes, the fantasy landscapes of myth are malleable, but, more often than not, they often end up reproducing the dominant cultural ideology of the time in which they are told. Chandra mentioned that living with his daughters, who are four and six, means living at the centre of the “Disney Princess industrial complex” – and there’s not much any individual parent can do to hold it at bay. The use of fairytales to serve dominant, contemporary ideology sits against the idea of myth and fairytale and fantasy as some irrelevant “escapism”.
Cornelia Funke noted that it is often hugely underestimated how manipulated myth can be, when fantasy can in fact, be the worst enforcer of the reality we are trying to escape, and myth can be the greatest prison. Funke had a powerful example: she told us that Germans don’t trust their fairytales and myths because of how the fascists used them. “The made the beauty [of fairytales] such a poisoned apple.” (Did I mention these panelists were entralling speakers).
At the same time, fantasy has the power to make us more aware of the problems and complexities of our present time. Funke said that she had seen statistics which showed that fantasy readers are more politically active than non- fantasy readers, which, again, gives lie to the myth of fantasy-as-escapism.
Cornelia Funke told the audience that Grimm tales don’t have the same currency in Germany as they have in India. The traditional tends to be thought of as disconnected with the perception of reality. And perhaps they have become so; the whole panel certainly seemed to agree with Funke on the historical reification of the Grimm fairytales.
And this, by the way, is what I loved so much about this panel, it was obvious that these were people that had studied fairytales in their historical and literary contexts.
This was the first time I had heard myth and fairytale discussed in a public forum without someone making a naïve declaration about their universal power. Fairytales are often described through an essentialist characterisation of fantasy that dismisses the fact that stories and their tellings (for stories are their tellings) are rooted in time and place. I have heard fairytales discussed as if invoking them is actually magical, having some numinous but transformative ‘effect’ on a reader that is to do with some essential quality of being a fairytale that is dissociated from the teller, the specifics of the tale, or any other cultural or immediate context. I couldn’t help but enjoy this Writers’ Festival panel more in the light (darkness?) of the similar discussions I had sat through before. Although a couple of times during the ‘Once Upon a Time’ panel the word ‘universality’ was thrown around it was offset by the nuanced debate about appropriation and colonialism. And it’s certainly hard to deny that (different) fairytales (and their varied uses) are always powerfully appealing, and seem endlessly able to engage readers.
Funke noted, to the agreement of her fellow panelists, that in the 19th century Grimm fairytales, almost all of the darkness and violence of the original tales has been elided. The exception, though, is the representations of nature. Funke said that in the Grimms’ narratives “the forest is scary, the animals threatening, the dragon is always a beast to be slain.” She said that this is very revealing of the strange relationship people have to nature in the West. And there are other kinds of darkness: in many and many of the Grimms’ tales, women are bargained.
Forsyth (who has studied the Grimms’ original sources and their revisions) said she finds the Grimm brothers’ versions of the tales so 19th century, and so bourgeoius: the hero now has to return home, for home is the best place to be, and home is where a perfect domestic woman waits. (Although, as I look for one of Arthur Rackham’s drawings to illustrate this point, I see a lot of pictures where the home has been invaded by fairies and is full of danger).
“But”, said Funke, “the fairytale is older.”
The older tales, Funke said, are more rebellious, more connected to nature, and far nicer to women, who tend to be much more dominant heroines. These older fairytales, Funke said, are travel guides to the past, travel guides to a to a place, to a country. She proclaimed that all tour guide books should include the local fairytales! This comment received a round of impromtu applause. And my tweet about it got some very enthusiastic responses as well. I was surprised by how much response this comment received. I suppose it taps into the important truth about the in-placedness of fairytales … but I must admit I did also wonder whether the response had to do with the demographics of the audience, which had the appearance of being predominantly white, predominantly middle-class and predominantly middle-aged or older (and like most of the festival, had a majority of women). Perhaps the category of people interested fairytale retellings overlapped with those with a passion for travel? If so, is this because the passions are implicitly related, or because both are made possible by a high level of education, disposable income, and leisure, as SWF attendance itself so noticeably is?
Funke herself has connected these two passions. She is currently doing a tour of the world, through its fairytales, collecting (and illustrating) the tales that she is told as she journeys.
Kate Forsyth and Cornelia Funke both seemed to have a yearning to access and rescue old and forgotten stories, but for both authors, this desire obviously competes with the consciousness that those stories belong to others. Funke seemed to have resolved the dilemma with the knowledge that she is always respectful, and because the tales she has been collecting are in a sense lost (presumably only to mainstream Western audiences?). Forysth said, similarly, that these stories only survive by being retold.
Forsyth also said “the stories that survive are the ones that articulate some kind of problem, some desire, some dilemma, for the teller.”I loved that she framed it this way: the articulation of a problem that seems to have no possible resolution has always been, for me, the best definition of myth. But I did wonder whether this narrative of rescuing tales that would otherwise be lost is itself, here, working as a writerly myth, that resolves the problem of this desire for, and feeling of, ownership, over a tale that doesn’t just belong to another culture, but also often signifies belonging to and within that culture.
I wondered what counts as “survival” for a fairytale, when telling it in a new way fundamentally changes the story. And perhaps even more fundamental to a story is who is doing the telling. Australia is a place that is littered with culture, families, nations, story-maps, that have been interrupted. The survival of Aboriginal stories is threatened when they are taken up and retold by non-Aboriginal storytellers.
I was glad that Tony Birch interrupted here to shift the conversation back into this Australian context that my mind had immediately jumped to. He reframed the discussion kinda perfectly, saying that people who have had their stories taken from them need to keep ownership of their stories more than other groups. He said that we need to give those people the dignity of telling the stories in their own voices. Aborigines’ voices have been silenced and misappropriated for so long, that we need spaces for young Aboriginal writers to tells those stories. Allow those who are the custodians of those stories to tell those stories – and then such stories could be retold, by others.
I thought this was a wonderful vision, of non-Aboriginal artists being able, in the future, to have new relationships with culture in an Australia where Aboriginal stories are strongly recognised and understood to be owned by their true custodians.
During the audience question time, the problem of ownership over stories came back in a different way, as the audience of readers and aspiring writers voiced the usual fears about the new digital universe.
I loved this: in the fearful narrative that was being voiced, a capitalist system could no longer protect what was sacred: the expression of individualism and labour that is copyrighted material. The published and copyrighted book suddenly had the provenance of fairytales themselves: it could be copied, shared, transformed without compensation and without legal acknowledgment of ownership.
The setting of this story is a terrifying ocean of digitally uploaded self-published stories. These books have proliferated to such an extent that the gates of traditional publishing cannot be kept closed against them, and they threaten the destruction of canon and the discovery of greatness! (In a previous panel at SWF2014 I heard self-published novels described as a ‘tsunami’.)
Refreshingly, the authors on the Once Upon a Time panel were not swept under by this narrative around digital content, but were all busy reframing it. Tony Birch is a writer-in-residence for the Weather Stations project, which ‘places literature and storytelling at the heart of the conversations around climate change’ using a website that is linked to authors and stories across the globe. Cornelia Funke has developed not only gorgeous website for her new “Mirrorworld” series for young adults, but also an interactive book app which she calls her “breathing book”.
Vikram Chandra‘s most recent book, “Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software” (also published as Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code) is about the interrelationships coding and writing, and draws on 11th century Indian philosophy.
And Kate Forsyth replied to one questioner, “Writers have to accept that we cannot control rights over stories in this age. We have to figure out new ways of getting paid.”
It seems that those who are used to working with ancient myth and traditional fairytale might actually be the best equipped to deal with the digital age.
More about the Authors
Australian author Kate Forsyth who is the author of The Wild Girl, Bitter Greens, and the fantasy series The Witches of Eileanan and its continuation in Rhiannon’s Ride, among many others. Her blog is a wonderful source of recommendations for great books to read, especially if you like historical fiction.
Tony Birch is an Australian writer who works as a presenter at the Wheeler Centre and lectures at the School of Culture and Communication at UniMelb. He is the author Shadowboxing (Scribe 2006) Father’s Day (Hunter 2009), Blood (UQP 2011) and most recently The Promise (UQP 2014).
Vikram Chandra is an Indian writer who currently teaches creative writing at the University ofCalifornia. Chandra is the author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), Love and Longing in Bombay (1997) , Sacred Games (2006), and Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software (2014).
Cornelia Funke is a German writer and illustrator of children’s books. Many of her books have been translated into English, including The Thief Lord (2002), Dragon Rider (2004) Inkheart (2003), Inkspell (2005), Inkdeath (2008), Reckless (2010) and Fearless (2013).
The panel’s facilitator, Judith Ridge, is a teacher, editor, writer, critic and teacher of children’s literature and creative writing. She currently works at the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Development Project, and she blogs at misrule.com.au/wordpress.