Sisters

by A. Marie Carter

My sister and I play a game. It’s a game of a sovereignty of sorts, and it’s played out inside the front cover of every storybook our family owns. Her name is written in neat print, at the top, there first, claiming ownership from the start. My name is always scrawled underneath; the desperate scribble of the second sister who came after all the gifts had already been given. I too own this book, it seems to say. But she’s always the first, three years my senior. Her name is always already there.

It’s inside an exquisite copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses that her name irks me most. I adore this book, a present from our grandmother, with its intricate illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Each sister is drawn in a gown embellished with a different fruit or flower, and her dresses, her headwear, even her delicate dancing shoes, are themed to match. I spend countless hours examining these pictures, trying to decide which sister I want to be.

Am I the youngest princess, whose dresses are adorned with flowers of orange and tangerine? Or can I be another one? I can’t be the one who wears wine-dark grapes in her hair because she is the eldest and my own sister is already just like her, quiet and wise, while I, like the story’s youngest, am all clamour and noise. Standing in between them are ten other women, in varying shades of our own selves.

The youngest sister in this story is terrified of noises in the dark, scared by the snap of a golden twig, by the footsteps of an invisible soldier. I don’t want to be that sister. I don’t want to be the one who is always afraid, who is frightened by things she cannot see. So I try hard to be the boldest, to be the bravest.

But when our grandmother dies I am the one who sits stupefied by her bedside, unable to speak anything but sobs, while my sister says all there is that needs to be said. The thank yous, the admissions of love. The acknowledgment of things that pass between girls and grandmothers. For all my bravado, it is her that takes the burden even though, strangely, I wanted it. But I can’t begrudge her that.

Just like in all the fairy tales, it’s the eldest who inherits the throne.


A. Marie Carter is an emerging writer from Adelaide, South Australia. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure and the Review of Australian Fiction. She teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Flinders University, where she is also completing a PhD on monstrous mothers in varying folkloric contexts.

Illustration by Errol Le Cain from The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1981)

Editor’s Note: Ancestral Hunger Pangs

My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor René Ostberg.

Interview: Kate Bernheimer

Kate Bernheimer is an American fairy-tale writer, scholar, and editor. She has been called “one of the living masters of the fairy tale” (Tin House). Her work includes the story collections Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales and she’s the editor of four anthologies, including the bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Bernheimer’s work as an author, critic, and professor explores the intersections of contemporary fairy tales with multiple disciplines; she constantly pushes her students to think beyond conventional thought and heighten their creativity on fiction prompts. Bernheimer teaches fiction workshops and fairy tale classes at the University of Arizona.

What inspired you to begin to write? Why did you focus on fairy tales?

I fell in love with reading as a young child. I would read anything — fairy-tale books, novels, toothpaste boxes, Mr. Coffee instructions, comic books, detective stories, Hollywood magazines. I began writing fairy tales when I learned how to type, in Kindergarten, first by playing around on my grandfather’s IBM Selectric. Fairy tales were my first love as a reader, so I guess that’s where I began, and I just never stopped.

Your book Horse, Flower, Bird was such a delectable and tangible read. The stories are charming, strange, and even beautiful. I remember reading it in one of my early literature courses and I thought the entire collection was poignant. It’s a fairy tale book, but some consider it as prose poems. Would you agree?

 Oh, this is so kind of you to say! These are just the words I would hope for someone to use about that little collection. I consider these short stories to be fairy tales, but contemporary prose poetry, by my reading, borrows a huge amount of techniques from fairy tales so I can absolutely see why some readers might think that. I read a great deal of poetry, too.

Continue reading Interview: Kate Bernheimer

Narrating Grandmother’s Bag of Stories

by Debarun Sarkar

Every Bengali child grows up with Thakurmar Jhuli. They are the canonical set of fairy tales and folk tales–the stories told and retold countless times. Growing up on the western coast of India, I had no affinity with Bengali culture or literature, but every night when my mother couldn’t improvise anymore, an old hardbound copy of Thakurmar Jhuli would eventually come out of the cupboard. Growing up away from Bengal made my mother try harder to pass on whatever stories she had to tell.

The book went through so many years of reading to various children that barely any of the pages were held with the binder. The pages slipped over, spilled out held together by measly threads. The book was difficult to read because of its sliding papers, so on some nights my grandfather and grandmother would borrow tropes from the Thakurmar Jhuli and Hindu myths to create stories. Unlike my mother, they didn’t struggle with the act of storytelling without reference. It was as if my grandparents were a dynamic database of folk-tales algorithmically churning out new combinations.

Indian myths were once folktales and fairy tales bereft of institutionalized religiousness. It isn’t surprising that my grandparents switched between folk and religious forms unhesitatingly. Regional variations in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana are now well-known fact with deviations of minor deities and themes. Stories of some deities did not even exist in neighbouring regions. I was told constantly from childhood of how the myths represented certain historical imaginations–folk historiography accounted for the transformation of princes and princesses into Gods and Goddesses.

The most common motif that my grandfather would borrow from the stories and repeat was the separation of two princely brothers during their search for a princess kidnapped by a monster. Eventually two knives would be planted at a tree and the brothers would head separate ways. The knife would rust if the respective brother died. One brother always died, and one rescued the princess. Flying chariots were also common, fueled by the Indian mythical TV series that were being aired on national television–adaptations of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

A copy of the book still exists in my new house tucked away with old cassettes and CDs. All the stories have not stayed with me after so many years, but what fascinates me in retrospect is the zeal of storytelling that my grandparents displayed, reinventing narratives everyday in the anonymity of private lives. The closest analogy of such acts of storytelling that I can think of in the present are the fan fiction writers of today, delving into storytelling without any desire for immediate material gains.


Debarun Sarkar is currently based in Calcutta. Recent works have appeared in or are forthcoming in 1:1000, Cadaverine Magazine, Bottle RocketsWild Plum, Ink Sweat and Tears, among others. He is a staff writer at Newfound and an editor The Murmur House.

Image from the Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) by Dakkhinaranjan Mitra Majumder.

Editor’s Note: Drink Me

I was not allowed to read many fairy tales as a child.

There was a danger that leaked through those pages, a draw to ways of thinking that my parents deemed unsuitable for a good little girl to be exposed to; magic and spells, mystical creatures and witches, violence and blood. I was relegated to the watered-down Disney versions which modeled the type of young woman my parents wanted me to be:

Subdued. Subservient. Dependent.

My first, unadulterated access to the original version of a fairy tale was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As a teenager more focused on getting my driver’s license and graduating high school as early as I could, I was beyond the age of superficial enchantment and  delight at the array of fanciful characters and silly riddles. I was instead struck by one of Alice’s seemingly nonsensical questions:

“But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?”

I was already a couple of years deep into trying to answer this question. I had, like Alice, seen something in my world that didn’t make sense and I chased that anomaly down its own rabbit-hole. She and I had both been drinking out of bottles that made parts of ourselves smaller and larger. She changed physically but I drank because I didn’t understand myself. It helped me keep these new burgeoning parts of myself contained so I could fit through that small door into the garden of self-medicated bliss.

“ – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

At home I was still expected to be the obedient daughter, to not ask questions, to do what was expected of me. Under my parents’ watchful eyes I was a model of perfection. Then I would sneak away, and the control I had to maintain over my behavior would evaporate.

“Oh you can’t help that,” said the cat: “We’re all mad here.”

I would drink until I blacked out. I seduced older men so they would sneak me into bars. I started smoking cigarettes. I raced cars. I got into physical fights. Every moment I had spent suppressed at home manifested in a stunning display of self-destruction. I was the Mad Hatter let loose on the world and its reaction only fueled my insanity. I was the gardeners painting the white roses red in an attempt to deceive those who held power over them. I was the Queen of Hearts yelling “Off with their heads!” whenever I would sober up enough to notice that no matter the color I splashed on everything it was a hollow action that brought about no change.

But mostly, I was Alice.

“But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”

I was Alice, curious about what she was experiencing but not happy. I was lost between lands, not sure of my destination but aware that I could not live long in this limbo.

“She generally gave herself good advice (though she very seldom followed it).”

I was Alice. We were both naïve young girls who survived long falls and traversed paths fraught with unknowns. Now when I look back at my adventures, they too seem something like a fantastical dream, but unlike Alice I did not simply wake up. I had to stop heeding the labels that said “Drink Me” and let myself grow steadily until I realized that my Wonderland was a restraint, not a fantasy. I climbed back out of the rabbit-hole and emerged a stronger and surer version of myself.

“For you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editorial assistant Cat Solewin.

 

Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Kelly Vivanco is an artist whose paintings invite viewers into a fairy tale-like world of mystery, wonder, and whimsy. A native of southern California, Vivanco earned her BFA with honors in 1995 from the Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach and has exhibited her work in galleries across the U.S. Vivanco’s pieces have featured in art shows with themes ranging from old school video games to Alice Through the Looking Glass to ghosts of Halloween past. She has also illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina and the Grimms’ Snow-White and Rose-Red. The narratives and characters of her original paintings, meanwhile, are just as compelling as those of classic fairy tales. In Vivanco’s paintings, children with enigmatic expressions navigate wondrous, secret spaces and interact with animals depicted in ways both otherworldly and familiar. A crack in a tree provides the perfect place for hiding marbles, a wombat sips from a can of soda pop, a pair of candy-striped frogs study a map in a forest, a bee feeds off plants growing out of a boy’s hat, and another tree grows cushions on its limbs for the comfort of a daydreaming girl and cat. I interviewed Vivanco to find out about the world she creates in her work and her inspirations.

Let’s begin by talking about your influences and what kind of things inspire your art. How would you describe your paintings to someone who’s never seen them?

I would say figurative–but not photo realistic. Sort of story-book–but not specific stories. Whimsical at times. Colorful. Quietly fantastical. I never feel like I have the description just right!

Do you aim to tell a story with each of paintings? Do you have a specific narrative in mind as you start on a piece? How does a painting of yours typically develop?

I don’t aim to tell a specific story. Rather than a narrative I go for the character. I keep sketchbooks of rough ideas and use my sketches to prompt me forward on a blank panel. I don’t like to overdevelop an idea or details before I get started because then the piece would feel “spooled out” already, like it had already lost its energy. The painting develops on the panel first with a rough formation with vine charcoal (easy to wipe off with a rag), then a tighter graphite drawing and then washes of colors. I tend to outline with darker colors, but not always. Areas get filled with color then washed and textured with other colors, details are added and glazes are built up. I use acrylic colors and mediums, so I don’t have to wait too long to build up layers.

“Cushion Tree”

You’ve created paintings for recent editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” What drew you to those stories? How different is it to create based on set narratives, like a classic fairy tale, versus making up your own narrative (if any) as you go? Do you feel you have to stick to any specific parameters or limitations when you paint “on commission” or according to a set narrative? Continue reading Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Woman at the Edge of Town

by K.C. Mead-Brewer

My mother knows her way around a ghost. Their worn faces, their domestic haunts. She hears them, their restlessness on the stairs, in the basement, in the walls. She sees the lines drawn between stars, the prophesies in a palm, orbs of light floating loose in dark fields. She must be a witch, I often think. She must be a witch to know them all so well.

She’s an actress, a writer, and once worked as a clown with sea-green curls and a wide painted mouth, bells at her cuffs and waist. (My mother is a master of disguise.) Growing up, she told me stories of Judith beheading Holofernes and the goddess Hera’s endless revenges. She taught me how to break up with people, that feng shui is good for increasing energy and fooling stain-sniffing landlords. She taught me that mud can be beautiful and that blood is powerful, even sacred, especially when shed in sacrifice.

If she ever wore her dead ring to ward off the whispers, I cannot recall. But we were there all along, my brother and I, the curse our village elders called a blessing, forever lingering at her side, reminding.

*

She must be a witch, I often think, to be so singular, so shunned and so willfully misunderstood. To unravel her skin each night and sew it back thicker each morning. To cross those moats our fickle neighbors tried digging between us. To sink her feet boldly into their stinging waters and pull forth her own mythic swords of power.

*

She must be a witch, the way our neighbors shrank from us after the divorce—divorced from a pastor, no less!—narrowing their eyes and snarling back their lips at her. She who turned away their rubbernecker casseroles. Who bore their judgement without blinking. Whose story refused to end on its provided page.

Because the witch, you see, is endless. Boundless.

She builds homes out of gingerbread and theater, a smiling enchantress spinning plates on a stage. She carves runes into her skin, squeezing out living red power across her grimoires’ pages, smearing it over us, her children, like war-paint; a spell for protection, a spell to blind us to her pain.

Laughing, she lifts her dripping hands to the sky—all of it defiant, undeniable proof of Her. The Witch. She who so loves the world’s ghosts, yet will never succumb to joining them.


KC Mead-Brewer is a writer and editor living in beautiful Baltimore, MD. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on her first novel, a fem near-future scifi piece about rats, ghosts, and artificial wombs. For more information, visit: kcmeadbrewer.com or follow her @meadwriter

“Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (1613) by Cristofano Allori.

Interview: Ram Devineni

A note for readers: this interview mentions sexual violence.

Ram Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher, and the founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. His films include the documentaries The Human Tower (2012) and The Russian Woodpecker (2015), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Devineni is also the creator of Priya’s Shakti, an augmented-reality comic book series featuring a superhero who fights gender-based violence in India. Priya’s Shakti was inspired by the gang rape and death in New Delhi in 2012 of a young woman returning home on a bus at night after seeing a movie with a male friend. The crime sparked protests across India as well as conversations about gender-based violence, patriarchy, and victim-blaming. In Priya’s Shakti, Priya is a young woman attacked by a group of men who finds her power (shakti) to help other survivors with the aid of the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati and a tiger companion. In the comic’s sequel, Priya’s Mirror, Priya uses a mirror to free a group of acid attack survivors held prisoner by an acid-green demon-king, Ahankar, who himself has become imprisoned by toxic masculinity. In addition to rich and colorful illustrations and mythological characters, the comics feature augmented-reality technology that brings to life the stories and voices of real women who’ve survived gender-based violence. Intrigued by this extraordinary project, I contacted Devineni to find out more about the Hindu, Indian, and mythological elements of the Priya series.

Why did you decide to create this comic series? There seem to be many different people and groups involved. Can you describe their different roles and contributions?

Although I am the creator of this project, I really consider this a team effort. Everyone played a valuable part in the creation of the comic book and project. I met [artist] Dan Goldman at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City, and [we] hit it off on the spot. I think he signed on the next day. Dan is a remarkable artist and philosopher–he has brought a new perspective and look to the Hindu gods. His design is based on deep respect and affection for Hindu mythology and the power of the image. Each page is a stand-alone painting that can be mounted in a gallery. [Producer] Lina [Srivastava] has vast experience creating social impact strategies for documentary films and art projects. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships with major NGOs. She recently set up a partnership between the project and Apne Aap Women Worldwide–one of India’s leading NGOs supporting at-risk girls and women by ensuring them access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. Vikas K. Menon co-wrote “Priya’s Shakti” and Paromita Vohra co-wrote “Priya’s Mirror.”

This is the backstory of how the comic book started:

I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved [in] the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers–both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.

Continue reading Interview: Ram Devineni

Interview: Taisia Kitaiskaia

2Taisia Kitaiskaia is a Russian-American writer who creates poetry, prose, and more. She is the author of two forthcoming books: Literary Witches (Hachette/ Seal 2017), a collaboration with illustrator Katy Horan, and Ask Baba Yaga (Andrews McMeel 2017), based on her advice column in The Hairpin. Her poetry can be found in literary journals such as Crazyhorse, Guernica, Fence, and many more. Poems from her “Queen Harp” manuscript will be published in the upcoming Translucent Issue of Fairy Tale Review. I interviewed her about the influences of folklore in her work, her portrayals of feminine characters, and various witches.

Baba Yaga is a witch from Slavic folklore and mythology, and you invoke her character in an advice column and your upcoming book, Ask Baba Yaga. What was your first introduction to this mythology? Was there a particular story you remember being told, or one that has become your favorite?

Before my family moved to America, when I was five years old, we lived in a city called Irkutsk by Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. We had a summer house, or dachya—almost everybody in Russia, at the time, had a summer house—edged between the lake and the woods. These were deep woods, very magical and mysterious; one of my earliest memories is of my parents saying I couldn’t go berry picking with them because we might run into bears. I must have heard about Baba Yaga early on, because I knew that she lived in those woods along with the bears. I felt her nearby, creeping around, making concoctions in her hut that moved around on chicken legs. Even when we went back to Irkutsk, she was close. I remember taking a walk with my mother through a city park and seeing Baba Yaga’s face in the hollowed-out part of a tree.

Continue reading Interview: Taisia Kitaiskaia

Every story begins with a story that you already know

by Brian Oliu

1

Every story begins with a story that you already know: something that is entrenched in your core despite it seeming completely foreign at first—the moment when you realize that you dislike the bitter taste of almonds; the sight of your own blood as you dab at it with your thumb—the scarlet seeping into the ridges of your fingerprints before you rinse your body of itself clear in the bathroom sink.

At the edge of my bed, a bookshelf filled with hardcovers—texts that I could call “mine” in a way that children claim things; all things received as a gift; the ornate pages, the gold trim that I would scratch at with my fingernails if I hadn’t already bitten them to flatness. The stories, too, were mine: girls and boys and frogs and toads rooted to my stomach, curving their way around the bumps in my spine, as if they had always been there, just beneath the surface, leaving their marks on the inside of my skin.

The games too, were mine, in a different way: whereas the stories of my youth were found within, as if they had been stitched into my core, the games were explosive in their moments—they burst into my world from the exterior, and it was my duty to capture those days sitting on a stained carpet in an upstairs hallway trying to make this other version of myself run fast enough that the boomerang would get lost amongst the rocks.

These too, were stories that I already knew: of awakening in a land where all things are equal and the touch of a fleck of light could kill you where you stood—these stories of danger, or warning, of beware the outside, but push forward toward an unknown end and eat all of the fruit whole.

There was a time when I would have to shut the game off, but I could enter a different world through the pages at the foot of my bed, often scanning the same stories over and over before it was time to put my glasses on the nightstand and let all worlds blur. Some nights, when the room was too warm from the heat of all of the electronics, I could see the images of the parallax scrolling still engrained in the darkness, glowing a warm red, even when all of the lights were out—a constant revisiting, as if I were the vacuum tube casting images against the blackened windows.


Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam, and i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), a memoir in the form of a computer virus. He is at work on a memoir about translating his grandfather’s book on long distance running and recent work appears in Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Passages North, and Another Chicago Magazine.