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.

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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.