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.

Editor’s Note: A Border of Sky

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Borrando La Frontera

In 2011, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted swathes of the Tijuana border wall pale blue. From a distance, these painted sections blended with the sky so well that the wall seemed to disappear: it ceased, for a moment, to be a barricade, a reminder that the Global North is fortifying itself against the Global South. Fernández’s work reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood, where the edges of forests are boundaries between known and unknown worlds. In those stories, borders function as thresholds.

In Ambos Nogales, where I volunteer at el Comedor, an aid station and soup kitchen for recently deported migrants, the border wall starts outside of town. It’s a rust-colored snake that wriggles across the hill crests before descending into the city itself. It cleaves the broad avenues and beige-brick buildings of sleepy Arizona from the narrow streets and tumble of vendor carts and pharmacies of urban Sonora–cleaves city from suburb, Mexico from the US, “them” from “us.” On Sundays, families picnic along the fence, cousins with Mexican citizenship passing Coca-Cola and condiments to cousins with US citizenship, holding hands instead of embracing. The border here is porous enough for fingers, voices, shared meals; for lives to be lived across and between–but not permeable enough for whole bodies.

I’m a gring@ from north of the line; I live in a country where politicians and public intellectuals fuel fears that legions of people from Mexico and Central America are crossing north to take jobs away from US citizens and to, God forbid, speak Spanish while browsing the supermarket. In his poem “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” Juan Felipe Herrera writes, “CAN’T CROSS because ‘xenophobia’ is a politically correct term.” Secure borders! US conservatives scream, and Xenophobia! the liberals respond–a cloaked word that doesn’t sound quite as bad or honest as racist.

I also live in a country that just elected Donald Trump to the presidency–a man who once said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” But he’s wrong–those are not most of the people crossing north, and they’re certainly not most of the people I’ve met and talked to: undocumented millennials who grew up in the United States, were deported, and are trying to get back to Chicago, Phoenix, or California; families fleeing gang violence and economic poverty in Honduras and El Salvador; a Oaxacan university student whose visa application was rejected by the Mexican government because he looked “too indigenous,” and came from a family without wealth or social standing.

Herrera’s poem also includes the portentous line, “CAN’T CROSS because brown is the color of the future,” which hints at the dream that someday Mexicans, Central Americans, and other migrants will be able to travel north freely. Herrera and other writers and artists are making a new mythology of the border: Prefiguring what could be and should be, they transform the militarized line into a threshold. “I see a whole generation … wandering around // a continent without a name,” Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes in “Freefalling Towards a Borderless Future,”  “Standing on the map of my political desires // I toast to a borderless future // (I raise my wine glass toward the moon).” Queer, Chicana writer Gloria Anzáldua–who grew up in the borderlands of south Texas–considers the northward migrations a “return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán,” the original Southwestern homeland of the Aztecs which, according to Anzaldúa, they “left … in 1168 AD,” bound for the Valley of Mexico. “This land was Mexican once, // was Indian always // and is. // And     will be again,” she writes in her poem El otro Mexico.

In October 2015, Ana Teresa Fernández and a group of volunteers painted a 50-foot section of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico the color of the sky. In April 2016, volunteers in the Mexican border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, and Agua Prieta did the same. With each brush stroke, they enacted the project’s name, Borrando La Frontera. They offered those on the south side of the wall a vision of what they might someday see looking north–after the steel, barbed wire, and Border Patrol trucks that divide the two countries dissolve, there will be nothing but houses, schools, mountains, mesquite trees, clouds in a hot desert sky.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.


If you’re interested in supporting direct humanitarian aid to end migrant deaths and people of color-led pro-immigrant groups in southern Arizona, please consider volunteering with or donating to the following organizations:

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes (Arizona)
Aguilas Del Desierto Inc. (S. Cali & Arizona)
South Texas Human Rights Center (South Texas)
Derechos Humanos
Protection Network Action Fund/ Fondo de Acción de las Redes de Protección
Mariposas Sin Fronteras
Southside Worker Center

Interview: Sonya Vatomsky


collageSonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist, born in Moscow in 1985. Sonya currently lives in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Sonya’s poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Entropy, Lodown, The Hairpin, VIDA, The Poetry Foundation, and other publications, and their chapbook My Heart In Aspic is available from Porkbelly Press. They hold a BA in Linguistics with minors in German Linguistics and Finnish from the University of Washington.

Salt is for Curing is a dark and delicious book. Your poetry is teeming with folklore and food, evoking a hunger that simmers in magic. Blood, bones, vegetables, herbs mingle with robbers, wolves, Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool. There is bread and there are potions. Ripe plums and Koschei the Deathless. You’ve said “There’s not really a divide between folklore and my… sense of self — at least the stories I had told to me as a child, and that’s usually what I’m referencing in poetry.”

Which figure from Russian fairy tales did you most identify with as a child? In whom do you see yourself now? Did you connect more deeply with male or female characters as a child, and has that changed?

The one I felt pulled to was Koschei Bessmertniy, though not in an identifying type of way — more like I wanted to be his lover or flunky or something. I never ever cast myself as a hero, and I can’t decide if that’s because I was a timid child or because I had such a strong sense of ego that I disliked role-playing as someone other than myself. Maybe both. “Male-adjacent” is a good way of describing how I connected with characters, though. I internalized gender roles enough to know I couldn’t be Koschei, but you’d never find me in Baba Yaga’s camp either. I was really intimidated by female characters. Baba Yaga scared the shit out of me, to the point where I didn’t even like her as a folktale figure, whereas Koschei was bae.

Continue reading Interview: Sonya Vatomsky

The Body Horror of Tam Lin

by Sonya Vatomsky

A note for readers: this essay mentions sexual violence.

bc0da84b13315d7d46f4457197fb0affIn folklore, the term “transformation chase” refers to the use of shapeshifting as a means of combat or escape. The wizard duel in the animated film The Sword In The Stone, for one, but more traditionally the plot of several Celtic ballads. “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” was included in a book of folktales I had as a child, translated from song to prose. I remember loving it. I remember the way the name “Tam-Lin” felt on my Russian tongue, liquid and strong. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this: a girl comes upon Tam-Lin in the woods of Carterhaugh, where he is being held prisoner by the Queen of Fairies. To rescue him from the Queen and win him as a lover, the girl must hold him fast through countless transformations: a roaring lion, a terrifying snake, the painful scald of flame. To my young sensibilities, this seemed extremely romantic. I appreciated the ritual of endurance; trials and pageantry were a necessity of love stories because some outside force willed it, not because of the lovers themselves. Years later, “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” made me pissed.

Granted, what sounds romantic to a four-year-old-girl can hardly be expected to ring true to a thirty-year-old non binary queer person. All the same, I wanted to slice apart this story with my feminist lance — which is like a feminist lens, but for folktales. The basic premise of “Tam-Lin,” where a woman holds a man as he hurts her, was no longer abstract but a common narrative played out through a million books and films fetishizing a woman’s abnegation and self-sacrifice for the sake of a man’s potential. “Tam-Lin” became our culture’s unfortunate connection between pain and love, equating the latter with a willingness to suffer on behalf of another. “It’s only true if you bruise by the force of it,” as Chris Corner once said. Fuck. What had originally drawn me to such a sexist, heteronormative depiction of devotion? A poem from my poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing, tried to understand: “She holds and she hurts and / she wins. Maybe I liked it because the woman / is doing something, not waiting. It’s always / either waiting or hurting, you know, and often / one can’t tell the difference.”

Yet the more I thought about it, the more “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” seemed itself to change shape, to become something other than what I had previously seen. As I looked back on an extremely difficult period of my life when I frequently lashed out in anger and attempted to isolate myself from those around me — and as I thought about the people who remained by my side throughout this — I began to see “Tam-Lin” not as a patriarchal narrative of pain-acceptance but as one where a character holds another through change. Tam-Lin did not become a flame and slowly burn hotter; he shifted indiscriminately, the changes done to him as he assumed monstrous forms akin to those in body-horror films like The Fly or Tusk. The transformation chase in “Tam-Lin” is a battle against the Fairy Queen and not really between the two individuals. In this forest, the courage required in love is made literal.

To be forcibly changed, especially as a means of achieving freedom, is a strong metaphor that does double-duty here: the girl can leave the forest and head home any time, but enduring the transformations is the only way for Tam-Lin to escape the Fairy Queen. Someone we love can certainly assume different shapes to frighten or hurt us, but the experiences that make us shift and change are as varied as all the animals in the wood of Carterhaugh. Which is to say: is it possible that there is something beautiful in love’s tenacity? Not in the sense that it’s good or admirable to endure pain, but in the sense that a transformation chase represents the monstrous qualities people display as they pass through tragedy — the qualities we might take on during the processing of grief or trauma. This link of change with pain, especially in the context of external pain (vis-à-vis the Fairy Queen), is in some ways a very honest look at any long-term relationship, where we must each see the other’s wounds and mold each other back into, if not our perfect form, then at least something passable. A transformation chase is not discomfort for the sake of another but the choice to remain by their side in a moment of shared discomfort — because, after all, it is only in fairy tales that change can happen with something as easy as a kiss.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They were born in Moscow and currently live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Get in touch by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.com.

Image by Jill Karla Schwarz.