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

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

Editor’s Note: Modern-Day Mike Finks

A note for readers: this essay mentions physical and sexual violence. 

Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.

It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.

Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?

Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.

I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.

I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor René Madonna Ostberg.

Interview: Aaron Mahnke

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Aaron Mahnke is the writer, host, and producer of Lore, a podcast about true life scary stories. When he’s not working on Lore, Mahnke writes supernatural thrillers. He lives with his family in the historic Boston area, in the very heart of Lovecraft Country and the epicenter of the Salem witch trials. You can follow him here on Twitter, and learn more about him on his website.

I chatted with Mahnke about the similarities between fairy tales and horror, and the relationship between folklore and history.

Can you start by talking a bit about LORE? Why did you decide to make the podcast? What got you interested in the history behind folklore, horror and ghost stories?

Lore is a podcast that digs into the darker side of history, uncovering the roots of common folklore and superstition, and exposing some of the more unbelievable motivations and actions of people throughout history. It’s a storytelling podcast, sort of like a fire-side chat, where I tell stories about what happened, and then try to ponder why.

Lore began as a happy accident. In an effort to grow my book sales into something that could justify the time I spent actually writing them, I tried writing a series of non-fiction essays on my five favorite New England folktales and legends. My goal was to give that away as an incentive to people willing to sign up on my fiction email list. But the project got a bit too long, and so I decided to try converting it to audio.

Continue reading Interview: Aaron Mahnke

From the West

by Beth Steidle

I

That summer thirteen funnel clouds touch down in televised wheat fields. Like Japanese ghosts, pale and legless. At the diner, my mother murmurs doomsday. The waitress asks if we’re ready. Onscreen, the Doppler spreads fervent pixels. Birds ascend. Dogs grow feral and flee towards higher ground. A woman weeps, pulls her hair over herself and shuts it like a tent. One can always be closer. Louder, bolder. Referring to the endless salad bar, my mother says, make sure you get your money’s worth. Over a photograph of an open-faced turkey sandwich, my father, the Great Skeptic, admits he believes in ghosts. He says, just floating, and wiggles his fingers. There his grandfather hangs in the corner. There grey twisters sucker across the gray prairie, leaving gray gutters in the gray earth. My father is, at that moment, dying. We continue eating. White tumors silently expand within. Black lesions spot the torso. The afterimage begins its beamed course. Our ears peel for echo. The dead leave gray gutters in the gray earth. Meteorologists prep for more. Sirens, cellars, get down, stay down. We say, no, we need more time. Everything is gray, white or black. Everything is mapped. Isn’t it. We turn towards the television again, then again. By definition, to be this you must touch both the sky and the ground.

 

II

From the eye of the cyclone spring wild forms: forty wolves and forty crows and a black clot of bees. The phrase all hell breaks loose. Our hunger is singular, as though we have not eaten all our lives. Muzzles to the earth. So thin our bones perform a shadow play, black rabbits and black eels, skitter across the boney chest, ribbon through the hipbone, respectively. Huffing in strange sync. Eventually, one animal wears another. Snorting like a funnel cloud all through the night. Flush with release, we leap and leap. Poppies open their bloody mouths below, fluster vibrant pollen, mouth O O O.  O our blood sings its stupid loops. O our blood runs rampant through the jaw. Define sated. Here at the earth’s edge. Tangled in the devil’s antlers. Suspended in mid-air. What we hunger for should not be eaten. What we hunger for is lost to itself, is missing vital parts.

 

III

You should show greater respect, greater longing. You should visit more often. You should go home, come home. I choose British, I choose woman, every time I load the GPS. Still I fear that I will lose my way. Let’s be frank. I am not the one who is missing. Is it greener where you’ve gone, as they insist. Is your grandfather on display. What about the dogs we put down. Here I often sleep with the light on. I sleepwalk nightly. I sleep-eat breakfast and sleep-clean the countertops. Polished as an ax, I stand prepared. Call it pole star, lighthouse, beacon, lamp, flashlight, light organ, lure. Whether you come from above or below or through. How do I make myself known. You should find your way home. Others have come as far, if you still believe that sort of thing.


“From the West” originally appeared in the Emerald Issue of Fairy Tale Review.

Beth Steidle is a writer, illustrator, and book designer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Drunken Boat, DIAGRAM, KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and several print anthologies. Her first book, The Static Herd, was published by Calamari Press in 2014. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was awarded a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

 

Editor’s Note: How to Give Readers the Shivers

wanda1by Kate Bernheimer

Popular culture reviews of new fairy-tale movies or television shows frequently note, with authority, that old fairy tales had a cruelty to them that has been “sanitized” since. I challenge that notion. Cruelty has been alive and well in American fairy tales for a long time.

Visit your local library and look for a copy of an illustrated version of “Hansel and Gretel.” In just about every variation you’ll find, the parents send their children out to the woods where the parents believe they are certain to perish. After some time wandering, the children stumble upon a witch’s cottage decorated with cookies and candy — perhaps they are hallucinating this, which starvation can incline one to do — but, whether it’s real or not, in their lightheaded condition (or perhaps desperation), they nibble the house, enter when they are invited to do so, and, drat — geez, these kids aren’t too bright, but they are super hungry and perhaps, good lord, altruistic — in any case, the boy Hansel is locked in a shed by a witch with absolutely no apparent supernatural powers at all. This red-eyed (hungover? sad?) witch proceeds to try to fatten Hansel up while verbally abusing Gretel, employed doing chores. Eventually, in just about every version under the sun, the “clever” children outsmart the witch: Hansel holds out a bone pretending it is his finger, and thus avoids being eaten; Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. They return home. The end!

Child abandonment, child abuse, murder — albeit self defense, but by a child, incinerating an old woman alive! — well this is just so, you know, sentimental and innocent. So sanitized. Thank goodness we’ve restored this stupid, light-hearted story to its dark ways.

Or have we?

Just under a hundred years ago — a blink of the eye — Wanda Gag’s 1920s version ends with this flourish:

Sing every one,
My story is done,
And look! round the house
There runs a little mouse
He that can catch her before she scamps in

May make himself a very very large cap out of her skin.

I don’t understand how anyone can read this as sanitized. I don’t understand when people fail to see the cruelty in life, or in art — which doesn’t mean there is not also beauty.

Look. There is serious charm and menace to the Grimm fairy-tale form. These are really small words; they have the aura of a nursery song; and this is a tiny tale of evil predation. A little mouse — a girl-mouse, of course the little mouse is a her — is to be caught and skinned! And this little mouse, well, she seems to have quite magical powers, or offer them to her predators, because whoever catches her can make — what? A very, very large cap from her skin.

I love Wanda Gag’s work. (She grew up in poverty in Minnesota, attended art school in New York City, and is author of one of the oddest, saddest, and most violent children’s books to have become wildly popular in America, Millions of Cats. Among other things that are haunting in this inky, strange story, millions of cats devour each other.)

Gag has terrific poetics. She ends her variation of “Hansel and Gretel” on the word skin — skin, that one-syllable word that starts with a hiss and ends on the word that begins the word “no.” This is how to give readers the shivers.

Growing up in a family haunted by genocide in Nazi times — in ways I would only discover in my 30s — Gag’s coda speaks volumes to me. I am not writing this essay about the aesthetics of cruelty. I am writing it about violence — in art and in life — that goes too often denied.

The Brothers Grimm stories, by my reading, resisted such ignorance and still resist ignorance in just about every retelling I’ve seen of “Hansel and Gretel,” even those that seek to remove details deemed overly dark for those littlest of eyes — and largest of feeling. These stories invite readers into a radical acceptance that human cruelty is a reality — and, thus, challenge readers to resist human cruelty at the same time. They also invite us to be open to beauty and to find peaceful homes.

Wanda gag056


Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press) and the editor of four fairy-tale anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt and a joint commission of Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center, was a finalist for the  2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.