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.
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:
“White as Snow” is a piece of book art that navigates the difficult ideological transition towards adulthood. The period of child development known as ‘foreclosure’ describes the refusal to enter the experimental phase most often associated with adolescence, in which the child tries out different experiences — often rebellious — as a fundamental part of forming their personality. A child who forecloses this period of freedom is unwilling to step outside their knowledge of themselves; instead choosing to remain frozen in one incarnation.
This work implements the ‘classic’ version of the Snow White story as a metaphor for foreclosure, as well as hinting at the consequences involved in maintaining purity and goodness (as defined in the fairytale genre itself). In the narrative, the active and cunning Queen is seen as transgressive and is punished, while the passive and personality-deficient Snow White is lauded as the ‘good’ character; a model for children to emulate. To step outside the rigid and restricted definition of what amounts to a positive female role model is to be irrevocably tainted as ‘bad.’ Anne Sexton’s poem on the subject depicts Snow White as a fragile china doll rolling her eyes open and shut, ever virginal, ever trapped within the limits of her self-imposed and immmobilising purity. The drawings animate as the pages are flipped, revealing a young girl (the model used was twelve) trapped under ice which slowly thaws, allowing her to blink at the viewer much like in the poem. However, the ice never fully melts and eventually freezes over once more, trapping the girl in the limits of her internalised self-restraint. In this way the character is ‘good’ only due to the lack of what is ‘bad;’ defined more by absence than presence.
Kathleen Sawyer is an art student and draughtsperson at Rhodes University, South Africa. Her Masters work investigates the societal impact of fairytales, focusing on themes of sexuality, femininity and coming-of-age. Her art can be found at KatSaw.com.
“White As Snow” won third place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.
Staring at the map on which I had traced all the known movements of my aunt, who had gone missing during the war, the vertiginous suspicion that her movements were taking place at the same time as my search for her came over me. In that case, her itineraries on my map (traced in red) and the ground I had already covered (traced in green, the two not necessarily neatly overlapping) were not two journeys that happened at two discrete and different times but were, in actuality, occurring simultaneously. This meant that at any one moment I was anywhere along the green trail she was, at that same moment, on any one point of the red trail. To continue this logic, it meant that at any intersection of our itineraries we had unknowingly crossed paths, meaning that I had already uncomprehendingly seen her seven times, meaning that my quest, in actuality, has ended seven times, meaning that I had already discovered penetrating truths about myself seven times. Along the way I would have seen the new gleaming buildings that were built after the war and the foreign investments but also trees on fire and falling bombs. There was no need anymore to search for her to keep her from disappearing and there was no need to keep myself from disappearing either. Her world: dark then bright. The simultaneity spread like a virus. Like a sketch being colored in, everything became, was, and is, Time Present. The war, the buildings, and, in fact, all the wars and all the buildings.
Brian Ma lives and works in Seoul, South Korea.
“Simultaneous Map” won first place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.
1. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson collects the color blue. Blue experiences, objects, and emotions. Pain, sadness, and song. She writes, “And so I fell in love with a color—in this case the color blue—as if falling under a spell…”
3. Sound and dream covered in a layer of white. Mary Ruefle’s Little White Shadow begins, “one in ruins/struck/notes whose sounds/spent a winter here.”
4. “Fresh snow fell on snow already fallen; when it ceased, the whole world was white,” writes Angela Carter in “The Snow Child.” I cover text/words/sound with a thick layer of white, building a background on which bright colors become brighter. To show just how red. Just how blue. Technicolor images breathe within the white landscape.
5. Ruefle erases book after book. As she puts it in Madness, Rack, and Honey, she takes words out of this world. With a stroke of the hand she blots them from existence.
6. “It calms me to think of blue as the color of death. I have long imagined death’s approach as the swell of a wave—a towering wall of blue,” Nelson says. But what of deathly pale? Covered/Cursed/Ruefled. The body. SkeletonEmaciated. LittleWhiteShadow. Heart beating. Veins pulsing. Alive but so thin. Speechless.
7. “I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods…” says Ruefle.
8. In the “Lady of the House of Love,” Angela Carter describes her Countess—a Snow White/Sleeping Beauty/vampire hybrid—as “only a shape, a shape imbued with a faint luminosity since it caught and reflected in its yellow surfaces what little light there was in the ill-lit room…” She is object, ghost, and archaic bride draped in satin and lace. Her prince is enthralled by the color of her lips: “he was disturbed, almost repelled, by her extraordinarily fleshy mouth, a mouth with wide, full, prominent lips of a vibrant purplish-crimson, a morbid mouth.” She is alive. She moves and breathes. Her sleeping curse lingers on her lips.
9. “At times I have been tempted to think that we dream more colorfully now because of the cinema,” Nelson insists. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length, hand drawn animated film. Such bright colors titled white.
10. The queen says, “Yes girlie, now make a wish and take a bite.”