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

Fairy Tale Cluedo

by Elizabeth Hopkinson

cluedo

Fairy tales are well known for their use of familiar tropes and motifs. The persecuted heroine, the animal helper, the three wishes, the unassailable tower. I thought it would be fun to show the interplay of motifs across different fairy tales by mapping the fairy tale world in the form of a traditional Cluedo board. Instead of the usual weapons (dagger, revolver, lead piping etc.) I would substitute a selection of familiar fairy tale objects. Namely: key, spinning wheel, ring, apple, scissors, needle and slippers. All of these are common, everyday objects, but when they appear in fairy tales they are often imbued with magical powers or significance.

In the game of Cluedo, different combinations can be created by selecting person, room and weapon. I wanted to create similar combinations of character, room and object. I kept the traditional Cluedo rooms, with the exception of Billiard Room, which I changed to Turret. The connection of each character to their respective room may be tentative, but it exists nonetheless. My aim was to have at least one character in each room, and at least two characters sharing the same object or motif. In each case, the object (apple, needle etc.) features somewhere in a version of that character’s tale.

One feature of Cluedo that always excited me as a child was the use of secret passages. Fairy tales, too, have secret portals leading to strange underworlds. So I marked each passageway on the board with an underground destination from a different fairy tale, to which it might lead.

We cannot forget that the original game of Cluedo centers on a murder. Death and murder feature in fairy tales, too. So I marked the spot where the Murder Cards would traditionally be placed with the name of that shadowy fairy tale character, Godfather Death.

The fairy tales I have used for this map are as follows. For the characters in the rooms: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Allerleirauh (The Coat of all Colours), Bearskin, The Almond Tree, Snow-White and Rose-Red, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, The Experienced Huntsman, The Six Swans, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), The Glass Coffin, and Snow White. And for the secret passages: The Shoes Which Were Danced to Pieces, The Blue Lamp, The Glass Coffin (again) and Frau Holle.


Elizabeth Hopkinson is from Bradford, West Yorkshire (UK), home of the Brontë sisters and the Cottingley Fairies. She does her best writing in Waterstones, Bradford Wool Exchange, where a staff member was recently heard to say of her: “She can do anything she likes. She keeps this place running.” Elizabeth has had over 50 short stories published and one novel, Silver Hands, with Top Hat Books in 2013. She has won the James White Award, Jane Austen Short Story Contest and the Historic House Short Story Contest. Her website is hiddengrove.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

“Fairy Tale Cluedo” won fourth place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.

Lady Folk

by René Ostberg

Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.

But Gregory needed Early. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.

Both women were western Irish—Early born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Early was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Early’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?

Early survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.

Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.


René Ostberg is a native of Chicago. She has a B.A. in English from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and spent several years living and working in Ireland, on the Aran Islands and in County Down. Her writing has been featured at Literary Orphans, Drunk Monkeys, Booma: The Bookmapping Project, We Said Go Travel, Eunoia Review, and other places. Her website is reneostberg.wordpress.com.

“Lady Folk” won second place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.

Editor’s Note: Baba Yaga’s Fiery Devices

The following is an excerpt from “Baba Yaga Burns Paris to the Ground,” which can be read in full at Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness.

In Russian stories, Baba Yaga is tougher on Russians than anyone else, and she lusts particularly for Russian blood. It’s suggested that she’s testing her fellow Russians, ensuring that they respect and deserve to live on Russian soil. The industrial revolution and three-thousand odd miles stand between Baba Yaga and the pétroleuses; they belong to different worlds. Still, I see similarities between Baba Yaga’s defense of Russia’s forests and the incendiaries’ defense of their sprawling city.

babacover-full

Baba Yaga has an array of magical objects: her house on chicken legs, her mortar and pestle ship, her one leg made of bone. All of these give her power and bring the stories that she stars in to life on the page. But what interests me most is Baba Yaga’s associations with fire. Her house is sometimes located across a river of flame and is ringed by lanterns made of human skulls. Her stove is her greatest threat, a place where characters believe they will be incinerated, although it as often resurrects life. Like Fitz Fitcher, Baba Yaga has the power to take life, but like the youngest sister, she can also put it back together again. Baba Yaga can even resurrect herself: in fact, she sometimes dies at the end of a story, only to turn up in yet another tale.

Baba Yaga is neither fairy godmother nor evil sorceress. She is something more ambiguous. She teaches those who come to her door essential survival skills. She teaches them when to be honest or to lie, when to obey or demand, to steal or stay. Baba Yaga doles out punishment, but she also doles out tough love. Why, then, the bad reputation? Perhaps she is called evil to remind the young that she is opposed to the Christian order of things, that she cares not for polite society. That even if she helps the hero, she is a wild woman and not to be trusted. If Baba Yaga builds incendiary devices to give to little girls, and Baba Yaga is good, doesn’t that mean the social order is at least a little bad?


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

Image by Ben Passmore