Transformations with The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid in Denmark

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in Denmark

 

Having a blog has taught me some interesting things about myself. Some things I already knew and the blog just solidified the fact (i.e. I thrive on deadlines because without them my default is lazy). Some were funny (like how ridiculously happy it makes me when someone leaves a comment). How guarded I am was a big surprise.

I like meeting people in person. I strike up random conversations on mass transit, waiting for my daughter to be dismissed from school, in elevators, etc. I’ll answer questions, give advice and even share my phone number if I think we’re going to be friends (I know this is totally against what Winnie the Pooh taught me when he sang “Be too smart for strangers.”). I really like to share because invariably it leads to others sharing with you. I’m not a blabbermouth, but I’m rather open.

Not so with the internet. It took me two years to put my real name on the blog. I still don’t have a Facebook account because I’m uncomfortable having people randomly find me (I know what you’re thinking—but you have a blog!) and I do as much as I can to avoid signing up for anything that requires personal information. It’s something I continually struggle with—transformation is tricky. It’s like my relationship with the Little Mermaid.

I have a real problem with The Little Mermaid. The Disney version tells the story of a 16 year old who falls in love with a man she’s only seen once and proceeds to defy her father, give up her legs and voice to a sea witch, and then find a way to make the prince fall in love with her. Being Disney, she is able to persevere and win his love after which her father gives her legs and she and Prince Eric sail off into the sunset happy and married. Her age is my biggest qualm because as the mother of a headstrong daughter I shudder at how easily King Triton gave into Ariel’s hissy-fit. It’s the same reason I really dislike Romeo and Juliet (two teens throwing the ultimate hissy and make good on the threat “If I don’t get my way, I’ll just die!”). Despite writing YA I’m against hyperbole.

But the original story has her trading her tail for legs, which makes her the most graceful person on land but she must experience the pain of walking on dozens of knife points with every step. What did I learn? Real transformation is painful—a constant battle. Even after all that pain the tragic Little Mermaid opted to let her true love be happy with another instead of taking his life to regain her tail. I’ve never been a fan of martyrdom, but it makes a point.

Now, I’m almost ashamed to say, I finally read the original work by Hans Christian Andersen. (Imagine someone with a blog about fairy tales not having read a fairy tale!) In the real story she does lose the prince (and a chance at an immortal soul), but because of her selfless act she’s asked to join the “daughters of the air” who after three hundred years of good service earn an immortal soul. Being air she can bring breezes and “carry the scent of flowers through the air, bringing freshness and healing balm wherever we go.”

What all versions have in common is sacrifice. To get what you want, you may have to give something up. For me it’s anonymity. That’s probably why I started this blog by rewriting fairy tales…it gave me a place to hide.

After two years of blogging, I think I’m finally ready for my land legs even with the risk of stabbing knives (Does that count as hyperbole?). I still have issues with The Little Mermaid, but I understand what it’s like to know where you want to be and pursuing it.

Welcome to the new Fairytale Feminista blog, answering life’s questions one fairy tale at a time. See my new About Me page!

Will Multicultural become a new genre?

When I was an undergrad, I had a work-study in the school career center. My main role was internet research, a sweet gig for a sophomore which came with an office and unfettered access to a computer. One day I was called into a planning meeting for a networking event. What made it different from the other networking events was its focus on multiculturalism. The office hoped to attract multicultural alumni and connect them with multicultural students. It was an excellent idea until I pointed out what I thought was an obvious glitch. Multicultural included the GLBT community and would attending our networking reception as say a white male, automatically out that student as gay? Here I was, a 19 year old intern and I’d stumped the professionals. Then I asked, perhaps naively, why the event had to be labeled as multicultural since anyone answering to that label should feel free to come to all networking receptions?

I bring up this odd memory because I’ve been looking at literary agents “what I’m looking for” blurbs and noticed an odd trend. Some list within their interests “multicultural”. Is that a genre? I always assumed that when they listed categories like YA, sci-fi/fantasy, thriller, and such they weren’t specifically asking for white. For that matter, if they could, would an agent say they were interested in white lit? I think the backlash would be tremendous. I thought the publishing community was in the business of supporting those who create engaging stories with protagonists we can connect with and antagonists we love to hate. Does that have a color? A gender? An age?

I’m well aware of the current hue and cry being sent up to make literature more inclusive and I agree that it should. I just wonder if trying to get more diverse will create a sort of literary segregation where multicultural will become its own genre. I’m sure there are those who would applaud the shift, but I think it would miss the point. In an age when the world is getting smaller while at the same time we’re becoming more cosmopolitan shouldn’t we embrace the idea of multiculturalism as a foregone conclusion? Not doing so sounds as antiquated as referring to female medical professionals as “lady doctors”.

Then again, I remember going to a writer’s conference and having a pitch session with an agent who felt my YA fantasy wasn’t edgy enough because the protagonist was too optimistic and attached to her mother. She explained that YA audiences expected more angst and snark. I wanted to explain that snarkiness doesn’t fly in all homes, and particularly not in a Hispanic home, but I was too crushed to say anything after my protagonist was labeled middle grade. Would a separate category give my protagonist better opportunities?

I don’t know what the answer to this question–it’s becoming a trend. But my research into NA and my adventures in publishing (or pre-publishing I should say) has given me more perspective. I’ll take my cue from those NA writers who said the best way to change the market is to be a part of the market. Labels are a marketing tool, not a definition as to how I should write my stories.

In the end, the career center decided to have a networking reception open to all and attracted students from all walks of life, but they still opted to call it a multicultural event. I still think it was just an event.

At the Crossroads of Fairy Tale and Folklore

According to my outdated (read: paper copy!) Webster’s Dictionary the definition of fairy tale is a story about fairies, magic deeds, etc., while folklore is defined as the traditional beliefs, legends, etc. of a culture. So does that mean all fairy tales and folklore have in common is etc.? What’s etcetera anyway in this case? I like to think that the etc. in a fairy tale are the traditional beliefs and legends and the etc. in folklore are the fairies and magical deeds. Which means they’re the same, right? Well, now I suppose I have to address the 800-pound gorilla. That gorilla is called culture.

Does culture determine whether a story is a fairy tale or folklore? Does that imply that anything that doesn’t originate from Northern Europe (from where most popular fairy tales come) is folklore? Moreover does that imply that Northern Europe doesn’t have a culture? Neither should be the case. Fairy tales started out as folklore which became so popular that they transcended culture. That means that all folklore, despite culture, can grow to fairy tale status. All they need is a little push in the direction of popularity.

One of the barriers to wider appeal for many folk tales is language. Would we love Grimm’s Fairy Tales or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen so much if someone hadn’t decided to translate them? We should invite more cultures to the party. Right now the subject of diversity is really hot with writers, especially YA/MG writers of which I am one. It’s kind of a minefield of emotions, political correctness, and common sense that everyone has to wade through. As a parent, I want to make sure that my daughter sees herself reflected in the books she reads and the shows and movies she watches. As a writer, I want to insert my reality into my writing (even though I write mostly YA fantasy). But as a bona-fide member of the person of color club, not to mention being part of the largest minority–womankind–I feel as though I shouldn’t have to bang the drum too loudly because it’s worse than preaching to the choir. Instead of asking for change, I’m going to make change (I know there’s some funny cashier joke that I should make, but I can’t think of one–any suggestions?). For my own edification and hopefully for your enjoyment, I want to explore folklore that begs to be more popular, starting with my own.

 

 

What’s in an age appropriate label?

As some of you already know, I’m a writer. As to the titles of my works that can be found on a shelf or e-book, let’s just call me pre-published. I’m working on the third book in my series called Rhymes & Misdemeanors, a YA fantasy. But as my series progresses, following the adventures of a 17 year old girl on the brink of adulthood and magical chaos, it’s getting darker. The themes are becoming more mature as she matures, which is what you hope for in a character arc. However, it’s bringing up all these questions.

For one, can it still be called YA if the dark turns in my series include murder, betrayal, and sex? Yes, I said it. My book now has sex. And not illusions to sex, a whole chapter dedicated to my protagonist losing her virginity. The series didn’t start that way, but now I have to think about labels when trying to market a YA book with a less than YA element.

For another thing, why do I have to give my book an age label? As a parent, I know it’s important to let your child read age appropriate stories, but when I was 12 I read The Godfather! How much credibility do I have there?

So I went in search of the elusive label called New Adult or NA. I find it oddly poignant that NA also means not applicable because that’s how my series is starting to feel. It starts very YA and then becomes something more nebulous–adult yet pre-adult. That used to be Young Adult. Now we have New Adult, the 18-25ish set. It’s HBO’s Girls in book form for which I have little patience. But I didn’t want to dismiss it outright, so I started by looking at book covers. With precious few exceptions, NA books have an entwined couple with a slightly suggestive title hanging overhead, or it’s a woman-child with a determined look in her eye and a bare-chested man in the background and a single word title capturing the moment. This is not what I wanted. I have nothing against romance, or even erotica, but would I be lying to my readers if I slapped NA on the spine and they hoped to find YA’s sexier older sister? My book is about a girl who is trying to find her place in a world that says her desire to be more should be tempered by her sex and her station. Would NA audiences accept that as a viable topic?

Not wanting to be swayed by marketing tricks, I sought out the source of some of the less risqué titles of NA. I found a wonderful community of writers who think NA can be more than just a one-trick pony and prove it with their work. However, their optimism was tempered by the reality and some came out and said that NA audiences would feel tricked if romance wasn’t the main plot. But I’m heartened by a recent blog series written by one of those supportive authors, Jill Archer, whose blog is asking that very question. The authors she interviews also seem equally as optimistic and it gives me hope. (Read about it here, here, and here)

But my questions still stand. What do you do with a story of a young woman who is working her way to and through adulthood who actually manages to mature? Do you give her a new label or stick with the old one and hope her readers grow with her? The idealistic answer is “write your story and to hell with the labels”, but what’s the real answer? Maybe like my protagonist, it lies somewhere in between. I’ll make my own niche in both. In the meantime, I’m going to write my story and worry about marketing later.