Make Believe as Metaphor

This post was originally published on June 1, 2011. It’s being re-shared as part of LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught flak–and a great deal of attention–for running a disaster-preparedness campaign for the Zombie Apocalypse. If you are ready for Zombies, the CDC suggests, you are ready for anything. Tips for an ordinary disaster-preparedness kit follow. The CDC understands that zombies aren’t a real threat. What appears to be make believe is really metaphor. In this equation Zombies = life-altering disaster.

Writer, illustrator and storyteller Vonnie Winslow Crist understands the relationship between make believe and metaphor. Crist, who recently published a book of fairy tales, poems and sketches, The Greener Forest, has a featured essay, “Fairies, Magic and Monsters,” in LPR’s Make Believe issue, scheduled to launch June 18. The essay looks at current and classic fantasy books and movies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Crist traces their popularity back to somber messages safely sent through stories shared by the cooking fire.

Many have complained that the Harry Potter series grew progressively dark with each book. Considering that Rowling explored a subculture living in a state of dictator-enforced paranoia, the darkness makes sense. Lord Voldemort’s tactics are as familiar as the front page, which daily tells us about the cruelties of depots clinging to power. In her essay, Crist points out, “This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make believe places, races, characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the controversial issues of our world.”

Crist is a master of metaphor. In The Greener Forest, her modern fairy tales stand out. These stories use traditional fairy tale tropes, artfully layered with modern concerns. In “Shoreside,” a vacation at the beach forces a wife and mother to reconsider the family life she has chosen. Hiromi watches her husband and children swim in the ocean but avoids the water herself. She is a ningyo (a mermaid of Japanese folklore) and fears that the pull of the water and the adventurous life it represents will break her family ties. When a child nearly drowns in the ocean, Hiromi must test those ties.

“Tootsie’s Swamp Tours & Amusement Park” is set, with an oddball sense of just-the-right detail, at a rundown Southern destination beset by Spriggans. As Jess walks through the park with her uncle and husband, she realizes only she can see the ugly fairy creatures threatening her. Jess, who has recently lost a pregnancy, comes to believe the Spriggans caused her miscarriage. Her depression lifts as she takes control of her situation.

A handful of original fairy tales set in “once upon a time” showcase Crist’s love of the genre. “Blood of the Swan” is a particularly beautiful quest story about a young man who must slay the swan maiden he loves in order to save his village.

The stories in The Greener Forest can be dark. Even tales with a love theme at their center, such as “The Return of Gunnar Kettilson,” would never be optioned by Disney for a feature film. Gunnar Kettilson is, after all, a zombie. Unlike modern zombies, though, Gunnar has a thirst for revenge, not brains, and he still has enough heart left to protect the woman he loves. As Crist says in her LPR essay, “Fairies, magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.”

Vonnie Winslow Crist writes Harford’s Heart magazine’s “Writer’s Block” column, does illustrations for the Vegetarian Journal, co-edits The Gunpowder Review, contributes to Faerie Magazine and publishes the blog Whimsical Words. She has taught creative writing at Harford Community College and for the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education Program and regularly leads a writing workshop at Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Balticon

Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, Macabre Magazine (England), First Word Bulletin (Spain) and Great Writers Great Stories: Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Loch Raven Review, Champagne Shivers and EMG-Zine. She is author-illustrator of Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales (children’s book), Essential Fables (poetry) and River of Stars (poetry) and co-editor of Lower Than the Angels: Science Fact, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Through a Glass Darkly: An Anthology of Mystery, Gothic Horror & Dark Fantasy.

She has received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and placed first in the 2007 Maryland National League of American Pen Women poetry contest.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this publication, please check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe

A Cool, Dark Make Believe World Under Our Grandmothers’ Tables

This post was originally published on June 11, 2013.

Susan Thorrnton Hobby

Susan Thornton Hobby

Under my great-grandma Coley’s ornate dining room table, I made the first make believe world that I can remember.

The table’s four thick legs splayed out from a center pole and ended in wooden lions’ paws clutching wooden balls. Whenever it rained or it was too hot in the Shenandoah Mountains to play outside her tiny house, I would retreat from the murmur of adult conversation into the dim, dusty world under the lace tablecloth. The swirling Persian rug–cut into the thick, rosy quarters of a pie by the table legs–became a house, with one separate room for my Breyer horses, one for the wooden chess pieces she let me play with, one for the ragged Barbies my brother tortured and another for the Kens. The dolls never cohabitated in my chaste make believe world.

I was practicing, I suppose, play acting out a life that I might make come true one day, with rooms and animals and children and gardens. Make believe allows the players to try things out, to escape from the mundane or the horrible, to build a vision. And not just children engage in make believe. Adults indulge. And writers do it every day.

The new issue of the Little Patuxent Review carries through it the theme of make believe in ways both strange and wonderful. The Wright Brothers drink Manhattans in a bar and marvel at modern life (that’s Bruce Sager’s poem, also his tongue-in-cheek critic’s take on that poem). A man adopts a Houdini of an octopus when he’s not quite ready for human companionship (that’s Ann Philips’ microfiction). A dead mouse’s odor slips between a couple and elicits a tiny, poisonous deception (that’s Jenny Keith’s sly story). And a child, unsure of the meaning of “adultery,” decides it means playing an adult and confesses her many sins to a nonplussed priest (that’s Ann Bracken’s sweet, funny poem).

All those writers and more will read their work at the launch event for the Little Patuxent Review’s summer issue, our tenth issue, on Saturday, June 18, 2 to 4 PM, held in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Readers will also include Derrick Weston Brown, Erin Christian, Caryn Coyle, Barbara Westwood Diehl, David Evans, Susan Thornton Hobby (that’s me), Danuta Kosk-Kosicka, Laurie Kovens, Karen Sagstetter and Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, plus Tara Hart, reading a poem about pretending, forgetting and remembering. Tara will also reprise her poem “Patronized,” which first appeared in last summer’s Spirituality issue and recently was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize.

It’s hot outside, but it’s cool and dark here under our great-grandmother’s tables, playing make believe. Come join us.

NOTE: If you like’d this republished work, check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe

Concerning Craft: Sally Rosen Kindred

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Sally Rosen Kindred. Sally’s first full-length poetry book No Eden was published last year. Her poems have appeared in Quarterly West, Hunger Mountain and Verse Daily. She has received poetry fellowships from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

Here’s Sally at our recent launch event. Her reading includes the poem “Tiger Lily Speaks” that was published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.

And here’s what she shared about writing that poem:

This poem began with my reading a storybook version of Peter Pan to my five-year-old son. He liked it and asked to go to the library to get the book. I held it up. “No, I mean the real one,” he said. My son knew that Disney does not have the last word. That if a story was intriguing, there was a good chance there was a “real” one out there that was even better. So we went to the library and checked out the Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie (1910). And on our couch in the spring of 2011, I started to read.

My son had wanted more, and he got it. Only there was still so much that was missing. These girls: their desires, the sides of them that they would never show Peter. Their voices, especially Tiger Lily’s.

Tiger Lily was one of the “Redskins,” the indigenous people of Neverland. Both my sons are Latino—the older one was also in the room—and I could feel their questions. “Redskins”—like football? Like a sunburn? We talked (not for the first time) about the color of skin, the history of prejudice, race as a cultural construct. My youngest held his arm to the window. “That’s dumb,” he said. “My skin’s not red.” We talked about what we loved about Neverland, and also about ways we could not trust the book.

That was it, really: we loved so much in Peter Pan, but we could not trust the book. I started writing persona poems for Tinker Bell and Wendy Darling. I was putting off writing the Tiger Lily poem, and I knew why: it was impossible.

Reading about Tink and Wendy, I wanted them to have a chance to say the things that they couldn’t say in the story: things that they couldn’t say aloud or didn’t know yet. I followed them into their memories of the before, their suffering in the after. Wendy Darling’s womanhood, Tinker Bell’s death. Reading about Tiger Lily, I just wanted her to speak. The book says that she is “the most beautiful of dusky Dianas.” She is a type, and she is the only named member of her people, and she only says one thing, and in an insultingly broken English, not the language she commands.

I wanted her to speak, but I did not want to be the one to speak for her—as Barrie had, as the story had. It seemed like adding insult to injury for a white woman to claim her voice. It seemed wrong, but more wrong to leave her silent. So I wrote it.

It had to be different from the Tink and Wendy poems. I had to take her out of the book and put her into 2012. She had to expose the book as a book; otherwise, there was no way for her not to remain inscribed, written by it. I wanted her to get out of there and speak to and in our time. About linguistics, cigarettes and quarters. She needed our currency if she had any hope of getting our attention.

I had to choose sounds to convey her desire, her wit and bitterness. Internal rhyme seemed appropriate; the clean order of end rhyme did not suit her speech, which was above all a disruptive act. I hoped the anaphora “I want” would help make her poem an act of claiming, demanding what the story hasn’t given her. I found myself working in monosyllabic phrases (“I’ve shut your book” and “arch my left brow”) for a bluntness and urgency and using assonance for anger (“a beer in the cheap seats”).

Writing the poem taught me about risk, identity and language. It also taught me about my own limitations, though that happens with almost every poem. I’m still sure I’m not the best person to write Tiger Lily’s story, but I’m glad I tried. I think there’s room for someone to write a much more complete, emotionally convincing narrative from her perspective, and I hope that happens. I’ll be the first to get it from the library. My family loves Neverland, and we still want more.

Note: We thank Eva Quintos Tennant for recording and editing the video of Sally’s reading. To view other video clips from that event, click on the links in the table of contents for our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. For more on poets and writers giving voice to the voiceless, see my “On Being Invisible” series on this site.

Fairy Tales, Full Circle

Crane's Grim Title Page

The title page of an English translation, structured around a Victorian dollhouse

The association of children and fairy stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playroom, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.

–JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 1938

By 1950, when I was a six-year-old Latvian war refugee living in Michigan, fairy tales had not only become unwanted furniture relegated to the playroom but also entities from which all the rusty nails had been removed and the rough edges filed down for the children’s safety.

Neither my parents nor Omama ever read me “Cinderella” as written by the Brothers Grimm. No girls sliced off their toes and heels to fit into gold–not glass–slippers. No pigeons cried out:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

My Cinderella came courtesy of Walt Disney, and she sweetly sang:

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re sound asleep.
In dreams you loose your heartaches.
Whatever you wish for, you keep…

My parents pushed this version of the story. In addition to taking me to see the movie, they bought me a magnificent pop-up picture book where, at the turn of a page, ragged rodents became gilded footmen. The devastation of World War II, no doubt, was fresh in their minds, and they were grateful for a little American make-believe.

It took me decades to finally face the horror of my history. When I did, I again turned to fairy tales, only not the Disney kind. The first draft of my novel, Anna Noon, begins with the narrator telling the adult Anna:

I am certain my fictions are as accurate as yours, which look to me like a fairy tale where an innocent child comes close to being chopped up, cooked and served to a large number of guests, many of whom have accepted the invitation to dine for no better reason than not being otherwise engaged.

In doing so, I joined other writers who have, since Tolkein’s 1938 statement, found ways to bring fairy tales back to the adults of “the modern lettered world.” In anticipation of the Little Patuxent Review’s upcoming Make Believe issue, here is a list of their better-known works, with links to Google Books text where available:

Note: Bernheimer is the editor of the Fairy Tale Review, which she founded in 2005.