The Monash Fairy Tale Salon
13th June, Glen Eira Storytelling Festival
Celebrating 150th Anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Glen Eira Town Hall, Hawthorn Road, Caulfield, Melbourne
The Australian Fairy Tale Society annual conference
Sunday 21st June 2015, Winter Solstice
“Transformations: spinning straw into green and gold”
NSW Writers Centre,
Garry Owen House, Callan Park, Balmain Road, Rozelle, Sydney
Garry Owen House, Callan Park, Balmain Road, Rozelle, Sydney
author & one of Australia’s leading fairy tale academics
singer, writer, faerie storyteller
L: We met at Monash University through The Monash Fairy Tale Salon.
How or why did this group form? What are the salon’s origins, in fairy tale history?
R: When I started working at Monash, I looked at introducing reading groups as a way to bring together academics, postdocs, postgraduates and Honours students. I wanted to build a sense of community – a way for people to support each other at each stage of the academic journey. The Sidhe Literary Collective was the first group and we ran a few symposiums including ‘Vamps, Vampires and Va-va-voom’ and ‘Tights and Tiaras.’ This was a way to have fun with popular culture and to reach out to the community, while still examining the issues through a scholarly lens. I really wanted to create a group focused on fairy tale, though, so I discussed this with my then student, Belinda Calderone, and she kindly agreed to take the lead. We were both, by that point, really interested in the fairy tales of the ancient regime period and so we liked the idea of creating a ‘salon’ atmosphere. It’s a little difficult when most of our meetings take place in the Menzies Building, which isn’t very baroque at all! But it’s the spirit of the thing! We’ve also been so excited that the salon is open to the public and other storytellers and artists, like yourself. We do like a nice ivory tower (from which to hang our braids!), but we’d far rather welcome people into our tower than to shut them out. Everyone has given so much to our understanding of fairy tale and helped us to evolve as lovers of fairy tale. It wouldn’t be possible to do the things we do now without the support of fairy tale lovers within and without the tower!
L: As a founding member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society, and panel chair at the launch of the Griffith Review’s volume Once Upon a Time in Oz, you are engaging with public life in a meaningful way. Who are some of your own contemporary mentors?
R: I wish I had more time to focus on public speaking, because I think there’s an active, interesting debate out there about the role of fairy tale in our society and it tends to occur in a vacuum of knowledge about the longer traditions of fairy tale. That’s where people like yourself and myself can help! We should know our fairy tale history! I’ve never met Marina Warner, but the moment I read From the Beast to the Blonde, I knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps. The way she is able to communicate her love for storytelling through scholarship inspires me and even today, she’s writing about the real problems facing the future of academic institutions and continues to make me think deeply about the systems within which I operate. My PhD supervisor, Peter Fitzpatrick, is also a huge influence. He’s such a warm, enthusiastic scholar, writer, and director. He taught me how to be honest and open when teaching and how to confidently handle criticism. And it has to be said, my Mum has always encouraged me and she’s lead such an amazing life helping others. She mentors me every single day.
L: Your blog’s title, Doc in Boots, heralds a love of costume. Your presentation about bonnets at a 2013 Monash Fairy Tale Salon symposium in the university’s Rare Books collection, saw you sporting a Mother Goose cap. What is your theatrical background, e.g. in London’s music halls? How does this segue with fairy tales?
R: Oh, I will never live down that cap! It was fun to play with the actual fashion, though. I was – and still am – a bit of a musical theatre geek. I wasn’t a performer, myself, but I loved that world and I got involved with the scene. My Masters and PhD theses are both based in musical theatre and, of course, Disney grew out of musicals. I basically came into the fairy tale fold through Disney! I had the most fun and I’ll still defend Disney against its most scathing critics. Disney is far from perfect, but it does get a lot right, too. I always advise people to just watch Lilo & Stitch, which is a loose variation of “The Ugly Duckling.” I think I have a very visual interest in fairy tales, too, which is partly informed by my theatrical and film interests, so I find the fashion, in particular, fascinating.
L: You question why fairy tales carry less description of men’s attire than that of female characters. You’ve also noted that a man can wear the same suit and shoes for a year, or at least duplicates. On the upside, women enjoy more diversity of fashion; on the downside, more scrutiny. Waiting in a doctor’s reception, if I reach for a well-thumbed popular magazine, I encounter a barrage of photos with bitchy captions about celebrity fashion bloopers. Objects of attack are nearly always female. Any insights on this phenomenon?
R: I think this has a long history. Regardless of what we might like to think, what we wear does ‘speak.’ I don’t think people have to be interested in what they wear, but clothes will always give away something about the personality, status, wealth, and aspirations of the wearer. I used to worry about those bitchy captions, but after flicking through just a few commentaries on, for example, Oscar gowns, it’s amazing how one critic will love a dress and another will hate it. Each critic is caught up in their own web of social and cultural values and so will think about fashion in a different way. In fairy tales, clothing is a tool, even a gift. A glass slipper can make all the difference. Particularly when women had little access to patriarchal power structures, they would manipulate public discourse through fashion. I find that fascinating.
L: How have fairy depictions evolved in post-colonial Australian illustration?
R: Our early fairy tales coincided with the Edwardian fairy movement, so our fairies looked a lot like, for instance, the Cottingley fairies, only they would be talking to koalas or riding kookaburras. There was a real consciousness of Australia’s difference from ‘the Mother Country,’ yet a yearning to reconcile that difference. Illustrators like May Gibbs started to play with a more Australian vision, born from flora and fauna, but it was still a White vision. I think our fairy depictions are slowly growing more diverse and certainly more strange. I particularly love the illustrations of Shaun Tan. They aren’t ‘pure’ fairy tales, but there is something of the fairy about them!
L: Your expertise includes children’s literature. Would it be fair to say that you are also an avid reader of YA (young adult) fiction, particularly fantasy? How about science fiction, magic-realism, comic books, gothic or murder mysteries?
R: It’s odd – I really didn’t read a lot of children’s literature as a child. Although Anne of Green Gables was a huge influence, it’s true. I have been reading a lot of YA literature, though I’m a little behind at the moment, since I haven’t even finished The Hunger Games! I read a lot of different fiction. Recently I’ve been dabbling in early twentieth century women’s writing – if you get a chance, Stella Benson’s Living Alone is a quirky, amazing gem. I’ve also been re-reading Terry Pratchett, because I’m sad about his death and he’s one of the most amazing storytellers I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.
L: Why does the literati distinguish between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”? It saves the most lucrative awards, critical media commentary and prestige for the former. Surely fantasy, with its rich metaphors and inventiveness, is more adept at enduring the test of time? Some trendy prize-winners (I suggest) pretend to be true to life, yet really just pump out platitudes, patriotism, pop-psychology or hackneyed cluster phrases, reflecting back the accepted wisdom of our era. I find this quite deceptive. How about you?
R: Completely deceptive! I think part of the problem, too, is that we devalue humour. Joss Whedon once said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” So often, ‘serious’ literary fiction is grim, grim, grim. Life has humour. The wisest, most amazing things have been said with humour. The most serious issues have been made plain with humour, too. The other issue I have with a lot of ‘literary fiction’ is that it often isn’t… fun. I always worry when people read a book without really enjoying it. That’s surely the point of storytelling? To entertain? It’s a deeply unfashionable thing to say, perhaps, but I believe it’s important. You can say vital, difficult, unpleasant things and still be entertaining.
L: Over the past century or so, the visual art world debunked hierarchies of painting, wherein landscape had been regarded as an inferior subject to portraiture. We also saw proliferation and democratization of music genres. Could the 21st century signal liberation of literature from categorical shackles? As someone trained in casting analysis across modes, how do you think the literary world can learn from its sister arts?
R: I think it’s starting to learn, but there’s many barriers to pull down. The genre areas of literature are far happier to engage, I think, but we’re getting there! It’s learning to be less defensive of one’s discipline boundaries. I’ve been cheekily trying to get Greenberg’s graphic novel of Hamlet taught beside Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I think Shakespeare would have been all for that, the old thief!
L: Some disciplines are magnets of buzz words such as “sustainability” or “public good”. Our institutions still use managerial jargon, despite the Global Economic Crash that discredited its gurus. Since education swung away from the Humanities, depression has risen. It reminds me of an old Sufi tale where a dervish is looking for his key in the street “because the light is stronger out here”, knowing full well he lost it indoors. Many people seem adverse to seeking wisdom in places where it is most likely to be found. In which subjects would you like to see more funding, and why?
R: I think we just need more reasonable funding models and better communication of those models. I still talk to people who think it’s ludicrous to give a grant of a million to a philosophy project till I explain what that million pays for – that it pays for teaching relief and scholarships and conferences and such – that it isn’t just a lump sum given to the academic, but a sum of money that makes it possible to extend and communicate knowledge. We also need to stop thinking of universities solely as training grounds for employment. I really don’t know what job you’ll get with a major in Literary Studies and that’s the wonderful thing about it – you can do anything! And I think the value of study to our lives beyond work, beyond job prospects, is sorely overlooked. I’m not naïve – there is absolutely an urgency for people to be employed and that should be on our minds when we design degrees. But even the best business degree is no guarantee of employment and often the degrees that offer more flexibility pay off in the end.
L: We attended Kate Forsyth’s session Respinning the Magic at the Victorian Writers Centre in November 2014. How do you see Australia’s fairy tale heirs faring in the global literary fray? In addition to being a celebrated fairy tale researcher, you are a writer. What currently enthrals you?
R: I’m currently enthralled by age! I love writing about, and researching about, older characters. There’s so little room in our storytelling for the adventures of older characters – why should the young have all the fun? I think Australia’s fairy tale heirs are doing really well. It’s a vibrant market and I love seeing the successes of Kate Forsyth, Danielle Wood and others and I really love introducing them to my students. Nothing makes me happier than when I spot a student with an Australian novel or short story! If I just had more reading time myself!
Rebecca-Anne’s original story entitled “The Death of Glinda, the Good Witch”, was published in the magazine Aurealis, volume #77 and illustrated by Matt Bissett-Johnson.
Review by Louisa John-Krol:
Glinda charms us with her refusal to join water aerobics, earning herself the distinction of being a “witch” rather one of the “biddies” or “bats”. Perhaps it’s not so much the swimming itself she’s rejected, but the hoopla surrounding it, from ear-plugs to gyrations in swimwear. I like the fact that she’s kept her hair long (in contrast to the convention of clipping locks as if conceding loss of power). Glinda piles her hair atop her head, with one rebellious magenta strand, heralding adventurousness.
Depictions of the physical effects of old age are affectionate, with neither pity nor parsimony, as in this description of Em: “She was all tendons and nubbly joints, all of which she carefully folded up into a wicker chair near the mail boxes.” With gentle humour, Rebecca-Anne contrasts the body’s inevitable organic fermentation and creaking, with the more ethereal nature of memory, tenderness, puckish humour and persistence of magic.
Use of metaphor is appealing, as in the suggestion that some humans are like peas from bean pods, “hard little seeds placed into tidy envelopes marked with the month, year and variety”, a fate against which Glinda has rebelled throughout her life. Yet that hasn't stopped her encounters with death from stacking up. She's lost a lot of loved ones.
Alliteration pops up effectively in such phrases as the “shamble of shame” - the humiliation of shuffling across a room in front of onlookers, from an empty mailbox to one’s quarters.
A strong writer can make something as simple as orange juice poignant, in this case through an unnaturally bright hue, a long cry from the juice of golden orbs that Glinda had once grown. Her light floral scent hints at that lost oasis. Or perhaps its continuance?
Mr Straw’s remark that the outside world is “all going to weed” (or “pot”, as Glinda corrects him) rings true of a mentality that I’ve often encountered among the elderly, as well as middle-aged peers: that life could not possibly be so great for the young. Enter doom-porn. Easy to become addicted to the notion that we had it better than anyone. The ego doesn’t mind letting go of life’s reins, if it thinks the next rider isn’t going anywhere interesting - better still, racing to disaster! It’s like muttering, “Any party I’m missing will be a doozy.”
Em overthrows this gloomy egotism when she remarks later, “Things are going to keep growing after we’re toes up, Glinda the Good. There’s a reason they say we’re pushin’ up daisies after we’re gone.” It is no coincidence, then, that both daisies and poppies feature abundantly among the flowers of this tale. They are dancers between life and death: double-dealing flowers, concerned as much with shrivelling into seeds as they are with spreading them.
There’s a lovely interplay of the “locks” motif, from coiling hair (once red-gold, like that of fairy tale heroines such as Rapunzel or Little Red Riding Hood), to padlocks, signifying the binding or protection of secret knowledge: “Don’t need a fancy book covered in locks to keep out the curious” says Em, speaking of the Great Book of Records, which seems to be a kind of modern Grimoire or Book of Shadows, with instructions on spells, amulets, talismans, divination and so forth. For me it also hints at the Akashic Records; the concept of a timeless compendium in which our histories, poetry, music and other musings are recorded and stored, beyond mortality. For Glinda’s fellow residents, such a book might seem to fall behind the internet, losing some of its mystery or clout. Yet there is an air of hopefulness in the penultimate paragraph; of inspiration blown onward toward fresh germination, through Glinda’s final dream and memory of her mother: “She liked to grow poppies, casting seeds to the winds as she sang.” They echo the dead, dried poppies in the opening paragraph, “heads ready to burst with seed”, thus forming bookends for the story, like sentry-witches.
No other flower evokes, so clearly as a poppy, the meadows of The Wizard of Oz, to which we find other allusions in this tale including erstwhile Dorothy, the Tin Man (Old Nick), Mr Straw, pig-tails, a clicking of heels, a Kansas storm, a rainbow (even if on cloth over a chair), checkered aprons, lace, golden ringlets (not unlike a lion mane) and, of course, Oz.
Something ancient lurks beneath all this. Mr Tok might be Father Time; The Tin Man / Old Nick could represent Death, Change, Alchemy, Transformation; while Miss Cuttenclip - cutting out figures from wrapping paper - embodies a Spinner, one of the Fates or Norns, who snips the thread of life.
In many respects this story is an extended metaphor in which a home for the aged is a seed-pod, a vase, or garden of drying flowers. Whilst physical capacity for breeding is long gone, the elderly may still bear seeds that potentially nourish life. Some carry a culture’s memories and dreams.
So we need a new verb. Glindering.
So we need a new verb. Glindering.
To read "The Death of Glinda, the Good Witch":
Australian Fantasy & Science Fiction
Edited by Michael Pryor
Published by Chimaera Publications at Smashwords
Copyright of this compilation Chimaera Publications 2015
Copyright on each story remains with the contributor.
EPUB version ISBN 978-1-922031-33-4
ISSN 2200-307X (electronic)
Hard copy back issues of Aurealis can be obtained from the Aurealis website.