Stone Telling Roundtable: Story and Identity
by Julia Rios
The authors in this issue use old tropes from mythology and folklore to examine contemporary problems, and many of the poems present the timeless plight of the outsider who must balance the pressure to assimilate with the need to retain hir own identity. Mike Allen, Erik Amundsen, Shira Lipkin, Koel Mukherjee, Delia Sherman, and JT Stewart joined me to discuss issues of identity and expectation.
Julia Rios: Delia, your poem looks at three familiar fairy tale fathers. Though the financial and social circumstances of each protagonist are different, the unconscious selfishness of privilege weaves throughout the segments. Each man feels his own circumstances are harder than anyone else's, and the first two hint that they have no choice but to act in ways which harm their loved ones. In all of these stories, the wives are usually portrayed as evil, but the fathers certainly don't seem to be blameless. How do you feel about the stepmothers? And how do differences in class and wealth and gender privilege affect the fairy tale family?
Delia Sherman: In most of the Western European fairy tales I have read (and I’ve read a good few), neither mothers nor fathers come off very well. Sure, there are kind (and colorless) Good Kings and Queens and Widows and Woodcutters. They send their children out into the world to seek their fortunes, well-supplied with horses and baskets of food and advice, and then they disappear, having served their narrative purpose. Since they aren’t very interesting, they are not missed. The baddies, on the other hand--the lustful or greedy fathers, the jealous stepmothers and mothers-in-law, the evil wizards and witches--provide the young heroes and heroines of the tale with obstacles to overcome. They have huge desires and bottomless evil. They move the story forward. They take up more dramatic space than the good characters.
That said, there is no question but that there are more evil stepmothers and wicked witches in fairy-tale land than murderous fathers and evil wizards. The default for fairy-tale fathers, insofar as they are mentioned, seems to be a kind of willful cluelessness. What did the husbands of the women who so amply provide their sweet-faced, patient stepdaughters (or daughters) with opportunities to display their womanly virtues think was going on? Take Cinderella’s father. What was he so busy with that he failed to notice his daughter scrubbing floors and doing hair? I can understand the grim mathematics of poverty, famine, and mouths to feed that underlies “Hansel and Gretel.” But what about Snow White’s father? Was he so preoccupied with matters of state that he never noticed that his daughter had disappeared?
Did these men never take any responsibility for their families?
The answer, of course, is that these are folk-tales, not short stories. They are not concerned with psychological verisimilitude, but with reinforcing the social mores of the culture they grew out of. In fairy tales, woman of all classes exist as autonomous, active agents only they’ve found their true love and married. In fairy tales, good wives—queen, peasant, or merchant’s wife--are either silent and invisible or dead. Evil women, on the other hand, have opinions, desires, ambitions (if only to have enough to eat), agendas of their own.
But that’s another poem.
JR: Shira, you examine societally imposed gender constructs through the experience of a changeling child. Your poem begins with, "I have studied so hard / to pass as one of you." Your narrator then goes on to express hir feeling that sie does not know what a human girl is, and that beauty seems to be all about pain and restraint. Despite hir best efforts to conform, sie laments, "I can tell, I can, / that everyone knows I don't belong here." How do our society's current notions of proper gender expression damage us? And why, despite that, do so many of us try to play the changeling's passing game?
Shira Lipkin: I think one of the awful things about "proper gender expression" is that, by necessity, it posits *improper* gender expression - and in our society, improper behavior calls for censure, for punishment. Conformity is so highly valued, especially for kids, and a lot of that poem calls on childhood experience; I'm genderqueer, and I had an extremely feminizing childhood, so I always had a sense of not being a native speaker of that language. And yet when I had a daughter, I unthinkingly began to subject her to that, because it's the script I was handed. I think we don't realize sometimes how serious that conditioning really is, how deep it goes - I had the intellectual knowledge that gender conformity is creepy and intrinsically limiting, and yet I took my daughter to her first modeling gig at 18 months, because that's what you do with baby girls. She hated it, and that led me to sit back and ask myself why I'd even done it. I think that was the start of me really seriously evaluating gender expression and the way we reinforce it - stuff like that and getting berated in the mall because my daughter's ears weren't pierced, so how could anyone tell she was a girl? My daughter was less than two, too young to consent to bodily modification or, in fact, to tell me what her gender was. Why is it so important for me to code my child as a particular gender so strangers in the mall will know how to interact with her? So they could tell her she's pretty instead of telling her she's strong?
So the limitations of Proper Gender Expression can be very destructive, for people of all genders. I was actually playing the song "When I Was a Boy" by Dar Williams for one of my partners recently, and one verse is a conversation between a woman and a man about how they have both lost so much due to society's rigid gender expectations. I mean, to be totally reductionist, what are we doing when we're saying that women can't be strong and that men can't cry? We're creating incomplete humans, cutting away parts of people until we're left with something that can mostly fit into a narrow space we have coded "male" or "female".
And why do we play the passing game anyway? I think it's only fairly recently that the idea that we don't *have* to play that game has started to peek out into the mainstream. I didn't have a name for my gender identity until fairly recently! It's huge to me that I'm able to have that conversation now, that we've made that conceptual leap from "sometimes I'm a guy, and I can't really explain that to you" to "I'm genderqueer - here are some places you can read up on that, and then we can talk about what it means to me personally." But also, in addition to possibly not having the awareness that you don't have to play the game, there are significant social benefits to playing the game and drawbacks to not playing the game. Again, there is that censure that comes with "improper" gender expression. So people have to evaluate whether being themselves with that social disapproval and, in some cases, physical risks, is more important to them than conforming even though it crushes their spirit. And that's a very individual choice, and can vary day to day.
JR: Koel, you also examine prescribed gender roles in your reflection on the story of Sita. Traditionally, Sita is considered a paragon of womanly virtues because she sacrifices everything for her husband, but you end with a description of Sita as, "A girl who chooses demons and earth / And being burned like a book, over / Being his wife." What led you to explore her story from this perspective?
Koel Mukherjee: The particular perspective that Sita ended up with in the poem is the end result of something I’ve been grappling with for a long time. My first exposure to the Ramayana that I can remember, and the one that's stuck with me, was an abridged comic book version for kids, that boiled the ending of her story down to being forced to walk through fire to prove her purity for her husband Rama, and then being swallowed by the earth (her actual mother) out of shame, final relief from “a life that was often painful and arduous” – accompanied by lavish illustrations. It was brutal; the only agency she had was in welcoming death, having fulfilled her duty to sacrifice as much as she could. This isn’t everyone’s version of the Ramayana (and not the well-known one), and may just be specific to my own cultural region (Bengal), but it has haunted me since, no matter how many other versions I’ve read. As a small girl reading that, I remember feeling physically sick that my brand new comic posited this as the ideal female life. So this poem has been a long time in the brewing, and when the brewing started I simply wanted to punish Rama as much as possible, and make Sita as mighty and powerful as I could. But as I thought about the Ramayana, about (again, possibly not the ‘canon’ version) Rama’s life as a perfect human, jumping into the river with his brothers at the end of his perfect human life, his duty fulfilled, I thought about how *inhuman* it all was, how unrelentingly focused on denial and sacrifice. It became far more interesting to consider Rama and Sita as human beings who were married. Not human incarnations of gods with a sacred destiny to fulfill, not the embodiment of virtue, but just people with their own issues, their own dreams, their own foibles, stuck in a marriage wanting different things, and trying to find their own fulfillment. That is what lead to Sita considering her marriage to Rama in the poem, imagining how things might be, if she tried, pondering what she’d have to give up for that, weighing that against the things she wants for herself – all against the backdrop of a future in which that marriage, that imperfect, difficult, ultimately unsuccessful marriage is held up as a model for the world. I really like the idea that these were just two people, utterly human, that we have done the disservice of turning into gods.
JR: Have you seen or experienced pressure in modern times for women to be like the traditional portrayal of Sita?
KM: This is a complicated one! Obviously this is just my personal experience / observations of things in the part of India my family is from - firstly, it seems that today, educated Indian/Bengali women from wealthier backgrounds tend to have many more options than they did to choose the course of their own life. And for modern young women starting out in life, the idea of sacrificing everything as a duty, of adhering to the ideal of the perfect, virtuous wife, tends to be an archaic one.
However there are certainly currents of this that linger on (in my experience, among my parents’ and grandparents’ generation particularly) – the cultural ideal of the virtuous woman who sacrifices everything and serves everyone before herself still exists to a certain extent (often contrasted subtly in modern Indian media with the selfish ‘modern’ woman dressed in western clothes who neglects her family to go partying all night – kind of like how Sita’s virtuosity is contrasted with the depravity of the demon-women in the Ramayana).
Let me put this back into a longer-term cultural context for a moment. As seen in the Ramayana, the idea of restraint, denial and serving others is ubiquitous in Hindu myth in general, and from what I’ve seen, is particularly powerful in Bengal – the idea of performing austerities and service, of denying yourself food, comfort, pleasure, of serving others to the detriment of your own needs to prove your worth, to show your spiritual purity to god is an enduring one. And as I was growing up I often saw that idea crystallized and centred on the behaviour of women – for example, it being a commonly-praised ideal that the mother of the household serves everybody food, and waits on the table until everyone is satisfied before she finally eats her own meal, or hearing people talk about virtuous women rising before everyone at 3am to perform spiritual duties for the welfare of the household and then seeing to everyone’s needs as they awake – before finally seeing to her own later on (these often contrasted with women who made choices and lived lifestyles the speaker / community at large deemed transgressive or selfish). These might seem like petty household things, but they’re all part of a sort of enduring cultural model of the wife, the mother, the woman who finds the greatest spiritual and personal fulfillment in serving others, in constantly putting others’ needs before her own, and in denying herself when necessary. (Interestingly, despite its ancient heritage, it’s particularly cognizant with the Victorian “angel in the house” ideal. As Virginia Woolfe put it, “She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it ... Above all, she was pure.” – that is it exactly. And considering the way the general role of Indian women was culturally reconstituted by Indian nationalists in the colonial period to be both justified by Indian myth AND in line with ‘enlightened’ Victorian values, this is absolutely not a coincidence). These ideas still endure in the Bengali cultural imagination to a certain extent, at least from my experience of being exposed to them as I was growing up, and from noticing subtle echoes of them in modern Indian media, as I mentioned earlier.
Obviously somebody making their own choice to serve others and sacrifice their needs is nothing to sneer at, and on some intuitive emotional level this idea of serving others until you have nothing left to give is very compelling in a kind of pure-love-for-the-sake-of-love kind of way, but of course only if you actively choose it, and not when it's foisted on an entire gender and portrayed as an ideal or a duty.
I know this is an enormous answer, but I will just say one more thing about this. Despite what I’ve written above, I’ve also heard my female relatives casually express disgust at what they see as Rama’s horrendous treatment of his wife, of the myth’s horrendous treatment of her in general – despite these women believing very deeply in these myths and gods, and despite those myths portraying Rama as the perfect man and husband. And what I get from that is, despite the enduring power of these restricting cultural tropes and ideals, they aren’t always accepted as dogma within the culture they arose from, they’re argued and grappled with, reconsidered, even rejected, both by those who reject the myths as spiritual truth AND by those who look to them for spiritual guidance. Which is what I guess we’re all doing in this issue too J (Grappling and stuff, not looking for spiritual guidance necessarily!).
JR: Speaking of grappling, and going back to the idea of passing... JT, you use the mirror imagery of Snow White to interrogate modern pressures on women of African descent. Your narrator says of her heritage, "and that isn't just something. / You hear me. / It is some thing." The woman she encounters, however, believes life would be easier if she could pass for white. Your narrator refers to James Baldwin and the idea of the Price of the Ticket. Would you say a little more about that idea, and about why your narrator wouldn't want to pay it even though her society does still press people to be "the fairest of them all"?
JT Stewart: Before I respond to my two questions (incorporated later in this response), I want to put a question to my fellow roundtable members.
Q. Have you ever 'passed' yourself off as something / or someone you're not; if so what were the consequences...
Take 2: What if that 'target group' believed you were genuine - claimed you as the real McCoy despite your counter claims - and raised arguments (sometimes heated) about your true identity. How did you respond...
Inevitably - either situation could evolve into a number of modes: comic, confrontational, tragic, something else. The setting for "Mirror Woman" - ironically a restroom in a public library - brings together two Black women (one light skinned, the other dark) who deal w/ the issues of 'passing' by talking to each other through their reflections in a large mirror.
In the poem I use - as an epigraph - part of the question Snow White's evil stepmother puts to her talking mirror by asking. 'Who is the fairest of them all?' This imagery interrogates the pressures put on women of African descent (and modern women in general). If the narrator in the poem had her way (not part of the story) - she'd foreground African American poet Lucille Clifton's poem, "What The Mirror Said" (listen / you a wonder / you a city / of a woman / you got a geography / of your own...).
The narrator in my poem - in refusing to 'pass' as White - cites James Baldwin's collected essays The Price of the Ticket. From his work she has gotten insights about how our country has made a Faustian deal - 'the price' - since its colonial days by declaring itself America (i.e., White) through its de jure and de facto actions. Baldwin - who describes himself as Black / ugly/ gay and a 'native son of America' - makes a distinction between White and white and reflects strong Christian beliefs in addition to the influence of Gandhi.
I want readers to discover their own mirrors - perhaps even invent them...
DS: At various times in my life, I have lied about being married and about being engaged. All of these lies (as I think about them now), have been to make myself feel safe and/or to keep from hurting someone. Right out of college, traveling alone in Europe, I bought a dime-store plain band and invented an incredibly useful husband for myself, who allowed me to ride in buses and eat dinner alone without attracting the wrong kind of attention. That lie was never found out. And really, it was more for me than for the people I lied to.
The engagement was a more profound and troublesome lie. It was invented for my mother in her last illness, so she wouldn't worry about what would become of me, unmarried and with nobody to protect me at 22. She was Southern, it was the 60's. It made sense at the time. I suspect she knew it was an invention, that I was actually married (or something very like it) to my female "housemate," but she listened to my stories about this guy in graduate school and said she was happy for me. Pretending I was straight was just part of the larger lie we'd been telling each other all my life: that I was a real lady, just like her.
Did I pass? I did. I still can, when I want to. Mostly, I don't want to. It makes me feel, yes, like a mirror woman: someone who looks like me but isn't me. A doppleganger. An automaton. A fraud. But when I'm around a certain kind of person, the mirror woman sometimes appears.
Wow. What a question. But that's part of what poetry is, right? A way to talk about these things slant, as Emily Dickinson said, to tell a personal truth in a way that resonates with other people's very different experiences.
JTS: Thank you Delia for taking us into your confidence by showing us variations of 'passing'. That it's not innately an evil or narcissistic choice - and that the love of others might factor in. That Emily Dickinson might weigh in on the discussion - how super. And that you as a perceptive thinker / writer might have entered into the realm of fiction w/ the power to summon your own 'mirror woman' ...
JR: For the curious, you may read that Lucille Clifton poem here.
On the subject of mirror women, Mike, you've gone to a rather dark place with your take on Alice in Wonderland. Your protagonist does gain power at the end, but the cost of wielding that power is potentially very steep. You tell us that "Alice never held a weapon," and then follow that with your protagonist gripping a hammer and preparing to smash something, which may be a baby, or a beast. If Alice in Wonderland uses fantasy to discuss the difficulties we face in navigating etiquette, was your intention here to employ horror in order to examine the difficulties we face in untangling ethical questions? What led you down this particular path, and how do you feel about your protagonist's choice?
Mike Allen: My poem was composed much the same way Jackson Pollock created drip-paintings. Two friends of mine, wonderful writers themselves, Claire (C.S.E.) Cooney and Patty Templeton, lobbed some prompts my way, that included a disturbing song with the refrain "I am the White Rabbit" and an artist whose work combined Giger-esque biomechanical psychosexual stuff with cutesy anime creatures, including one that involved a rabbit mask of sorts imposed over black machinery. Rather than generating several poems, my brain gradually recombined and reprocessed it all into "Surviving Wonderland." It's hard for me to tell you precisely what something that trickled from my subconscious intended to explore.
But after three stanzas setting an eerie scene, I did decide I wanted the poem to skew in a different direction. And so, "Alice never held a weapon." But my second-person narrator has one. What I imagine is in danger of being smashed is the mirror itself, though whatever things are freed when that happens might well be next in line if they don't get the narrator first. To the degree I'd assign any meaning to these creatures, I'd say I think of them more as personal demons than societal -- that's a theme that runs through a lot of my writing, the personal demon as ultimate ally and nemesis. But personal and societal demons aren't mutually exclusive, so make of them what you will.
I think the closest approximation I can give to what I was thinking at that turn in the poem works like this: there's so many things you can read into the Alice adventures. Let's take the notion that Alice was the revolutionary, the interloper who recognized how ridiculous Wonderland's arbitrary rules were and upended them, and inject that into this poem with its stream of dark Wonderland riffs and see where that goes.
JR: You say personal demons and societal demons aren't mutually exclusive. I wonder if you might elaborate on that?
MA: Problems endemic to society can affect people in deeply personal ways, plant seeds of fear, destroy confidence. You need look no further than the teen suicides brought about by bullying to see that in action.
JR: Erik, your poem is another one that's bound up in indentity. The subject is written with the blood of all sorts of creatures, but you end with, "you are not the message that you were meant to send, / or wholly owned, but just the lend." How much do you feel our blood--that is to say, both our genetic makeup and our cultural influences--defines us? To what extent are we messengers, and how much responsibility do we have to to ourselves in carrying or refuting the messages we might be meant to send?
Erik Amundsen: "The Lend" came out of family turmoil, which unearthed a number of family stories I had never known, deep, hidden things, nasty wounds, that sort of thing. The sort of thing you can see echoed in actions taken by those who suffered, those who knew and by myself and those of my generation, in ignorance. I wondered how many things play themselves out in our lives in secret, erased, their only reckoning gone off in the ground with the people who were there.
It's very hard to break a pattern with no understanding of what the pattern is and where it came from. In a biological sense, I suppose that extends to genetics; in the case of my family, it very much is, for instance. In a broader sense, I guess it extends to culture, but, at the time, I was thinking about family. Granted, you can look at family as where the Venn diagram circles of culture and genetics overlap.
Identity is composed, I think, in equal parts, what you remember, what you forget and what you never knew, but the fact that a person under that rubric is 2/3 unknown to themselves doesn't change the need to live as ourselves and make the best we can of our lives. And there is the question of how to view the things you know, good or bad that came before you, whether to sentimentalize, resent, erase; what to accept and what to reject. Responsibility doesn't change, in fact, I guess it heightens, because the notion that one could be the family secret that makes someone yet unborn miserable and stands in their way in life, that's terrifying.
KM: Erik, I found this part of your answer in particular, really interesting and moving:
And there is the question of how to view the things you know, good or bad that came before you, whether to sentimentalize, resent, erase; what to accept and what to reject.
Absolutely; and I think this applies to the human experience at various levels - dealing with the immediate, personal genetic and non-genetic heritage you receive from your family, which you talked about, but also dealing with the wider cultural mores, morals, ideals and behavioural tropes you inherit from your immediate society (Shira, such as your discussion of dealing with the Markers for Proper Expression of the Gender Binary handed down by society, and how to reinterpret or reject that in your own parenting), dealing with the stories, the myths, the literature, the art that you are handed down by your cultural forbears, dealing with the recent and distant history of the political community you find yourself in... it applies to lots of things!
I was very conscious of a lot of those when I was writing about Sita - I was grappling with myths that I kind of felt I'd been handed down by my genetic and cultural ancestors, along with a whole range of morals and tropes those myths had shaped, and on a personal level, with the interpretations and value judgements about those myths and life in general which I was given by my immediate family as I was growing up. Plus, as I was writing an angry interpretation of an Indian myth in English, with a perspective shaped by growing up in England for much of the time, I was also questioning how to view the problematic colonial encounter which made all that possible (which many of my ancestors benefited from quite a bit.) "whether to sentimentalize, resent, erase; what to accept and what to reject.". Aargh, absolutely!
JR: You bring up some great points, Koel. One of the interesting things about stories is that (as Mike notes about Alice) we can read so many things into them. A final question for everyone: What do you think is at the core of these things that makes them endure for centuries? And in what ways do they both shift and remain constant as our cultural dialogues change?
DS: Well, they deal with the eternal human problems, don't they? Getting enough to eat, feeling safe, finding a mate, surviving the whims of the rich and powerful--sadly, none of these themes have gone out of style. It is interesting, however, to note that (in the First World, anyway) most of the "Things I'd do to keep from starving" tales are never read anymore, and that the only tales pop culture seems to be interested in are the romance-based, prince-and-princess ones. I think it's time and more than time that movies got made of tales like "The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy" (Drag king becomes transman, saves the kingdom, and marries the princess) and "Kate Crackernuts" (girl rescues sister from the fairies) and "Blonde Carrie and Black Carrie" (stepsisters against the world) and "The Black Bull of Norroway" and its variants (girl rescues hapless love--ok, there was one, but it wasn't all that good).
I also think it's time we all loved and respected each other and that there should be a chicken in every pot.
JR: I agree with your last sentiment wholeheartedly, Delia. Except possibly we could have vegetarian options for those of us who don't eat chickens? *g*
Thank you all for sharing such interesting and often very personal insights with us.