The materiality of Fine Art is often called into question in this present day and age.
‘Why should we take this banana on the wall seriously’, ‘this painter only does abstraction because they can’t REALLY paint’ or even, ‘why would you create something that has no function?’.
But to be honest, art has long ago ceased to just be about craftsmanship and is now about the ability to move or even transcend one’s audience.
As I lay there, half awake, I rummaged around my bed a little and found my new favourite red pen and Byzantine decorated notebook and went to work.
This was another one of those dreams that I was going to interpret and turn into an artwork.
My dreams are masterpieces of personal agony, academic research, popular news and culture, psychology, colour theory, mythos, and allegory.
The day that I can truly recreate my dreams to my expectation, is the day that I would have officially become a ‘Master’ of sorts. So it may never happen, because mastery to me seems extremely boring. Experimentation is far more interesting. That said, I’m a bit obsessive so…
I get to work on understanding my dream and how others could relate in the installation that I am planning.
1) The Personal: Blue + Red = Purple
In my dream my mother was besides herself about how ‘different’ I was to the rest of the family. I’m on the spectrum (and loud about it), I’m bisexual, I’m not conventional, I practice the traditional Yoruba religion of Ifá and not Christianity (she and all her siblings + parents are literally pastors) I’m somewhat passably attractive and yet not dating or even very social and my British accent gets stronger and ‘posher’ every time I see her, I am also extremely sex and body positive. Also, I am WAY too nice in comparison to her other kids, almost constantly being in servitude of others – this was also VERY weird to her.
So in my dream, when the whole family wore traditional blue attire and I wore purple, my Mum needed an answer and a friend and ‘elder’ came to her and said that I am borne from a similar cloth as her and the rest of the family, but that the red inside of me could not be denied or ignored. That it was part of who I am, and it was something that strengthens me.
2) The Mythological: Yemọja + Ṣàngó = Something Unheard Of
In Yorùbá mythology Yemọja is the mother of all Òrìṣà (Yorùbá Gods & Goddesses), as she suddenly birthed them all from a large body of water after undergoing distress. Ṣàngó is an offspring of Yemọja, but is the embodiment of lighting + thunder and Yemọja is the embodiment of water – a fairly chaotic mix when they come together. And this was apparently the reflection of my own internal self.
3) The Research: Environmental Instability
An aspect of my dream that reflected not only mythology but existential dread about the environment, was the submergence of the man-made Lagos Island into a tumultuous and ravishing flood. And I was being asked to enter it.
Now a significant part of Yorùbá mythos is Òrìṣà becoming overwhelmed with emotion and turning into a body of water as a result – this is what was happening in my dream.
In my dream the violence experienced by the land and the violence experienced by the bodies of women and girls in Nigeria was creating a reaction within nature. And the waters had decided to begin to swallow up humanity.
It is true, that in reality the floods in Nigeria have become so problematic that they are killing whole families, with one rush of water.
Similarly, one of the main health issues that W.African women of this particular region experience is water retention, creating high-blood pressure in otherwise healthy people, particularly women.
I guess my mind saw a connection with this.
The body retaining water - the land becoming overwhelmed with water
All because of trauma.
But I wonder about inspecting the waters, finding out what causes this instability. But I am just an artist, not a scientist. I can only critique and bring attention to – and so I try to.
4) Personal Agony: It’s just being different generally
So I’ve always been different. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a way that makes a lot of people around me frustrated. Or uncomfortable.
I’ve been popular (by accident) and I’ve always shied away from it, but this often means loneliness in order to have piece of mind.
From having fairly painful invisible disabilities to dressing completely out of place in most environments, to simply refusing to conform in order to be my most honest self.
I’ll admit that the level of vulnerability I feel calls for a constant protection, but also a level of confidence and self-esteem that I do not like to compromise on.
Which is where the solitary aspect of my individuality comes into play.
Someone else wanted my space for this exhibition, and if it was by popularity rather than a first-come-first-serve basis, it wouldn’t have happened.
And this was in my dream.
Solitary Gold, who was not popular, but who made everything look great because I refuse to fall into the pitfalls of self-pity and insecurity.
Is it shallow to always try and create beauty? Well to be very honest I don’t care, because the beauty of fashion and garment construction has always been a form of expression, and also the aspect of me that is the most heavily critiqued.
And so with all of this I create “Diasporan Wilderness”.
An intense over analysis of self, how the world interacts with myself and of the world I reside in general.
As I wade through the intense emotion needed to survive life, I wonder what would have happened if I kept dreaming and journeyed into the flood.
Does my ‘difference’ mean I’ll survive, or does it just mean I’ll experience it differently?
Through this exhibition I wanted to immerse the audience into strong feeling, via the sound of a story, through murals painted on Yorùbá adire fabric (the traditional fabric of the Yorùbá people of West Africa) , by installing instruments of worship collected at Osun’s sacred grove in Nigeria and through my use of cowrie shells scattered on the ground and adorning the bodice of the one singular garment. A garment that represents the individual borne of 2 very different worlds.
And individual that wishes to survive and tell their tale of life.
I’m not too sure how the audience felt, walking through the antiquated quad of St. John’s and entering my own personal wilderness.
There is no one way to feel.
I just hope that they felt.
This piece was first published in St Edmund Hall's Magazine 2021-2022
When I was young, I loved fairy tales. I still own the copies of The Chronicles of Narnia my grandmother gave me before her passing. I could immerse myself in the stories for hours, but like every child, I eventually put down fairy tales and moved on. Last year, I saw a copy of Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space on a library shelf at university and wondered how disability and fairy tales intersected. I decided to re-read some of the stories, using the knowledge from my disability studies course and my lived experiences as a physically disabled adult.
I read a few and came to a realisation. Princesses don’t use walking frames because (if they were anything like me) they would constantly roll over their floor-length dresses and trip; Red Riding Hood wouldn’t have made it far in the forest with her wheels constantly getting filled with mud and leaves. Cinderella wouldn’t have got away as the clock struck midnight because she would be searching for a ramp, or trying to get down the staircase and need a rest break every few steps, never mind walking in glass-heeled slippers. I am the creature that handsome princes fight, I lurk and plot and scheme, or at least that is what fairy tales want children to believe.
As a child, people my age would run away from me screaming because I have cerebral palsy and walk with a walking frame. I have a scissoring gait and awkward hands; I can be difficult to understand if I’m feeling incredibly upset or angry. It was easy for them to make me into something different, to run away screaming, “it’s going to get us!” and leave me alone, wondering why. As an adult, I have had parents tell their children not to get close to me in sharp tones, and children hide behind their parents at the sight of me. In the most extreme cases, I have had people cross themselves or refuse to touch something that I have touched. These experiences are entrenched in societal and cultural prejudices, but where do children, new and learning about this world, gain these notions?
Literature provides a lens for children to understand the world we inhabit, it is their first interaction with the terms “good” and “evil”, the “normal” and “abnormal”, the initial introduction to what is considered “right” and “wrong”. Fairy tales provide “morals on how to be a proper citizen in society” (Seider, 2020). In her review of Leduc’s book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, Kuitenbrouwer (2022) states plainly, “In some way, it is story that gives us world at all” but the worlds of fairy tales are steeped in stereotypes and societal prejudice beneath their mystique. Beyond the knights in shining armour or the fanciful princesses and mystical creatures, there is a message. Disabled people are evil, disabled people are abnormal, disabled people are wrong, and disability is a punishment.
The good characters are always perfect. Princesses are beautiful beyond compare; princes are handsome and charming. Their legs don’t bend inwards like mine, they do not have limp wrists that twist their hands in awkward ways. Their mouths do not have difficulty forming words, or problems with drooling. Their hearts don’t beat too fast when standing or cause them to feel faint or dizzy. Without the love of the perfect ones, the disabled person cannot be transformed into being as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. As a child, I wondered if I needed to be defined by the love of others to be seen as something other than Other. Doctors had tried to transform me into someone almost “normal”. They taught me to walk because they thought it made me “more human”. I had to learn to twist my hands in “normal ways” and force myself to learn how to hold cutlery and write and type in ways that caused me pain because I needed to be something “other” than myself. My transformation was not complete, it could never be complete because I did not need to be transformed to have worth.
Disability as a punishment is a recurring theme. The prince becomes the Beast because of his poor behaviour, and the evil stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella have their eyes pecked out by the pigeons who helped Cinderella, blinding them. Aslan wounds Avaris’ back to remind her of her wrongdoing and can remove speech from any Talking Beast in Narnia. What does that teach children? If someone is disabled, what have they done to deserve it? If that person exhibits what society considers “good behaviour”, they’ll be cured of their disabilities. If you are not good or on your best behaviour, you will end up disabled and be forever marked as “bad”, “wrong”, or “evil”?
In fairy tales, disability can be “cured” with acts of kindness or immense love. The prince in the original Sleeping Beauty tale was “cured” of his blindness when the tears of the beautiful princess fell on his face and he was suddenly able to take up his former mantle and self after years of wandering a forest eating berries in despair. The disabled person would be “transformed” to escape their disability; the Beast turns back into a handsome prince, the Little Mermaid ends her life and her consciousness floats away in the hopes of gaining an immortal soul, and the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan, Hans the half-hedgehog, half-human becomes wholly human after he falls in love with a princess, the woman who has her hands cut off by the devil in “The Woman Without Hands” wanders the world surviving on pity and the charity of others and is cured of her disability as a “reward of faith” when she marries a king. Hodkinson and Park (2017) reflect on the theory of Harnett (2000), “This transformation of the disabled character, it is argued, shapes children to believe that disability is unrealistic and also that disabled people can be magically healed or cured.” Further, their research found that “the disabled character was either killed, missing or transformed into a ‘normal’ person within the majority of the books employing this form of ending”. This ending refers to the immortal words ‘happily ever after’, present in four of the five books Hodkinson and Park analysed to research normalcy and the perfect physical appearance.
How many disabled children feel that they can have a “happily ever after” reading about what happens to those society considers “abnormal” and “ugly”? Leduc’s book argues that fairy tales condition disabled children to look at themselves as “other”. How did those children feel when I was a child, seeing me, the “other”, a figure from a fairy tale brought to life and walking among them? How did that early lens of morality interfere with their understanding of me as a person?
Fairy tales tell me people like me will never have a happy ending. There will be no handsome prince or beautiful princess to love me and magically “cure” me, not that I needed transforming or curing in the first place. One cannot reduce the internalised negative messages towards disability to literature alone, but let’s change our outlook and make fairy tales with young disabled people as the heroes of their own stories, not through magical transformations or immense “healing” love, but through their character development and growth. We are representing ourselves in books, films and television now more than ever, and I hope that we will continue to expand in the media to truly show accurate portrayals of lived experiences of disability, so that every disabled child can have a character they can relate to and admire, so they will never feel how the disabled people before them felt.
Disabled people might not get a happy ending in the old stories, but we are writing our own stories, our endings, on and off the page.
Our stories are defined by us.
Hodkinson, A. and Park, J., 2017. ’Telling Tales’: An Investigation into the Representation of Disability in Classic Children’s Fairy Tales. Educational Futures, 8(2), pp.48-68.
Kuitenbrouwer, K., (n.d). Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Reviews Amanda Leduc's Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. Available at: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/kathryn-kuitenbrouwer-reviews-amanda-leducs-disfigured-on-fairy-tales-disability-and-making-space. [Accessed on: 17th January 2023].
Leduc, A., 2020. Disfigured: On fairy tales, disability, and making space. Coach House Books.
Seider, A., (2020). EXPOSING A MISINFORMED AND DISABLED FAIRYTALE. THE SOSLAND JOURNAL 2020, p.73.
About the author:
Melanie Kennedy-Diver holds a master’s degree in Disability Studies from Liverpool Hope University and a BA (Hons) degree in Politics, Philosophy and Society from the University of Central Lancashire. She has an interest in literature and disability representations.
Thank you to Sarah for reminding me about the importance of ending this essay with optimism and to another close friend for reminding me about the necessity of maintaining hope. To you I say, thank you for everything.
In The Heart Of Hidden Things by Kit Whitfield (Quercus Publishing) is a novel steeped in fairy lore. It centres around a family of fairy smiths, whose job it is to protect the humans from the fairy folk with advice and iron. In this novel, the humans are weak and the fairies are strong. But among the humans, there are hierarchies, too. The cruel and bitter landlord, Ephraim Brady, has it in for Tobias Ware, a boy who does not understand the laws and language of men. Together, John and his fairy-smith father, Mathew, must try to calm the wroth of the fairy folk to keep Tobias safe.
I read and am reviewing this book for its representation of neurodiversity. The story draws heavily on Kit Whitfield’s own experiences of being part of a neurodiverse family. Although within the novel itself, there is no explicit mention of neurodiversity in these exact terms, Whitfield’s intentions are made clear in an appendix that lists resources about neurodiversity in order to point readers in the direction of support should they need it.
In In The Heart Of Hidden Things, both John and Tobias’ neurodivergence is thought to have magical origins. John is thought to have been ‘touched’ by the fairy folk and Tobias’ behaviours are put down to the ‘bad luck that he’d been born one dark autumn night after his mother took fright at the sight of Black Hal [a spectral dog] running past their gate’.
Fairy superstition has historically been used to explain physical disabilities in newborn babies, and also disabilities that became apparent in individuals later in life. Often, it was thought a child may either have been demonically or divinely ‘touched’. Sometimes, such infants were thought to be changelings, and in other instances they were believed to be lucky in that they supposedly brought all of God’s wrath upon themselves, thus sparing the rest of the village. Today, the phrase ‘touched in the head’ is still used in a derogatory way to imply foolishness or insanity.
In In The Heart Of Hidden Things, to be ‘touched’ comes with some social stigma, in that it is something most people are trying to avoid. However, Whitfield’s use of the term ‘touched’ perhaps goes partway to reclaiming it. For one thing, those ‘touched’ are not idealised or demonised. Moreover, to be ‘touched’ holds a wide range of meanings beyond making one physically or intellectually disabled. For example, aside from John and Tobias, John’s mother is also ‘touched’, but for her this means that any needle work she does turns into forest foliage!
Although the novel features numerous central characters, for a lot of the narrative we follow John, a boy who according to the blurb, ‘turned out a little uncommon… but he means well.’ Despite this initial introduction to John feeling a little patronising, and perhaps more in-keeping with the modern understanding of ‘touched’ than I’d have liked, John is immediately a likeable and engaging character. He clearly means well, even when his difficulty grasping the implied meanings of vague, or idiomatic, language gets him into trouble with his grandfather in the first chapter of the book. These moments are generally handled extremely well, as we are led to easily identify with the logic of John’s interpretation of the words, rather than encouraged to find his misunderstanding funny.
For the most part, the villagers adapt themselves to John and Tobias, rather than wanting them to change. Those around Tobias understand that his perception of the law is not the same as their own, and they make accommodations for this. It is clear that his family love him and care for him, saying, ‘We all have our ways and Toby has his’. Meanwhile, John’s father, Mathew, is methodical and clear in his communication with his son as he continues to train John to be a fairy-smith and entrusts him with more and more responsibility. This is something John takes very seriously.
While on a grassroots level, the villagers are accepting and accommodating, the laws themselves do not account for any difference of perception, so Tobias’ safety from the fairy folk and from Ephraim Brady is an immediate concern for numerous characters. Yet, some of the animalistic traits Tobias demonstrates are problematic. For example, he eats raw meat, enjoys being petted, and is at times kept penned in or caged. Reading this with the knowledge that this book was depicting neurodiversity meant I found these descriptions uncomfortable, particularly when objects of Tobias’ fear were used as a tool to keep him fenced in.
In terms of disability representation, the fact that the curing or eradication of any disability is not the focus of this book is always positive (and a relief!) to read. John is a nuanced character who makes and rights his mistakes, Tobias, though with problematic elements I have already discussed, is a non-speaking boy who is allowed to be himself, and this is complicated and limited only when those around him are trying to keep him safe from danger and harm – and harm that is socially inflicted by a law that doesn’t account for Tobias’ way of living.
Overall, the novel has a collection of central characters at its heart, which in itself speaks to the community fostered in the pages of this book. Power struggles, violence, mistakes and responsibility are threaded throughout the story. John is a strong, nuanced protagonist whose sound heart gives this book its warmth, even when things start to go wrong. Whitfield’s world building is detailed, the magic of this story is enticing and I found plenty to enjoy in this book.
Reviewed by Beth O'Brien.
Thank you to Quercus Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
About the author:
Beth O’Brien is a writer, editor and reviewer. She is the author of Light Perception (Wild Pressed Books, 2019), I Left the Room Burning (Wild Pressed Books, 2021), The Earth is a Bookcase (Black Pear Press, 2021), Catching Sight (Blanket Sea Press, 2021) and I Chase Lightning (Black Pear Press, 2022). She is a children’s fiction ghost-writer, and also writes graded reader books for children learning English as a foreign or additional language. Having been born visually impaired and with an upper limb difference, Beth has a long-standing interest in the representation of disability in literature. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing funded by Midlands4Cities, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tale retellings.
Disability is common within European folktale canon. Charles Perrault’s literary tale, “Ricky the Tuft,” features a deformed protagonist (Betts, 2009). Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” becomes mute and suffers chronic pain (Hersholt, 1949). The Brothers Grimm added disability to stories in which none were present (Schmiesing, 2014). Disability is also a component of lesser-known tales. Consider “Conall Cra Bhuidhe” (Campbell, 1890). The story is Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 953, “The Robber and His Sons” (Uther, 2004) and recounts a man’s efforts to save his sons from execution, initially by stealing a foreign king’s horse, then by telling the monarch thrilling anecdotes. The text notably avoids common and problematic tropes regarding disability.
Three stereotypes are specifically absent. Firstly, the sexless and unpartnered disabled person (Kingsbury, 2022). Not only does Conall have four biological children and a wife, the latter admits she would rather lose their sons than lose him. Secondly, the disabled character being a villain (Leduc, 2020). While the story does feature a blind, cannibalistic giant as an antagonist, any association between disability and evil is negated by the fact that Conall is missing a finger, making him disabled too. Thirdly, disabilities are cured as part of happy endings (Maaren, 2019). Conall lost a digit at some point during early adulthood and remains disabled by the narrative’s end. It’s even implied that he doesn’t wear a prosthetic or do anything to hide his condition.
Despite these positives, the narrative contains problematic tropes. It uses disability as a form of punishment (Kingsbury, 2022). This applies to Conall and the giant. The former is forced to sever his finger because he boasted to his enemy, then wore a magic ring his enemy gave him. The latter is blinded for trying to kill and eat the protagonist. At least the context provides justification; people are likelier to suffer permanent injury during battle than when attending their abused stepsister’s wedding, as occurs in the Grimm’s tale “Ashputtle” (Manheim, 1983). Additionally, disability is treated as superficial (Kingsbury, 2022). This is most evident with Conall, both in the main narrative and the third embedded one. Despite his missing finger, he’s never shown to struggle with fine motor activities like climbing or tying knots.
This unusually nuanced quality may relate to the informant. According to Campbell’s notes, the tale was recited by James Wilson, a blind fiddler from Islay, whose blindness influenced his telling. Assuming this information is accurate, “Conall Cra Bhuidhe” is a milestone in the history of disability representation because it’s the story of a disabled protagonist by a disabled narrator.
“Conall Cra Bhuidhe” has a lot to offer in terms of disability studies and general entertainment. People concerned with the former receive a glimpse into the treatment of disabled people in nineteenth-century Scotland and get to experience a disabled character as the protagonist. As for the latter, people will find a story that appeals to our desire to protect the ones we love. Few other narratives are so multifaceted.
Betts, Christopher. (2009). The complete fairy tales. Oxford University Press.
Kingsbury, Margaret. (2022, Feb 21). 9 ableist tropes in fiction I could do without. Book Riot. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20220221122918/https://bookriot.com/ableist-tropes-in-fiction/
Campbell, John. F. (1890). Popular tales of the west highlands. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas.
Hersholt, Jean. (1949). The complete andersen. New York: The Limited Editions Club. Retrieved from https://andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheLittleMermaid_e.html
Leduc, Amanda. (2020). Disfigured: On fairy tales, disability, and making space. Toronto: Coach House Books.
Maaren, Kari. (2019). The blind prince reimagined: Disability in fairy tales. Uncanny Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.uncannymagazine.com/article/the-blind-prince-reimagined-disability-in-fairy-tales/
Manheim, Ralph. (1983). Grimms’ tales for young and old: The complete stories. Anchor Books.
Schmiesing, Ann. (2014). Disability, deformity, disease in the grimms’ fairy tales. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Uther, Hans-Jorg. (2004). The types of international folktales. A classification and bibliography. Based on the system of antti aarne and stith thompson. Part I. Animal tales, tales of magic, religious tales, and realistic tales, with an introduction. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.
About the author:
You can follow Diego Morales on twitter: @DiegoLMoralesR1.
She is the one people see. The one they think they know. But it is only the bones of her. Without me, she is incomplete. I am the night to her day, the weakness to her strength. The wax to her bone.
In May 2020, I had a short story published by Reflex Press called “Wax Sister, Bone Sister”. It is based on the Zimbabwean folktale “Sister of Bones” (which I first read in Alexander McCall Smith’s 2004 collection The Girl Who Married a Lion) with motifs from three more Sub-Saharan folktales: “Children of Wax” (Zimbabwe, Ibid.) , “The Wife Who Could Not Work” (Zimbabwe, Ibud.) and “Of the Fat Woman Who Melted Away” (Nigeria, African Myths Ed. Jake Jackson, 2019).
“Sister of Bones” tells of a weak sister and a strong sister. When the strong sister dies, the weak sister must take on the departed sister’s chores. The work becomes too much for her. She sings to the river in which her sister drowned, and the crocodiles take pity and put the dead sister’s bones back together. This Bone Sister helps the weak sister carry water, but must remain by the river. So, there are two sisters at the end of the tale: the strong one at the river and the weak one in the village.
I developed fibromyalgia in 2016, following a chest infection. At first, when it was undiagnosed, the pain was so bad and the drugs so strong that I was bed-bound. Later, I became able to resume a more “normal” life. But as anyone with the same or a similar condition will know, levels of pain and fatigue can fluctuate wildly from day to day. Sometimes I can go for a five-mile walk or redecorate my hall. Sometimes I can’t even get a bra on.
Hence, the motif of the weak and the strong sister. Usually when people look at someone with fibromyalgia or similar conditions, they see only one version of us. We either get overpowering pity that we don’t need, or the cringe-inducing comments, “You don’t look ill,” “You’re looking well” (usually when you haven’t slept properly for three nights), or “Yes, I’ve been quite tired, too.” Most of our friends only see us on our good days, because that’s when we’re able to get out. They don’t see us on those mornings when we’re silently willing the cat to walk over us, just to stimulate any kind of movement in our muscles. They don’t see how, in order to be productive, we must be efficient in the short space of time we have before we collapse on the bed again.
What I like about “Sister of Bones” (and its cousin stories listed above) is that it does see us. Both the weak sister and the strong.
I come from a line of strong women. I was never one of them, even before I developed fibromyalgia. “The Wife Who Could Not Work” and “Of the Fat Woman Who Melted Away” both depict a woman who is ostracised by the other women in her community because she must sit in the shade all day and not work. They call her lazy. They shame her into working, with disastrous results.
I’m not saying my family treats me like that. (Far from it). But those of us with chronic illness or disability can feel that kind of pressure, either from society or from our own thoughts. We can feel guilty about the little we are able to do on our “bad days”. Perhaps we had to give up a job and we now feel guilty about not contributing to the household budget. Perhaps we encounter shaming from others for being on benefits, especially when our disability is not visible to the general public. These two stories recognise that there are perfectly legitimate reasons why some people cannot work. The village learns a lesson. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.
The Fat Woman Who Melted is made of oil. The Children of Wax similarly melt if they go into the sun, and must hide away. I find this wax motif very powerful, especially where my fibromyalgia intersects with my depression/anxiety and my asexuality. (I retold “Children of Wax” in my 2020 collection Asexual Myths & Tales). It helps me articulate something about “invisible” disabilities and an “invisible” orientation. That’s why I made it part of “Wax Sister, Bone Sister”.
I am the sister no one sees. The silent sister, the indoor sister, who oozes down the stairwell, who quivers in pools on the kitchen floor. The one who – come morning – must be scraped from the slats of the bed. Flaking. Falling.
It is inevitable in all these stories that the sisters, wives and children must come out of the shadow and into the sunlight. People must see them melt.
It is the same with us. People need to see our “invisible” health conditions, with all their contradictions.
The Wax Sister and the Bone Sister.
Read "Wax Sister, Bone Sister" by Elizabeth Hopkinson.
About the author:
Elizabeth Hopkinson is the author of the Asexual Fairy Tales series. She was featured in the BBC’s We Are Bradford project, and was on Stonewall's first ace/aro panel.
Her short stories have appeared in The Forgotten & the Fantastical and Dancing with Mr Darcy, along with many other anthologies and magazines. Her story “A Short History of the Dream Library” won the James White Award.
Elizabeth has appeared at Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. She lives in Bradford with her husband, daughter and cat.
Elizabeth is a romantic asexual and is committed to asexual representation in fiction. She is currently crowdfunding More Asexual Fairy Tales.
In Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, emphasis is placed upon how she lost her beautiful singing voice in return for legs which makes walking feel as though “a swords were passing through” her, all for a life so very different from her own.
Hans Christian Andersen unwittingly tells the story of my relapse into Multiple Sclerosis and Bulbar Palsy. Having speech robbed, understanding of the written word swim before your eyes like being under water, and yes, every step of learning to walk again is like walking on knife point. Multiple Sclerosis is a progressive disease where your own immunity attacks your nerves. Something I didn’t know I had until suddenly my able body of 28 years collapsed, and I found myself in this state of The Little Mermaid, with a life I hardly recognised.
Han’s mermaid asks, “but if you take away my voice what is left of me?” It is a question I find myself asking every day. As a poet, a performer, a workshop facilitator, my identity is in voice. I struggled to come to terms with who I would become without it. Although my speech has returned, it is impeded, I have found that I demand more time and patience from who is talking. Whilst before I was quite anxious about making myself heard, it’s as though I had to lose my ability to speak to gain enough confidence to talk to people. I demand space and I don’t tolerate interruption, no matter how well-meaning they are. I had a lot of internalised ableism about “sounding stupid” to work through, partly because of preconceived ideas of perfectionism within myself. That question “what is left of me?” is answered by my writing, my ability to live life every day despite my illness, my love of animals and family. I had to stop counting things I couldn’t do and start being grateful for things I can. There is a bloody lot left of me actually, even if I never fully get my speech back. What has emerged had been stubbornness, determinedness, and an unwillingness to quit. A week ago I couldn’t write, now I am writing an essay an using my voice. Those who know me will tell you this comes as little surprise.
Andersen’s mermaid looked at her prince “sorrowfully with her deep blue eyes but could not speak” and is pitiful, described as a “foundling” or a “child.” What I find so compelling about Andersen’s mermaid is how she is infantilised, agreeing to dance on feet that are “bloodied” because she wanted to impress her prince. Rather than being someone who deserved pity, I bared my teeth and I climbed those stairs, I told my physio “again” when I reached the end of the corridor. The way that disabled people are treated in folklore as something to be pitied is so misplaced. I would rather drown under an ocean than allow anyone to feel sorry for me, because there is so much left of me than what my disability took away.
About the author:
Follow Scarlett Ward on Twitter: @scarlettwith2ts.
‘In his despair the prince threw himself from the tower. He escaped with his life, but lost both eyes.’
The above quote comes from The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes). In the first version of this tale recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (published in 1812), Rapunzel conceives a child with her prince. It is only when Rapunzel asks why her clothes are becoming too tight that Mother Gothel learns of her relationship with the prince. This betrayal causes her to banish Rapunzel to a ‘desolate land’. When Mother Gothel tells the prince that Rapunzel is gone forever, he jumps from the tower as described above.
This holds several points of interest. Firstly, we have a very clear example of disability being used as a symbol for sadness and suffering. The prince is heart broken and grieving. But he could have roamed the desolate lands looking for Rapunzel ‘eating nothing but grass and roots, and [doing] nothing but weep’ whether or not he was blinded by thorns.
The prince’s blinding is included to emphasise his misery based on the ableist assumption that to be blind is to be unhappy.
The symbolic nature of the prince’s disability is further implied because the chances of falling from a tower and landing precisely on one’s eyeballs has to be very small. Arguably, it would have been more realistic if he had jumped from the tower and broken a leg, maybe even his back. The fact that the prince is described as having ‘escaped’ with his life demonstrates how deadly that fall might have been. But no— he goes blind at the very moment he is separated from Rapunzel.
What’s more, his blindness is miraculously cured when he is reunited with Rapunzel. Once again, this hammers home the association of blindness with despair, and sightedness with joy. The prince recognises Rapunzel’s voice and she recognises him in return. But it is only when two of Rapunzel’s tears land on the prince’s eyes— in keeping with the theme of unlikely aim!— that the prince’s vision is cured. Are they happy tears? Pity tears? Who knows. But Disney’s Tangled replaces this prince’s blindness with a stab wound to the heart: I.e death. But luckily, again, Rapunzel’s tears have unexplained healing powers here too! On a serious note, that blindness and death are used interchangeably speaks volumes for the ongoing representation of blindness as a tragic state.
The problem with this is the single emotion (sadness) attached to being blind. It takes a complex lived experience and reduces it to an assumption made by sighted people. As a child growing up, this was one of the few representations of visual impairment I had and I didn’t want to be a miserable prince crying my way through a boggy landscape. Representation is important. It’s not about removing disabled characters from fairy tales, it’s about having them there as rounded people. It’s about separating the assumption that happiness is only achievable after a cure.
Let me know what you think about this? Maybe your go-to version of Rapunzel is different to mine? Is Mother Gothel a fairy, a witch, or ogress? Does she curse the prince, or is he blinded by thorns? Is he cured at the end?
About the author:
Beth O'Brien is a writer and PhD student, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tales. You can follow her on twitter: @bethobwriter
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!