On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

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Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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Something

“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”

— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt

They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either.  I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.

Bricklayers, Childe Hassam

In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.

The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.

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Birthmarks and Invisible Clothes

In which I search out the folktale inspirations for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”.

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I’ve been reading M.R. James’ 1930 translation of Hans Christian Andersen, Forty-two Stories, which is a delight. I’ve realized that, while I’m familiar with Andersen’s most famous tales, I’ve mostly only read retellings of them, rather than reading them in Andersen’s own (translated) words. It makes such a difference! Andersen’s prose (as channeled through James, at least) is so beautifully clean and unadorned; more modern than I would have expected.

Many (though not all) of Andersen’s tales are direct retellings of folktales, albeit with his own unique voice and special details. Other tales borrow from traditional stories to a greater or lesser degree. In the preface to his translation, James gives a bit of information about the folk origins of several tales, based both on what Andersen himself said, and on James’ personal research.

Let’s explore “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd.”

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The Bouquet Makers, Part II

In which Giulla and Feristemo find each other, and take a little revenge. From the Peregrinaggio.

When last we saw them, Feristemo and Giassamen had finally learned Giulla’s whereabouts, and were making plans to rescue her.

Giassamen happened to know that quite near Giullistano, where Giulla was held, there was a grand palace whose owner was greatly in debt to the king (ah, back taxes). So the palace was up for public auction. With Feristemo’s approval, Giassamen took a large sum from the money that Feristemo’s father had given to them, and, while posing as a foreign merchant, bought the palace. He and Feristemo furnished the palace luxuriously, then set up residence there.

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The Bouquet Makers, Part I

Another tale from the Peregrinaggio

Once upon a time in the land of Serger, in the city of Letzer, there ruled a wise and just king. He was good to his subjects and welcoming of foreigners. When the king died, his eldest son inherited the throne.

Sadly, the new king was the exact opposite of the old king. He was malicious and greedy, and sowed discord and suspicion where before there was none. In fact, after the old king died, the new king had his own younger brother executed, and threw his brother’s son — and his own daughter — into prison. Because of the new king and his corruption, Letzer became such an unhappy place that people left, in droves.

Among the people who stayed were two old men, lifelong friends, wealthy and respectable. One had a daughter named Giulla, the other a son named Feristemo, both about the same age. The two fathers’ dearest wish was that their children would fall in love and get married.

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New Article on the #FolkloreThurday Blog: The Soul That Swam

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The last of my three-part series, Stories my Parents Tell Me, is up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! In “The Soul that Swam,” my parents recount some family stories of near-death experiences and after-death visitations.

This may sound more like Forteana than the usual type of folklore that I share, but they are tales that my family tells, if only to each other. I think that counts. I even experience a bit of “folktale mutation.”

“Your [grandfather] came home late one night, after sitting with a sick parishioner. As he arrived home, a large black moth flew at him. He killed it. Then he finished up for the day, and went to bed.

“When he fell asleep, he dreamt that he died.

“He dreamt that his soul rose up out of his body, so he could see himself lying in his bed. And then he felt himself being pulled away. But he didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to his brother and his friends.”

He dreamt that he died. Or was it a dream?

It’s no surprise that black moths/butterflies are associated with death in Filipino and other cultures. For comparison, here’s a woman whose family owns a funeral home in the Philippines discussing black butterflies and other death-related superstitions that she’s encountered. And here’s a thread from a Hawaiian discussion board about black moths — the prevalent belief among the posters is that a black moth is a deceased person come back to visit you. My dad has a way of subtly weaving little folkloric things into his stories, details so tiny they hardly seem relevant, and yet….

You can read “The Soul that Swam” here.

Enjoy.


Image: Papilio helenus nicconicolens (Red Helen), in Aichi pref., Japan. Photo by Alpsdake. Source: Wikimedia

The Emperor who Turned into a Parrot

A tale from the Peregrinaggio. WARNING: lots of dead animals.

The land of Becher was once ruled by an Emperor who had four wives. His favorite wife, the Empress, was his uncle’s daughter; the other three wives were daughters of great princes. This Emperor was a wise man of great learning, and he enjoyed the company of other learned and artistic minds. As a result, his court was always full of scientists and philosophers and poets and artists and other brilliant, cultured people.

Alfonso el Sabio

One day the Emperor sat conversing with an aged philosopher who had traveled widely and seen many things. This philosopher told the Emperor that in the far western lands, he once met a man who knew how to transfer his life spirit and soul into the body of a dead animal, and then back again. This man had taught the philosopher the secret.

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The Three Princes of Serendip and The Queen of India’s Puzzles

The three Princes of Serendip conclude their adventure in India. From the Peregrinaggio.

When we last saw them, the princes had just defeated the giant hand that had been terrorizing India. In exchange, the Queen of India promised to return the Mirror of Justice to the Emperor Beramo. But one of her counselors objected.

“How can we be sure that the hand won’t come back? And without the mirror, what can we do if it does?”

But the Queen wouldn’t go back on her promise. Luckily, she had another plan.

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The Three Princes of Serendip and the Giant Hand

Another adventure of the Three Princes of Serendip, from the Peregrinaggio.

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When we finished the last post, the three princes of Serendip were staying comfortably as guests of the Emperor Beramo, who much appreciated their company and their conversation. After the brothers saved Beramo from an assassination attempt by one of his own counselors, Beramo decided to ask them to help him with a problem that had vexed him since he began his reign. This is the story he told them:

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The Three Princes of Serendip and the One-eyed Camel

The tale that gave us the word serendipity, and possibly the classic detective story.

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Once upon a time, in the land of Serendip, there ruled a wise and powerful king, Giaffer. He had three sons whom he loved very much, and he wanted to leave them not only his kingdom, but all the knowledge and virtues that the rulers of a great kingdom should have. So he gathered great scholars from all over his realm, each with a different specialty, and set them as tutors to his sons. The king bade each tutor to instruct the princes so well that any expert who encountered them would immediately recognize who their teacher was. And so the tutors did.

Because the princes were all highly intelligent, it took hardly any time for them to become experts in science and language and philosophy and all the other subjects that they studied, and soon they were far more knowledgeable than any other young princes or nobles of the same age and rank. The tutors returned to the king to report on how much progress the princes had made. The king was a bit skeptical that the princes could have gained so much knowledge so quickly, so he decided to test them.

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