BY THEODORA ZIOLKOWSKI
On the Perils of Homes Away from Homes
Fairy tales make transparent the stakes of a world dissimilar and yet not unrecognizable from our own; they dig their heels into a shared memory whose terrain is as ensnared with terror as it is with the joy that hoofmarks a happy-ever-after. Surely those who grew up reading or listening to them are marked by the victories and horrors of these stories.
I associate an indelible nostalgia with the myriad ways that fairy tale environments interact with memory. The slipperiness of their ethics, the sparseness of their physical descriptions, as well as the systems that govern them, convince us that anything can happen within the cottages and forests that populate them. The fairy tale space overturns our assumptions of what is possible. The thrilling and horrific uncertainty implicit in fairy tales is a giving one: their environments depend on risk.
Humans as well as fairy tale characters are often interested in eternalizing the natural as well as material sense of place. The precision with which I can taste Baby Bear’s “just right” porridge and the violence that ghosts Bluebeard’s bloody chamber is equal to the sheer sense of helplessness I experience whenever a child sets into the woods.
Despite their flatness, fairy tale characters pageant their magic to endure in our memory. Likewise, it is the unruliness of an uncharted forest that propels our desire to see these characters survive.
This danger is the very underbelly of memory I was interested in exploring in Mother Tongues.
Home and forest form the heartbeat of many fairy tales.
The perception of “home” seems as loaded a signifier as any when it comes to our memories: how often do the missions of the characters we cheer for revolve around escaping from or returning to the roof and four walls they call home? Our own realities make familiar the distorted mirror worlds of fairy tales: both their natural and domestic environments offer safety as well as violence. This quality most likely hits close to home, and one that perhaps explains why the places fairy tales encapsulate are so unforgettable.
Blowing up Control
Control exists in duplicates and repetition: between sisters and among children and their forbearers; among stories themselves. The risk of the past repeating itself is a very real-world fear.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the material world: its capacity to possess as well as cast off memory; the subsequent powerlessness I often experience in realizing just how much meaning I invest in the intangible, when what I long to inhabit is the natural world. Power, as well as its opposite, seems to interact in equal measure with the danger fairy tales feed on.
The fairy tale environments in Mother Tongues depend on the natural as well as the material world. Dolls and dioramas; mushroom museums, nativity crèches, and cases of cosmetics exist in the forest and seaside; in a village where a flock of geese comes to the aid of a woman when her ability to tell a good story is threatened. The mash-up of the human-made and natural environments seem ripe for exploring dangerous psychological environments.
Indeed, the promise of control may be one among the many reasons I am drawn to miniatures — when familiar objects are deliberately shrunk. Snow globes, for instance, can embody a habitat as well as a climate. In one of my favorites, a woman and her sheepdog and sled contently exist beneath their tidy dome of glass. Turn the globe over and you can make it snow. Unlike its fairy godmother, the dollhouse (which predated the former by centuries), a snow globe prevents us from fully accessing its contents. You can play with a dollhouse: you can arrange its occupants and furniture whichever way you choose. But to appreciate a snow globe is to be content as a voyeur; the greatest form of power we have is in our ability to control its climate. Physical entry makes necessary a destructive act. We must smash the glass.
When I think about fairy tales as objects, I think of them as a hybrid between a snow globe and dollhouse. As readers, we are invited to come inside where it’s warm.
But like all cautionary tales, we must be on our guard. We must be wary of our host and her cook. The glass that could at any moment rain down on us.
Preservation Is a Performance Act
It was only after I placed the chapbook’s four stories side by side that my interest in preserving and honoring memory in the tangible became evident to me: though the stories take variegating degrees of stock in the natural and artificial worlds, they share an urgency to preserve both.
Preservation and its deviants can perform their own cruel acts of control. (Here, I think of the marvelously horrific scenes in The Hunger Games film series, in which the reigning class deposits children into an environment designed to destroy them.)
From ghost girls to a grudge-holding grandmother, the women and girls in Mother Tongues are forces of ambition: they must be ambitious if they are to preserve themselves and their stories.
Only the Virtuous Endure
From what I know of the video game Minecraft, the objective of its players is to build and survive in its delectably pixelated world. An ambition not dissimilar from reality or from the hearts of virtually every story, an important distinction is that players in Minecraft are offered the choice to exist within one of two modes: creative and survival. In the latter, creatures that threaten your survival (like zombies and creepers) roam free; when it comes to the former, the feature that distinguishes itself most to me is your avatar’s capacity to fly. Combined, the creative and survival modes achieve a texture reminiscent of the fairy tale.
I have always thought older women and little girls share a special virtuous wisdom. Innocence as well as experience seem in some ways more open to the perils of control, but also the treacherous territory that speech and writing affords. Both demand faith, and there is magic in this.
THEODORA ZIOLKOWSKI’s poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, and Arts and Letters, among other journals, anthologies, and exhibits. A Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets nominee, Theodora is the author of the poetry chapbook, A Place Made Red (Finishing Line Press).
About Mother Tongues:
There is something sick and sweet at the edges of a fairy tale told in a new way — something that asks about the substance of an oily encounter. Does a feather cut or comfort? Is an apple an antidote or a poison? What grows from the gunk? What remains when the last of a life washes away? Winner of the Cupboard Pamphlet’s Fifth Ever Contest, Theodora Ziolkowski’s Mother Tongues offers satisfying almost-answers, opening each question like a curiosity cabinet to show a strange thing. Look there, Mother Tongues says. Look there at the windows — the new stories are gathering.
Of the book, Judge Matt Bell writes, “Mother Tongues is a fantastic collection of stories; Ziolkowski obviously impressively immersed in fairy tales and other traditions while remaining unafraid to step outside the bounds of any formal expectations those forms might suggest. The gorgeously spare prose impresses from the beginning, and new surprises of plot and image and emotion thrill are waiting on every single page.”