By JoSelle Vanderhooft
31 January 2011
Following my interview with Catherynne M. Valente, four mythpunk authors and poets joined me for an online chat about this subgenre and where it is going. Our conversation ranged from the mechanics of fairy tale retellings, to the beauty of world folklore, and to the question readers have been wondering since the term was coined in 2006: just what about mythpunk attracts so many women writers, anyway?
The panelists were:
Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing a Ph.D in English Literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different honeys. Her work has appeared in a range of publications both online and in print, including Strange Horizons, Cabinet des Fees, Sybil's Garage, Shimmer, Mythic Delirium, and Ideomancer, and been broadcast on Podcastle. She won the 2009 Rhysling Award with her poem "Song for an Ancient City," and co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with Jessica P. Wick. Find her online at Tithenai.livejournal.com.
Rose Lemberg is an immigrant from three different countries, but is most at home in Berkeley, CA, where she received her doctorate. She currently works as a professor of Nostalgic and Marginal Studies somewhere in the Midwest. Rose's short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and other venues, and was recently reprinted in People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her poetry has appeared in Apex Magazine, Goblin Fruit, GUD, Jabberwocky, and Mythic Delirium, among other venues, and has been nominated for the Rhysling Award. She edits Stone Telling, a new magazine of boundary-crossing poetry. Rose can be found online at RoseLemberg.net.
Alex Dally MacFarlane lives in the south of England, where she collects beautiful coins and chases the sun into parks. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Sybil's Garage, Jabberwocky 4, and Goblin Fruit, and a handbound limited edition of her story "Two Coins" was recently published by Papaveria Press. She blogs at Alankira.livejournal.com.
Shweta Narayan was smelted in India's summer, quenched in the monsoon, wound up on words in Malaysia, and pointed westwards. She surfaced in Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, and Scotland before settling in California, where she lives on language, veggie tacos, and the Internet. Her stories can be found in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded (originally in Shimmer's "Clockwork Jungle" issue), Realms of Fantasy, and the Clockwork Phoenix 3 anthology. Shweta also has fiction in Strange Horizons and the Beastly Bride anthology, and poetry in Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Mythic Delirium. She was the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship recipient at the 2007 Clarion workshop. Shweta can be found online at ShwetaNarayan.org.
JoSelle Vanderhooft: Before we get going, I'd like to ask: What is mythpunk to you? Do you agree with Catherynne M. Valente's definition? What is the "punk" in "mythpunk?"
Alex Dally MacFarlane: Could you remind us of Cat's definition?
Rose Lemberg: From Wikipedia: Described as a subgenre of mythic fiction, Catherynne M. Valente uses the term "mythpunk" to define a brand of speculative fiction which starts in folklore and myth and adds elements of postmodern fantastic techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, worldbuilding, and academic fantasy. Writers whose works would fall under the mythpunk label are Catherynne M. Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, Theodora Goss, and Sonya Taaffe.
JV: Yeah, let's talk about that a bit.
ADM: Well, I'd say that a huge part of it is questioning—using myth and folktale, etc., to question things, whether it's the status quo or a particular dilemma unique to the tale. It's at the same time about evolving the tales—continuing the transmission of stories, instead of going round in (often destructive, or at least reinforcing of bad things) circles.
Shweta Narayan: I'm not sure that punking has to fit into the rather Western-world centric mode of postmodernism? I hesitate to call, say, all postcolonial reinterpretation postmodern, for example, and I think it's important.
JV: How so, Shweta?
SN: In that . . . well, I think of postmodernism as centrally a construct of Western academia, and I feel certain that my US-University-educated academic geek mind has major blinders. So I am wary, is all.
RL: While I am not sure I can get completely behind the different "-punk" derivatives, I absolutely agree with the idea that the power of mythology and folklore is absolutely relevant for us working in the field today, and not in terms of straightforward retellings. What I think the best people working in this area do is acknowledge that we are deeply emotionally affected by folkloric traditions, and that we can use modern linguistic and literary devices to talk about the here and now, while still tapping into that power.
SN: Absolutely agree about the questioning; myth is . . . inherently essentialist in a lot of ways, so using it unquestioningly, while powerful, is also pretty problematic.
RL: Right; which is why mythpunk is not, I think, about retellings. Part of the deconstruction one does in the academic discipline (folkloristics) is to examine how folklore does not exist in vacuum, but rather is a product of specific societies. As such, folklore validates societal norms and involves listeners in the world of a particular tradition which cannot truly be fully applicable to us. Unless we are talking about fandom folklore, because in that sense we are a part of a real-time folk group.
Amal El-Mohtar: I feel that folklore is often a battleground between subversive and conservative forces, though—that, in being an area of common or communal knowledge, it is available to that community to use it in different ways.
SN: We're using other people's folklore, but what's our folklore? Fanfic?
AE: I think I've always seen folklore as a kind of neutral thing in itself—a material to be shaped, and from which we build things.
ADM: Are we not evolving some of these tales? OK, not in the wider public psyche—we're not beating out Disney here—but we're changing things, and I guess we're interacting with issues like societal norms, but we're not reinforcing them.
RL: Which is why when you have the same tale told by a woman and a man you will have variations. Evoking folklore is not the same as committing folklore.
AE: Or if you tell the same tale to two different people, they'll take different things from it.
SN: Amal, but it has its structures. And they are pervasive and slippery. And by changing things we are negotiating—and validating—different norms. The question is where you draw the line around a society.
JV: If I may, let's talk about how mythpunk isn't retelling per se. I'd love to get back to that.
SN: The way I see that, straight retellings don't undermine (or "punk") anything. They're strengthening/validating the social message of the original.
AE: Shweta, when you say "straight," do you mean like, for instance, if someone does a modern-day retelling of Cinderella in which getting the prince is still the important thing?
SN: Getting the prince, but not actually y'know being coarse enough to THROW oneself at him! Especially while guilty of the sin of being ugly, etc.
RL: I would take this a bit further and say that a retelling that validates, rather than undermines, the extant societal norms, is not punking—thus cannot be mythpunk. Many of the Disney retellings are not faithful to their originals.
SN: Whose extant social norms, Rose?
RL: The audience's—in this case, ours.
AE. I think we need to make a distinction between tellings that undermine the values of their source text, and retellings that undermine OUR values.
ADM: To the dominant/privileged group?
RL: Alex, one group can be privileged in some ways and not privileged in others, so it is hard to say.
SN: But I still don't know who is "us" here—us, or the dominant group? Is a feminist retelling inherently not punking if it is read by feminists?
RL: Let's say the dominant tradition in this country is to have a wedding. So Disney's Cinderella reinforces, rather than undermines. But I think that even, say, feminist retellings are not necessarily mythpunk.
JV: Because feminist retellings can still be, say, reliant on white, heterosexual, and able privileges, for example, Rose?
SN: Does it depend on who is reading them/when they were written?
RL: I also feel that mythpunk is an aesthetic.
ADM: Or is it that mythpunk uses an aesthetic?
SN: So . . . say . . . a noir retelling is probably not going to be mythpunk, because the aesthetic is different?
RL: JoSelle, for me, this is about mythpunk authors, for whom—no matter whether they are writing about present-day or working with a secondary world, mythic imagery and lyricism will be present.
SN: And that's a distinction between mythic fiction and the more-specific mythpunk, perhaps.
RL: Some of this is punking, sure, but some of it is the aesthetic, as I see it. Again, only my opinion.
ADM: To me, the interesting stuff is not the aesthetic (although I love it greatly), but the questioning and subverting and so on, the engagement with myth and folklore.
JV: Each of you is here because fairy tales, folklore, and/or myth is very important to your work. I'd love to hear about some of your favorite tales and how you have shaped your work around them.
SN: I am not sure I have favorite fairy tales, so much as loving what one can do with the framing of "Once upon a time."
RL: I am an immigrant, and growing up as a Soviet Jew (and lover of folklore), I got exposed to completely different folklore than most Americans are familiar with. To begin with, both Russian and Jewish folklore had a great impact upon me, but also Central Asian folklore, which is widely available in Russian translations, as well as circumpolar folklore. I also have what I call my own private mythology, which always informs my work. I am hard pressed to single out any particular tale, although those who like my poetry probably noticed that birds appear with some frequency. Especially firebirds. These come from Russian folklore, but there are other mythical birds I love; some are Central Asian.
SN: The list of fairy tales I love is not that well-correlated with what I rewrite/reinterpret. That has more to do with what I get traction on, and that traction is "I hate this story I'm going to turn it inside out" as often as it is "OMG." I see it as housecleaning in my brain. Like, "Wait that has power over my thoughts? I'LL SHOW IT."
ADM: You know, I don't think I have a favorite folk tale, even today. When I was younger, my major exposure was Disney—and I think I rejected the portrayals there, for obvious reasons. My favorite Disney movie was Robin Hood—I identified far more with a heroic guy than a damsel, and the first thing I ever wrote was (er, fanfic for) a heroic guy. It's been a recent change in me that I even want to engage in these things. I wrote sci-fi way before I ever wrote fantasy or mythic fiction. It took other people to show that actually these aren't all about girls who sit around and wait for people to shape their lives, and once I realized that, I realized how much the flavor of folktale/myth is really awesome and great to play with, and so on.
SN: Yes, the flavor! That is the thing for me. The way when you turn something into a fairy tale, you are imbuing it with this . . . resonance through everything else in a culture. So that they're multiple stories going on at once: the actual folk tale, what it says about the people telling it that they tell that, how it affects the people hearing it, the way storyteller and listener are so strongly there in any telling.
JV: My personal favorite folktale is "Godfather Death," or anything from that particular tale type. Thanks to losing my father and a lot of family members at a very young age, I was forced to confront death a lot sooner than most people my age, and in that tale I think I found a good way to address a lot of issues that brought up for me: ambition, mortality, wanting to cheat death, and putting death into a body that can be seen, talked to, humanized. Then again, it's sometimes hard to turn a tale about death on its head.
RL: Oh yes, and I wanted to add a bit about shapeshifter fairy tales, because I do love this: one of my probably favorite heroines growing up was "Vasilissa the Very Wise," a Russian folk princess who has a lot of agency, as well as wisdom and magic.
AE: It's occurring to me just now that much of my love of stories comes from loving and wanting a more intimate interaction with the natural world—so, since, as a child, I'd talk to the moon and shout at storms as a matter of course, stories in which the moon and storms could talk back were particularly appealing.
Like Shweta, my favorite tales are not necessarily the ones with which I play; Andersen's "The Snow Queen" sits deeply in me for the way I felt when I read it as a child, but I've never felt drawn to writing anything to do with it (although I am drawn to other people's retellings, interestingly enough).
I totally agree with the talk of flavor—in fact, I'd say different traditions have different flavor palates, different combinations you need to learn before you can even begin using the ingredients to make delicious tale-dishes.
It's small wonder to me, too, that Tolkien's analogy of the Soup of Story is food-based—we consume stories with the same need as we do food, I think.
JV: One thing that fascinates me about mythpunk is how predominantly "female" it is, in terms of those who write it and those who read it. Why do you think this is so?
SN: Yeah, there are fewer men writing it, and I think reading it. And I wonder whether it's because these stories have been basically about the men all along.
RL: I think it comes back to the aesthetic. What we nowadays distinguish as "masculine" writing, which is both praised and very different from the mythpunk aesthetic. The lush, evocative, emotional prose is usually labeled as feminine. And yes, there are men unafraid of these labels, men who write in this style and love it and do it, but there are not a lot of them.
SN: It seems to me that more women than men overall have gone "OMG I can change this?" and been really excited about punking older stories, perhaps because of the way those stories systematically disempower women? But then . . . the non-punking fairy tale retellings are very much a more-female thing, too. So maybe the fairy tales themselves are just more a part of what girls get growing up?
ADM: Certainly the first half of that applies to me.
SN: Me, too. By the end of my first [Terri] Windling/[Ellen] Datlow antho, my jaw was on the floor.
JV: I've honestly always been drawn to fairy tales because of the feminine, to be honest—for example, while a lot of stories do disempower women, there are nonetheless women who are the centers of these tales, across nearly every culture I can think of.
AE: I think it's a truism of fairy tale studies that these are stories written for women, by women—and given the fact that women seem to historically have difficulty finding an unbroken tradition of women's writing to engage with (I think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning looking around for grandmothers and finding none), what survive are the tale-molds instead of written stories. I think, for that reason, there's a rich archaeology for women to engage with when they touch mythic material—a palimpsest of other women's touching tales, but a subterranean one.
SN: I think that's a huge part of it, Amal—I have just been trying to get a coherent grasp on one tiny bit of it, which comes back to what the stories' cultural context is, and what they mean depending on who they're heard by/told by.
And there's major gender differences in that. (As I found out in crits for a pomo fairy tale I wrote! All the women in my group got it, but two men out of three were all, "Why don't you write it as a real story?")
ADM: I've been nodding along to everything above. For me it's as Shweta said, the excitement about changing these things and telling them—or using their motifs, or whatever to tell the stories I want to tell.
JV: Another thing that we should talk about are issues of cultural appropriation, white centrism and racism in mythpunk. For example, how do notions of non-white punking look?
SN: I've been poking at the appropriation issue with respect to my use of the Anaeet story in my novelette "Eyes of Carven Emerald." It's part of my brain's landscape, but it's not from my source culture, and whether my use is appropriative or not is not for me to decide—I can only be as respectful as possible and point out that the original tale is Armenian, and also wonderful.
I do think there's a difference between "ooh shiny" and "this tale is personally important to me"—both in how we use it and why. But I don't think that difference is the same as the one between appropriative and not-appropriative use.
I have an example of non-white punking for you. Nisi Shawl's delightful "The Pragmatical Princess."  She's utterly punking both the dragon-and-princess narrative and the normal Eurocentric Christian-centric take on Moorish Spain.
ADM: My immediate response to seeing something "shiny" is to want to write about it, almost always—but the actual writing about it part I do with a lot more care than going "ooh shiny." Of course, whether I succeed or not is not my call.
AE: I think that, as someone who read and writes predominantly in English, my entrance to myths of many different cultures has been informed by a great deal of systemic ignorance and prejudice, such that before I can punk the myth, I need to be aware of what peoples' myths ABOUT myths are, and possibly punk on two fronts. I'm the child of Lebanese immigrants, and yet know next to nothing about the ancient history of the Middle East, and didn't grow up with my parents telling me Arabic folktales. There's a lot that I need to deconstruct and examine in my own perceptions of mythologies, gender, history, and race, before I can even begin to think of what I want to do with other people's perceptions.
SN: I have exactly that with Indian history—how much of what I know is really the British (or, hey, the Brahmin) rewrite of history? And the myths, there is so little I know. And I haven't the language to go read up on it. My brain, it is colonized.
ADM: My relationship with it is different, no doubt influenced by being British by background and birth—as well as, hmm, Disneyfication I guess. There's not yet a British folktale I really identify with. Maybe I need to go read the Scottish ones and connect to my background that way—I'm Scottish but raised in South England, which is definitely another country (although a VERY different dynamic to Amal's and Shweta's). Which is an interesting thought, actually! The princess-y tales are not mine at all, but I dimly know there are many Scottish tales that are not that. Because right now I look at the tales of other parts of the world and go "oooh!", because I'm not finding what I want in my own—but I'm maybe not even really looking at my own, the ones truly my own, from the highlands and lochs and so on.
JV: Now, I like a lot of British tales but I'm not of British heritage; mine is primarily Dutch-American in both senses of the word, and it's interesting that I know very little of Dutch tales—which I think has to do with being the child of a Dutch immigrant father and getting cut off from the language and heritage in a lot of ways.
RL: I have a slightly different take on this, since I grew up within a completely different cultural setting and narratives (and languages!), but am writing in English for an audience that expects me to engage with (and punk) narratives that are central to them; even immigrants who grew up in North America grew up with Disney; I did not. So it is a struggle for me, since if I want to punk some of my own traditional narratives, I often need to unpack them first for my readers, because I write in English. It's a hard process. Yet, I think that excellent writing often arises from such liminal places: for example, Ekaterina Sedia's latest book, The House of Discarded Dreams, is a work that engages with the immigrant experience, and it is definitely mythpunk; I warmly recommend it.
AE: Question, from all this—do we feel that mythpunk, by its nature, needs to always be representing a subterranean narrative? One that needs to be unearthed from within a dominant narrative, no matter with that narrative is, by means of mythic elements?
SN: I think that is very much what I feel.
JV: I think at least at this point in time, that it needs to. As the decades wear on, I think it may broaden out into something where a narrative isn't unearthed, in much the same way that steampunk has broadened.
JV: Literary movements are always changing and growing. How has mythpunk—and fairy tale retellings more broadly—changed over the past decade?
ADM: Ha, well, I haven't been reading them over the past decade, so not sure what I can add here.
SN: I . . . suck at timelines and have no real idea what happened when, but . . . is the thing where we do mythpunked SF (like I'd say both Cat Valente and Vandana Singh have done of late) or steam-mythpunk (which I guess is what I do? I dunno) or other boundary-crossing thingies . . . is that new?
SN: Not me.
JV: I haven't, either.
ADM: I don't know if that's mythpunk—I don't think it's engaging with myth or societal norms, etc.—but there's a kind of storytelling-ness feel to it that is not so common in SF, but that's been around a little while. [It was] originally published in German in '95. Translated into English in 2005, though. I don't know, that just popped into my head as an example of a wider trend of "fantasy-ing up scifi" that excites me a lot.
RL: Yes, I've read The Carpet Makers, and that was definitely the best book I read in 2005 when it came out, but I am not sure whether it is mythpunk. I think about it more as a really innovative, wild, brilliantly written science fiction. It didn't really feel mythic to me, not in the same way Cat Valente's SF does, or Shweta's steampunk. In general, there is a lot of rather amazing work in other countries that doesn't get translated into English. I hope this will change.
AE: I think the omnipresence of the Internet is totally going to inform my answer, because over the last decade I've gone from being a consumer to being a producer of things called mythpunk and retelling, and the Internet's been a huge part of that. I think the development of an online community of people reaching out to each other, communicating, critiquing each other's work, and allowing people to comment on those critiques, creating layers and layers of communication, is feeding into people's awareness of what they're writing. It's no longer (if it ever was, I guess—this has been my impression) a matter of holing oneself up with research before producing a novel; it's a matter of blogging, tweeting, sharing bits of a work in progress, the like. I think having that kind of village available to raise a book or a short story is definitely changing the work we read.
JV: And given how mythpunk is often a very interstitial movement, I think this kind of communication and multi-voiced-ness fits it very well.
SN: Moving us away from the Author as Sole Hero On The Precipice. I like things that do that.
And I guess, writers towards a textual awareness of the writer existing in a culture, in an interwoven network of voices in which any given one of us is just one more voice. All of which moves us away from the more . . . socially disconnected modernist understandings of art & artists.