Although I have a few favorites when it comes to poetry, I refrain from sharing them here unless they are related to the site. This one is, religion-wise. I came across it recently, and it made me stop. Neither because of the craft and language (there was nothing particularly striking about it that made me swoon), nor because of the composure (no ardent feeling of reverie)… but because of the proposal it presented. A radical proposal. Or at the least, a gently endearing one; relieving, affectionate.
We must cast our bread
Upon the waters as the
Ancient preacher said,
Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us
After many a day.
That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice faming on the
River’s flooded shore,
Helps us to believe
That it’s no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.
Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,
Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.
My heart must have faltered for a few seconds. I flipped to the back of the anthology for a note from the author regarding this particular poem, but found only commentary on the form: “A correspondent delighted me in saying that this is not only a poem but a midrash. The poem uses the haiku as a stanza, rhyming the first and third lines. It is a form that offers both fluency and emphasis.”
I flipped back to the page.
Helps us to believe
That it’s no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.
…That it’s no great sin to give…
hoping to receive.
Evidently, fairytales have transformed these past centuries to perpetuate problematic cultural expectations of young girls. These complaints resonate with the contemporary feminist audience, who winces in dismay at tales of submissive princesses passively awaiting their knights in shining armor, who will valiantly defeat dragons, ogres, and evil stepmothers. Criticisms concerning the effects of these fairytales on young girls have generated adaptations, in both films and novels, increasingly characterized by stronger women who seize control of their destinies.
But fairytales since their origins have been feminist. From the beginning they were told by women, not by the men to whom they are currently credited, and these stories revolved around a female protagonists. Sometimes she was a princess, sometimes an average girl—the daughter of a merchant or artisan, and sometimes a poor peasant. But in every instance, she was brave, strong-willed, and spirited.
And everything around her attempted to control her, from fathers, to kings, to stepmothers, to evil witches, to tormenting sisters. And yet the heroine persevered. When her ending was not a happy one, it was never without a useful moral.
These tales were recounted by oppressed women, and they were a survival mechanism. Uncovered in every culture with eerie resemblances, the first thought to be a version of Cinderella dating back to 9th century China, fairytales inspired and liberated the women who gathered to tell them, providing a glimmer of hope—a chance to believe in escape—in societies where so many were denied freedom and education, and instead were (often forced) to wed and (more often still) die in childbirth, particularly if they were poor. (The stories were deemed unfitting for wealthy women—grimy peasants’ talk.) Upon marriage in several societies, a woman’s personhood would be engulfed entirely by her husband’s (considered one unit) and, as the stories replicate, she was often at the hands of abusive men.
The protagonists in these stories were positioned in circumstances beyond their control, faced with obstacle after obstacle that they had to overcome for their own safety and happiness. And these heroines survived, were even victorious, despite intense oppression. As Terri Windling writes in “Les Contes de Fees: The Literary Fairy Tales of France”, “Today, these tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels … but to audiences in 17th-century France the rich rococo language of the tales seemed cutting-edge and deliciously subversive … in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (an all-male institution).” Windling continues, stating that the elaborate and elegant language “also served another important function . . . disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life (and even of the king) were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young (but clever) aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies . . . as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies (i.e., intelligent, independent women) stepped in and put all to rights.”
These tales were not intended for children. It wasn’t until the early 1750s that they were rewritten to be suitable for a much younger audience. And even before then, when famous (male) collectors first began to record them, the tales were charged with indecency. They were morbid in nature, vulgar and crude, sensual, and casually violent.
They exposed a glaring reality.
And when the stories were changed, cruel mothers were rewritten as stepmothers and incestuous rapist fathers as monsters or the devil.
In my bookshelves among novels and non-fiction are a few volumes of fairytales, a couple with illustrations, that I’ve owned for a long time and that, since I was very young, have never failed to enchant me. There are a few stories that have stuck with me the longest; one tells the tale of a wealthy stranger who is accountable for the disappearance of several young women (one at a time): he arrives at their doors in the dead of the night and they are magically inclined to follow him to his dark manor filled with countless rooms of exquisite beauty. A gift is given to the victim—an egg—and she is commanded not to enter a specific, secret room. Every night the stranger demands to see the egg from her, and examines it. Inevitably, the woman will eventually enter the forbidden room, expecting it to be as beautiful as the others, and find—to her horror—that it contains a barrel full of body parts from his dead previous victims. In shock, she drops the egg, and it lands in the mess and becomes bloodied. Fervently she attempts to wash it before the man returns, but finds the stains will not disappear. When the man returns and calls to see the egg, he finds it sullied and the woman in tears, and hacks the woman to pieces. He then kidnaps his next victim, forcing her to follow him against her will. The last woman he kidnaps places the egg in the previous room before entering the forbidden one, sees what lies within, and at her touch the pieces reassemble into the women he’s killed. When he returns, she shows him the immaculate egg, and he believes she has not entered the forbidden. In the end, she defeats him, and the manor is lit on fire.
Today these stories are attributed to the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, and other male collectors. They’ve been adjusted repeatedly to appeal to different audiences—which is all acceptable: contexts transform and so does feminist criteria, but the driving voices of the centuries of women behind these stories has been erased with their names. And this is not acceptable. In the contemporary media, reproduced fairytales are still drafted by men. Versions rewritten by men—of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc.—are the most celebrated and massively manufactured. And while these versions do retain feminist elements (Belle saves the beast, Ariel is literally silenced by her desire for Eric) they are ultimately constructed by male voices.
The feminist versions are lesser known. In a version of The Little Mermaid, rewritten by a woman, our heroine loses her prince and dissolves, but with a different perspective. “I have known the sea and I have known the land, and now I will know the air,” she sighs amazedly to her new companions, sylphs, upon discovering the beautiful beings that inhabit the air. And Gail Carson Levine’s beloved Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella with a stubborn, forceful heroine (cursed by a faerie to obey everyone who gives her orders until she frees herself) was compromised in the film adaptation.
Rewriting fairytales is a powerful practice; it is a reclamation of a long—and lost—feminist tradition. Even stories that aren’t fairytales, and in fact appear in novels written by men, like the legend of Cupid and Psyche, harbor astonishing potential. (Who knows from whom the author heard it?) Psyche, a beautiful mortal woman, provokes the envy of Venus, who commands her son Cupid to shoot an arrow and penetrate Psyche while she sleeps, in such a way so that when she wakes she will see a vile creature before her and fall in love with it. After much arguing, Cupid reluctantly agrees, and in invisible form enters the room of the sleeping woman. He sees she is so beautiful that she cannot be safe, and he takes pity on her. As he reaches quietly for an arrow to fulfill his promise, she wakes suddenly, and looks into his eyes, and, startled, Cupid pricks himself with his own arrow, falling madly in love. He cannot complete the mission. When he reports this to Venus, she is furious and curses Psyche herself, so that Psyche cannot see him. Cupid, angered with his mother, vows to never shoot another arrow so that finally, Venus must agree to his demands, because no one is falling in love and thus the world has ceased worshipping her.
But Psyche betrays Cupid by breaking a vow, and in order to win back his love and forgiveness, must successfully undergo a series of three dangerous trials arranged by a vengeful Venus, each one more impossible than the former—the last of which includes a visit to the Underworld. Deeply moved, Cupid forgives Psyche by the end.
And even what may qualify as the most anti-feminist of traditions can be reclaimed and rewritten—why not? men have been claiming fairytales for centuries—because the act of writing, in itself, is empowering.
And so, here’s something rough I scribbled very quickly in class (when I should have been paying attention; we were discussing Hamlet and Freudian behaviors, mind you, and it was not the least bit interesting) alluding to characters traditionally rendered silent:
Helen to Penelope
Cousin, you are your husband’s wife, as sly
and patient, constant, loved and I—
launched a thousand ships, beguiled
Paris. I expect you comprehend
the unsteadiness of power, the impulses of men.
Penelope, you cried.
But recognize you wait, day after day, maintaining
what you may, aiming needles running thread
with disruptive suitors at your gate,
and war for your bed—
yet your husband is named valiant, brave;
I’d rather tremble before the wave
than stay to wash my linen sheets
unsung for dangers I quietly keep
away; who hymns my praise, Penelope?
Or yours? Men only celebrate waging wars!
Therefore, I did. So affectionate, keen,
writes the alleged seductress to the queen,
fault me not for your husband’s sins,
or for seeking liberty or rights therein.
With a glance I’ve conquered the sea
save judgment, patient Penelope!
Okay now go write.
Whenever I’m asked to write an autobiographical section following a piece, I’m astounded that anyone cares or would be interested. Besides, what information could I possibly provide that would disclose who I am adequately? Could I encompass my entire being in a few short sentences? The notion is daunting and perplexing, and for the most recent request, after several minutes I wrote: Nahida sometimes wishes she were a more practical woman, but she is not practical enough to wish it often.
Allegedly, Poe uses Islamic references for an “exotic” effect, but I take offense at the idea that Poe could ever be this cheap. He was sincerely consumed, I trust, by the beauty of the concept and produced a luscious poem in adulation. (Also, I’m sure it helps that the word “Israfel” is pretty easy to rhyme.) The poem describes the loveliness of the ethereal song of Israfel, so astounding that the rest of the heavens and the earth is transfixed in silence. Poe concludes the poem asking whether he could create a more beautiful melody than Israfel had he the same heavenly inspiration as the angel.
Edgar Allen Poe
When my friends proudly disclose in introductions that “She’s a writer and her stories are great!” I am often promptly asked for either manuscripts or advice. Inevitably, I end up with loads of essays to edit from those who are convinced that writers and editors are the same thing. (To be fair, writers are good readers.) I don’t mind this: it’s something that comes with the identity. Like, I’m certain that as soon as my friends all turn 21, I’m going to be the official designated driver because I’m Muslim and don’t drink.
I also don’t own a car, so I plan to milk this for all it’s worth.
That being said, I haven’t worked on anything serious in the past three months. By “serious” I mean I haven’t been fanatically writing long into the night in a storm of frenzy, or tossing an alarmingly heavy dictionary at anyone who asks for my attention and demanding that they “GET! OUT!”, or crying, or forgetting to eat, or otherwise resembling a creature on the verge of murder. This is important, because it’s kind of weird being called a writer when you’re going through a phase in which you haven’t actually produced anything save a couple of excerpts and an unremarkable sonnet. And that brings me to the disclaimer: I am by no means the ultimate authentic source on How To Do Anything Related to Writing. While I’ve experienced feeling enraptured on the occasions in which I’ve discovered something I’d begun years ago, followed by disappointed (Why didn’t I finish this?), I’ve also violently cringed at my own writing in the same retrospect. I am kind of cringing at this post as I write it, since being in the hurry that I am it is monotonous and lifeless and bland.
The most important thing to remember is the right to write badly.
Because let’s face it: despite literature’s reputation of being all warm and fuzzy and deep and “there are no wrong answers ’cause everyone’s right all the time and rainbows and kittens and cookies!”–you can be wrong. You can be so, so wrong. Not only in interpreting literature, but your writing can suck. Suck, I tell you! There is such a thing as bad writing. But more importantly, there is such a thing as good writing. And it doesn’t only involve knowing how to use semicolons.
Another thing it involves is knowing how to write good characters. And that brings us to knowing how to write good female characters, a question I was asked this morning and consequently–this post. We are all living in this very problematic system, and while female characters are much more realistic–and even awesome–in my area (books) than they may be in others’ (movies) it is understandable (though not excusable) that someone would not know how to write one.
My answer was simple: write her the same way you would write a male character.
“BUT NAHIDA! Men and women are different dammit!”
Not as much as you think they are. If Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird were male, would she have been any more or less of a relatable character? Mary Alice from A Year Down Yonder?
Sex does not tell us anything about a good character. It’s a trait that’s almost disposable, like the character’s eye color or what they prefer having for breakfast. That being said, there are reasons to make a character one sex or the other just as there may be reasons to emphasize a specific trait, but while that may affect the nature of the obstacles placed in the character’s path due to the constraints of society, those differences are exactly that–social. They are not inherent to the character herself. And therein lies the confusion: compared to the differences created by a social construct, genetic differences are very few and very insignificant, and yet it’s these socially shaped differences that are viewed as unchangeable.
And when we view these differences as biological rather than social, we lose a lot of the conflict that drives the story. That’s not to say that genetic and social differences are mutually exclusive or independent of each other, but that we as a society have developed to acknowledge only the extremes of these differences–unrealistic archetypes of masculinity and femininity, when what truly exists is a vast spectrum.
To avoid stereotypes, we’re inclined to stay away from the ends of the spectrum, because they are overwritten and overused and–quite frankly–they are not complex enough to contribute fully to the development of a good character. The ends of the spectrum exist more in theory than in reality: no one is really like this, and that has a lot to do with our flimsy definitions and irresponsible labeling of masculine and feminine. Even a character who is as far into the end of femininity as she could possibly be must betray traits which would otherwise be considered masculine. Anger, for example, is masculine when displayed one way (powerful) but feminine when another (irrational). Mercy is considered a strength in a man and an inherent weakness in a woman. If the character is male, certain traits otherwise viewed as feminine may be viewed as masculine. Stepping away from the extreme of the ends for a minute, this also has a lot to do with the reaction of the audience: if the character is in a sports team and the book is celebrating his masculinity, everyone thinks it’s SO AWESOMEPANTS. But if the character is female and she is giving birth and the story is a celebration of motherhood you’ll hear grumbles of, “I don’t fucking care–she’s not special just ’cause she does what every woman can do.” (That’s not even accurate you douche.) Yes, it’s hugely sexist because men define both masculinity and femininity, and entirely fabricated–and in terms of the reactions of the audience, possibly a result of jealousy. *coughwombenvycough*
And that is why the ends of the spectrum are useless: they’re likely not even real.
And yet they seep into our lives and our writing in dangerously hidden ways. If you notice when you read, men tend to “shout” and women tend to “scream.”
It’s important to remember that a character who defies all socially dictated gender norms is as much of a cliche as one who secures all socially dictated gender norms. This makes the character equally shallow and equally unrelatable. The character becomes an accessory for the plot rather than an element that shapes the plot as much as the plot shapes the character.
A fully developed character will not only possess both “masculine” and “feminine” traits but adapt to respond to the different pressures exerted on him or her by society. A fully developed character will both accept and reject societal norms and expectations based on the person he or she is and the situations in which he or she is placed. And through these decisions, the reader will come to know and understand the character as a whole and complete being–not one defined by her sex, but one becoming fully herself through the struggles she endures because of the conflicts resulting from societal pressures due to her sex barricading her from fully expressing who she truly is. A fully developed character will have both rights and wrongs. From this we extract character growth and development, a crucial element in the joint creation of meaning between the character and the reader.