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Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

As most people who know me know by now, ICFA (the annual meeting of the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts) is one of my all-time favorite conferences. I get to present on and learn about cutting-edge fairy-tale scholarship, as well as overlapping areas like fantasy literature, children’s literature, science fiction, fan culture, and so on. I get to see some of my favorite people, scholars and writers and artists alike. I get to regale people with stories and meet really amazing writers who have thoughtful things to say about folklore. And since it’s in Orlando, I get to enjoy some nice weather and also meet up with some of my family members who are in the area.

Last year, I came out as post-ac at ICFA, which went far better than I could’ve hoped. This year, I continued that trend of engaging people in conversations about adjunct activism and awareness, and being quite open about my new career as a sex educator. I even got to dispense some relationship advice, and talk about how ideas from the history of sex education are relevant to everything from Twilight to other vampire fiction to speculative fiction set in World War I! People flocked to see my paper (despite the early morning slot it was in) and requested a copy if they couldn’t make it, so that helped me feel validated as a scholar still, even if I’m not doing scholarship full-time or trying for a full-time academic job. I guess it helps that I’m researching the sexy TV show Lost Girl!

One of the other notable things that happened at ICFA was  the huge amount of scholarly compersion I experienced. I’ve written about compersion before – the feelings of happiness we can experience when our partners/lovers/loved ones are happy by someone else’s doing – and I think it applies here.

So while my list of things that I enjoyed at ICFA in the above paragraphs may sound very self-congratulatory, fear not, I was also very moved by the successes and joys of my colleagues. I got to witness and be a part of the inception of a new group devoted to Fairy Tales and Folk Narratives, which is a major step forward for our interdisciplinary bunch of scholars. I got to cheer on colleagues who are going to play a major role in next year’s ICFA specifically dedicated to Wonder Tales. I got to introduce people working on similar themes – say, disability studies – in disparate textual fields like science fiction and fairy tales. That connection might’ve happened without me, but I still felt great about having the social contacts to make sure that scholars who should know each other’s work will from now on.

I got to hear about the success of one colleague who’s working to unionize adjuncts on her campus. I got to hear about another colleague’s book coming together. I got to support another colleague as she prepares to start a family. I got to congratulate yet another on the formation of a new relationship.

These reminders of other people’s joys and successes that have nothing to do with me are always a pleasure. Even though academia is largely run on a limited-good model wherein we must compete for increasingly dwindling resources, it’s still possible to be happy for each other when these successes occur. Perhaps it’s even easier from a vantage point on the margins, when I’m less affected by the drama and politics of being invested at the full-time level. Another reminder as to the importance of context, eh?

While this may not be the most polished blog post ever, I wanted to make sure to get my thoughts written out and shared while I’m still feeling the post-conference glow. The addition of compersion to my normal maelstrom of conference feels – elation, intellectual stimulation, despondence when it’s over – is a welcome one, furthering the alchemy that makes ICFA the amazing experience that it is.

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I am only okay at telling stories.

However, I’m actually really good at telling stories about stories.

Me dressed in traditional Manipuri clothing for the banquet at ICFA 2012.

(seriously, ask any of my intro-to-folklore students: I try to tell jokes as examples of the genre, and usually muck up the punchline; really, ask any of my friends or family – I am not so good at telling jokes or stories, but I am fantastic at interpreting and analyzing them)

So there I was at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts this past March. This is where, incidentally, I’d had a life-changing conversation with China Miéville, a writer I adore beyond words. It’s also where I presented on my dissertation on gender and the body in European fairy tales, focusing on monstrous masculinity within my subset of tales. Some of my favorite people in the whole world attend this conference, so I love catching up with them. But I also get to meet new people, which is quite awesome in its own right.

One evening, after panel sessions were over, I found myself at the poolside bar with two young conference attendees who were both studying some permutation of library science and/or children’s literature/YA. They were really interested in learning more about the connections between fairy tales and fantasy, and I was more than happy to oblige them. After a drink or three, I was telling them, basically, how to not screw up this kind of scholarship. I might’ve also been referring to myself in the third person as Auntie Jeana… I can rock a donor figure role, okay?

If you wanna know how to do good scholarship on fairy tales and fantasy, I figure it helps to know what bad scholarship looks like. And oh boy, do I have some gems for you!

Earlier at this conference, I was attending a panel on, you guessed it, fairy tales and fantasy. There were two solid papers, one on illustrations in children’s books based on fairy tales, and one on a certain rather violent tale type. The third paper was… well… when I was feeling charitable before the Q&A session, I decided that it was ill-informed and poorly executed.

Despite the paper being on a folkloric topic – Cinderella – it veered off and ignored all folklore scholarship on the tale type. It tried to prove the origin of motifs from a single version of the tale based on shared historical associations which was, hm, misguided at best. I mean, searching for origins is so nineteenth-century. Contemporary folklorists don’t bother much with the quest for origins since unless someone writes it down, oral tradition is, well, oral. You’re not going to find what’s never been documented. That way lies madness (or inaccurate assumptions, or poorly-done history). However, I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

But in the Q&A session, when I politely tried to point out that the author might want to read what some folklorists have to say on the matter, I was repeatedly cut off. I mean, the author got really defensive. And I even started my comment with a compliment on one connection she’d made that had caught my interest!

So, kids, before you present a paper at a conference (or encourage your students to do so), make sure you’ve done some basic reading in the discipline that whichever topic it is happens to fall in. Also? Be open to criticism, especially when it’s politely phrased and well-intentioned.

This paper wasn’t as bad as other stuff I’ve seen, though. And by other stuff, I mean the work of Jonathan Gottschall. He’s a literary Darwinist who thinks folktales provide wonderful grist for the mill of analysis. It’s so convenient that you don’t even have to read them in order to analyze them! The computer does all the work for you! So you can prove that tales from every culture reflect basic evolutionary mating patterns!

I cannot make this shit up (though I say so in more polite terms in my dissertation).

Donald Haase (an awesome-sauce folklorist) has already done a great job of debunking Gottschall’s work on fairy tales, so I needn’t repeat it here. Though you can bet I repeated it for the benefit of my young audience at ICFA on that balmy March evening at the pool bar.

Basically, if you are going to do research on a folklore topic (which includes folktales and fairy tales), do us all the favor of reading some up-to-date scholarship from our discipline. Also, read the texts themselves (which Gottschall apparently couldn’t be bothered to do). Also, make sure you’re working with a good translation. How do you know which translations are good? See our scholarship, as indicated above. If it’s older than 50-80 years, be skeptical, since people’s morals (especially during the Victorian era) prevented them from doing authentic translations especially if the material was sexual or scatalogical in nature. Which, ya know, happens a lot in folklore.

I believe I taught my young charges a lot that night by the poolside bar. Certainly, I taught them a lot about vodka shots. But I also think that in my rambling, tipsy state, I also delivered an impassioned address about how the discipline of folklore has much to offer the study of children’s literature, YA, and fantasy. We study people doing creative things. We study storytelling in all its forms. We’ve been doing it for centuries now. Why on earth would you ignore us?!

And that, my friends, is how fairy tale story time with Auntie Jeana goes.

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At this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (one of my all-time favorite conferences), the theme is the Monstrous. And, appropriately, one of the guest of honor writers is China Miéville. I’ve only read three of his books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City and the City), but he is now one of my favorite authors. Needless to say, I was quite excited to meet him and hear him speak.

I’ve been live-tweeting some of his talks (highlights include remarks on geekery and RPGs, revolution, and irony), but since he gave a really long answer to my question about how he incorporates folklore in his writing, I thought I would make a blog post in order to explain some of the magnificent points he made.

(Yes, I am fan-girling a bit; I was grinning like an idiot after meeting him, because he is so incredibly engaging and warm and kind.)

Part of the reason I was so stunned by his reply is that it wasn’t what I expected. See, there is a large chunk of folklore studies devoted to folklore in literature, which can range from Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographically inflected fiction to rewritten fairy tales. There are dozens of papers at every folklore conference devoted to this topic, and I, too, have engaged with it. The main methodology, as elaborated by folklore greats Richard Dorson and Alan Dundes, is to 1) identify the folklore materials used in the literature, and b) interpret them. You look for where tradition (replicating the folklore) and variation (changing the folklore to suit fiction’s needs) occur, and discuss their impact on the representation of folk groups and genres, or on the literary aesthetic that is achieved, or how the folklore functions within the plot, and so on. It’s fun stuff.

So when I asked Miéville about his use of folklore, I gave an example to indicate what I was thinking of. I mentioned that I’d had a field day reading Perdido Street Station because of all the mythological beings populating the city, such as the garuda – and I hadn’t even known where they were from until I saw a colleague give a paper on Tibetan Buddhist mountain lore. I was thinking he would respond with a reflection, perhaps, on his sources: which cultures he likes to draw from, or which folklore collections he’s found particularly stimulating. That is, after all, what folklore-in-literature endeavors tend to look like from our end: we classify and locate the folklore utilized in literature, and then we talk about what it’s doing there.

Instead, Miéville addressed the politics of cultural appropriation. He said that he used to blithely borrow from other cultures because that is what cultures do all along; there is no monoculture, no monolithic one way to represent a culture’s beliefs. The men and women of a culture may experience its mythology and belief system differently, as will people in various stages of life. His choice to, for instance, write the khepri as a race of beetle-headed women, drawing upon the ancient Egyptian deity and switching the gender, is thus a recreation that acknowledges that every folkloric figure in a culture will be recreated and reformed multiple times within that culture, so why would it be wrong to do it from outside the culture?

Further, he believes that his willingness to engage with the folkloric material and take it seriously, by way of literalizing myth and metaphor, is a way of respecting the material. Perhaps he ends up with something radically different than the source material, but he thought about it and treated it like a valid partner in dialogue before going his own direction with it. His choices were deliberate, and so his engagement with folklore is a way of creatively opening a discussion with cultural materials rather than superficially skimming off the top simply because it looked interesting or sounded cool.

Clearly he’s done a bunch of research into folklore, and I totally respect that. That is, more or less, the sort of thing I was expecting to hear from an author asked about the use of folklore in writing.

However, he also said that he’s moved beyond this first perspective, to rethinking the relationship between the culture of the writer and the culture being appropriated. As an example, he said he wouldn’t even really consider writing about voodoo, because of the power relations (racism, classism, and so on) that contribute to the disempowerment and Othering of the culture (Haiti among others) that can claim that as folklore. So we’re not going to see any Baron Samedi characters appearing in his writing anytime soon.

Yet he also doesn’t want to subscribe to an essentializing and totalizing view that says, you can only write about your own culture; only your own stuff is available creatively. He gave the example of the vodyanoi, his Bas-Lag water creatures that are based on Russian folklore. Apparently, his subject positioning as a British man does not make him feel discomfort at borrowing the folklore coming from Russia, since his people aren’t currently oppressing their people. His writing about their folklore will not contribute to stereotypes about them, or enforce negative attitudes about them, and so on.

One thing I would’ve liked to hear more of (and I wish we’d had more time for this conversation during the interview panel) was whether the fantastic-ness of the folklore being borrowed matters for this argument about cultural appropriation. Because if you’re writing about stuff that people may or may not believe in (or maybe they won’t tell you if they believe in it, since belief and insider/outsider dynamics are tricky like that), does it really matter for the social reality of that group? Are we going to think poorly of real Russians if somebody writes about folkloric figures that real Russians may not believe in anymore? Anyway, it’s something to think about.

I wish I could’ve recreated his answer better, but as he answered my query, we maintained eye contact that I did not wish to break in order to scramble for my notepad. I think I’ve managed to convey the gist of what he said, and of course any errors in transmission are my own.

Also, when I met him at the author signing and told him I’d just defended my dissertation, he fist-bumped me. That was possibly one of the best moments of my life.

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