This is the last editor’s note/essay I wrote for Tiny Donkey. As I wrote in a previous post, Tiny Donkey was a digital journal devoted to short nonfiction about fairy tales and folkore and associated with Fairy Tale Review. It was shut down in 2017, and its site was recently taken down from the internet completely. I’ve been rescuing all the essays and interviews I contributed here. This one was my favorite of all.
My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.
The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.
But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.
In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.
As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.
Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.
Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.
As I wrote in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did my second interview with the filmmaker Ram Devineni. He had recently unveiled a new virtual reality comic book project called Priya’s Shakti, which draws from Hindu and Indian mythology to tackle the subject of gender-based violence. When I heard about the comic series, I knew I wanted to talk to him about it. Here’s the interview.
Ram Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher, and the founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. His films include the documentaries The Human Tower (2012) and The Russian Woodpecker (2015),which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Devineni is also the creator of Priya’s Shakti, an augmented-reality comic book series featuring a superhero who fights gender-based violence in India. Priya’s Shakti was inspired by the gang rape and death in New Delhi in 2012 of a young woman returning home on a bus at night after seeing a movie with a male friend. The crime sparked protests across India as well as conversations about gender-based violence, patriarchy, and victim-blaming. In Priya’s Shakti, Priya is a young woman attacked by a group of men who finds her power (shakti) to help other survivors with the aid of the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati and a tiger companion. In the comic’s sequel, Priya’s Mirror, Priya uses a mirror to free a group of acid attack survivors held prisoner by an acid-green demon-king, Ahankar, who himself has become imprisoned by toxic masculinity. In addition to rich and colorful illustrations and mythological characters, the comics feature augmented-reality technology that brings to life the stories and voices of real women who’ve survived gender-based violence. Intrigued by this extraordinary project, I contacted Devineni to find out more about the Hindu, Indian, and mythological elements of the Priya series.
Why did you decide to create this comic series? There seem to be many different people and groups involved. Can you describe their different roles and contributions?
Although I am the creator of this project, I really consider this a team effort. Everyone played a valuable part in the creation of the comic book and project. I met [artist] Dan Goldman at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City, and [we] hit it off on the spot. I think he signed on the next day. Dan is a remarkable artist and philosopher–he has brought a new perspective and look to the Hindu gods. His design is based on deep respect and affection for Hindu mythology and the power of the image. Each page is a stand-alone painting that can be mounted in a gallery. [Producer] Lina [Srivastava] has vast experience creating social impact strategies for documentary films and art projects. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships with major NGOs. She recently set up a partnership between the project and Apne Aap Women Worldwide–one of India’s leading NGOs supporting at-risk girls and women by ensuring them access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. Vikas K. Menon co-wrote “Priya’s Shakti” and Paromita Vohra co-wrote “Priya’s Mirror.”
This is the backstory of how the comic book started:
I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved [in] the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers–both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.
For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.
How do the Priya comics reflect traditional Hindu and Indian beliefs and legends? How do they challenge them?
I wanted to use constructs that already exist in India and also use popular mythological stories to address this problem. I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. Often a favorite disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor would seek help from the Goddess Parvati–only after she had nowhere else to turn. Although Lord Shiva and other gods get involved, eventually it is up to her to challenge people’s perceptions. I wanted to create a new Indian “superhero”–Priya, who is a rape survivor, and through the power of persuasion she is able to motivate people to change. Priya is the catalyst for change. Not the gods.
In my opinion, the core essence of Hinduism is about conquering your fears. In the story, Priya confronts the tiger that has been stalking her. She turns her fear, the tiger, into her power–her shakti. Also mythology is the story of us. In Hindu mythology, Parvati is the goddess that challenges Shiva, the other gods, and humans to open their eyes to sensitivity and struggles of others. For her, wisdom is meaningless if it does not enable the liberation of those who are trapped in fear. So, her role is to challenge Priya to conquer her fears, but it is up to Priya to motivate and challenge other humans.
Is Priya a more assertive character than most female Indian and Hindu characters or is she typical? Was her character inspired by film and other comic book heroines or by mythological heroines?
Priya is influenced by my interviews with rape survivors, but on a mythological level, she is an alternative representation of the Goddess Durga. Durga is the ultimate goddess of feminine power and empowerment, and she rides a tiger. We subverted that image by putting a rape survivor (Priya) on a tiger.
Why are there gods and goddesses (Shiva and Parvati) as characters in these stories? Were they included to bring a higher moral authority to the comics? Or just to make a more colorful story?
The Hindu gods have an important meaning in the comic book. Shiva is removed from human society, and is deep in meditation. At first he is unable to empathize with the sufferings of humans, but it is through Parvati that he changes from an “insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient” (Devdutt Pattanaik’s “The Seven Secrets of Shiva”). Shiva eventually believes that the human race can change, and allows Parvati to instill “shakti” into Priya, who then becomes the catalyst for change.
So, the Goddess Parvati is the awakening light in Priya and Shiva; the Goddess wants Shiva and the human race to empathize with Priya and other survivors of rape. She motivates Priya to conquer her fears and find her shakti and be the catalyst for change.
In Devdutt Pattanaik’s book “The Seven Secrets of Shiva,” he writes: “That is why the Goddess stands in opposition of Shiva as both the radiant Gauri, producing light, and as the dark Kali, consuming light…She hopes to change Shiva the insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient.”
“Priya’s Mirror” focuses more on men’s responsibilities in fighting gender-based violence than “Priya’s Shakti.” Can you talk about the demon-king character, Ahankar? Is he based on anyone in Indian mythology? How did his character develop?
Ahankar is an unusual and complex villain. He is born of acid and is a victim too. He is given a boon by Lord Shiva to either purify the acid he was forced to drink or make it more potent and dangerous. Unfortunately he chooses the latter. He feels he is a benevolent and caring King by hiding women who have survived acid attacks in his castle and away from the real world. He does not realize that by doing this, he is actually entrapping them in their fears and depression. We wanted to a show a male character who is also a victim of patriarchy. Patriarchy and indifference affects everyone. There is no direct influence in creating Ahankar, but characters like him are common motifs in Hindu mythology. A classical example is the demon-king Ravana in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
“Priya’s Mirror” also includes the stories of women other than Priya who have survived acts of gender-based violence, namely acid attacks. I think this is an interesting element because so many fairy tale and folklore collections have involved asking local people in a community to contribute their own experiences or stories passed down in their families. How were these women’s stories collected for “Priya’s Mirror”?
Last December 2015 I was in Delhi presenting the comic book at the Delhi Comic Con, and I had the chance to meet Sonia [Chowdhary] and Laxmi [Agarwal] with Stop Acid Attacks in their office. What I discovered after talking with them is that they faced the same cultural stigmas and reactions from society that rape survivors had to endure. How society treated them intensified the problem and their recovery. How they were treated by their family, neighbors, and society determined what they did next. Often they were treated like the villains and the blame was put on them. Our comic book focuses on this and tries to changes people’s perceptions of these heroic women. The comic book’s main character is Priya who is a survivor of gang rape and we wanted to continue her movement and adventures and by focusing on acid-attacks allowed her story and character to evolve. The correlations were too obvious and imperative.
I spoke with Sonia and Laxmi with Stop Acid Attacks in December 2015 and later with Monica Singh with the Mahendra Singh Foundation and Natalia in Colombia with Natalia Ponce de León Foundation. They all helped to create the characters and story. Here are their short videos: Sonia, Monica, Laxmi, Natalia
What is in the future for Priya? Any more stories in the series? Is there any chance Priya’s adventures will make the leap from augmented reality to TV or film in the future?
The next chapter is about sex trafficking, and we are working with Apne Aap Women Worldwide to develop the story. Dan and I were in Kolkata [in November] and interviewed exploited women in the red light areas. The story will be co-written with Emmy Award winner and advocate and founder of Apne Aap, Ruchira Gupta. The research is funded by the Jerome Foundation and we hope to release it in a year. We are looking into doing an animated short film, but financially it’s super expensive and we feel we get more impact continuing the comic book series.
Last, what is your favorite Hindu or Indian fairy tale or folk tale and why?
As a kid, I always loved the story of Ganesha. He is a fun and adorable deity whose story really resonates with kids. Also he is the god of good fortune, so all Hindus pray to him.
As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago went the way of the dinosaurs recently. Tiny Donkey was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review and was dedicated to short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its site being gone, I’ve been sharing a few of my own pieces here.
This one is the third and last editor’s note I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale The Ugly Duckling. I loved the tale as a child, and I admit I identified with the poor créatur. I didn’t fit in as a child. At all. And adulthood has felt like a full-on flail as well. I suppose most people feel that way, more of us than each of us realize. In any case, I worried about appearing too emo or po-faced in this piece. Still, I hope anyone who reads it likes it, and I hope it did Andersen’s touching tale justice. And yes, I stole the title from a Prince song.You can’t tell me the guy who played The Kid in Purple Rain wouldn’t have related to The Ugly Duckling as well.
Growing up, you were shy. Or maybe you were short, you were fat, you had bad teeth. You had frizzy hair, you wet the bed, you spoke with a stammer. You slept with a stuffed toy ‘til you were twelve, or ‘til you were twenty, or ‘til your monthly blood ran out and you began soaking the bed with night sweats and hot flashes and Mississippi-wide rivers of regrets. You’re almost an old woman now. Love and transcendence have passed you by. Those fairy tales you were fed by Hollywood and MTV and Hans Christian Andersen as a child, and the ones you fed yourself to get by, through the loneliness of the school playground, through the long tick-tocking overthinking of the night, through the daily treacheries of life – they all lied.
Which fairy tale was it you always went back to, the one you believed in most? The one with the song saying someday your prince would come? Or the one where the funny-looking little duckling (you don’t like to say “ugly” – it’s a word that’s been used against you so many times) turns into a stunner of a swan? Did you think that might be you one day? Did you really? All along, you should have paid more attention to the crone, the ogre, the unredeemed outcasts, the ones haunting the margins, or worse yet, the ordinary ones, the unmagical, the unnamed and underappreciated. Because these were your destiny – not the beautiful ones, not the princess and the swan.
Or maybe the fairy tales didn’t lie. You just saw in them what you wanted, took what you needed. Beauty, hope, promises of happily ever after, some danger to make things interesting, some fear to cut through the dull of the everyday. You simply ignored the despair. Even though all fairy tales, and all life, is rife with it. Like that moment in Andersen’s tale about the duckling, when the bullied little bird welcomes the beauty of spring and a bevy of swans with pure, piercing heartache:
“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter…”
Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.
“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.
In the next moment the duckling sees his reflection in the water, sees a swan looking back – his transformed self, his true tribe, his happily ever after. I wonder though, if the duckling had seen no change, no beauty, no swan staring back at him in the water, could he still have survived? Would he still have come to know happiness, belonging, self-love?
I need to know, same as every once and for-all-time misfit. Is there magic after all in despair? Can there be beauty in forsaken hope, transcendence without transformation, belonging when you’re the only one around to hear your own questions, a happy ending when the fairy tale, or life, or maybe yourself, is found so wanting?
Think back on the ones you paid too little attention to, while you were paying as little attention to the beauty in your worst and best self. The crone, the ogre, the marginal, the ordinary. The untransformed duckling. The resilient, the persisting, the interesting and astute, the ultimately self-accepting and wise. Lucky you – these were your destiny. The unbeautiful ones, who know how to make magic out of the most disappointing circumstances, to potion up an unbreakable spell of endurance out of yesterday’s cold pot of despair. Let them teach you to love whatever reflection stares back at you, to see the beauty in even a fantastically imperfect you.
As I wrote in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did my first interview with one of my favorite artists, Kelly Vivanco. I adore her work. Here’s the interview.
Kelly Vivanco is an artist whosepaintings invite viewers into a fairy tale-like world of mystery, wonder, and whimsy. A native of southern California, Vivanco earned her BFA with honors in 1995 from the Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach and has exhibited her work in galleries across the U.S. Vivanco’s pieces have featured in art shows with themes ranging from old school video games to Alice Through the Looking Glass to ghosts of Halloween past. She has also illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina and the Grimms’ Snow-White and Rose-Red. The narratives and characters of her original paintings, meanwhile, are just as compelling as those of classic fairy tales. In Vivanco’s paintings, children with enigmatic expressions navigate wondrous, secret spaces and interact with animals depicted in ways both otherworldly and familiar. A crack in a tree provides the perfect place for hiding marbles, a wombat sips from a can of soda pop, a pair of candy-striped frogs study a map in a forest, a bee feeds off plants growing out of a boy’s hat, and another tree grows cushions on its limbs for the comfort of a daydreaming girl and cat. I interviewed Vivanco to find out about the world she creates in her work and her inspirations.
Let’s begin by talking about your influences and what kind of things inspire your art. How would you describe your paintings to someone who’s never seen them?
I would say figurative–but not photo realistic. Sort of story-book–but not specific stories. Whimsical at times. Colorful. Quietly fantastical. I never feel like I have the description just right!
Do you aim to tell a story with each of paintings? Do you have a specific narrative in mind as you start on a piece? How does a painting of yours typically develop?
I don’t aim to tell a specific story. Rather than a narrative I go for the character. I keep sketchbooks of rough ideas and use my sketches to prompt me forward on a blank panel. I don’t like to overdevelop an idea or details before I get started because then the piece would feel “spooled out” already, like it had already lost its energy. The painting develops on the panel first with a rough formation with vine charcoal (easy to wipe off with a rag), then a tighter graphite drawing and then washes of colors. I tend to outline with darker colors, but not always. Areas get filled with color then washed and textured with other colors, details are added and glazes are built up. I use acrylic colors and mediums, so I don’t have to wait too long to build up layers.
You’ve created paintings for recent editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” What drew you to those stories? How different is it to create based on set narratives, like a classic fairy tale, versus making up your own narrative (if any) as you go? Do you feel you have to stick to any specific parameters or limitations when you paint “on commission” or according to a set narrative?
It is definitely more difficult to stick to a story when painting multiple pieces. The Snow White and Rose Red and Thumbelina books were done for specific publishers and they gave me a lot of freedom but it still felt limiting to stick to the story, keep the costumes consistent and paint the same characters over and over. Plus these are stories that people are familiar with, so there are loaded expectations and that makes it harder to be free creatively. Same with painting commissions. Even if there is free reign and “no expectations” I feel pressure to paint something the patron will like. I don’t mind too much though as I tend to like the finished pieces quite a bit. Commissions push me in a way, but the feeling isn’t quite the same as when I paint whatever I feel like at the time.
Like many fairy tales, all your paintings feature children or animals, or both. But remarkably, sentimentality isn’t a quality of your work. Instead, your paintings are imbued with mystery, wonder, independence and curiosity, depth of emotion, and sometimes even darker themes like fear, danger, or loneliness. How do you keep the sentimental out of your work? Have your paintings been viewed by children as well as adults? If so, is there any difference in the reaction?
That is nice to hear! I don’t like overly sentimental or saccharine art, so I try not to fall into that…pastiche? I do hold a seed of a feeling and treat the figures in my work like they have their own motivations and feelings. I hope this comes through to the viewer. Reactions are varied based off of the individual viewer’s experience and everyone has their own interpretation of the narratives they believe the work has. Younger viewers tend more to interpret an adventure or relationship narrative, especially if there are animals in the painting. Adults key more into the inner dialog they pick up in the “characters,” or they see themselves or their siblings. I have painted so many unintentional “sisters” or “daughters”!
I’ve read you collect vintage children’s books. What are some of your treasures? Any fairy tales or fantasy books? What else do you collect?
I love everything from Richard Scarry and Nancy Drew to the old school fairy books. I have vintage Black Beauty and Snow White, Raggedy Ann, Mother Goose, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Halloween stories, and Wallace Tripp illustrated books. The internet makes it so much easier to find and collect images from books I would never have a chance to see in person, like mid-century Russian illustrations.
I have a large collection of old photographs as well. I have been finding and buying them from antique stores and flea markets since I was a teenager. Sometimes a person in one of these old photos will inspire a whole painting just with the look in their eye.
What is your favorite fairy tale or folktale and why?
I have read so many that they start to run together with so many quests and beasts and curses but The Brothers Grimm tale of The Juniper Tree sticks with me. It’s perfectly gruesome and has the requisite evil stepmother!
If you had to give a name to the world you create in your paintings, what would it be?
In C.S. Lewis’ book “The Magician’s Nephew” there is a place that is lush green and so peaceful that you can hear the plants growing. The “wood between worlds” is strewn with pools that go to different worlds. I have always loved the idea of that place so something like that would be perfect.
As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did this interview with the great Irish poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. It was a tremendous pleasure to get to correspond with her for this.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.
After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.
Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.
Your poems are so rich in images and characters from folklore, fairy tales, and mythology, it makes me wonder what role these genres play in your everyday life. Do you regularly read fairy tales or books about folklore and myth, or is your knowledge of folklore drawn from memory and stories you’ve heard? What inspires you to write a poem using fairy tale/mythical images?
I haven’t read a book of fairy or folktales in years—the last one probably Italian Folktales translated from many different Italian dialects by Italo Calvino, which came into the house in the early ‘80s and was fought over so much by my children Timuchin and Melissa that they tore it in two. (It was a very fat paperback, and they are notorious for falling apart.) I remember having to call down to them once “who has the half that has the introduction?” for something I was writing.
But there were no children’s books in the house when I was growing up so I tore through a set of books left from my grandfather—Myths and Legends of the World, a series of scholarly books from the beginning of the 20th century, and it answered a deep need in me.
It seems that the archetypal level of reality is much more alive in me than any other level. The same could be said of three of my four children, one of whom writes screenplays, and the other two, who have a real artistic bent. Recently I read that, what with all the neuroscanning, etc. they can do now, that they have found certain strict patterns of brain movements, which are really a physical proof of what Jung intuited as archetypes. I got an email recently from the poet Tom McCarthy, where he mentioned my “brilliantly symbolic life.” I had to laugh. About 10 years ago my father died. He was trodden to death by cattle, which is what you would associate with the Paleolithic rather than the 21st century AD. I happened to meet the writer Nuala O’Faolain on the corner of 2nd Ave and 5th Street in New York City shortly afterwards. I told her what had happened. Her response was “How is it, Nuala, that everything that happens to you has to be so mythological?” So there you have it. I think the mythological level is more active in me than any other, say, realistic, level. So it naturally expresses itself as archetypes, in poetry.
But what I really love to do is to go in to the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin and read the stories in the manuscripts there. These give me a physical pleasure so strong, it is all I can do sometimes not to break into tears. This is the oral tradition at its best, what I heard the tail-end of when I was sent to Kerry from England at age 5. A richness of tradition cultivated by the works of thousands of scribes, who wrote down much of the medieval corpus in little copybooks, right up to the time of the Famine, mostly in Munster [province in the south of Ireland] and East Ulster [province in the north of Ireland], so that the oral tradition was enriched enormously. An example, I once spent an afternoon talking to a farmer, Mickey Long, as he dug up potatoes in the autumn. We were looking out over the expanse of Ventry harbour. He told me how, as a young boy in 1912, the whole British Atlantic fleet had come into the harbour and were at rest there. He told me the names of the flagships, the Indefatigable, the Defence, etc. He said he and his friends had rowed out to them and given them mackerel and got cigarettes in return. Then he used a phrase that translated means “the ships were so thick on the water that you could walk from the farthest out of them right into the shore without wetting your feet,” which I recognised at once as a line from the medieval text “The Battle of Ventry,” written in Regensburg in what is now Germany by an Irish monk in 1353. That kind of richness, that was kept alive for centuries, is what I absolutely exult in.
You’ve suggested in essays and other interviews that there’s a connection between expressing yourself in Irish and deeper emotional accessibility compared to writing or conversing in English. Can you talk about that? Is it the same for poetry, since you’ve written more poetry than you have any other form of writing? Do you find poetry a more accessible means for writing about emotions or about the mythical world than other kinds of writing?
I write poetry exclusively in Irish. I can only write poetry in Irish, as it seems to be where my emotions are located. I think rationally mostly in English, because most of the books, etc that I have around me are in English, but that only engages one part of my brain. Feelings come out in Irish. Imagination also. I luckily discovered this at a very young age, at 16, when in the middle of writing a poem in the study (instead of doing my French exercise) I suddenly realized that I was actually writing Irish prosody in English, and that was a stupid thing to be doing, why don’t I write it in Irish? Which I did, and I realized it was much better. The words seemed to sit more naturally on the emotions. I realized I was only a poet in Irish, not English. I never looked back. Irish, for better or worse, is the language of my emotions and imagination, and as I have said earlier, the imagino-emotional level is the most alive part of my psyche, so, ipso facto, it has to be in Irish. Mind you, I didn’t know any of this when I started out. It was by the very act of writing that all this became conscious.
I have written the odd short story in Irish also, which I am about to bring together this summer in a collection called after the longest story in the collection, “Sean-chathracha na hAise Bige,” which could be translated as “The Ancient Cities of Asia Minor.” I owe it to Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge [Irish Books Board], so I just have to finish it and clear the decks before I do anything else. My son is always at me to write a memoir, in English, so that the things that happened to me back in the early 1970s do not happen, even in a different form, to anyone else. I am collecting material for it, like going into the Wards of Court office etc, but I see it a few years down the road. In the meantime I am working on a new collection in Irish, Urú, which means an eclipse of both the grammatical and celestial kind.
Do you think there’s something that makes Irish unique in terms of storytelling about the Otherworld, the unseen and unproven, the subconscious or subliminal? Do you think this is an advantage or characteristic of minority languages in general or something special to Irish?
Well, in a post-religious, increasingly rational and empirical world, anything that keeps the imagino-emotional part of us alive, and allows it to function, is to be cherished and cultured. After all this is what makes us different from, and superior to, robots. Mind you, rationality has its time and place also. After all I was married to a very exact scientist for 40 years, and he was always pulling me up on my “woolly” thinking. And rightly so. I am a great believer in science and what it can discover and create, but it is not the whole picture. We are, rightly or wrongly, only occasionally rational animals. You only have to look at Brexit and the election of Trump to see that. And all the “hoo-ha” in Irish society about illegitimate children throughout the large part of the 20th century is another proof. Think of it, your daughter gets pregnant at 16. The rational reaction should be to be delighted, as it means you have a fertile daughter, and the next generation is accounted for. Instead you had this whole collective reaction of shame and the madness of locking poor young girls in penal institutions, often for their whole lives, and stigmatizing both them and their children ad infinitum. How logical or rational is that? If our emotional and imaginational levels are expressed freely, for instance through the arts, then maybe we can learn not to mix up things and have our emotions express themselves in all kinds of inappropriate manners. I have a very basic theory—that when Irish people switched language to English, their emotions were left behind in the Irish they refused to use or teach to their children. That is what my mermaid poems are all about. When you read the material in the manuscripts in the Department of Folklore, the sheer imaginative richness that pervaded people’s lives is astonishing. And because the medieval manuscript tradition was kept alive for so long, sometimes by ordinary farmhands, who copied them down into paper copies, at night, by the light of seal-oil tapers, Irish does have a long and very rich repertoire for discussing the non-rational and sometimes downright uncanny. I’m sure all languages do, Irish is not an exception. But minority languages, that haven’t undergone the rationalizing effects of Aristotelian schooling, have maybe an advantage.
The Fifty Minute Mermaid is my favorite collection of yours. It’s so sharp and complex in observation and emotion, and also so beautiful and evocative in imagery. Most of its poems are about mermaids and merfolk, and many of them are humorous, but there’s also an underlying sense of trauma throughout the collection. Of the merfolk suffering and surviving, and even inflicting, various forms of trauma. The title of the collection suggests the time of a typical therapy session. I’ve heard you speak about this collection and about Irish folk beliefs in general as a projection of the Irish people’s inner landscape, as the unconscious of the community. Can you talk about about that notion and how it affects your use of mythology and folklore in your work? Is there a relationship in your view between folklore or fairy tales and trauma?
I’m glad you like my mermaids, as a lot of people don’t seem to understand or appreciate them. Because they are not really mermaids, they are my birth family, with scales and gills attached. You see, in Ireland confessional poetry of the kind often written in America is really a no-go, as we are so hugely and deeply related to and networked with each other on this tiny island, and so madly curious about each other. So I take Emily Dickinson’s dictum to heart: “Tell the whole truth, but tell it slant.” Also by changing everyone into merfolk, I can perhaps reach at a truth that goes deeper than just something depending on the significant details of my own life. This is what poetry has always done for me. In doing so, it has helped me from going mad.
Only now, as I recover from my husband’s death, do I realize that a lot of this madness is still within and around me, and that only by writing can I still keep myself sane. And the folklore material, which I am convinced is a projection outwards of our collective paysage intérieure, is the perfect “objective correlative.” To express many things. Including trauma.
Many of your poems feature islands, either specific ones like the Blaskets (or Ireland of course) or unnamed, mythical islands. Is there a place or landscape you find more inspiring to write about? Where do you most like to write?
The fact that many of my poems feature islands, well, that has of course a lot to do to the place I was exiled to at age 5. The parish of Ventry, with the Blaskets just around the corner, and a view out at sea to the Scellig Rocks (about to be made famous worldwide by their use as a background in the next Star Wars). I wrote a series of poems called “Imramm” when I was dreaming a lot of islands. I think, retrospectively, that it was about a part of my personality that had been cut off, like an island, and that was emerging from the subconscious and becoming part of my main personality. I find walking Ventry strand a marvellous aid to writing poems, or rather getting the main action of the poem going. I finish it off then later, in the quiet shelter of my tiny little southwest-facing room in Dublin. And I mean tiny—six feet by eight feet. I am very loath to leave it, and will refuse to move anywhere else until I get a suitable substitute.
Do you have a favorite fairy tale or folk tale? If so, which one and why?
Yes, it is known in Irish as either “An Gadharaín Bán” (“The Little White Dog”) or “An Gabairin Bán” (“The Little White Goat”). There are a few versions of it in the Department of Folklore material. There is a version from Peig Sayers which I love, but my all-time favourite version is a version by Máire Ruiséal, also known as Cú an Tobair. Actually I found out that it is from a book of Norwegian stories translated into English sometime in the mid-19th century, where it is about a white bear. Of course, there are no bears in Ireland, so the story was naturalized as being about a different animal. P.J. Lynch has illustrated a version of it as East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which I managed to pick up one time for my kids in America. It is a modern version of the Amor and Psyche story and a wonderful girl’s quest story. It is interesting that it is the story picked by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for inclusion in the women’s volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature. The versions Peig and Máire tell are basically the same but the telling is so different—Peig’s is wonderfully baroque, with all sorts of curlicues and digressions, while Máire’s is very straight, with the wonderful interpolation to [story collector] Joe Daly, who was using the edeophone with her. “Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an…a Joe, an féidir liom an focal Bearla a úsáid? The children of the king were playing out in the…Joe, can I use the English word? I can, alright then, Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an bpiazza.”
I also love the different versions that exist of “The Handless Maiden,” a version of which I used as the introduction to my first book, An Dealg Droighinn. The dealg droighinn is the equivalent of the blackthorn thorn that the maiden has to pull out of her brother’s leg, even though he has cut off her hands. I intuitively knew that that was the story of my life. Also, the various versions of the [fairy tale about the] man who unwittingly sells his daughter to the devil, including the well-known one of “Beauty and the Beast.”
There are a whole lot of them but somehow I don’t need them as absolutely totally as I used to. I’ve worked out a lot of my obsessions in my poetry, and so they no longer come back to haunt me.
As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I wrote for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet.
This is the first piece I wrote for Tiny Donkey, before I served as a volunteer editor. The journal hosted a “Once Upon a Cartographer” short essay contest, and this is what I submitted. It’s about two Irish women: Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish playwright, folklore collector, and cofounder (with Yeats et al) of the Abbey Theatre; and Biddy Early, the Irish-speaking purported witch/wise woman. This one 2nd place in the contest.
Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.
But Gregory needed Biddy. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.
Both women were western Irish—Biddy born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Biddy was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Biddy’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?
Biddy survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.
Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.
As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago has gone offline. It was called Tiny Donkey, and it was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review dedicated to very short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its disappearance went all the writing of its contributors, including some essays I wrote and commissioned and interviews with other writers and artists. I decided to share a few of my own pieces here over the next few weeks.
This one is the first editor’s note (but not essay) I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about the American pioneer folklore anti-hero Mike Fink. I wrote and published this literally days before the 2016 election that saw Trump rise to power.
As a personal note, I once got some feedback about this piece by someone who called it “weak.” Usually I welcome feedback or editing suggestions, but this was one time when I think the reader misunderstood the tone. It’s written in an intentionally understated, matter-of-fact tone, to match the speaking tone and verbal style of the people in the part of the country where Mike Fink lore comes from, for better or worse–Midwestern people, Mississippi River people, people like my family, like my many Iowa and Illinois relatives, and like me. So here it is: “Modern-Day Mike Finks.”
Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.
It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.
Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?
Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.
I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.
I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.
It’s nothing personal, of course. These places where this happens tend to be small, entirely unfunded journals and sites that the creators/founders/editors are working on in their little free time as a labor of love. Eventually, either they find they have less time and energy to keep the journal going or feel they’ve accomplished just about everything they first intended when they created the journal or maybe more personal, pressing issues come up in their lives. In any case, they shut down the journal/site and all its poems, essays, artwork, and stories disappear from the internet forever. (One outlier case of a journal where an especially favorite essay of mine was published, the website was hacked and the journal only got back its poetry and fiction content–the non-fiction section of the site was just wiped out and never got back. So all its non-fiction content pre-hacking has remained erased.)
Whenever this happens–and again, it seems to be happening more and more in the past two or three years–I feel torn between just being grateful I had work published to begin with and disappointed that stuff I was finally able to successfully place somewhere keeps disappearing from potential readers’ view. It brings up a lot of conflicting feelings in me about writing and my self-worth: If I were a better writer I would be getting published in more stable venues. If I were a more ambitious writer I would be writing and submitting more and getting published more often and have more work out there to balance out the stuff that vanishes. If I were a smarter writer I would pick journals that have a print option for their issues, so even if the digital version comes down someday, I always have my print copy as proof of publishing.
And all of this is true–if I were better, faster, and smarter and less lazy or less insecure, anxious, and self-doubting, I’d be a whole different person. A much more successful person. Probably someone without a homemade website. Probably not someone with four cats who sits on her cheap foam-stuffed couch and writes emotive third-rate poetry and overly-Irish-focused essays and quirky short Midwestern-suburban angst stories that get an acceptance at a rate of one maybe every other year or so at this point before suddenly getting deleted like they were never written or read or accepted or published to begin with.
Or maybe none of its true. I learned several years ago that my pace of doing things is my business and no one else’s. The same goes for my voice–speaking, writing, creative, or IRL. (I’ve had a recurring stammer and a quiet voice since childhood, and if you knew some of the things I’ve heard and dealt with from people because of the way I speak…)
I’ve resolved these cases of disappearing publishing credits by just re-posting the stuff on this site. But because it’s happening more and more now, I thought I should post something to explain why this stuff keeps getting add to my own site.
One digital journal that I had a piece accepted in a few years ago, and then served as a volunteer editor at for a year, seems to have vanished in the past couple months. As volunteer editor, I contributed a few more pieces from that initial essay published on the site–several editors’ notes and interviews–plus one essay I commissioned from a fantastic American poet living overseas whose work deserves more recognition in the U.S. About three of these pieces I was especially proud of. The journal actually closed down a few years ago, around the time my and the other volunteer editors’ tenure there was coming to a close anyway. The founding editor decided they had done what they wanted to do when they first started the journal and was ready to move on–which I respected then and respect now. The journal, however, was hosted by a larger print and digital lit journal, so the site (and all our work as writers and editors) stayed “alive”–up until recently it seems. I have no idea what happened–I suppose the larger journal just felt it was time to close the section of their site devoted to the smaller, defunct journal. It’s their prerogative, and it’s a choice to be respected, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling disappointed.
I found this out only because I’ve recently mustered some bit of confidence again–after about a year and a half of anxiety issues that kept me from much productivity at all–to finish and submit some pieces and was looking for examples of past work to highlight for any editors/venues that might accept my new stuff. It’s always nice to be able to show to a potential future editor that you’ve been able to find readership for your work in the past and there are other editors out there who’ve taken a chance on you.
Because of the personal satisfaction I gained from working on some of those pieces for this journal, I’ll be posting them over the next few weeks. But this yet-another-ghosting of work has got me thinking of how to take better control of my writing, and in a way that doesn’t lead me down a road of self-doubt or irrational guilt.
A couple years ago I started to consider seriously getting a collection of some of my work together to publish, either with a publisher or DIY. I decided on a DIY route and started putting a manuscript together and researching reputable self-publishing methods. I kept putting off finalizing the project though because there were still a few more pieces I was working on and wanting to complete and include in the collection. Would it make you lose all respect for me (assuming it was there to begin with) if I admitted I’m still snail pacing my way through one of those pieces? And that in the meantime I’ve maybe diverted myself by writing other (less pressing, in terms of fitting into the DIY project) stuff?
But these vanishings of time, heart, and work–of labor, there’s no less of a word for it–bring back to me the urgency of finalizing the project. Whether or not any of these disappeared sites and journals ever come back, and whether or not I keep re-posting my vanished work on this site, I want something of my gathered work in print that myself and others can have in hand as a record of my labor and proof of the importance of my voice as much as anyone else’s in this world. I want something that the fickleness and transiency of the internet can’t erase. And I still prefer print anyway. I’ll ride or die with print.
So here’s hoping by the end of the year I can get something together and make some print collection offering a reality, something that will include a few of these pieces that the internet has ghosted away.
Of all the stories whirling around Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, the best one, meaning the most Chicago one, isn’t about ghosts or superstition but class. Hauntings and horror stories are a staple of cemeteries the world over, but only a city with a labor struggle pedigree like Chicago’s — site of the 1886 Haymarket Riot, setting for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,and birthplace of the International Workers of the World — could spawn a cemetery legend like the one about George Pullman.
If you don’t know the Pullman Graceland legend — or even who Pullman was — you’ll hear about him here in due time. There are some other people I want you to know about first. Some people just as important in my book of Chicago history, who share the same resting grounds as Pullman: my great-grandfather Karl Ostberg and my great-grandmother Anna Nelson Ostberg.
Like George Pullman, Karl and Anna each have a plot in Graceland Cemetery on the city’s north side — though “plot” isn’t quite the word for Pullman’s spot, as you’ll see.
Karl and Anna are buried in graves marked by small, flat, rectangle-shaped slabs with nothing but their names and birth and death dates for an inscription. They lie in the southeast section of Graceland, with a cemetery road marking one boundary of the section and a wall where Chicago’s red line elevated train runs along marking another boundary. My great-grandfather lies right up against this wall, right at the cemetery’s perimeter. Which means to visit his grave, you’ll inevitably have to endure the roar and rattle of the el passing by at some point. The el tracks are so close, the train shakes the wall. My great-grandmother lies a few rows in from the wall, near a tree, but still close enough that her grave bears the train rumble night and day too.
Almost all the graves around them are like theirs. Flat and simple with just a name and date inscription and the occasional “Baby” or “Mother” or “Father” — or “Mutter” and “Vater,” as this is a section of immigrants. Many of the names end in “son” or “sen” or “berg,” which suggests the place of origin for these people was Scandinavia. This was true for my great-grandparents. Karl and Anna were emigrants from Norway who came to the U.S. in 1906 along with their four children: my grandfather John Trygve Ostberg and my great-aunts Alfield and Astrid and great-uncle Victor. After arriving in Chicago, they lived not far from Graceland, near Southport and Byron, and the children were enrolled in a school nearby (James G. Blaine). In Chicago, Karl would find work as a carpenter. Anna would have one more baby, Dorothy, but wouldn’t live to take care of her. She died during childbirth in 1912. Karl died in 1927.
The gap in time probably explains the gap between their graves — perhaps their graves would’ve been closer together had they died with fewer years between them. More likely it was an economic issue.
Karl and Anna were working-class people. Their children wouldn’t do much schooling beyond grammar school. As an adult Trygve, my grandfather, was drafted into World War I and afterward worked as a mechanic and then as a janitor during the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s. His son, my father, was born almost a year to the day before the stock market crash that ushered in the Depression. He and my aunt ensuingly had the kind of childhood you’d expect given the national economic circumstances and their status as first-generation Americans born to uneducated working-class immigrants. Dad worked as a child (and I do mean child, not teenager), selling Christmas trees out of a lot during the winter, selling flowers in taverns in the summer (the idea being that people who’d had a few might be more likely to part with their money). He and my aunt took turns going to the local bakery every day to ask for the old bread, a task they both hated for the shame of it. For a time they lived near a coalyard and railroad tracks and my dad and his friends had a better time waiting for coal cars to come and go so they could gather the coal pieces that fell off the cars. Once my grandfather even drove with my dad beyond the city limits to farmland to try and steal a few ears of corn out of the cornfields (they were able to nab a few ears, only to find out it was cattle corn).
My dad’s family lived in Lakeview, but it wasn’t much like the Lakeview that people know today. They lived in a series of homes over the years, getting evicted from one after another for not being able to pay the rent, each home more run-down than the next. There are a couple pictures of my dad and my aunt from those days, about 8 or 9 years old and standing outside the house they were currently living in. You can see the house behind them, with a big gaping hole in the side of it. Not an open doorway or cellar door or anything — just a big gaping hole that they were too poor to get fixed properly. This was the house by the coalyard and railroad line, in the 3300 block of N. Racine, a back lot house. These days the fashionable term is “coach house,” a kind of property in high demand. The coalyard and railroad tracks are gone from that neighborhood, and according to some real estate sites the “coach house” has been thoroughly rehabbed and now features a skylight, a Jacuzzi, and “cathedral ceilings.” When my dad lived in it, its features were a rat and roach problem and no tub or shower for washing yourself.
It might sound to today’s generations like something out of a sad book or movie, a cliché, maybe even a joke. Well, it wasn’t and it isn’t. It was his life and his childhood, and anyone who really knows Chicago history — its full history, its people’s history — knows this was how it was for thousands of its citizens. Chicago wasn’t always a city of wine bars along the river, “craft” donuts and breweries and coffee chains, and banal You Are Beautiful “street art.” Not even close. Still isn’t, despite the best efforts of the city’s wealthy and gentrification.
All of this is to say: My great-grandparents got the gravestones and burial plots they and their children could best afford — and they probably had to scrape together every penny just to buy them.
But a gravestone is worth it. Gravestones are important. Even poor men’s gravestones like the plain ones at the periphery, in the “cheap seats” so to speak, of a cemetery. So scrape together is what the survivors do. In Western cultures, a gravestone is a record of a life lived, a proof of existence and a marker of respect and humanity. Karl’s and Anna’s humble plots showed my great-grandparents were here, on earth and among the community, and that someone cared about them. That they were loved and respected enough to be buried properly, to be identified and represented.
Gravestones are so important, so symbolic of the bodies and human life they literally guard over, when one gets vandalized — toppled or broken or written on or stolen — it’s considered a major desecration and dishonor. The idea of someone messing with your loved ones’ burial plots produces horror in most sane-thinking people. There’s no justification for damaging the resting plots of dead people, and we know it and we have laws against it as well as social taboos. We write horror plots about it, knowing audiences will viscerally react to the notion of the living taking advantage of the dead.
Likewise, we pity people who died too poor or alone to have any gravestone. There’s a difference between a person who chooses cremation or a “green burial” and someone who just has nothing or no one to even make the choice of what happens to their body after death. An unmarked grave is a mark of shame — at the very least, we feel sorry for the unknown souls who went out in such an anonymous fashion. In Graceland, a good example of this is the burial plot of the brother of one of the most famous and influential writers in the English language. Augustus Dickens’, brother of the great novelist Charles Dickens, led a life as colorful as one of his brother’s characters, but he died destitute in Chicago in 1866. He and his common-law wife and their children were all buried in unmarked plots — small, flat, round markers with just the plot number on them — in a section on the west side of Graceland Cemetery. While Dickens’ brother’s fate was no secret — the cemetery keeps records of all the people buried there, even if the plots don’t give a name — it was still seen as a sad and pathetic, that the close family of someone so famous and revered was lying in a pauper’s grave, not far from the great mausoleums of others so famous and revered. Until about 15 years ago, when some fans of Charles and descendants of Augustus decided to pool together some funds and momentum to buy Augustus and his family a proper headstone. Why did they do it? Out of respect and humanity. Because that’s what a headstone means to most people — my own family, including Karl and Anna, no exception.
One more comparison now. Between Karl and Anna’s plots (or even the Chicago Dickens’) and railroad magnate George Pullman’s. Pullman’s gravesite is in another section of Graceland from my family’s. While Pullman’s also has just his name and lifespan dates on it, it’s a headstone, not a flat stone, standing maybe a foot or so above the ground. Oh and behind it is a monument — an actual monument, also with Pullman’s name, only this time in huge letters, and a towering Corinthian column on a platform with steps leading up to two curved benches on either side. It’s not exactly easy to miss, in other words.
Surrounded by trees and lawn, Pullman’s monument is neighbor to the tombs and mausoleums of some of Chicago’s most wealthy and influential former residents: Daniel Burnham, Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, the McCormicks, Joseph Medill, Charles Wacker — the kind of folks everyone in Chicago knows by name, since these are the names plastered all over the city, on street signs, on hotels, all over downtown Chicago. The people who built Chicago, you might say — so long as you don’t take the word “built” too literally. So long as you don’t reserve it for anyone who actually builds things…say, a railroad laborer or a carpenter.
The contrast between graves like my great-grandparents’ and those of people like Pullman has always, in my opinion, been what made Graceland Cemetery such an interesting and revealing place. Same cemetery, same city, but the contrast in the spaces allotted to Chicago citizens from opposite ends of the class spectrum shows what a divisive and unequal place Chicago (and by extension, America) has always been. And still is, as the people who run Graceland have recently made clear.
A year ago my parents and I went to Graceland only to discover we couldn’t see or even get to our family’s graves anymore. They hadn’t been removed — not as far as we can tell. Instead they’ve been completely covered over with a wide patch of weeds over six feet tall and too thick to walk through or even see the ground, meaning the graves themselves.
When I say “completely covered” and “too thick to walk through” I’m not exaggerating. That day, I tried to get through the weeds to Anna’s grave but I may as well have tried sprinting through the deep of an ocean. And even as I started to try, it occurred to me I had a good chance of a snake or rat or coyote leaping out at me (no, not hysteria on my part — a family of coyotes has been regular visitors to the cemetery for years now, tolerated for helping to keep the rodent population down). The back wall by the el, where Karl lies, was also drowning in weeds and thicket, and frankly it all looked like a mess. My dad stood in a path in the middle of all this looking one way, then the next, confused and trying to figure out what happened to his grandparents’ resting place.
Who did this? And what is this?
Apparently, this field of weeds is Graceland’s “prairie restoration project.” Or “prairie installation.” Something like that. Graceland started installing it in 2014, with the accomplishment of a design firm called Wolff Landscape Architecture and a landscaping contractor called the Pizzo Group.
The “prairie” covers 2.5 acres, specifically the entire southeast section (where my family’s graves are), a section of probably at least 100 graves. It has not been planted near any of the graves in the sections where wealthier people are buried, nor has any part of it been installed in an empty section with no graves (more on that in a minute). It extends from the perimeter wall (by the el) to a couple feet before the lawn (or at least, what used to be the lawn) meets the cemetery road. There are a couple “paths” mowed through the weeds that leave a few graves exposed, but otherwise all the plots that stand for the human beings buried there are completely invisible and inaccessible.
There is also no sign anywhere that lists the people buried there, nothing acknowledging them for visitors and descendants to at least read and reflect on, much less to aid in locating specific graves. Instead, the Pizzo Group has installed 3 or 4 informational signs about prairie flowers, birds, trees, and their project itself throughout the section. Their name is on every sign. Not the names of the people who rest here and whose families bought these plots — just Pizzo.
That day, while trying to figure out what had happened, the only person around to ask was a caretaker or security guard at the front gate who told us if we wanted to see our family’s graves “all we have to do” is call ahead a couple weeks and the cemetery would be happy to “mow a path” to our loved ones’ graves so we could pay our respects. In other words, from now on we need to ask the cemetery’s permission to see the graves my family bought and paid for and nag the cemetery about mowing a path to even get to the graves. Which also means we’d have to trust that someone will actually follow through with this by the day we’d been given permission to come and see our family’s graves — and that the “path” was mowed to the correct ones. Same for the descendants of anyone else buried in that particular section.
Graceland’s and the Pizzo Group’s grand idea is to “bring back” the prairie to Chicago. Because a long long time ago this is supposedly what Chicago looked like before being settled by Europeans: a big random weed thicket on top of old headstones.
In actuality, most of the land that we now know as “Chicago” was more swamp, sand, and woodland than prairie. Prairie was the landscape of areas farther south and west of city limits. Also, while the people who lived here long ago (i.e., Native Americans) did indeed perform controlled burns as a way to manage the land and plant and tree growth, for the love and respect of all things sacred they probably didn’t do it where their dead ancestors were preserved or buried. To flagrantly disregard a site set aside for remembering and keeping the bodies of the dead by setting fire to it, throwing down some seeds, and nailing up some informational signs would have been viewed as immense disrespect for one’s ancestors and community.
If I sound angry, it’s because I am — and so is my father and the rest of our family.
The day my parents and I discovered what had been done we went home stunned and upset. We took pictures, we told the rest of the family (my 5 siblings and my father’s sister and cousins). We made some more attempts to contact someone at the cemetery (and Pizzo Group) by email and phone to find out more about this project, who had green-lighted it, if anyone had asked the descendants’ permission—but we never got any response. My parents returned to the cemetery a couple more times over the winter and spring to see if the “prairie” looked any better or had been tamed a bit — maybe the cemetery responded by clearing some of the weeds away a bit, my dad hoped. But it all looked just as bad as the day we discovered it last summer. If anything, outside of summer, when the weeds have no flower blooms, it all just looks even rattier and bizarre.
Since then my father has brought up the problem numerous times. He cannot believe this has happened to his grandparents’ graves, in the city and neighborhood he grew up in. He doesn’t know what to do about it, doesn’t know how Graceland’s board and these landscaping contractors can just steamroll ahead with a project so flagrantly disrespectful and poorly thought out.
And that’s the most apt word for this project: desecration.
It makes little difference whether anyone finds this so-called “prairie” pretty or “natural.” Or what the intentions were of everyone involved. Though it’s hard not to question those as well.
If the Graceland board and Pizzo and Wolff et al really thought they were doing something so “beautifying” and environmentally progressive, why didn’t they get the word out about their plans ahead of time? Why didn’t they announce their project beforehand and give others — namely, the descendants of the people buried in Graceland, especially in the affected section — a chance to give feedback or have their say? Why didn’t they ask permission? Which, to make it clear what’s so wrong with this project, they didn’t do. They didn’t ask permission.
Most of the information about this project is only on the Pizzo Group’s and Graceland Cemetery’s websites, rather than in the larger Chicago news, or anywhere the larger community could have seen it and commented on it. There’s undoubtedly a reason for that. Descendants would’ve been pesky about it. They would’ve pointed out what a bad and disrespectful idea it was and is.
Also not in the project masterminds’ “good intentions” favor is the fact that this “prairie” was not installed in one of the empty sections of Graceland. Why not? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Take a section where no one is buried, where no headstones are, and plant the seeds there. No one is disturbed in their eternal rest, no families are blocked from future viewings, no one gets upset or disrespected. But my guess is this: $$$$. No one gets paid either. Those empty areas of the cemetery are potential plots, meaning future income for Graceland. Meanwhile, they already have Karl and Anna’s money. And I guess it’s just too bad Karl and Anna and their children (and all the other people buried in the southeast section) gave Graceland their trust as well.
Same goes for descendants like us. Even if Karl and Anna didn’t have the grandest gravesites in the place, my family (certainly my dad) always took a bit of pride in the fact that they were buried in such a beautiful and famous cemetery. My ancestors may not have been rich and famous, and most visitors to the cemetery probably weren’t even aware of or interested in the section where they rest — too busy beelining to the mausoleums (as well as some of the creepier-looking, supposedly haunted graves on the grounds) —but as far as we were (and are) concerned, Karl and Anna count just as much as any and everyone else buried in Graceland.
And we, the descendants, were a living presence in the cemetery too. My family has been coming to Graceland to visit Karl and Anna’s graves since before I was born — my five older siblings all have childhood memories of visiting. After my father got married in 1954, he and my mother lived in an apartment just a few blocks from Graceland, at Clark and Byron. Even as they moved farther away over the years, to the Dunning neighborhood and then to the northwest suburbs, they never forgot Karl and Anna’s graves. I visited Graceland as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. I’ve visited with my parents and siblings, with friends, and on my own. When I lived in Lincoln Square between 2000 and 2008, I used to walk over on the weekends and visit Karl and Anna. I’d often find their graves covered in dirt and leaves, sinking a bit into the earth, and I’d do my best to scrape off the mud that was starting to cover them. When my aunt June (my dad’s sister) came back to Chicago to visit from Iowa, my dad would take her to Graceland to see their grandparents’ graves, as well as to their parents’ in Edens Cemetery. My siblings have also visited Graceland as adults, on their own or with their families.
With a cemetery as famous as Graceland, one that has such famous people buried in it — architects, dancers, athletes, city planners and builders, inventors and entrepreneurs — it can be easy to forget that there are ordinary Chicagoans buried there too, and ordinary Chicagoans still visiting there, for non-starstruck reasons. It’s not all just tourists and ghost hunters. Some of us in the city and surrounding suburbs actually have family resting there, family we remember, care about, and still take the time to go and pay our respects too. Isn’t that what a cemetery is for? If you’re in the cemetery business, or serving on a cemetery board, for any other reason than protecting and honoring the dead buried there and the wishes of their descendants, you’re in the wrong business. If you’re in it for tourism, for example, or for landscape architecture awards or environmentalism kudos, you’ve got no business being in the business of the dead.
Why did the Graceland board allow this? What were they thinking? Who do they think they serve? Who do they think a cemetery is for? I’d really like to know, because when I research this project, I find weird remarks like this one from the head of the landscape architect firm (Wolff) to the other landscape firm(Pizzo): “Everybody who is involved with the project is blown away by how quickly it looked so good. This includes, I’m sure, if I could only hear them, tens of thousands of riders per day on the CTA Red and Purple Lines, who look down into the cemetery on their way to and from the loop.” And all I can say is, I really have to wonder if the speaker of this opinion has been on public transit a day in his life, especially the red line, if he thinks those of us financially or otherwise limited to relying on the el and buses of this city spend our commutes fawning all over cemetery landscaping. But yeah, Ted, it looks so good and stuff. If you could only hear us.
It angers me, as I’m sure it angers my parents, that my father, Karl and Anna’s grandson, has lived to the age of 91, survived the poverty of his childhood and the Great Depression as well as serving in a war (Korean), raised 6 kids and more than a dozen grandchildren, and successfully did so without his children or grandchildren suffering the poverty he did, only to see this happen — to see his immigrant grandparents’ graves treated like a science experiment and used as an entry in some local landscaping competition. Did it occur to anyone at Graceland that some of the descendants of the dead in the desecrated section might have considered being buried themselves there someday? Or considered buying a new headstone for anyone in that section (like the good folks who funded Augustus Dickens’ headstone)?
Would any of the people on Graceland’s board and staff or Pizzo and Wolff’s staff want this to happen to their family graves, without even the courtesy of permission? I can confidently say the answer is no — no they wouldn’t. If they wouldn’t want it done to their family property and resting places, they shouldn’t have done it to anyone else’s. That they did is disturbing and shameful. Worse yet, no one has bothered to respond when any of my family has reached out for answers. No one has even asked if there could be a solution.
The last thing I want to say is that I realize I promised some kind of George Pullman story, a class tale — so here it is.
George Pullman was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the railroad industry after inventing a luxury sleeping car. His invention came just as the first transcontinental lines were laid down and changed America forever. But Pullman didn’t just hit upon the right idea at the right time — he went on to monopolize the railroad car business and build a model town on the south side of Chicago for his employees to live in. It was called Pullman of course, his name stamped on the town same as it was on the side of his sleeping cars. But Pullman the town became better known as a model of American-style feudalism than the happy worker-bee hive the bossman tried to pass it off as. His workers labored 16-hour days and were paid starvation wages, especially the African Americans who made up his crew of train porters. Exorbitant rents (automatically deducted from his workers’ pay) and company-planted spies were as much a feature of the town as its neat little red-brick rowhouses and fancy Victorian-style hotel.
When a financial panic hit in 1893, Pullman laid off workers and cut wages but refused to lower rents in his cutesy feudal town. Which led to a railroad workers’ strike in 1894 that spread throughout the country, ending up in riots, arrests, and federal troops storming the streets of Chicago to break the strike. Afterwards, Pullman’s reputation never recovered, even if he did “win” the strike. He was ordered to sell his town by the courts. And when he died only three years later, he left instructions to be buried under tons of concrete, to ward off desecration and revenge by all the workers he’d screwed over.Fortunately for them, history has taken over where a concrete grave foiled the common man. Today in Chicago, Pullman is remembered as a “fat cat” at best and a tyrant at worst.
Where was he buried? If you’ve been paying attention earlier, you’ll know: in Graceland. Which is fitting, given the cemetery’s recent developments. Extra care was taken by Graceland to protect the resting place of this uber-wealthy railroad magnate. It only makes sense, sadly, that no care was taken by Graceland to protect the resting places of 100 or 200 poor.
To all the people who worked on Graceland Cemetery’s “prairie restoration” project: Shame on you. From the great-granddaughter of the ones whose graves you desecrated. Consider this essay a well-deserved haunting.
Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.
Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.