Ancestral Hunger Pangs

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.

Mom in Ireland, 1969.

Interview with Ram Devineni

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.

All photos courtesy of Ram Devineni

The Unbeautiful Ones

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.

Illustration by Johannes Larsen

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

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.

Lady Folk

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.

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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.


Ruins of Lady Gregory’s estate (Coole Park) in County Galway
Woods at Coole Park

Modern-Day Mike Finks

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, after writing this and giving it to the other editors to look over, one of the other volunteer eds called it “weak.” So for a long time I felt ashamed of this piece. That particular editor was one I didn’t see eye to eye with (this editor had a habit of trying to rewrite or delete whole paragraphs of other writers’ work, for no discernible reason), and since then I feel more ashamed that I let this person doubt what I was aiming to do with this piece. (Fortunately, the journal had a terrific founding editor, who ultimately always kept us on track and was always fair and fantastic.) 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.”

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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.