[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]
Midori Snyder, winner of the World Fantasy and Mythopoeic Awards, has published numerous fantasy novels for adults, young adults, and children. She also writes short stories, poetry, essays, and a popular blog on art and the writing life (“In the Labyrinth”). Her books include The Innamorati (inspired by Italian myth and commedia dell’arte), Hannah’s Garden (a modern faerie novel), The Flight of Michael McBride (an historical faerie novel), and the “Oran” trilogy (imaginary world fantasy). Her most recently published novel, Except the Queen is a collaborative novel with Jane Yolen. Snyder is also the co-director of the Endicott Studio, an organization for myth-inspired arts, with Terri Windling. Raised in the U.S. and Africa, Midori studied African oral narratives, earned a Masters in English Literature, and has taught English and Creative Writing to high school students in Italy and Wisconsin. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband. For more information, please visit www.midorisnyder.com and www.endicott-studio.com.
Charles Tan: How has the “Monkey Girl” story personally resonated with you?
Midori Snyder: I based my beastly bride on the Kordofan folktale, “The Monkey Girl” because it has always been one of my favorites. While the story begins as a rite of passage tale for a young man– the youngest son of an Emir searching for an appropriate bride — the narrative is quickly taken over by the Monkey Girl, a fantastic young woman in the guise of a Girda monkey. She becomes the agent of change for the young man into an adult and husband, and for herself — from monkey to bride, and finally magical wife. So while the story appears on the surface to be about him — it is really about recognizing how amazing she is — and the creative power she brings through marriage to the community. The young woman is a complex and compelling figure — intuitive, smart, and quite sure of herself. And because she is a fantastic creature, she is also powerful — and not someone to take lightly. Marriage with such a self-possessed creature is successful only if tempered with love, honor and mutual respect. Though couched within the traditional form of the folk tale, “The Monkey Girl” offered me by example a contemporary model of success — how to be in a relationship and yet remain true to oneself. That’s the short answer. I did, however, write a much longer answer to your question which appeared in an essay “The Monkey Girl”, first published in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology, Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairytales; and was later re-printed online at the Journal of Mythic Arts.
CT: What were the challenges in writing “The Monkey Bride”?
MS: Time and space! Terri asked me to contribute a story rather late in the development of the anthology — when both time to write and available space was at a minimum. I reached for “The Monkey Girl,” in part because I know it well and also because I think it offers a satisfying version of a successful and creative union between a beastly bride and a deserving young man — certainly not all animal bride stories end as well. The challenge came in writing quickly and in focusing the tale — telescoping activities that in the traditional form are longer, often repeated to heighten the anticipation of the tale’s climax. It also meant, sadly, shortening the tale, removing the very dramatic second half of the narrative that celebrates the power that can exist in a loving union between the human and fantastic worlds. And since I had never thought of the first half of the story without the context of the second half, I had to go back and really think about what made it emotionally satisfying all by itself. And then I had to write fast and pare down anything that might be extraneous. For a novelist — not as comfortable with the short story’s brevity — that was challenging!
CT: What made you decide to end “The Monkey Bride” at the point in which you ended it?
MS: I initially tried to write a version that would encompass both halves of the story — but it quickly became too long for the demands of the space I was allotted. Also, in paring it down, it lost something of its tension and richness. So Terri and I discussed it and thought it would work if I wrote on just the first half of the tale. In the original version, once the monkey has come out of her “skin” and transformed into a young woman, the couple are married. This should be a good place to end — but the storyteller wanted to make another point about the importance of the bride, not just to her husband, but to the whole community. Conflict is reinserted when the groom’s father, smitten by lust for the new bride, decides to force impossible tasks on the young man for which failure is punishable by death. It is the bride who accomplishes each Herculean task — reminding her new husband and us once more of her important uniqueness. So these are almost two tales stitched together into one. I settled on the first half — the rites of passage and the transformation of the young prince and the monkey girl into husband and wife. Here I felt I could focus on something all of us experience in some ways — the test. The monkey girl has made an intuitive judgment about the young man — but she wants to be certain about that judgment. It is a familiar situation –how do you know whether you have set your heart on the right person? The answer to that question usually lies in being able to penetrate the more superficial (or maybe compulsive?) reasons one was attracted in the first place. Trust your instincts, yes — but test them out too. And because this was intended for a young adult audience, I thought the notion of the test was more pertinent to their own experiences than trying to sell the joys of married life which the second half illuminates.
MS: Oh so many ways to answer this question! But here are two thoughts: First, fairy tales and myth are a cherished collective resource of story telling of narratives, iconic figures both human and fantastic, the language flat in some ways to allow the personality of teller to infuse her own creative flourishes, yet studded with richly evocative imagery that captures the emotions of the listener or reader. They center mostly around the areas of greatest social tension in a community — and those conflicts have no changed over time. We still go through rites of passage, changes in identity, deal with birth and death. And though some of these tales are more than a thousand years old, they still hold us sway — we are still talking to them, incorporating them in contemporary works, still returning to them like a deep well of inspiration. And second, I love the tension that comes from pairing the real and the fantastic together in myth and folktales– it creates a unique storytelling experience. It used to be said that the success of fantasy required a “suspension of disbelief.” But I have never bought that argument. The success (and indeed the historical durability of such tales) lies precisely in knowing the difference and experiencing the tension that vibrates between the real and the fantastic images. That’s where the real story lies — in making sense of the impossible — and isn’t that akin to task of growing up? Of penetrating the mysteries of love, marriage, children, death — all the big moments? We listen to the words, or we read them — but we feel them with our senses, our emotions –made more aware by the seemingly incompatible presence of real and fantastic imagery.
CT: What’s the appeal of the Beastly Bride concept for you?
MS: The beastly bride tales are fascinating because they deal with that most challenging of creatures — a woman who refuses to play by the rules. She is always herself — independent, and though she may give herself willingly to a good husband, she will be subdued with difficulty by a thoughtless one. She comes with her own unique power cloaked as a swan, a seal, or a monkey– and very often alone, without family. Even when held hostage, as in the swan maiden or selchie tales, she never forgets who she is, but waits for the moment to free herself from bondage, leaving behind a disbelieving husband and sometimes crying children. There are successful marriages — like the Monkey Girl and the Prince and they occur when human husbands acknowledge and celebrate the uniqueness of their singular brides. (And don’t we all deserve such attention?) It is easiest to finish with a quote from the Monkey Girl article. The beastly brides “…force the essential questions of marriage: Can you respect the power I hold, the secrets that are mine, the space that is reserved for me alone, and still be loving? Can marriage be a union of two forces, each with their own gifts to be offered freely, mutually acknowledged, respected and supported? And if the answer is no and the marriage hits a bump…these women pack their bags and leave for the forests, the deserts, the deep oceans … angry, but undaunted.” There’s a lot to admire in such creatures.