Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue--Storybird

Bibliography: Donoghue, E. (1997). Kissing the witch: Old tales in new skins. New York, NY: Joanna Cotler Books.

Summary: Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire. Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new fairy tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories. Women young and old wander this strange and delightful landscape in search of shelter, power, or their heart's desire. They work, struggle, marry for love or money, lose children or steal them, plot escape or revenge. Above all, they tell each other their own stories. The alliances they form are sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always unpredictable (Joanna Cotler Books).

Tool: Storybird

Storybird is a really excellent demonstration of the collaboration that defines Web 2.0. A Storybird is a short, art-inspired story designed to be worked on by multiple users, and it can be read online, shared (i.e. embedded), and printed. Professional artists contribute a set of related images to Storybird. These images cover a range of mediums, styles, and themes, and users choose the set that they like the best. Then they, along with anybody else they invite, write a story to "tell" the images, rather than the conventional method of using illustrations to tell a story.

Storybird is a wonderfully innovative way to foster creativity, and the images range from light pastels of fluffy bunnies to heavy woodcuts of tattooed fairies, so the tool should appeal to youth across the K-12 range (I used the artist HidenSeek). To accompany Kissing the Witch, I wanted to create a new fairy tale with a strong female protagonist, and I wanted this fairy tale to be a collaborative effort between the strong women in my life. With each contribution to "Aisling's Island," these women's lives interweave for a brief moment in order to create a story, much like the women's lives in Donoghue's stories. When several minds are involved, the Storybird takes on an almost Surrealist element, becoming sort of an "exquisite corpse"--a parlor game turned modern art method in which words or images are collectively assembled. Think of drawing a person's head on a piece of paper, folding it, and having the next player draw the torso. Now think of re-enacting that same process online using professional art. That is the possibility of Storybird.

Aisling's Island by nmalesa, mjmalesa on Storybird

Review: Like Russian nesting dolls, Donoghue’s re-imagined fairy tales richly reward the reader as he or she delves deeper into the characters’ lives, each one a story within a story. Unlike the dolls, however, these narrators are far from mute, and women who traditionally have little to say—-usually because they are unconscious and waiting for a man to “save” them—-are given their own voices that resonate with oral storytelling conventions. Since oral storytelling was traditionally a male occupation (Any female bards come to mind?), Donoghue’s use of writing in the feminine voice to re-claim a masculine art is a not-so-subtle act of revolution, and it is only the first. She challenges patriarchal norms of female sexuality by having well-known fairy tale heroines engage in lesbian relationships or even (and perhaps even more shocking) in no relationship at all, choosing business and freedom over love. She challenges the god-centric Western religions by having her characters reincarnate, sometimes simply by passing on their stories but sometimes by actually being reborn from a woman into a bird or a horse. Finally, she challenges people to think.

Kissing the Witch’s major flaw is that, despite its very good attempt at inclusiveness, it encompasses only stories from European tradition. While the voices of Cinderella, Snow White, and the little mermaid are easily recognized, some readers may be less familiar with the Grimm brothers’ goose girl or Perrault’s Donkeyskin. Because Donoghue chose to highlight these lesser-known but equally important female voices, taking the chance that she might alienate her readers in the process, she should also have allowed women from African, East Asian, or Native American folk tales to tell their stories.

After Cinderella chooses the fairy godmother in the first tale, she asks “Who were you before you walked into my kitchen?” The woman replies, “Will I tell you my own story? It is a tale of a bird” (Donoghue, p. 9). So it goes, with each woman offering to "tell you [her] own story." Much later, the witch of the title ends her own tale—-and, in doing so, all thirteen tales—-with “This is the story you asked for. I leave it in your mouth.” And this reader’s response? “Will I tell you my own story? It is a tale of a computer.” Grades 8+.

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