by Margaret Kingsbury
Writers use folklore in many ways. In the past, Latina writers like Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel wove folklore into beautiful, magical realism landscapes. Their works are dreamy and nostalgic. Recent Latina writers–like Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Samanta Schweblin, Carmen Maria Machado, Anne-Marie McLemore, among others–use folklore and mythology in more subvervise and feminist ways. In some cases, a writer retells or extends a story with a feminist slant; in others, folktales highlight feminist themes; and in still others the folklore form subverts typical narrative structures. Here are three recent examples.
Folklore as Plot in Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a unique, feminist quest narrative based on the Popul Vuh, a mythological text of the Mayan Kʼiche people. At the end of the Popul Vuh, hero twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué defeat the Lords of Xibalba, and the lords are banished to the underworld. They can no longer freely roam Middleworld–or Earth–and no longer accept human sacrifices. Gods of Jade and Shadow picks up the narrative in 1920s Jazz-era Mexico. But Casiopea Tun, the main character, is not your typical hero from mythology. She’s better.
In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Silvia Moreno-Garcia states that Casiopea was inspired by her grandmother, an illiterate maid who lived during the Jazz Age in Mexico. She wanted to write a heroine that her grandmother could see herself in, and this characterization is one of the reasons why Casiopea is so unique as a mythological hero. She’s so very human and relatable. She’s equal parts arrogance and self-doubt. She gets tired. She has complicated feelings. I’ve never sat down to a classic myth (or even a retelling) and thought, “You know, I can relate, Herakles.” Casiopea is different.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves many folkloric characters into Casiopea. Her father, a professor of Greek mythology, named her after a Greek constellation, but while the Casiopea of myth was vain and arrogant, the Casiopea of the novel barely knows what she looks like, and is surprised by her reflection when she gets a flapper haircut. At the beginning of the novel, her life resembles Cinderella’s. When her father dies, she and her mother move in with her abusive grandfather, and Casiopea is forced to do the work of a maid and to acquiesce to the abuse of both her grandfather and especially her cousin Martín Levya. Her life as Cinderella changes when she opens a forbidden chest of her grandfather’s and discovers a god’s bones. She then becomes a Pandora, a Bluebeard’s wife, the dreaded curious woman.
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opens her box and releases disease and suffering upon the world, we’re meant to be warned of the consequences of a woman’s curiosity. In “Bluebeard” tales (of which there are many), a wife can open any room but one. When her husband goes away for a few days, she promptly opens the forbidden room and discovers the corpses and body parts of her husband’s previous wives.
In other words, in folklore it’s never a good idea for a woman to open a lock.
When Casiopea opens her own lock, a shard of bone lodges itself inside her, and her blood unleashes a Lord of Xibalba, a God of the Dead, Hun-Kame. He seeks revenge against his twin brother and to return to his rightful place as the King of Xibalba, but he needs Casiopea to survive. He needs her blood, at least until he finds all his missing body parts his brother has scattered throughout Mexico. But the longer it takes, the more human he becomes as Casiopea’s blood corrupts his divinity even as it fuels him.
As the God of Death becomes more human, Casiopea becomes more heroic. In the beginning, Casiopea dreams of escaping her small town life, of becoming someone. She rarely considers the needs and wants of others. As the novel progresses, she becomes more nuanced and perceptive. She has an ability to empathize with others that her nemesis and cousin Martín lacks. And it’s the combination of her empathy, guts, and vivacity that attracts Hun-Kame. Their romance is quietly tense, reserved as both struggle to ignore their feelings. There are some lovely and quiet moments between the two.
By the end of the novel, Casiopea’s heroism is stunning in its empathy, vulnerability, and courage. This stand-alone fantasy extends the Popul Vuh by imagining what a woman’s quest arc might look like.
Folklore as Theme in Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
The stories in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection could not be more different, yet the women in each story share similar traits to Casiopea. They share her vulnerability and her early bitterness, but Fajardo-Anstine’s heroines possess a desperate stoicism that lingers long after reading.
The authors also use folklore in entirely different ways. Where the folklore is the plot in Gods of Jade and Shadow, the miniature tales within tales from Sabrina & Corina: Stories illuminate prominent themes. Take the title story, “Sabrina & Corina.” In it, the two recall a story about dancing with the devil, told to them by their grandmother:
“A beautiful girl disobeys her family by sneaking into a midnight dance. She’s only there for a short time when a good-looking man slinks toward her out of the crowd. She discovers he can dance well, and not just for an Anglo. He twirls her for hours until the girl notices the faces around her, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed. Her arms suddenly burn, then her lower back, and eventually her lips to throat–all the places where the man touches her. She screams as she notices that his feet, like the devil’s, are hooved.”
In the nonfiction analysis From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner discusses how women storytellers in the past often used their tales as warnings and commentary on their daily lives. This folktale is a perfect example of that, not only for the title story but for all the stories in the collection. For the collection sings of Latina women wronged by Anglo men. Sometimes abandoned, sometimes murdered, sometimes abused, and sometimes avenged, these women suffer deep losses and a constant barrage of dehumanization. It’s no wonder so many are stoic.
“Sabrina & Corina” opens with Sabrina’s death. “Strangled,” her grandmother tells her, “That’s how it happened.” Sabrina and Corina are primas hermanas, or cousin sisters, and as discussed in an interview with Kali Fajardo-Anstine, character foils. Where Corina is detached, practical, and subdued, Sabrina is vibrant, sexual, and full of longing. There are many such foils in this collection. No one is surprised by Sabrina’s murder. She is not the first Latina in the family who enjoyed the company of Anglo men to die or disappear. Yet the violence is emotionally concealed, just as Corina is asked to conceal the wounds on Sabrina’s neck before the funeral.
The folktales in the collection help show the constant barrage of racism and dehumanization Latinas experience, and how stories can help make sense of the violence.
Folklore as Craft in Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
Mouthful of Birds uses the fairytale form without retelling any tales at all. These bizarre and surreal stories, reminiscent of Franz Kafka, embrace strange and surreal occurrences in an otherwise realistic setting. For example, in the opening story, “Headlights,” a gas station is the site for a unique horror–women being abandoned by men. When Felicity’s new husband disappears after she uses the gas station bathroom, an older woman takes Felicity to a nearby field, explaining that they’ve been expecting her. As Felicity approaches the field, she hears the wails and sobs of previously abandoned women, though she cannot see them in the night. The story feels like a modern day folktale, full of the bizarre, unexplained twists and horror of older tales.
In fairy tales, plots take unexplained twists all the time. The animals suddenly speak, the dead dance, a dead boy turns into a bird that can lift an anvil. Because…of course. Fairy tales embrace the strange and surreal. Samanta Schweblin takes this often jarring form and shapes it into contemporary horror pieces. A little girl eats birds, a beach vacationer ends up digging an endless hole, an artist murders his wife but everything thinks the body is art. They’re weird and shocking and absorbing, as all good fairy tales are.
One reason we’re seeing more takes on folklore in Latina literature is simple: more Latina writers are being published and translated into English, a trend I hope we see more of. If you’re looking for more Latina takes on folklore, check out these books as well:
Brooklyn Brujas Series by Zoraida Córdova
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Blanca & Roja by Anne-Marie McLemore
Also by Margaret Kingsbury: Not Your Disney’s Cinderella