Yesterday I wrote a post about novels by people of color I read in 2014, most of which I haven’t seen in any end of the year list circulating on my Facebook feed. It was lovely to end the year with that post, which was appreciated by my small, but growing community of readers, and brought these books to the attention of many who don’t really read this blog of scattered thoughts. So, I thought I’d start 2015 with a list of first lines from 9 short story collections written by people of color I read last year. I started this list with a collection of Octavia Butler’s stories because. That’s the end of that sentence.
I love book lists: 1000 novels to read before you die, 60 books to read in your 20s, 17 books to encase in underwater housing while scuba diving off the coast of Sri Lanka. Okay, that last one hasn’t been written (yet), but I would read that list and attempt to convince my nerdy wife how we MUST GET underwater housing for my books, as I will surely die without it.
It’s been a fantastic year for novelists and short story writers of color with some truly amazing work coming out, but you wouldn’t know it by walking into a bookshop, or reading the blindingly white, “best fiction of 2014” lists circulating on your Facebook feed with the same four writers of color showing up to the party.
Adult literature doesn’t have a powerhouse movement in our corner like WeNeedDiverseBooks, book packagers like Cake Literary, or independent publishers of multicultural literature for young readers like Lee and Low books, but there are some great user created lists like 19 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels by Women of Color, written by Buzzfeed community member, Anjali Patel, who apparently has a cat power of 1. I feel she should get at least a 10. It seems like the proper thing to do. Make that shit happen, people. And this absolutely KICK-ASS list of Top 10 Books by Novelists of Colour Published in 2014 from East African journalist and READER, Samira Sawlani, who you should follow on twitter ASAP.
In an ideal world, 2014 wouldn’t have started off with my 4 year-old daughter upset she didn’t look like any of the protagonists in stories marketed towards her, and end of the year book lists with titles like,”best novels of 2014″ would instinctively include diverse voices without it being an active effort. And there wouldn’t be any need for VONA, the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the country because every writing workshop and MFA program would be awesome without the mythical monolingual, white reader as the only target demographic.
A lot of book lists have very complex criteria in judging novels. I have one: the first line, something that Sona agrees is pure agony. Here is my shortlist of 37 novels and two bonus ones by authors of color, along with their gorgeous first lines. If I’ve missed any, please drop me a line in the comments below and I’d be happy to add them. Also, please also give some love to my roundup of short story writers of color published in 2014.
1. “The layers were stacked on top of each other. To the boy, they looked like cake. Green and spongy on the top, brown and chocolatey in between.”
2. “He leaps over two fire-painted blossoms resting on the stark cracked city pavement.”
3. “It was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage – and I was at the edge of the known world.”
4. “She comes out of the house and sees fresh shapes in the grass, a geometrical warning she does not understand.”
5. “On his desk in the office, Aar has three photographs, one of each of his two teenage children and a third, the photo of a very beautiful woman, which occupies center stage.”
6. “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.”
7. “Around six, the zoo starts to shake itself up from its brief sleep.”
8. “Boyang had thought grief would make people less commonplace.”
9. “Sawdust, soft and fine as Ma’s best muslin duppata, tickled Madan’s nose, making him sneeze.”
10. “My mother used to say, ‘Lilian, as long as I’m alive, you must have nothing to do with that woman.'”
11. “In the early hours of one September morning in 2008, there appeared on the doorstep of our home in South Kensington a brown-skinned man, haggard and gaunt, the ridges of his cheekbones set above an unkempt beard.”
12. “When Isaac and I first met at the university, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as thedirt paths of the rural villages we had grown up and lived in until only a few moths earlier, even though neither of us had ever been to a city before and had no idea what it meant to live in such close proximity to so many peple whose faces, much less names, we would never know.”
13. “A sea of wedding altars stretched across the desert sands and disappeared into the horizon.”
14. “Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway, into the family of his grandfather, Daulet, a trackman, one of those who tap wheels and brake shoes at night and during the day, following phone call from a dispatcher, go out to switch the points so that some weary old freight train can wait while anexpress or passenger special like ours hurtles straight through the junction.”
15. “My father has a glum nature.”
16. “It was a fever, a hot rage of words.”
17. “As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria – his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket – he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking.”
18. “My mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who – coincidentally – didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin.”
19. “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”
20. “You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.”
21. “I wake up late the morning I’m meant to go to the consulate.”
22. “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”
23. “Lydia is dead.”
24. “Back then, all we wanted was the simplest things: to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well.”
26. “I’m Sulaman Saddeq, and I’m sitting in a clean white room, thinking about the decisions we make.”
27. “This hands cannot do.”
28. “Exactly once upon a time in a small village in northern Iran, a child of the wrong color was born.”
29. “Ikechukwu Uzondu, ‘Ike for short,’ parked his Lincoln Continental cab at a garage that charged twelve dollars per hour.” Foreign Gods by Okey Ndibe
30. “Ever seen a bullet-smashed windscreen?”
31. “Fig leaves and fruit swirl in Scyla’s hands.”
32. “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.”
33. “Sylvia Levine (nee Amado) had been brooding for months.”
34. “My mother and I used to play this game when I was growing up. Every time I had a question she couldn’t aswer, she made write to my imaginary father, Mr. Brezsky, who lived on the moon.”
35. “Today, the opening day of the Mozhay Point Ojibwe Reservation’s wild rice harvest, cumulus clouds drift slowly over the boat landing on Lost Lake, bringing with them the scent of sweetgrass.”
36. “Four hundred have died here.”
37. “I stuffed the letter from the bank back into the drawer and slipped into the kitchen to turn the vent out toward Pig Park.”
38. “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA – a country caught between Black and White.” (yes, I know it’s not a novel, but this is my list and there’s no way this isn’t on here).
39. “It always feels like death.”
But first, let’s talk about Jacqueline Woodson, one of the authors who received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
A few years ago, I met Jacqueline Woodson at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where I was taking a glorious week long playwriting workshop with Melinda Lopez. There were only a handful of people of colour present, so we all gravitated towards each other, despite not having much to talk about. The cardinal rule of not talking about race, or even mentioning the word, “white,” in a roomful of white people wasn’t broken. We used the word hello as a symbolic gesture, an acknowledgement of each other’s existence. Me and Jacqueline had a lovely, cursory conversation. Then she read a small section of her work, which I thought was so fantastic I had to immediately read her work and finally understood the draw of Young Adult literature, Sona and Dhonielle have been banging on about for years.
As soon as Jacqueline Woodson’s, “Brown Girl Dreaming” came in the mail, I spent a very leisurely two weeks reading and re-reading it. The writing is gorgeous and haunting and beautiful, creating a range of emotional effects that forced me to abandon my ingrained way of reading most books. It’s the first book in a very long time that I’ve just read as it’s meant to be read – like a book– without overthinking craft and theme and structure and all of those other boring things writers like to do to suck the fun out of reading. This is one of those rare birds – it’s poetry wrapped in story. It’s memoir layered in poetry with a narrative. Perhaps it’s a combination of these things. Most likely, it’s none of these things. It’s just a fucking awesome read.
When I heard she won the National Book Award, I was super stoked, not just because it’s well deserved, but because of its implication in the literary world that my son and daughter and niece and nephew are inheriting: a truly diverse definition of normal that goes beyond just black and white and brown.
Now let’s talk about this motherfucker.
David Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, made several racist comments during the night he hosted the National Book Award, including one directed at Jacqueline Woodson. His antics are described as variations of what the Washington Post calls, “an incredibly ill-advised joke,” and Publishers Weekly frames vaguely as “remarks he made about Jacqueline Woodson.” CNN uses single quotes around the word, ‘racist’ because it’s one of those complicated things. But they do offer clarification on why ‘some people’ might be offended:
“Watermelon is historically evoked as a favorite food among black people in racist jokes, and it’s considered by many to be an offensive reference.”
David Handler never used the word, “racist,” because we don’t use those kinds of words in polite conversation. And apparently, neither does the media.
I believe Daniel Handler is being honest when he says he didn’t intend to cause offense. That’s what makes this even more emblematic of a much larger problem. He thought it was funny and assumed other people would find it funny as well. Jacqueline Woodson is allergic to watermelon. And she’s black. HA! It’s perhaps an appropriate dose of reality, a reminder that this is the normal we’re dealing with, and the reason #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) movement and diversity focused book packaging companies like Cake Literary are so profoundly important.
When I heard Daniel did the right thing by promptly apologising, as well as pledging to donate $10,000 towards the We Need Diverse Books Indigogo campaign (and this morning said he would match any money raised for WNDB today, up to $100,000), I was pleased and willing to let it be one of those idiotic things that happens for the greater good. Then I did something I probably shouldn’t have. I read his apology:
“My job at last night’s National Book Awards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry.”
It’s a bullshit apology that follows the standard white person apology template. Daniel Handler admits to being wrong, but not for being racist. That burden is on us oversensitive people of colour. Then he donates an acceptable amount of money to a worthy cause, so we’re not supposed to say shit about him anymore. Now we move on. Shockingly (or perhaps not that shockingly), not very many people were talking about this in the first place. Now most people have completely forgiven him and he is free from further criticism. It’s not like he threw a banana at Jacqueline or burned a cross or anything.
Junot Diaz puts my entire rambling thoughts into one succinct rhetorical question: “If Daniel Handler is one of the ‘good guys,’ who the fuck needs bad guys?”
Daniel Handler is one person in a system and it’s the system that makes his comments seem like they’re not that big of a deal and through a glib apology, nothing else needs to happen. Whether people like it or not, a conversation is happening. And Daniel Handler is helping make it a loud one, even it is through guilt.
So go visit the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Indigogo campaign. Through today (Friday, November 21, 2014), Daniel Handler will be matching all contributions made up to $100,000. The money raised will be used to fund grants for bringing diverse YA authors and books to schools and libraries, provide financial support for diverse authors, and most excitingly host the first ever Kidlit Diversity Festival in summer 2016, amongst many other pragmatic goals.
Sona is at home with Shaiyar, our six month old. I’m at the library by myself to work on my fiction and have just sat down at a bright red cushioned booth (you heard me right: A booth!) at a little library in Clark, New Jersey, when I spot this book on display. I debate between “work on my novel” and “read bilingual picture book” for a few seconds before making the only logical decision that can be made in a situation like this: I pick up the book, return to the booth, and read it with much glee, my laptop taking a nap on the corner of the table. I feel like ordering a hamburger and a milkshake. Libraries, unfortunately, don’t do this (I asked).
This is my first experience with a bilingual book aimed at people who don’t already speak and understand the language fluently. I read Punjabi books to Kavya in Gurmukhi script and Hindi comics written in Devanagari script. She enjoys listening to the stories and understands what is happening, and it increases her vocabulary. But Sona can’t read these books to her because she can’t read those scripts and used to be able to pretend to read the story and just make things up (also known as LYING). But those days are gone. Even if she can’t read entire words yet, Kavya knows when someone is tricking her.
We are both very excited about Kavya starting a dual language Spanish curriculum at her school this year, but it’s also been daunting trying to figure out how to prepare her for it and prepare ourselves for reenforcing what she learns. Neither of us speak much Spanish. I can confidently order a beer and be obnoxious at a lucha libre event, count up to 30, and randomly name objects, some colors, and precisely two pieces of fruit. Sona isn’t that much better, even though she claims she is.
Little Roja Riding Hood is a refreshing look at the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but I also like that it is intended for children who like to read kickass stories, and at parents who can learn Spanish vocabulary right alongside the kids. Many of the bilingual Spanish books I’ve found in Kavya’s age range tend to assume at least one parent has fluency in Spanish. I found a bilingual version of The Princess and the Pea at a bookshop in NYC a few months ago and it is structured like a lot of books claiming to be bilingual: there’s the English text, followed immediately underneath it by the Spanish text. This is incredibly basic, but I can’t read this without sounding like I’m reading an instruction manual and I can guarantee after the first line, Kavya would be like, “How about you just read the English part?”:
“Once upon a time there was a prince who wished to marry a princess. But he wanted to be sure she was a true princess.”
“Había una vez un príncipe que quería casarse con una princesa. Pero quería estar seguro de que fuese una princesa de verdad.”
On another note, who the fuck does this prince think he is.
I like that the glossary for Little Roja Riding Hood is all the way in the front and there is just enough repetition to understand phrases and words, but not enough to bore someone. I’d imagine even a kid who speaks Spanish would gain something from the story.
The story more or less follows the popularized version, where the woodcutter saves the day just in the nick of time. Except there is no woodcutter: PLOT TWIST! In the same vein of stories like The Paper Bag Princess or the Princess Knight, it takes aim at subverting the idea of the powerless female protagonist and puts Little Roja Riding Hood in control of her own fate using the same suspension of disbelief you use to imagine a woodsman just happens to be outside grandma’s house.
A quick run down of the sequences:
Roja’s mother is watching a gripping telenovela as she makes hot soup for Roja to take to her sick abuela, who lives just past the woods. On the way, Roja gets distracted by flowers and meets a devious lobo with a mustache and a bandana (and a duende!).
He gets information from her about her sick abuela and tells her to pick flowers for a bouquet to bring her. Being a doofus, she does just that, while the wolf takes her red cape and finds the sick abuela’s house.
He sits in a chair and the sequence of “what big eyes you have” begins. Just as he’s about to eat her, the grandmother leaps up and grabs her Jesus statue to beat him with, and Roja shows up, to discover what’s happening and throws boiling hot soup onto the wolf’s face, making him flee from the scene. Finally, they decide to invest in a security system and the grandmother always checks to see who is at the door before letting anyone inside.
The story unfolds in verse and it is pretty impressive how the Spanish and English words blend together to form rhythmic endings as well progress plot. Like these towards the end:
“Just then, little Roja burst in through the door.
And Grandma? No need to play dumb anymore.
“I won’t be your lunch,” said Gran. “Phony nieta!”
“Some soup, Wolf?” said Roja. “My mom’s best receta!”
She swung la canasta and out flew the soup,
too hot for Lobo, who soon flew the coop.”
When I first looked at the illustrations, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite children’s story from the 1990s (yes, I was too old for them then too): Chato’s Kitchen, and sure enough it’s the same illustrator: Susan Guevara, who is still kicking major illustration ass during those 20 years since Chato’s Kitchen. The illustrations also add to the liveliness of the story and presents a classic European folktale structure with a forest and evil beast involved, decreases the eeriness and tension, and amps up the emotional payoff (and boy does it pay off). And most importantly, adds elements of Latino culture and modern culture throughout, starting with obvious things like the mother watching a telenovela in the kitchen, the abuela with her laptop, but there are many subtle things she adds as well like the mischievous duendes on the laptop charger, on the wolf’s mustache, three blind mice just hanging out in the scene, prayer charms, a Jesus statue, birds saying,“¡Cuidado!”
At the beginning of summer, I wrote a blog post about my daughter feeling the narrative chokehold of the stories she was being exposed to: books, television, merchandise, with girls serving a very specific purpose (to look pretty and wait for a man to save them) and particularly that her face and hair didn’t belong in these stories, which was shared on Africa is a Country as well as The Good Men Project. I am pleased bilingual stories like this exist that challenge patriarchal narrative points considered to be set in stone as far as folktales and fairytales are concerned.It’s a step in the right direction towards more diversity in books (check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks) , but I can’t do my explosive bhangra moves just yet: Roja needs to be a shade browner. This isn’t a telenovela, populated by light skinned people, where incidentally that guy in the image above would have about as much of a chance of getting the role of the passionate lover as he would on Days of Our Lives. ¡Ay el escandalo!
At the beginning of the year, Kavya was utterly distraught she didn’t have “yellow hair” like Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled, and that most of her favourite characters didn’t look like her. This realization did not actually revolve around hair color: Merida has red hair, as does Ariel; Cinderella and Aurora are blonde; Snow white has black hair; Belle has brown hair. Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocohontas, the three brown girls usually shoved in the back are irrelevant to my daughter as they’re outdated – from the 1990s (man, do I feel old) and show up in cameos in other princess’s shows or storybooks, and the dolls can’t even stand up properly. Read the blog post about it HERE and on the Good Men Project. At four-years-old my daughter was expressing something I thought I had several years to prepare her for: the white supremacy talk. Almost all of the tv shows and princesses and stories Kavya wears, watches, has read to her, all involve white protagonists going on adventures, solving crimes, with girls that look like her either invisible, or standing on the sidelines. That’s why this Papa is onboard with one very important social media movement: #WeNeedDiverseBooks because everyone should see themselves represented in meaningful ways.
Admittedly, I didn’t see the big deal in my daughter being into princesses or watching Sofia the First or the different shows her friends were into. I’d tell her bedtime stories of Indian princesses and tales from the Panchtantra, but it’s not the same. Because these stories are very intermittent and they are guests in our home, unlike white culture, which takes zero effort to become permanent fixtures simply by switching on the television or mindlessly going into a bookstore or looking at a random booklist for any age group.
Since January, I’ve been actively diversifying our bookshelf with non-traditional princess narratives – Pirate Princesses, Princeless Princesses, even boys who are princesses, especially mindful of populating it with characters of color. But the one thing I couldn’t find until a few days ago was her Rapunzel with black hair, which she adamantly thought didn’t exist. The closest alternative Rapunzel I found was Rapunzel: A Groovy Tale by Lynn Roberts, which came out in 2003ish. It’s a modernized retelling of Rapunzel where she has flaming red hair and is held captive in a rubbish apartment with a broken lift by her evil lunch lady Aunt. I liked it. Kavya liked it, and it is a good introduction to breaking the stranglehold of the golden haired Rapunzel Disney narrative. But she’s still a white girl, despite nerdy evidence pointing to the origin of the tale to the Persian story from the 10th century of Rudaba from the Shahnameh, where the long hair, tower, and secret lover are key elements. But more to the point, these stories are so watered down from their older versions anyway, what difference does it make where the original comes from at this point. Let the floodgates of reinterpretation open.
I became hell-bent on a mission to prove my four-year-old daughter wrong about the existence of a black-haired Rapunzel. I found mangas and an anime of a black haired Cinderella, but this wasn’t good enough for her.
Last weekend, we went on an impromptu outing to Books of Wonder, the only bookshop in New York City dedicated just to children. We read some wonderful books, like The Three Ninja Pigs, and because she can’t actually read yet I replaced the word Ninja with Capoeira and added Ginga, Aú, Cocorrinha to the story, as well as a few here and there featuring little girls and boys of color, and then found Black Gold: an African retelling of Rapunzel with black hair: Rapunzel by Rachel Isadora, who has illustrated many other stories with black girls proud of their awesome hair, like Princess and the Pea, amongst others.
The narrative is the familiar story that tiptoes into the dark side with the blinding of the prince, but ends happily ever after. Spoiler alert: the prince marries Rapunzel after he regains his sight and they live happily ever after. It’s a familiar story, well illustrated, with nice artwork. But while I enjoyed the artwork, I love this next book because not only does it tell the story of a black haired Rapunzel with all the familiar trappings, it’s thoroughly original: Refilwe.
Hands down, the most original retelling that has just come out in South Africa from Jacana Press: Refilwe written by South African novelist and children’s book author, Zukiswa Wanner, illustrated by Tamsin Hinrichsen from Cape Town (update: it’s finally available on amazon). It is an exciting retelling, not just because it treats Africa like a continent with specific regions and cultural traditions, but because it adds some lovely originality to the story by making the geography become part of the story. Instead of Rapunzel, which is literally a type of cabbage, Zukiswa changes the mother’s craving to morogo, pumpkin leaves, and thankfully doesn’t name her character after it. Read this great post where Zukiswa talks about the inspiration for taking on this particular folktale and the secret to the genius of the adaptation (aside from stellar writing chops), comes down to the relationship she has with her own hair:
When Jacana asked me to take part in the project of adopting traditional fairy tales, it was natural that I would want to do Rapunzel. I was that young girl who fantasized about having long, flowing locks. I was that young girl who begged my mother to allow me to visit my aunt’s farm, not so much because I loved my aunt and cousin but because I would get the opportunity to spend hours brushing my cousin’s Barbie or Cindy dolls’ hair (I was deprived as a child. I never got any dolls and only ever got books for presents).
I was that young girl who felt in my early teens that being able to hold my hair in a pony tail was a major achievement and so, I would relax hair with Dark & Lovely, braid it overtime, and the moment it was long enough, stay for days on end with it in a pony tail. But I wanted to make Refilwe (Jacana 2014) something that I, as a young African girl, would have liked to read so that I wouldn’t have the sort of hair issues that I had growing up. And so it was that my Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.
Love this: “Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.” The story is set in the Lesotho mountains, the geographic setting playing a major role in the narrative with the most striking change being the absence of a tower, replaced by a cave high up on a craggy cliff. This leads to a very catchy rhyme that kicks the ass of anything that ever came before it:
“Refilwe, Refilwe, let down your locks, so I can climb the scraggy rocks.”
When the witch finds out about this act of betrayal, scripted things happen: the prince is blinded and Refilwe is banished to the Northern Cape. He finds Refilwe again by hearing her singing and the two are united, where we can assume everything ends happily ever after. Even though the actual story does not deviate from the one that has been peddled around since it made it into English, the most exciting thing is that it applies what Binyavanga Wainana warns us about when writing or reading about Africa:
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”
One of the first versions of the Rapunzel story we will admit exists (of course we don’t acknowledge anyone read or wrote anything outside Europe) was from Italy, written in an obscure Neopolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile in 1634: Petrosinella, a type of parsley. On a side note, what is it with these dudes not even naming the women in their stories. Anyway, somehow Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a French novelist found out about the story and added other literary elements and plot changes in 1698, keeping the original name intact: Persinette. Still parsley. The Germans then translated her name to Rapunzel. Cabbage. Because – I’m assuming – they wanted to name her something with even less flavor than parsley. Thanks to the Brothers Grimm, who didn’t realize this story was neither a folktale nor German, their version is the one that became popularized. Then they rewrote it, making it even more confusing than before, where Rapunzel is definitely, 100% not pregnant, but in the end she somehow has two children. I’d love to read a story that uses Giambattista Basile’s ogress, magic acorns, and luxurious tower!
Despite the thorough gutting of the Rapunzel story in adaptations like Disney’s Tangled, the one element that is generally safeguarded is that Rapunzel has long flowing golden hair and she is fair skinned. Tradition! It’s a safe assumption to make that nothing is sacred when you name your protagonist PARSLEY or CABBAGE. But if someone really wants to make the claim that there is such a thing as an original version, let’s go back several hundred years before Giambattista Basile’s “original” to Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings from the 10th century I mentioned earlier in this post:
“Hearing his words, she loosened her hair, which cascaded down, tumbling like snakes, loop upon loop. She said, ‘Come, take these black locks which I let down for you, and use them to climb up to me.’”
The Shahnameh puts every epic you know of to shame. To put this in context, it is triple the length of Homer’s Iliad, and weaves Islamic history with mythology, covering the beginning of time through to the Islamic conquest of Persia, and various lands and cultures, from Turkey to Afghanistan through 62 stories, 990 chapters, more than 60,000 rhyming couplets, and more characters than you can ever keep track of. One of those stories that the European Rapunzel was born out of, is of Rudaba, the black haired, fair skinned princess of Kabul and Zal, the Albino, white haired, warrior. He immediately falls in love with Rudaba because of her beauty, but is rejected because he is an Albino and has lineage to the Serpent King. But then a prophecy declares their child will rule. There’s also a large, oracle-like, mythical bird with magical feathers in the narrative. Spoiler alert: they get married and have two children, one of whom is the main hero of the Shahnamah.
The plot is obviously very different from any of the versions that made their way to Europe and who knows what other versions of Rapunzel fill in the 600 year gap. Even though almost everything else of the story is gone, the long hair and a handsome lover climbing up this hair into a tower captured the imagination of every version ever since, including modern retellings, no matter how much they added or subtracted to the story.
Today, the version that is retold is credited to the Brothers Grimm and we only know Rapunzel as the girl with long, flowing golden hair. The Brothers Grimm removed mention of the pregnancy, which I think makes a much more powerful revelation of how the witch/sorceress/ogress finds out about her perceived deception: she realizes the girl is pregnant without anyone saying a word.
Even though none of the versions, including the Shahnameh, describe her with dark skin, I want to see more originality to the retelling, like what Jacana Press and Zukiswa Wanner are doing in Africanizing folktales that have been thought of as belonging to a rigid European narrative. As a Papa to a beautiful and intelligent daughter, I am down with expanding our notion of story. Now, can someone please bring back the acorns, ogress, and magic?
Short Link: http://goo.gl/C35H7L