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Jasmine, and Pocohontas, the three brown girls usually shoved in the back are irrelevant to my daughter as they’re outdated – from the 1990s (man, do I feel old) and show up in cameos in other princess’s shows or storybooks, and the dolls can’t even stand up properly.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