Being Fluid Yet True To Type: Introducing a Storytelling Experiment

We associate Demeter with the symbol of cornucopia, with food, harvests and abundance. She is also, in Greek mythology, a mother and a Divine nursemaid. As a grieving mother, she was healed by laughter through Baubo’s cheekiness. She was thus implicated in one of the oldest stories about solidarity through humour and storytelling. I’d like to imagine Demeter with a spicebox, because she was also a nursemaid. Every nursemaid, whether Divine or mortal, needs an arsenal of stories. And every storyteller should have a spicebox, a repository of abundance, of different tale types, facts, the less tangible salt and pepper of human experience as well as emotions.

I have always been interested in the connection between things, and, the connection between cooking and writing. We allow ourselves more license in cuisine than we do with any other creative form –and yes, I do consider cooking an art-form. Sure, there are the purists who would absolutely swear that there’s only one way to cook a certain dish, and usually it has to do with the first time they ate a dish, or how their mother or grandmother cooked it. But you then take a much-loved recipe, and you cook it for loved ones. It changes. Your childhood favourite will adapt with your cooking tools, your available ingredients and personal taste. Well, unless you’re a scientist and a stickler for measurements as well as precise adherence to recipes.

Angela Carter, my personal heroine when it comes to fairytales, compared the art of telling a fairytale to the craft of making potato soup. It shifts with each teller. The ingredients change. The container changes, but it is still potato soup. It is this dichotomy between mutability and trueness to form which intrigues me about fairytales and folklore. And this is why I pitched Demeter’s Spicebox, as just that, a spicebox.

We allow ourselves more freedom with spices and herbs than we do with stories.

Why is that? There are many reasons, and we have seen the results of various debates regarding cultural appropriation. I respect a lot of these viewpoints, and think that when we write about cultures that are not our own, we should proceed with caution and respect. But I do not think this means we should not proceed at all.

I’ve always had an appetite for fusion cuisine. I love the traditional, but I think we have to open ourselves to the in-between. Most cultures were never meant to be locked in stasis, and if we expect them to be locked in stasis, fixed in time, within a glass container, we aren’t doing them justice. A hybrid myself, I’ve always nurtured a love for the in-between. How could I not? To hate the in-between, to hate hybridity would be to despise myself.

My ancestors came from the island of Sri Lanka, the province of Fuzhou in China, from the islands of Java and Madura, and it has been said, even as far as the Middle-east. The narratives of these different nations birthed both history and migration, which led to the creation of me. And when I was a little girl, I was taken to another island, the heart of the British Empire, where I buried my head in countless fairytale books, before I returned to the Equatorial heat of my country. These interconnected narratives from different cultures shaped my character. These narratives made me. And I am sure different stories made you, as well. I want to know these stories. I want to be fed these stories. I want these layers of how we perceive different tale types to mingle with each other; I want the different spices to bind with different flavours in different ways.

Stories are immediate, fairytales even more so, because they contain those essential, landmark markers of experience and humanism. These stories were once told by old ladies, the sibyls and wise women Marina Warner wrote about. They were also told by wise men, sages, cunningmen, gleemen, the penglipur lara of the Malay Archipelagoes as well as the living storytellers of Marrakesh, amongst others. It’s not hard to imagine, that Demeter, as a nursemaid in Eleusis, also told stories. It’s not hard to imagine that she would have a spicebox. Because even back in the day, in Ancient Greece there was movement and migration between nations, and nothing was static. Everything was fluid.

So, what is Demeter’s Spicebox about, anyway? It’s about making soup. It’s about making curry. It’s about abundance, and it’s about layers, while still remaining true to the fairytale type, and honouring the culture within which we situate those types. It’s about being both adventurous and ethical. Not only are we inviting you to retell lesser-known fairytale types, we are asking you to do this in a manner best suited for the WWW. We’ll be providing submissions guidelines for this–they include the placing of textual objects, which will create layers in the storytelling. What do I mean by this?

Imagine this: A young girl growing up in post World-War II South East Asia, maybe in Myanmar, maybe in Thailand, has always seen a certain poster, stuck upon the wall. It is actually an advertisement for tobacco, by a Dutch company. It came into the possession of her family by way of her Uncle who used to work for the British military. She may or may not be the protagonist of a new fairytale type, but this poster was originally in someone else’s story. It was in the pocket of a Gurkha who was brought all the way from India. And perhaps this was a story someone else told, based on a different fairytale type. Perhaps, prior to this tale, perhaps we have seen the production of this poster in London. Perhaps London was part of another fairytale type, and perhaps the young boy who was entrusted with the distribution of these posters grew up and found himself in India. Perhaps you will choose to talk about the effects of colonialism within these tales. Perhaps too, you would like to highlight the cultures within your stories.

All three layers will have protagonists within different fairytale types, which show not just wonder, but how these fairytales are connected to that enduring quality that should be in any given tale–our humanity, whether shared or otherwise. Of course, none of these tales have been told yet (and we’re not suggesting you tell us exactly these tales!) but these storytelling layers are peculiarly suited for a hyper-textual medium. By creating these textual objects (or people, or animals) that travel in between stories, we further highlight movement between stories, between cultures, between individuals.

Finally, I have to add that Demeter’s Spicebox is an experiment, and like all experiments, it can go either way. It could be a success, or it could be a dismal failure. Of course, since I pitched it and I love this idea, I don’t want it to fail, but I also want writers who understand it is an experiment, who are willing to be brave, willing to straddle that dichotomy of being both fluid and yet true to the fairytale type/culture, and more importantly, to the craft of writing itself.

– Nin

Demeter’s Spicebox has moved! “The microzine is now known as Delinquent’s Spice, to suit the evolution of this venue for hypertext fiction. However, DS remains true to its core ethos — to be a boundary-challenging venue for the retelling/re-envisioning of lesser-known folktale and fairytale variants.”

Please visit Delinquent’s Spice, where you can find the first three issues originally hosted here.

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