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I live in a lovely, pungent and adventurous district of Ho Chi Minh City. My favorite café ) strews birdseed outside the café on the “sidewalk.” I say “sidewalk” in quotes because the sidewalk is so small, so crowded with motorbikes and food stands, that it’s really more of a slightly-raised shoulder than a sidewalk.

But the sidewalk in front of my café is covered with birdseed, and so it shines a wholesome yellow in the sun, and when the rains roll back the birds fly in, little brown ones happily pecking away. When I walk through them, they rush up right in front of my face. This is probably the favorite part of my day.

Not My Favorite Coffee Shop

Oh, silly me! This isn't my favorite coffee shop, its a sign of the apocalypse.

When I sit here, drinking strong, strong coffee and lotus tea, I think of the only thing that could make this scene more perfect: storytelling. But I have no idea where to go to hear a good story.

Where do you go to hear stories nowadays? Read the rest of this entry »

The other day I was talking with one of my best friends about academia. And how it kills absolutely everything it touches. You like Dickens? Take a class on him, that’ll fix that problem. You’re a fan of writing about and analyzing interesting cultural phenomena? Go to grad school, so you can learn to write so well you’ll be unintelligible. Want to share ideas with like-minded people? Learn how to speak jargon so well that you’ll never be understood by humanoid life forms again.

Image Credit: http://cyrano.blog.lemonde.fr/2008/01/20/jorge-luis-borges-foresaw-the-internet/

You too can speak like a library with lungs, just like Borges!

Ah, sweet academia. Being outside it – at last? finally? unfortunately? – feels odd to me. For the first time in a long while, I find myself outside a scholarly community, living in “the real world,” even if only for two years, after which time I shall go to grad school and become a Slave to Academia once more. But this little respite prompts me to ask: is academia useful? For studying fairy tales? Folklore? Does studying something actually partially destroy it, as I’ve suggested elsewhere?

First of all, before you even say it: yes, I agree. Academics need to make themselves – and their work – more accessible. It’s part of the reason why I write this blog, and why I write it the way that I do. I write about what I’m working on, and I write to be read. Understood. Much though I love certain academic thinkers, they specialize in being obscure. Like Lacan! Reading Lacan is like doing mind-gymnatics: how well can you perform on the balance beam? Can you do a triple flippy thingy? Those who cannot do a triple-flippy-thingy are abject failures whose minds are worthless. Or so the prevailing attitude goes.

Some people seem to think of academia the way that Miranda Priestly thinks about fashion. Click here to listen to Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada explain it all, as she rants at her assistant for not caring about fashion. But fashion actually controls us all!

For those international viewers who can’t watch the clip, I’ve copy/pasted the relevant text here: Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been thinking a lot about speaking lately. This is because I’ve been doing far less of it than usual; my Vietnamese is pitiful, and many of the people I interact with on a daily basis speak little to no English. It’s an odd feeling; I have this whole (crazy, nerdy, whatever) self that I am completely unable to communicate to the world. Same goes for those trying to speak with me, I guess, except their problem has less to do with “the world” and more with “that gal.”

So I’m a mute in my own life. This makes me think about fairy tales! And cultural crticism! Surprise! Joseph Jacobs – collector of English Stories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is my target today. Like many fairy tale collectors, Jacobs saw himself as preserving a vanishing tradition. England, he warned, was losing its folk culture due to industrialization. Also, and way more importantly, they were being shown up in the Folklore arena by the Germans and the French. SO not okay, people. But! In his otherwise rather pedestrian Preface, Jacobs says something really interesting:

Who says that English folk have no fairy tales of their own? […] The only reason, I imagine, why such tales have not hitherto been brought to light, is the lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country–dumb to others but eloquent among themselves. It would be no unpatriotic task to help to bridge over this gulf, by giving a common fund of nursery literature to all classes of the English people, and, in any case, it can do no harm to add to the innocent gaiety of the nation.

Dumb to others but eloquent amongst themselves. When you first read it, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the comment as dated and classist. And in a way it is. Though Jacobs isn’t using dumb to mean “stupid;” Laura Gibbs of the University of Oklahoma believes that Jacobs’ comment refers to a lack of literacy in the non-governing classes. And this might be the case. But I think that there’s something more in Jacobs’ comment, soemthing more telling, even if there’s also a hefty dose of elitism mixed in.

Joseph Jacobs

I'm a bald elitist with a large moustache, but I still may have a point.

Thing is: the idea that the underclasses – for lack of a better word until later – can’t communicate themselves may have a grain of truth in it. But it’s not because of a lack of intelligence. It’s because of the nature of communication itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Finally I have a chance to write about Vietnamese folk poems, or ca dao. These are poems straight from the oral tradition: we don’t know their authors (if they have authors), and we don’t know their history.

Ca Dao: Vietnamese Folk Poetry

Cao Dao: A Gorgeous Book Which I Do Not Own

Interestingly, the folk poems I’ve come across are very different from Vietnamese folktales. Vietnamese folklore – as well as much Asian folklore in general – has always impressed me with its strong female protagonists. Yet the ca dao has a different view of women, one more simplified and directly tied to romantic love. Take this poem, for example, which first appeared in English in 1995 and was translated by Linda Dinh:

Wobbly, like a hat without a strap,
Like a boat without a rudder
Like a woman without a husband.
A married woman, like a shackle around the neck.
An unmarried woman, like a board with a loose nail.
A board with a loose nail a man can fix.
The unmarried woman runs this way, runs that way.
It is miserable to be without a husband, Sisters!

Now what are we to make of this? Read the rest of this entry »

You hear it everywhere, don’t you? People describe things like “Twilight” as “dark fairy tales.” Romantic comedies are always “fairy tale romances.” Any book with love, magic, a fairy, a prince, even *a pony* must be called a fairy tale. I think it’s written somewhere in a Very Important Book. Does this make me shudder? Yes. What do I think we should do about it? Absolutely nothing.

I think that one of my pet peeves is when purists in any given field start whining about how the Great Unwashed Masses are “doing it wrong.” “They just don’t understand” seems to be the sentiment. Why can’t they realize that the fairy tale is a historical, literary form which sprang up from a combo of French Salons, “blue books,” German bourgeois culture, with a little folk culture mixed in? Now what’s so hard about that?

Here’s the thing: I think that the over-use of “fairy tale” should actually be studied as an interesting phenomenon rather than decried as something silly. People are using the words because they mean something, or because they think they should mean something. So what exactly is that “something,” anyway?

Let’s look at two of my favorite example of this phenomenon. I know you’ll like the first one: it’s that timeless Julia Roberts movie Pretty Woman

Pretty Woman

The Fairy Tale of Our Time

You remember that scene from Pretty Woman , right? That one where Richard Gere asks Julia Roberts what she wants from him, and she gives him that whole spiel about the prince and the white horse rescuing her from the tower. “I want the fairy tale,” she says. Usually, this is the point in the film when I have a stroke. Read the rest of this entry »

You know, I can’t seem to write anything without using a colon. Academics love them! Ah, woe is me, gone haplessly pretentious…

The subject of today’s post suffers from the same thing, actually. “Hapless” is a pretty descriptor for Hans Christian Andersen, whose life was a sad one that was often beyond his control. Andersen penned some of today’s most popular tales – like The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid and so I think it makes sense to start asking questions about Andersen himself. What was the man like, and how did his life affect the stories that have been told to countless children? What lessons are these children getting from these stories anyway?

Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling

Hans Christian Andersen: Friend to Local Wildlife. Also gigantic books.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Andersen was a pretty dependent character, most of his life centered around gaining the approval of his patrons, the Collinses, who never let him forget that he was beneath them. This sadly turned Andersen into a rather timid figure, as the German poet Heinrich Heine noted:
Read the rest of this entry »

Finally, I get to blog about some fairy-tale art! Excellent! Ball State University (in Muncie, Indiana) is having a fairy tale art exhibit! It comes in two parts: Almost Alice: Illustrations of Wonderland, and Fantasy and Fairy Tales, which focuses on the dark undertones of original fairy tale prints.

Birds of a Feather, by Maggie Taylor

Birds of a Feather, by Maggie Taylor

This is what the museum has to say about Maggie Taylor’s work with “Alice in Wonderland:”

“What makes this exhibition interesting is the way the artist combines Lewis Carroll’s nineteenth century sensibilities—his fantasy as well as his political satire—and the photomedia of that era, such as daguerreotypes, with the digital manipulation capabilities of our own era,” said Director Peter Blume. “By doing so, Taylor’s singular presentation makes Carroll’s story, and therefore the exhibition, meaningful to a whole new audience.”

And of the “Fantasy and Fairy Tales” collection:

Don’t let the title fool you, this isn’t an exhibition about love stories and happy endings. Most fairy tales and folk tales were cleaned up for children, but originally contained stories of violence and vengeance. The prints selected for this exhibition show the dark undercurrents of original folk tales from the 18th century onward. All of the prints included in the exhibition are from the museum’s collection.

I wish I could go! If anyone manages to pop by, please send me a line about it. That Maggie Taylor’s work looks promising (which means I’d either love it or hate it). And I’d jump in a vat of Jell-o for five hours for a chance to see the Goya and Picasso prints in the “Fantasy and Fairy Tales” collection.

Both exhibits run through May 22nd.

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Warning: this blog contains fairy tales (which may be unsuitable for grouches), a flying pig (which may be unsuitable for realists), and textual analysis (which may be unsuitable for chemists). You stand warned.

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