Girl on Girl: Kate Bernheimer

Kate_BernheimerAbout three years ago, I took a one-day workshop that studied how the fairy tale, an old and important form of storytelling, affects other writing, namely through structure. It was in that class that I was introduced to Kate Bernheimer’s work through her thoughtful essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” As I started reading more of her work, including fairy tale collections she edited and her journal Fairy Tale Review, I realized how important the fairy tale is as a form for modern feminist writing.

Bernheimer explores gender in much of her writing, making her work an important addition to the feminist (and literary) canon. Someone once said to me that science fiction and fantasy are great ways to explore social issues without being so preachy or obvious (think The Handmaid’s Tale). I would argue the same for the fairy tale, and for Kate Bernheimer’s work.

Who are some female writers you admire/look up to?

Kathryn Davis, Emily Dickinson, Rikki Ducornet, Fanny Howe, Shirley Jackson, Tove Jansson, Diana Wynne Jones, E. L. Konigsberg, Clarice Lispector, Katherine Mansfield, Barbara Pym, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Jean Valentine.

You write a lot about gender in your fairy tales. Why do you think the fairy tale genre is a good one for exploring gender and gender inequality?

In the old fairy tales—whose flat, often awkward translations I love to read—have female characters that don’t fit neatly into any pretty package of girlhood. The girls are clumsy, homely, beautiful, wicked, stubborn, stupid, and kind. There are endless possibilities for boys in the stories as well—victim, loser, hero, torturer, tailor, husband, good, pretty, and dolt. The characters in fairy tales—by which I mean generally old fairy tales—do things because they have to do them in order to survive, or they do them for no real reason at all. I like the unfastened nature of the whole venture of becoming in fairy tales—these are not princess-gets-married stories, despite popular abuses of the old stories as such. The writers of fairy tales historically have open arms to all kinds of weird humans. Reading, and writing from, fairy tales helps me think about the problems we’ve created by putting girls and boys inside boxes.

I gave Horse Flower Bird to my niece for her twelfth birthday because I felt that was the right time for her to start thinking about gender and feminism. Even though the book is a collection of fairy tales, there are very adult themes within it. Your story “The Cageling Tale” comes to mind when I think of adult themes peaking through the guise of a more “innocent” genre. How are fairy tales useful for exploring sexuality?

Wow, twelve is pretty young for that book! You’re a hip aunt! I wrote “The Cageling Tale” during a rainy winter when I was going to a lot of strip clubs in Portland, OR.  There was one in particular that was a really nice place to go have a drink. It was dark, the bar—and the stage—both were tiny, the dancers chose their own music. It wasn’t the safest bar in Portland, but the bartenders all were female and you felt looked after for the most part. Everyone there was a misfit (in both the poignant sense and the Flannery O’Connor sense of the word). “The Cageling Tale” comes from those nights, and also about some ideas I have about Surrealism and the femme enfant (“child woman”), which the scholar Catriona McAra has written about here and there beautifully well.

Old fairy tales often contain very adult themes, but children’ don’t often notice. Even I don’t, unless I’m looking specifically for them, for something to think about. I like the double mirror of childlike and not-childlike motifs, how I can work those into my stories without overthinking.

Is writing about sexuality scary?

Yes! It is so scary! That is why my sex scenes read like this: “Then some other things happened.” Or like this: ________________________.

Have you ever stopped and found you were censoring your writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think? Your husband? Your parents?

Do you do that? Rikki Ducornet was once sitting on my kitchen floor in Alabama, with a glass of wine in her delicate hand, speaking about precisely this. She was saying something along the lines of, you cannot, cannot think of your parents when you are writing. Alas for me, I think that my self-limiting starts way before I am writing—it is built into my reserved personality in most social situations, unless I completely trust and adore the people I’m with (and thankfully I have a lot of awesome people to trust and adore). Since writing for me is not a social situation, it’s a private one among books (i.e. the social situation is completely abstracted from real human beings), I can do it without censoring my writing at all. I’m not sure there is any point to writing if you hold back the essential fears, phobias, desires. There are too many places where we have to do that just to avoid being arrested. Thankfully, in this country, fiction is not one of those places. Nothing to take for granted, when you look around the world—Pussy Riot. Insane.

What is the best response you’ve received from your audience?

It’s so nice when someone like you—a thoughtful, interesting, inventive human person—contacts me to talk about books. The conversations I get to have are the best thing about having an audience. I love hearing what people are reading and thinking about—I love knowing what gets them happy or sad in this world. I also get fun gifts in the mail—people see weird fairy-tale things in thrift shops and are compelled to send them to me. I’m very lucky that way.

What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sexuality and gender?

Do it, please. We need to know what you think.

What does sex do for a story?

When it’s good, it makes you feel good. When it’s bad, it makes you feel bad. And there are endless ways to feel good and feel bad. I guess what sex does for a story is sort of what sex does for a body. What do you think?


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