Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Boston Begins City-Wide Fairy Tale Reading & Discussion Of Kelly Link's "The Faery Handbag"

Charles Vess - The Faery Handbag (from The Faery Reel)
Yes. It's not a traditional fairy tale, but Kelly Link's Nebula and Hugo award wining novelette The Faery Handbag is one of those few "new fairy tales" that have stuck with us ever since we first read it, The Faery Reel: Tales From Within the Twilight Realm (Ellen Datlow & Terri Winding 2004). We have read a lot of "new fairy tales" and while the writing is usually lovely and, occasionally, a story will resonate with us, not many of those stories sink into our subconscious fairy tale soup and stay there, becoming part of the shared language. 

A very strange thing, to us, is that we remember reading it for the first time, and, while thinking it was kinda neat, though more modern, more magic realism than fairy tale, not what we would have thought as "fairy tale", so just went on to read the rest of the volume. But somehow the ideas and the story wouldn't go away and we found ourselves thinking about the story in the following days and well after that. We haven't looked closely at why this is. We agree the story feels more like a modernized Victorian fairy tale to us than a "classic" one - not our preferred tale types - but the ideas... they feel very like they fit, right in Faerie Land, and by Faerie Land we mean the land in which fairy tales take place, whether fairies appear there or not.

Magic bags that hold things larger than themselves aren't a new concept in tales. We admit we are quite enamored of the idea that you can pack an entire room - or house! - into a carpet bag (Mary Poppins, Merlin in the Sword and the Stone) and simply carry it with you to your new abode. Magic purses, sacks and knapsacks have been able to capture, tame and contain everything from the sea to Death (The Soldier and Death), not to mention come in useful for benevolent gift givers during the Yule and Christmas season. The classic rabbit in a hat magician's staple, is a variant of these as well. Modern fantasy films employ this idea regularly too, but Link brings a fresh take to this delightful idea.

But back to the news.

The annual One City One Story movement, launched as part of the Boston Book Festival, is a pretty neat idea. Here's what it is:
One City One Story is the Boston Book Festival’s version of an all-city read, but instead of a book, we print and distribute a short story. Our goal is to make a short story available to all, free of charge, to spread the joy of reading for pleasure among the teens and adults of our city, and to create a community around a shared reading experience.
As part of this initiative, in the past they have offered online translations and downloads, led citywide discussions, leading up to a town-hall style discussion with the author, library discussions, distributed the story throughout the city for free in multiple languages, held a writing contest, online reading groups and discussions with the author.

Shaun Tan's illustration for The Faery Handbag
is very different from Charles Vess'
but equally intriguing
This year they've chosen Kelly Link's The Faery Handbag, which means, people are having conversations and discussing fairies and fairy tales, especially in a modern context, in many different places in one city. Not entirely coincidentally, the story is also set in the greater Boston area, so locals are even more likely to imagine fairy tale magic just around the corner.

If you haven't heard of it, you will find many references to it. Here's a great way to introduce the central concept, by way of a discussion on fabulism:
Fabulism is a curious way to explore and understand the ordinary. In Link’s story, the speaker spends her time hunting for this handbag. It’s black, made from dog-skin, with a clasp of bone that can open three different ways:
 If you opened it one way, then it was just a purse big enough to hold […] a pair of reading glasses and a library book and pillbox. If you opened the clasp another way, then you found yourself in a little boat floating at the mouth of a river. […] If you opened the handbag the wrong way, though, you found yourself in a dark land that smelled like blood. That’s where the guardian of the purse (the dog whose skin had been sewn into a purse) lived.
Fabulism is a lot like this purse. It seems to belong to this world, but doesn’t follow all of the rules. It beckons you. It’s off. The more you explore it, the more mystery and power it has.

You can find the many, many different places they're giving out the story for free in a list HERE.
The Faery Handbag - Artist unknown
You can read the story online HERE or download an English, Spanish or Russian PDF, or a Kindle or Ebook version HERE (more languages coming apparently).

On September 28th there will be a discussion of The Faery Handbag, care of Boston's NPR, WBUR, and they promise other discussions throughout the community to be announced soon as well. There's also a writing prompt for a contest with prizes. (Gotta love that!)

Want more food for thought? Again from the highly recommended article on Diving into the Faery Handbag: On Fabulism:
The greatest part of the faery handbag is that there’s a wrong way to open it — meaning a dangerous way, a way that can eat you alive. And it’s that third compartment or “way of opening up” that separates the magical realism of childhood stories from the magical realism of stories for adults.
And because the proposed discussion questions are great to kick your brain into gear, even if you haven't read the story, we are putting the discussion prompts and questions below. Enjoy!
Chris Riddell - lady with carpet bag from sketchbook
Discussion Questions1. How did the jump between times/focuses affect your reading of the story?
2. Was Jake’s decision to go into the bag justified? Why or why not? Why do you think Zofia refused to let Genevieve go after him? 
3. After Zofia dies Genevieve becomes the official heir and guardian of the bag. What does this role mean if the bag is lost?  
4. Genevieve is a headstrong teenager entirely wrapped up in thoughts of her missing boyfriend and the fantastical world her grandmother taught her about. Does this make it difficult for you to sympathize with her or trust her as a narrator? Why? 
5. What lost item (like the Sesame Street shirt) would you like to find at The Garment District? What is the significance to you of finding something you thought was lost forever? 
6. How might this story have changed if Jake had not gotten expelled and MIT had not rescinded his acceptance? 
7. What is the importance of Scrabble tiles also acting as divination tiles in the story? Does it affect the way you read Zofia and Genevieve’s relationship to the game? 
8. What do you think will happen to Genevieve after this story ends? 
9. Does Zofia’s death (or absence, if you follow the thought that she didn’t actually die) force Genevieve to act differently than she would have before? If so, what is the difference?  
10. Do the characters in this story remind you of people you know? Is this affected by the familiar setting (greater Boston). Does this change the way you read the fantastical elements of the story? How? 
Writing Prompt 
In 500-700 words describe what you would expect or hope to see after disappearing into your own faery handbag for several decades. Email your story to info@bostonbookfest.org by Friday, September 30 for a chance to win a BBF prize package, including a signed copy of this year’s story!
The Boston Carpet Bag newspaper, 1851-1853

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