Interview with Hel Gurney

Walter Crane’s Little Red Riding Hood, Creative Commons licensed for commercial reproduction (here)

Hi everyone! As part of The Breathing Ghosts Series Blog’s open call for interviews, stories, writing and artwork, I’m thrilled to bring you this interview with the very talented Hel Gurney. Hel is a writer, poet and feminist activist whose work looks at issues surrounding fairytales- as we all know, I love fairytales- and identity. They recently led a session on feminist fairytales for this year’s Wowzers Festival, and their poetry has been published in the UK and USA. They are also performing at Quiltbag Cabaret (an LGBT and feminist arts night) in Oxford this Friday- the 11th.

So, without further ado…

For readers who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello! I’m Hel, and I write poetry, fiction, and sometimes essays. I’ve been performing my poetry since 2011 – I’m probably most known for the shouty ones about gender, but I also have a pretty big line in mythology, landscape, and translations/reinterpretations. I’m published in various magazines and anthologies (such as The Moment of Change, Verse Kraken, and Poems for the Queer Revolution) and my soundscape poem Water Became Bone was recently part of an installation at Somerset House [in London.] Right now, my major project is a collection of new and retold fairytales.

What intrigues you about fairytales in particular?

I’ve been into fairytales since I was little – I think what first grabbed me were the magical elements; the imagery of wolves and woods and witches, the fairies and dragons and kingdoms… and also, the way things seemed to work to a different set of rules. But I’ve always had a complex relationship with them, because a lot of fairytales are ultimately about enforcing a set of dominant values on the child audience – and often it’s really problematic stuff, like the idea that ‘beautiful’ people are good and ‘ugly’ people are bad. Because fairytales are such a didactic form – and often, they’re boiled down to the bare bones of the story, keeping them short and symbolic – then they’re a really fascinating window into the world they came from, because they end up displaying the values and priorities of that society writ large. And so much of it is to do with teaching appropriate gendered behaviour and appropriate sexual behaviour, which makes them really interesting (and ripe for analysis/transformation) from a feminist perspective and/or a queer perspective.

I’ve been doing both of those for a long time now – when I was a teenager I wrote some poetry set in a Fairyland where all the standard narratives were coming apart at the seams, and the characters were discovering what they really wanted. Funnily enough, a lot of them were queer – even though I think some of this was before I came out myself. But yeah – fairytales intrigue me because they’re so full of messages about gender, sexuality, selfhood, morality – and because they contain all these magical possibilities for undoing or transforming those messages. (Plus, I really like folklore and local history anyway – another area of nerdiness.)

Fairy by Sophie Anderson, 1869 (Creative Commons licensed, from here)

Do you think that there is a need for LGBT characters within the fairytale/mythology genre, and if so, why?

Absolutely. Representation is so so important – being able to see people like you in the media you consume, particularly when you’re still growing up and figuring yourself out, can genuinely be a life-line. I wish I’d had more examples of LGBT characters in the things I read when I was young – recently I re-read a fantasy series I’d utterly loved when I was younger, and looking back, one of the main reasons I loved it was because it didn’t entirely shut down the possibility of a romantic relationship between the two female protagonists. I mean, it still mostly shut it down, and ultimately denied pretty much every woman in the book of her agency and freedom in a truly uncomfortable epilogue – so it’s clear I was really grasping at straws back then, in terms of finding any kind of representation.

And I think this becomes even more crucial when it comes to the kind of stories which get told and retold and become almost canonised – or, y’know, made into a Disney film, which I’d venture is the closest fairytales get to becoming canonised, because it gives the story a static iteration which is guaranteed to gain a wide popular audience and permanently alter the discourse around that particular fairytale.

LGBT people have a long history (inasmuch as modern identity terms can be used about people who didn’t have access to them) – and also a long history of being erased. Which is why we need to not only find ourselves in those stories, but write ourselves back in. (We are in there: you mentioned mythology – Graeco-Roman myths have quite a few same-gender relationships, and the story Iphis and Ianthe can definitely be read as being about a trans man!) I actually wrote a paper about queer retellings of fairytales a while ago – there’s still a question mark over whether it’s getting printed or not, otherwise I’d be tempted to just stick it on my blog – but the take-home message is pretty much that adapting fairytales to reflect us and reflect now is a vital part of what fairytales are for. They might be didactic forms, but they’re also coming from an oral tradition of being pliable and ripe for change – it’s up to us what world we want them to reflect, what values we want them to teach.

Do you think fairytales can be subversive?

I kind of ended up answering that above – but basically: yes, yes, yes, and yes. Yes. I don’t at all hold with the idea that just because they’ve traditionally been used to teach conservative values, they have no worth for people looking to work against those values. And I think they can be subversive in different ways. You can take a fairytale which is shot through with (for example) patriarchal messages, and you can use it to talk about the violence which comes from that. That’s what I’ve tried to do with The Mermaid’s Wish – using the content and framework of The Little Mermaid to talk about ways that women are silenced, exploited, and subjected to harmful norms about what types of body and what types of beauty are acceptable. Or you can look at a fairytale and think about what might happen if the characters weren’t subject to all the usual narrative demands – if we remove the assumption that success is wealth and marriage, what would a real happy ending look like for these characters? Can they get there? How? And then there’s slow subversion from the inside – I could talk for hours and hours about Disney and women, but ultimately, even if Disney’s output continues to fall short of perfect feminist movie making, given their immense cultural power in terms of popular fairytale discourse, I applaud anyone working for Disney who manages to add something subversive to the mix.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac (1911) Image from Flickr (here)

As a writer, do you have any advice for other budding writers out there?

I feel like I’m still on the ‘budding’ side of things myself – but here’s some of the advice which has helped me. Read voraciously, observe the world closely, and get in the habit of writing little things down – even the smallest snippets and vaguest ideas can end up being part of something amazing. Don’t twiddle your thumbs waiting for inspiration to hit – you can’t rely on it when you want to get something finished – but I find that regularly doing little things that feed creativity (reading, observing, writing, doodling, anything that involves creating or making aesthetic choices) means that inspiration does hit more frequently.

Keep writing, keep learning, and keep putting your work out there. Half the time I’ll end up hating something I’ve written because it didn’t match up to the perfect version of it I had in my head – but for the people reading it, who don’t have that frustratingly elusive Platonic ideal version to compare it with, it may be exactly what they want or need. I’m not saying don’t edit, and I’m not saying you can just rattle something off and it will be fine – but when the gap between writing and publication is so long, it’s easy to look at an old submission or a proof manuscript and groan at how immature your masterpiece seems now. It’s okay to feel that way – it would be more worrying if you never feel like you’ve outgrown old work – but have faith in your work, and in the past self who wrote it, and let it go out into the world and do its thing.

And finally, what is your own favourite fairytale, and why?

Would you believe this is the question I’m having most trouble with? I really don’t know how to decide – there are so many that I like or find interesting, for really different reasons!

Catherine and Her Destiny is a story that stuck in my mind when I was little, because it focuses almost entirely on interactions between women – the men are just sort of book-ends to the story, symbolising safety and security. I’m also really interested in The Little Mermaid right now, and the different things it can speak to – as above, it can be used to talk about patriarchal violence, but there’s also stuff that can be brought out to do with language and transformation and identity and embodiment – and of course, there’s an established argument for The Little Mermaid being about [Hans Christian] Andersen’s homoerotic desires… (I’m writing a sequel to The Mermaid’s Wish, and I have a few other mermaid-related things in the works as well, so it’s no surprise that this is on my mind!) Oh, and I love Little Red Riding Hood – or rather, I love all the interesting ways that people have transformed it: Roald Dahl’sCarol Ann Duffy’s and Angela Carter’s were all versions I grew up with, and then there was eerie game The Path and surprisingly entertaining indie kids’ movie Hoodwinked… and most recently I’ve fallen in love with Seanan McGuire’s brilliant take, The True Story Here.

-A brilliant interview with some really intriguing ideas (and more fairytales to check out!) Thank you Hel!

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