When I was nothing more than big eyes, knobby knees, and pigtails, there were no words more intoxicating to me than “once upon a time.” These words took me to enchanted places. To worlds filled with magic and great good as well as great evil. To places that shaped me as a child and made me into the adult I am today.
The fairy tales I read were my first encounter with commercial fiction. If you too grew up in the West, then you grew up with some of the same stories that I did. Did you see yourself in any of these magical tales?
The fact that I did not have blonde hair or blue eyes did not diminish my enjoyment of these stories, nor did it prevent me from relating to these mostly Disney-esque heroines. Disney however, did not create this genre. They only commercialized it. Fairy tales actually predate Disney by hundreds of years.
Literary fairy tales first appeared in works aimed at adults, infused with sex, violence, and lost innocence. It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that fairy tales became associated with children’s literature, eventually morphing into the safe, sanitized versions we grew up with that taught us simplistic moral lessons like honesty, love, and consequences for wrongdoing.
These themes are universal and they transcend culture as an effective medium for conveying society’s values. The boy who cried wolf learned the consequences of deceit, just as Ali Baba learned of the ramifications of theft. While values evolve, storytelling itself remains an honored tradition and a way to teach lessons in cultures around the world.
But besides moral lessons, what’s a fairy tale without some magic? The worlds created in the magical realism of fairy tales are much like our own but infused with random acts of magic. There are no systematic rules in place governing the magic, or how the magic is used, the way it is in fantasy. It just happens. Cinderella has a fairy godmother because she just does, not because there is a secret society of fairy godmothers.
We often see elements of magic in novels from people of color, not just white authors. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” has ghosts, flying carpets, prophecies and curses, elements that are the essence of fairy tales. Marquez sets a clear precedent that magical realism is an effective device for ethnic fairy tales, just like it is in white ones.
Multicultural writers are making gains in the publishing world, finally gaining some well-deserved recognition. In 2011 Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, took the World Fantasy Award for her novel “Who Fears Death.” The success of Saba Tahir’s fantasy series (“An Ember in the Ashes”) proves that ethnic writers can hold their own in the genre of fantasy and achieve commercial success. Yet despite the strides made by these talented writers, it is still not a level playing field for writers of color.
A report published by the magazine Fireside Fiction found that black science fiction writers face systematic and institutional racism.It’s a reminder that diversity in fiction still has a long way to go. The publishing community still does not believe that these stories have widespread appeal.
There’s no reason for the publishing industry to not have more faith in readers. Even though I grew up with predominantly white Western stories, I now like to fuse Eastern and Western themes in my own writing, because the lessons and magic of fairy tales are universal. Many other writers are doing the same, and publishers need to take note.
Cinderella is the proverbial underdog (albeit one with a magical benefactress) and she exists in many societies. The root of this fairy tales transcends culture and time resonating with readers even today. Snow White can get a tan – and be better off for it.