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Once Upon A Reteller

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Cunnigham’s collection of stories ‘A Wild Swan and Other Tales’ based on popular fairy tales is filled with a sense of play and casual irreverence, prodding at the many what-ifs and happily-ever-afters. Edited excerpts from the article.

Michael Cunningham (Author) and Yuko Shimizu (Illustrator), A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. Published 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN-10: 978-0374290253. ISBN-13: 978-0374290252.

When I was growing up, I owned a book of fairy tales called Treasury of Timeless Tales. Retreating to a quiet corner after school every evening, I’d fall into a rabbit hole of witches and gingerbread houses, big bad wolves and stray glass slippers, giant beanstalks and conniving little men with funny names. 

Tattered at the edges now, Treasury of Timeless Tales still sits on my bookshelf, a piece of my childhood that has survived 25 years, dusty but mostly intact. I pulled it out recently on a mission to wean my 11-year-old nephew off the iPad and lure him into the enchanting world of books. But bred on a different diet of stories (aka Netflix and Amazon Prime), the pieces of these fairy tales didn’t quite fit together for him. What if some of these prince charmings turned out to be thugs and frauds? What if Cinderella ‘lost’ her glass slipper on purpose? And what if Sleeping Beauty just wanted to be left alone to sleep?

Herein, perhaps, lies the timelessness of these classic tales: across generations, cultures and individual frames of reference, they open themselves out to such innumerable ‘what-ifs’, so that they continue to be excellent fodder for all types of retellings and reimaginings.

Of the many I’ve read, Michael Cunningham’s collection of stories A Wild Swan and Other Tales remains glued to memory. Perhaps it’s because of the sense of play, the casual irreverence with which Cunningham pries these stories open and prods at their many what-ifs – playing with characters’ backstories, unearthing possible motives, twisting happily-ever-afters into bleak endings, and extending bleak endings into more reasonable situations. Reimagined from a 21st century perspective and drawing on American cultural references, Cunningham gives new life to these characters from our childhood; and in this less-than-perfect version of themselves, they are more three-dimensional, more vulnerable and more endearing somehow.

In the title story, the youngest prince, only partially saved from a curse, with a swan’s wing in the place of his right arm, has a stack of sexy pickup lines in his head even as he grows pot-bellied and lonely: ‘Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off? Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.’ In Little Man, a rather likeable old gnome with small-time wizardly powers wants nothing more than to have a child. He eventually stoops to blackmail – because in the harsh world we live in, he sees no other way: ‘Adoption agencies are reluctant about doctors and lawyers, if they’re single and over forty. So go ahead. Apply to adopt an infant as a two-hundred-yearold gnome.’ And in my favourite, Jacked, a stupid and lazy Jack sells the family cow, their last asset, for a handful of magic beans: ‘He doesn’t even ask what variety of magic the beans supposedly deliver. Maybe they’ll transform themselves into seven beautiful wives for him. Maybe they’ll turn into the seven deadly sins, and buzz around him like flies for the rest of his life. Jack isn’t doubtful. Jack isn’t big on questions. Jack is the boy who says, ‘Wow, dude, magic beans, really?’
Poonam Ganglani is an independent writer based in Chennai. 

To read the full story, click here.

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