This is no. 75 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Archetypes from folktales, fairy tales, and myths appear again and again in a wide range of contemporary stories and genres. But even if they are familiar, there is a sense that each archetype is a kind of blank slate: We can read our own interpretations into them both as readers and writers. Each time one is retold, new colors, shapes, and shadows are filled in to suit more contemporary tastes. Each new version gives us, beyond a fresh context, a way to understand our present world through an ancient one.
Why are writers of various stripes drawn to the tradition of revisionism, of retelling or subverting these age-old stories? First, folktales and myths hold a pervasive and persuasive charm because we’ve heard them from an early age. They are cultural, historical, and aesthetic artifacts passed down from generation to generation. Second, we often need to recast older works because the stereotypes and clichés that we are willing to accept or the things that need to be explained have changed. So revisionism helps us keep these stories alive and relevant for our times. Third, we get a certain satisfaction from working with the specific forms and techniques generally employed by such stories. Beyond the pleasure and play involved, we’re also adding to time-honored and beloved literary traditions.
For some of the stories in my collection, Each of Us Killers, I reached back to Gujarati folklore and Hindu myths. Gujarat is a west-coast state in India that over the centuries has seen a regular influx of travelers and immigrants from other places with ancient cultures, such as Greece, Persia, East Africa, and Arabia. Gujarati folklore and language absorbed and adapted aspects of those cultures, meaning many indigenous stories began to incorporate new traditions, rituals, and beliefs. In a similar manner, I’ve participated in the ongoing revisionism tradition by integrating contemporary themes and responding to or subverting older ones.
Here is how I have observed, classified, and approached three revisionism traditions:
Retelling: This keeps the main plot and story elements but uses different forms or points of view to explore new themes. The goal is to bring something old and something new together, causing both recognition and surprise. For instance, “Separation Notice” in my collection is a straight retelling about the Hindu god, Vishnu. While I’ve stayed true to the widely accepted myths, I’ve explored new themes by using the epistolary form and a formal business voice with a celestial (as opposed to a human) resources manager’s point of view.
Adaptation: This preserves most of the original plot but differs in structural elements like the setting, frame, or time period to complicate or raise questions about the original’s contemporary relevance. My story “Journey to a Stepwell” includes a Gujarati folktale I heard often from my mother in childhood. I never cared for its misogynistic morality so I added plot elements and a contemporary frame. And I subverted the ending.
Spinoff: This tells a new story centering a minor character from the original story. Other characters may recur but in different ways. In my story “The Waiting,” a dead wife’s ghost narrates the story about her grieving husband. In Indian folklore, many stories feature dead lovers or spouses haunting their beloveds because of “unfinished business.” Such stories typically focus on the one who is alive and how they are driven to deal with that business. My version complicates all of that, centering the emotions and concerns of the dead over those of the living.
For any such work to stand out, it needs to accomplish at least one of these three things. First, the revised version has to colonize the original to the extent that readers internalize the revised version as easily as the original. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was based in large part on ancient Greek myths about Prometheus, is as memorable as its predecessor. Second, the revised version needs to defamiliarize or dismantle stereotypes so that our understanding and interaction with classic identities evolve too. For example, much of Angela Carter’s 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, which draws heavily on fairy tales and folktales, gives us new ways of looking at the old stereotype of the oppressed or imprisoned woman seeking liberation. And, finally, the revised version must engage with and broaden discussions around key evolving socio-political narratives of our times. I admire, for instance, the feminist revisions of the Odyssey in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Madeline Miller’s Circe.
Complex as all this may sound, these simple classic stories remain endless troves of profound truths and pleasures that writers can discover with each revision.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.