From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Nikki Alfar

What inspired your folk tale “Bearing Fruit”?

This is actually from the notes I’ve written for my upcoming short story collection:

I’m a folklore and fairy tale geek—not in any scholarly way or anything, but I’ve read lotsa shit from lotsa cultures, and it’s an abiding interest of mine. So one day, my friend Andrew Drilon and I were sitting around talking folklore, and he said something like, “Okay, Pinoy folklore is rich and varied and all that, but why can’t it be sexier?” (And by ‘sexier’ he didn’t mean ‘involving sex’, because Filipino folk tales include stuff like giants that can be overcome by heroes clever enough to target their enormous, dangling tentacles. Seriously! What he meant by ‘sexier’ was, you know, titillating, tantalizing, toothsome, tasty—all those good ‘T’ words.)

And I thought, “Well, why can’t it?” which is how I ended up reworking the traditional Bontoc tale The Wonderful Orange Fruit. In the original, a young man is pressured by his parents to get married and have children; but he can’t find a woman he likes, so he plucks an orange from the tree, asks it to help him find a bride, and sends it floating down the river, where it eventually impregnates a young woman bathing. Said young woman goes in search of the guy, and at first the guy’s parents don’t believe her story, but then she gives birth and the baby looks just like him, so finally they get married and of course live happily ever after. Don’t they? It’s told from the boy’s point of view.

Me being me, of course my immediate reaction to the story was outraged sympathy for this poor chick who was just innocently taking a bath and, next thing you know, she finds herself knocked up by a citrus fruit! Any thinking female, especially one who’s been pregnant or has experienced a pregnancy scare, can tell you that these are hardly the ingredients for a simple happy ending. I mean, what about her plans for her own life? What about the responsibilities of parenthood suddenly thrust upon her unwitting shoulders? What about the judgment of others, which she totally didn’t deserve?

So I decided to try and give the poor chick a voice, and turned the orange into a mango because early readers didn’t think an orange was appropriately Filipino enough. And besides, I don’t particularly like oranges, but I do like mangoes.

As a young girl did you have a favorite folk tale? Do you have one as an adult?

As a young girl, my favorite was ‘Katie Crackernuts’—I probably loved it because the heroine rescues the prince, instead of the other way around as usual. As an adult, I love ‘The Light Princess’ by George MacDonald—it’s so authentically a fairy tale in every respect, yet entirely fresh—and ‘Ever, After’ by Dean Francis Alfar. Of course, I’m married to Dean, so while I think my opinion is unbiased, I will refrain from rhapsodizing.

Fruit is often offered as a temptation in cautionary tales, but the consequences of indulging are frequently mitigated by external forces. In “Bearing Fruit,” the girl takes up the consequences primarily by herself. In your story “Glass,” Mariska also relies on herself. Does your writing tend towards strong women? If so, what do you find most enjoyable about writing them?

It’s been pointed out to me that a lot of my writing tends to be about choice: the courage it takes to make a choice—right or wrong—and to live with the consequences. And since, for obvious reasons, I tend to identify more easily with female characters than male ones, I guess it’s not surprising that I often write about courageous women. I don’t know about ‘strong’, necessarily—I feel that term has come to imply a certain level of inhuman perfection, and I like my people to be flawed. They don’t always make smart choices—I mean, Mariska of ‘Glass’ is freed by the dragon holding her prisoner, but then she turns right around and goes back–but they do make their own choices, which is apparently my point.

“Bearing Fruit” employs second-person narration, a narration that highlights the girl’s sarcasm. Had you originally intended to use second-person narration or did it develop through the writing process? Why did you choose to use it?

I actually just woke up one day with the first line in my head, and the rest of the tone followed from there. Of course, part of the way through, I realized that my stupid head had chosen an immensely challenging narrative voice—I mean, by using second-person, I’m essentially demanding that any reader (including guys, for instance) be able to put themselves in the shoes of a pregnant sixteen-year-old! But I decided to go with it, because I felt it went a long way toward both modernizing the traditional tale and grounding a premise that might otherwise be too darned weird to empathize with. (Pregnant by a mango, really!) Besides, I do like a challenge, so I guess my head wasn’t all that dumb, after all.

Too late the sixteen years old realizes that “It isn’t fair, but folk tales rarely are to young maidens.” She easily accepts that her story might be a cautionary folk tale, but at the end she has learned that even folk tales are not definite, nor are they binding. What do you think the appeal is of defining one’s life in terms of a familiar narrative?

You know, I’m not sure I’m deep enough to answer this question! But speaking purely for myself, there tends to be an element of subversion in my writing—messing around with how people view women, dragons, the traditional quest motif, and other curious creatures. (Yes, I am being ironic.) That’s why I favor folklore—it’s easier (and more fun!) to play with preconceived notions when everyone pretty much understands what the default preconceptions are.

Could you tell us what is next for you?

To be painfully candid with you, Facebook games are killing—killing!—my writing process. But I do have a short story collection—I think I’m calling it Now, Then & Elsewhen—ready for print, if only one of the wonderful writers I look up to will actually get around to finishing my introduction. I’ve also finished editing the latest volume of the yearly anthology I co-edit, Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 5, which is scheduled for launch this coming April.

konieczny bio pic1Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.

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