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Fairytales for Instagram

Poet Nikita Gill’s new book, Fierce Fairytales, might be Insta-clickbait, but packages millennial concerns with a feminist take on magic.

by Rituparna Som
13 November 2018, 10:00am

I love fairy and folk tales. I’m well aware of how damaging and regressive they are. I love them nevertheless. I’ve reinvented them for my Masters’ thesis, used them as terrible allegories in articles, and I’m hell-bent on spreading their magic, warts and all, to my many nieces and nephews. Everything in this world is flawed; it’s our interpretation that should enable us to acknowledge, accept and finally appreciate the magic. Fairy and folk tales have been revisited and reinterpreted hundreds of times, with each school of thought—Marxist, feminist, creationist (!)—out to stake their claim.

Nikita Gill (471K on Instagram/26.1K on Twitter, with followers like Alanis Morissette and Nicole Richie) applies a feminist angle, through the ‘woke’ lens of women learning and starting to speak out today. The British-Indian poet’s latest book, Fierce Fairytales is a collection of the popular poet’s latest work that gathers familiar tropes and characters from beloved stories, mixing in Scherezade and the three little pigs to create a universe where—

“Not all girls are made of sugar/and spice and all things nice.
These girls are made of dark lace/and witchcraft and a little bit of vice.”
‘Difficult Damsels’

The approach might not be novel, and the quietly strident voice painting girls and women as awakening dragons might seem repetitive after a while, but the collection of more than 90 poems does address some relevant 21st century concerns—patriarchy, toxic masculinity, eating disorders, mental health, bullying, identity, and gender among many others. Mixing in folk tales from around the world, she writes bite-sized snackable prose and poetry, turning our childhood monsters into pasts we must confront and let go of, and heroes into the creatures we must be wary of. There are ample doses of empowerment here, of finding strength through difficult journeys of self-discovery, and messages of taking back the world, owning identities and related positive affirmations that seem to work really well in the online world which operates in that funny space of speaking universally as well as to an individual. I wish there were more Indian folk and fairy tales—there are multiple galaxies out there of these stories, and unfortunately because of how insular some of our language and communities can be, have remain very restricted and sadly unexplored.

Some bits like the following from ‘The Looking Glass’...

“Apologise to yourself for listening to abuse,/remind yourself that you are the fairest of them all.”

...work well in terms of subverting a familiar phrase (hello Western fairy tales that have overtaken our mythology), others get a little lost. Wendy from Peter Pan and Alice from Carroll’s Wonderland getting painted as victims of hallucinations and substance abuse, and stepmothers and evil sea witches turning into figures deserving our empathy are a mix that I’m still trying to make sense of. However the message is clear—Gill is out to create a kinder world for as long as we temporarily inhabit it.

“...when we feel like life is overwhelming,/we must remember that we’re just sparks of energy borrowing skin.
That no matter how much this pain feels everlasting,/this is just the temporary fabric we are in.”
‘The Fable in Thermodynamics’

And if that means a willing suspension of disbelief just to create a new line-up of characters who in their own flawed way can help a few people realise identities, potentials and strengths—why not?

Fierce Fairytales (Hachette India) is out in bookstores now.

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