The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente
Hey, I have an idea: Let’s talk about another fantastic book that came out this week! Specifically, let’s talk about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I could tell you how I feel on a personal level that this is one of the most genuinely magical young adult novels I’ve seen in a while, and how I’d put it up there with The Neverending Story, which is one of my favorite books of this type. Or I could how it’s been garnering tremendous reviews (including a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly), or I could note that even before the book was conventionally published, it had won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.
But then I remembered that in this case, you’re not here for me, you’re here for Cat, to hear her explain her book’s big idea. It has one, and in this case, it involves a very small word.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
The biggest idea in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, the one that sits at the center of the book like a seed, is saying yes.
I’ve talked a lot about how this book came to be written–what was once a book-within-a-book in Palimpsest became a crowdfunded online serial novel became an Andre Norton Award winner became a print series published by Feiwel and Friends. It’s a great story, but it’s a story about the book, not the story of the book.
The literary purpose of including that little fragment of Fairyland in my novel Palimpsest, of dredging up the protagonist’s favorite childhood novel and creating a new one rather than just making her an Alice in Wonderland fan or a Wrinkle in Time enthusiast, was to talk about saying yes. It’s what November took from that book as a child, to always say yes to adventure and magic and things that seem strange or outlandish. And in our culture, we simply don’t have too many narratives hauling that line.
After all, saying yes is dangerous. It is frightening and unsafe. You never know what might happen. Saying no means nothing has to change, and the outside world can be kept outside.
A portal fantasy goes: a child (or adult, Farscape is also a portal fantasy, though still one about coming of age) discovers or stumbles into a magical world. He or she, while frantic to get home, ends up coming to love the magical world and saving it, often from its own worst impulses or native tyrants.
And the thing is, if at any point in my life, including this one, I found my way into another world, my first impulse would not be to reject it and seek a way home. It would not be, like Buffy, to elevate “ a normal life” beyond all other sources of power and awe. I just don’t know how to tell that story. It doesn’t interest me. As a child, I wanted magic, desperately. I would have given anything for a door to open in a wood and let me out of my life. I never understood the need to end the dream and get home–perhaps because I never understood “home” as a metaphor for “safe.” Not all homes are safe. Not all places of safety are home-like. But I would have run wild through a magical kingdom and never looked back. Talking animals? Yes. Witches and monsters? Yes. Dark queens? Absolutely. Give it right here. I would have said yes to all of it.
There are exceptions, of course. Portal fantasy is enormously popular. The film version of The Wizard of Oz, for example, is an exemplar of this mode, but the later books are altogether stranger and more interesting. But the film is what seizes our culture’s mind–because in it Dorothy would always choose our life over the Technicolor alternative. It butters us up, tells us that our lives are the better lives. Our world and the minutiae of it better than the most beautiful dream. It teaches us to say: no, thank you. Part of the reason fantasy is so reviled, I think, is because it gives us this idea that the world is more than what we’re given, that it can be anything, that the rough material of work and hard going is not the whole substance of this universe. Dreamers don’t make good workers. So you teach them that no matter how miserable, what they’ve got is the best, and the Other is terror and lies.
Well, to be bold, fuck that.
If I was going to write a portal fantasy, if I was going to get my Joe Campbell on and ship a kid to Awesomeland to do deeds of derring, I wasn’t going to roll like that. Especially since I was going to be sending a girl. Too often in books like this, (especially in the classics of the genre) girls are acted upon, rather than actors, their choices are few, reflecting the real world, where a girl’s power is often located purely in her ability to say no: to suitors, to her social inferiors, even to herself. I wanted my girl to choose, to find power in saying yes, to make her own story–and of course her own ship.
Yet September, the heroine of Fairyland, is not particularly “badass.” She’s a kid who doesn’t know who she is yet, as most of us don’t at 12 years old. But she knows what she wants, which is everything wild and magic. In many ways, what Fairyland and Palimpsest are both about is want and the satisfaction of it. Palimpsest is the very adult version. Fairyland is a more universal story, younger, more playful and innocent, but no less canny and feral. September is strong and loyal, and embraces everything she finds, even when it hurts her to do it. Her story is not even particularly about saving Fairyland. If the Marquess’s scheming managed its goal, Fairyland itself would go on. Without spoiling the end, what September saves is the possibility of saying yes, for herself and everyone else.
I wrote a book about a girl who never said no. When she first enters Fairyland, it isn’t because she falls through a hole in the earth or wanders through a closet or chases a rabbit. It’s a choice, and however dark her journey becomes, she never wishes to take it back. The Green Wind shows up at her door riding a flying leopard and asks if she wants to go. If she wants more than she’s been given. If she wants to leave this world and grasp for another, a mad and gorgeous place, sight unseen, results uncertain.
And she says yes.