By Sophia Nathan
“The moment is fleeting: her gaze snaps back to its default shrewd glare, sweeping over the patchwork of thirsty lawns. She hates living here, so why stay? Dislike is etched into every wrinkle of that beautiful, familiar, weather-beaten face.” – Danielle McGee. ‘The Origami Mother’, South of the Sun.
One of the greatest luxuries afforded to us by the Twenty-First Century is the mountain of entertainment we’re offered through an almost endless selection of media. From streaming services to channel TV, from the cinema and social media to a good, old-fashioned novel, advances in technology have created a world in which storytelling has been able to transcend the traditional means that once constituted its very existence. Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. It has always played a vital role in the construction and deconstruction of our lives and knowledge. Whether we use oral or written forms of storytelling, it’s likely that the knowledge we express through narration will always have a core role in the maintenance of the bonds we form with other people.
At some point in time, nestled between the first paintings pressed onto cave walls and the establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fairy tale was created. What makes the fairy tale an interesting genre, in my humble opinion, is its sheer universality. Every culture, spanning through time and place, has a form of oral storytelling reminiscent to that of the fairy tale. Its primary purpose was to pass down the wisdom collected by older generations to the new ones; to explain what was once conceived as the unexplainable. Though the roles they play within many Twenty-First Century societies have changed substantially, their fundamental purpose in the literary world remains the same: to leave the audience with a moral message or form of guidance.
One of the most striking features of the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s latest anthology, South of the Sun, is its ability to retain the core soul of what a fairy tale is while providing a refreshing spin on this ancient genre. Each of its short stories demonstrates its author’s unique voice. Danielle McGee’s work is no exception.
‘The Origami Mother’ spins a story that transcends time and place. Two tales – that of the young narrator’s coming of age and the tragic romance between her great-great grandparents Grace and Henry – are woven perfectly together to blur the line between the real and the fantastical. Her use of magical realism breathes character into the world she’s portraying, and her captivating style creates an atmosphere of wonder and dark, endless curiosity. Studying her PhD in creative writing at our very own UWA, her short fiction has previously been published in Australian Love Stories (2014), and she is working on her debut novel Awakening. What was most compelling about her writing style from ‘The Origami Mother’ was the ability to capture a uniquely Australian voice within her Scottish lens.
McGee’s cultural heritage is the heart of the story. It follows a young girl learning the tragic and fantastical roots of her family history. The magic of the sea runs in her blood; according to the stories of her grandmother, her great-great grandmother was a selkie entrapped by her human love, Henry. McGee spins a tale where an innocent infatuation shifts into a far darker obsession, ending when Grace realises the ploy and disappears back into the sea, forever leaving her children and former love on the land.
“Have you ever noticed how all dead spiders look the same.” – Danielle McGee. ‘The Origami Mother’, South of the Sun.
There is no other way to describe the first sentence of ‘The Origami Mother’ except for captivating – it immediately piqued my interest. The ominous tone suddenly set by Grandmother’s chilling observation creates a powerful visual. The shape dead spiders all share is described as “all curled up…their extremities scrunched up in a wee ball as if trying to protect their stomachs,” drawing emphasis to their vulnerability. Similar imagery is repeated when describing Grace’s journey from the United Kingdom to Fremantle Harbour. The term ‘origami mother’ is used to describe the woman, as she survives the harrowing journey by “folding herself up into the smallest possible version of a human being and clutching the sickness in!”
A common theme throughout the anthology is the subversion of traditional gender norms presented in typical, European fairy tales in which traits such as curiosity, ambition, and drive are frequently punished in the characters of young women; the traumatic experiences they face within these narratives tend to be the result of their own spirits and independence. Through storytelling, social norms of subservience were pushed on the generations of young women who were expected to learn from these tales throughout their childhood. As a young woman myself, the dismissal of conventional patriarchal teachings is one of the aspects of South of the Sun I find most refreshing. The spotlight of these tales is vastly on female voices; women creating and maintaining bonds with each other through trauma is a theme that appears frequently throughout the anthology. One especially poignant example I found was in Cate Kennedy’s ‘GPS’, a dark, modern re-telling of the classic fairy tale ‘Red-Riding Hood’. The traditional ‘wolf’ is figured, instead, as a predatory stranger who stalks the modern adaptation of red riding hood, an adolescent teen girl, travelling through the bush to her grandmother’s house. He is described with canine qualities; he smells of blood and howling grows louder in the distance as his presence becomes more and more intimidating. Red riding hood, in this version, is saved by her grandmother who becomes aware of her impending danger through a mysterious, unexplained magical sense.
Similar to how female voices are posited as the driving, narrative force in ‘GPS’, McGee’s ‘The Origami Mother’ focuses on the bonds created between women through their trauma, or the trauma of their family history. The narrative follows the unnamed young narrator’s self-actualisation through the discovery of her family’s, and by extension her own, magical abilities. The root of these magical abilities, however, is the manipulation and entrapping of her selkie great-great grandmother, as is the emergence of their family tree. We follow the narrator as she reconciles how her alleged abilities and life are the result of her ancestor’s suffering. The bold and bright curiosity of the narrator regarding the magical and natural world not only helps her avoid punishment, but also rewards her acceptance of her magical gifts.
“The ocean is a liminal space.” – Danielle McGee. ‘The Origami Mother’, South of the Sun.
I would argue, however, the most important idea presented by McGee is the inherent connection between cultural identity and the natural world. One of the final scenes of ‘The Origami Mother’ is when the young narrator befriends Yindi, a young, Aboriginal girl from the Bininj people, who tells her the story of the Yawkyawks, the seafolk of her culture. The significance of the budding friendship between these two characters is amplified as the narrator’s grandmother implies that Yindi may be a Yawkyawk herself, or descended from them. The assumption is grounded in the grandmother’s observation that merfolk tend to attract each other on land, their magic forms an invisible bond that cannot help but draw one to the other.
Another story contained within South of the Sun that bears striking similarities in synopsis and theme to ‘The Origami Mother’ is The Karukayn Get Revenge as told by Ronnie Wavehill, Elder and Custodian of the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory, and translated by Erika Charola. The story follows a man who kidnaps a Karukayn – a woman who has the top half of a human and a detachable, bottom half of a fish with legs underneath it – from her people and makes her his wife. A younger man hears of his tale and decides to try to capture a Karukayn bride for himself. However, unlike the first man, the second is spotted prematurely by the other mermaids who, as vengeance, have him dragged to the ocean and drowned. The obvious similarity is the inclusion of merfolk; however, more important are the ties both recognise between nature and identity. The man from ’The Karukayn Get Revenge’ entraps and asserts a new identity onto his mermaid bride, as Henry does to Grace in ‘The Origami Mother’. Characters from both tales receive great punishment for their attempts at deception, learning the most difficult way that one cannot separate the identity from the magical folk they try to control.
The core of any good fairy tale is the message it offers to its intended audience and that of Danielle McGee’s ‘The Origami Mother’ is nothing short of mesmerising. Cultural identity and place are presented as fundamentally interlinked. As the narrator’s grandmother asserts, “the ocean is a liminal place”; where cultures meet, intersect and differentiate, while still all holding significant beliefs regarding the sea and its role not only within the natural world, but within their own societies. The self-actualisation of the children within this story, especially that of the unnamed narrator, is the narrative focus, as they realise their magical abilities through their identity. McGee’s subversion of the traditional narrative conventions presented in fairy tales, and her use of magical realism to demonstrate how knowledge can still be passed down through storytelling in the Twenty-First Century, cement her as an immensely talented and socially aware author. We watch as the past collides with the present in the dark, fantastical world McGee has poignantly constructed through her beautiful style and seamless flow. I, dear reader, wholeheartedly recommend you pick up a copy of South of the Sun when you next have the chance – and keep your eyes peeled for the future works of Danielle McGee.
Cover Image courtesy of Australian Fairy Tale society.