Hi everyone! Welcome to our second roundtable! Today we’re discussing retellings, with an emphasis on cultural tales and mythology. Specifically, we’re talking about the difference between retellings and inspirations as well as things to keep in mind when retelling stories from other cultures. We linked to the Goodreads pages of the books we discuss if you want to learn more about them.
Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
Moderator: Kat Cho / Editor: Akshaya Raman
Axie: I think a successful retelling still has the major characters and themes of the original fairy tale [or story] so that you feel that sense of nostalgia and familiarity with the story even though it’s a retelling.
Akshaya: I think retellings are very hard to do well. People already know the story going in, so it always makes me wonder, “What did you as the creator bring to the table?” I guess I’d consider a retelling to be successful if I can see the bones of the source material (either overt plot points or subtle references) but ultimately it reads as something new and separate.
Kat: I actually agree with Akshaya. I like to see recognizable elements of the original story/myth in the setup of the story, but I like the ending to be unpredictable. It’s actually hard with some, because if you were doing ROMEO AND JULIET, one of the very huge elements is that they die together in the end. So I suppose it must be executed well (because R&J, to me, isn’t about forbidden love, it’s about tragic star-crossed love, which by definition = tragic death). I also don’t want to be able to fill out a template/rubric about your creative choices. Like if there’s a Cinderella retelling, I’m fine with there being a stepmother and stepsisters and fairy godmother. But it must be done in a way that fits the MC of this story, not just to match up directly with Cinderella.
Akshaya: I totally agree, Kat. You can’t just force things to fit the retelling. If your hook is that it’s an X version of Cinderella, you have to make choices that reflect that X element, not just automatically follow the original story.
Axie: I agree, I don’t want it to be exactly the same, but a Cinderella story isn’t Cinderella without the step mother, the fairy godparent and the ball. There are some familiar elements that have to be in place for it to be called a retelling, I think. I also think it’s worth discussing what a retelling is versus being inspired by an original source.
Kat: Axie, that’s such a great point! Because you can be inspired by a lot of things like culture or character or themes. But a retelling implies that you are adding specific elements of an original story or myth.
Axie: But also to counteract my own point, that Cinderella story is a westernized version. The Chinese Cinderella story has different themes, in which case, different elements would go into a retelling.
Akshaya: Axie, that’s an excellent point. When it’s a well known folktale that is present across different cultures, it’s really important to think about the source material and which culture you’re borrowing the original tale from and how they might see it differently.
Akshaya: I am all for twists. Like I said, I feel good retellings show me not just the original story, but what the author contributed. But it also depends on what the twist is and for what reason it’s employed. The things that concern me are when people take non-European stories and change them to fit better with a Western gaze. Things like erasing elements of a culture that you don’t like or agree with or understand, or doing the opposite and exoticizing and othering by picking and choosing only ornamental things (food and clothes and holidays) without understanding the underlying significance. Or literally taking a non-European story and setting it in Europe.
Kat: I actually think twists are necessary in a way. I don’t want to read the same story. If it’s too similar to the original, then I’ve already read that story and it will not pull me in as a reader. There needs to be a new element added for it to truly be considered a “retelling.”
There are some twists that I think need extra thought put into them. Axie and Akshaya, you already hit on the idea of taking a story from one culture and transposing a new culture onto it. This is very, very sensitive territory. A myth or fairy tale is born from distinct ideals and beliefs in a culture. If you try to transpose another culture on top of it then it will often lose that meaning and won’t be the story you wanted to tell at all. I think that taking Cinderella, which has been translated and disseminated across cultures, has more wiggle room for interpretation through a different cultural lens. For example, I did not read CINDER and think that it lost the true meaning of the original Cinderella story.
Axie: I don’t think one is better than the other (like twist retellings are better than straightforward ones). But I do love a good twist. Like Sleeping Beauty in Space or Cyborg Cinderella. That obviously makes me think, ooh, how are they going to retell the myth/fairy tale in this new, cool way?
Kat: On the flip side, there are stories from some cultures that (like I said before) are very deeply rooted in the ideals of those cultures. There are myths and folktales from East Asian cultures that speak of filial piety and are easily recognizable as such by someone from that culture. I wonder sometimes if it would be read that way by someone outside the culture. Then I wonder what would happen if someone took one of those stories and set it in Denmark, for example, would it have the same meaning? How would I feel as a person from the culture the original myth is from?
Akshaya: Yeah, Kat, I wonder that too. Going back to what Axie said earlier, that certain elements need to be present to be considered a retelling–should culture be one of them? Like if it’s Mulan set in present-day America with no Chinese or Chinese-American characters, should it be called a Mulan retelling?
Kat: The issue with Mulan specifically is she is a real figure in Chinese history. A Mulan retelling without China and Mulan is not Mulan. At that point it’s a story about a strong girl, which is great, but it should not be called a Mulan retelling.
An interesting counter argument (to myself, haha) is STARCROSSED. Helen, Paris, and Hector are all part of an epic poem that is thought to be historical. But they were taken and put into American high school in that story. I do wonder if it’s less criticized because Greco-Roman cultures of old are no longer actively practiced though.
Akshaya: You know, I think about that, too. Because to some extent, my personal tolerance (or lack of tolerance, I should say) of Hindu mythology being taken out of a cultural context is very much tied to the fact that it’s a religion that is still practiced by millions today, including by my family. But if the mythology was more archaic and more divorced from the actual religion, maybe I wouldn’t.
Kat: I haven’t really seen critiques of Rick Riordan’s books that take Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, and Ancient Egyptian cultures and revamp it for modern day kids. And I do believe it’s because these ancient cultures have been long dead (for lack of a better term).
Alternatively, Aladdin or A Thousand and One Nights are ancient tales from the Middle East, but if someone took them and set them in Europe, that would be a red flag to me. I don’t think you could really be respectful to the origins of the stories if you did that.
Axie: Fairy tales in general also appear in similar veins throughout cultures. Like there’s a Korean fairy tale that is very similar to a Greek fairy tale, and a Greek fairy tale very similar to a Norwegian one to an Irish one. Themes are universal throughout the world. There’s a reason dragons exist in both the West and the East, although they’re very different.
Kat: What I really think is true of how we see these retellings today (2017) is that we can’t just say “well, Disney did it, so it’s fine.” Of course, I adore Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan and Emperor’s New Groove. But would I ever say they’re the best in terms of cultural sensitivity? Probably not. So we need to see the world as it is today with the information we are all aware of now from a lot of conversations that have already occurred and that are still ongoing
Axie: Okay, going back, and like thinking about our whole conversation so far–I change my mind on characters having to reappear for it to be a retelling. But I do think the themes of the original have to reappear for it to be a retelling because obviously characters are not universal. For example THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN (TSTQ)–it is a Hades and Persephone retelling even though the characters aren’t called Hades and Persephone. The themes still exist.
Akshaya: Axie, that’s an interesting point. But though the Greek versions don’t appear in TSTQ, characters still inhabit the roles of Hades and Persephone. So like maybe themes and character roles rather than the characters exactly as they existed in the original?
Axie: And like I was saying with cultures sharing similar fairy tales–I think there is universality in themes; however, that doesn’t mean you can specifically take a cultural fairy tale and place it somewhere arbitrarily. A lot of fairy tales are very rooted in their cultural landscape–like, for example, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is very rooted in its location (Norway).
Kat: I wonder (and this is just me theorizing aloud) if you should really think about whether you have a right to that myth/story before you retell it? Like what makes you think you have such good ownership of it that you can respectfully retell it in a way that keeps the original themes? Because, although I am Asian by blood, I don’t have any issues retelling Cinderella or Little Mermaid or Snow White. I grew up with those stories. I feel like I know them really, really well. But I wouldn’t retell the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.
Kat: Culturally I think SERPENTINE was amazing. So was THE GHOST BRIDE. And PROPHECY was so clearly well researched in terms of historical Korean culture. I mean, there’s a bit of a theme here, and it’s that all of these authors are own voices. I don’t think that’s the only reason they wrote such amazing fantasies based on these cultures, but it was potentially easier for them because they grew up as part of these worlds and hearing these stories. But, even so, when I read the stories I could feel how deeply rooted the culture of the worlds were reflected in the telling of the story and the build up of the characters and conflict. It felt very organic and connected.
Axie: I think Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF series handles this very well, as it’s “inspired by” Greek culture and myths and geography, but has its own history and pantheon, and yet you still feel like you’re in a Grecian world. Same with Marie Rutkoski’s THE WINNER’S CURSE series, which is inspired by Greco-Roman relations, but set in a secondary fantasy world. I also think DRAGON SWORD AND WIND CHILD by Noriko Ogiwara is an example of a well-done Japanese-inspired fantasy series that felt East Asian and Japanese, but didn’t directly use real religion or history.
(Addendum: Thank you to C. N. R. Shiotsuki for pointing out that DRAGON SWORD AND WIND CHILD is based on Japanese myths and figures. The novel, written in Japanese, was translated for English-speaking audiences.)
Akshaya: I really loved THE WRATH AND THE DAWN. Even though Renee Ahdieh herself isn’t Middle Eastern, she really brought that world to life. I literally wanted to live in a palace in the desert for weeks after I read it. And I could tell she put a lot of care into representing that culture well, even beyond just basic research. Like I’ve heard her say on panels how she read poetry written by people of the era that inspired the book to get a sense of how they spoke and wrote.
Kat: Oh yes I could practically feel the care and thought she put into the small details. Also, I listened to an interview where Renee talked about how she tried to make all the food she talks about in the book and accidentally set her kitchen on fire (adorable!) I think small things like that, caring about the details, really do influence how the story is brought together.
Akshaya, I think that’s great advice. I know that Alexandra Bracken read a lot of correspondence from the historical time points she uses in PASSENGER. It seems like a great way to really understand why people did what they did in those times.
Akshaya: That’s funny–I actually was thinking of Alex Bracken when I was typing that, too. But it also depends on where you’re looking and how many primary sources are available from a specific culture that you can access and understand (i.e. that are written in a language that you can read). I also want to add that research is super important, but make sure you’re thinking about where your information is coming from. A lot of texts in English are written by Western scholars. If you’re researching a story set in other parts of the world, question who is speaking and what biases those writers might have.
Axie: Ugh I love primary sources. **History major here**
Akshaya: But going back to the question, I’ll admit I’ve always had a strange relationship with the phrase “inspired by.” I feel like sometimes it’s comforting to think that it’s not a direct retelling, that people aren’t necessarily taking stories that belong to others. At the same time, it also gives people license to erase or change things as they wish and say “oh it’s just inspired by” to excuse problematic content.
Kat: What I think is something to consider is that building a world that’s factually accurate is just step one. I’ve read a few stories that had great (non-Western) worlds built, but the world and the culture of that world didn’t influence the character. I can very much respect the obvious research that went into those books while still seeing the barrier between the characters and the world. A well-created world that is “inspired by” a culture must also influence a character. Worlds are created by the people who live in it, so I find it hard to accept when a character’s motivations seem removed from the world.
Axie: “Inspired by” is tricky because it can be used to arbitrarily cherry-pick cultural elements to put into a book so you can say “it’s like so-and-so culture” when it’s not.
Kat: Axie, I agree with you so hard on this point. It’s so funny because “cherry picking” is a negative term in clinical research too (Note: Kat’s day job is in clinical research). It means you are choosing data-points that will automatically prove your point. Cherry picking in cultures is also cheating to me. So when someone has real worlds from a culture that’s not their own, but then gets other big elements wrong, I get a little sad when they try to explain that their world is “merely” inspired by.
Axie: There’s a great cultural iceberg that was going around a couple of months back. Food and clothing are one thing. But why do they eat the food they eat? Why do they wear the clothing they wear? You can’t depend on the physical descriptions when researching cultures because there’s so much more to cultures than that. Cultures have sooo many intersections including: time, place, familial relationships, ideology, history (continues forever).
Akshaya: Yeah exactly. And honestly, some times those aren’t even questions that an outsider might think to ask, which is why own voices stories are so important. Kat, you had a great tweet a while ago about not saying own voices only, but rather own voices first. And I think that’s really something to keep in mind. If you see a cool myth or folktale from another culture, maybe give people from that culture a chance to tell their story first.
Kat: Oh yes, I actually have been thinking a lot on own voices and our place in literature. Because own voices and WNDB was never made to exclude. In fact, by their very nature, they’re asking for inclusion. But I do think that a story’s heart is often conveyed in a first impression, and a first telling might best be done by an own voices writer.
Axie: Yes, agree. If you didn’t hear the story for the first time from a beloved guardian as a child, think twice!
Do you have thoughts on retellings? Share them (or even some of your own retelling recommendations) in the comments below!
Also quick reminder that Writer’s Block Party is hosting a giveaway to celebrate our launch!! Visit this blog post to find out how you can enter to win signed books and pre-orders! It ends in a week so make sure you enter while you have the chance!