Several years ago, I stumbled across an odd, surrealist take on Sleeping Beauty called Briar Rose by Robert Coover. It was a post-modern retelling of the folktale that went well beyond the usual princess – prince – curse – one true love conquers all trope; in fact, it was a bitterly humorous take on the folktale. Cyclical and repetitive, it shows a helplessly trapped situation the three main characters find themselves in. The prince is caught in the briars. The princess is lost in dreams as she waits for her savior. The old crone’s caught up in the princess’ dreams, telling the girl never-ending stories that further feed those dreams. What blew me away was the fact that Coover also made use of several old versions of the Sleeping Beauty folktale that added a pretty disturbing layer to his retelling. Incest and rape come up the princess’ dreams. That ties with certain versions of the folktale in which the princess wakes up from a hundred years’ sleep and finds herself surrounded by babies.
Another book I discovered, adored, and was inspired by was Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, an anthology of feminist retellings of different folktales. Carter’s prose is difficult to slog through if you’re not used to it, but it works incredibly well in creating a certain atmosphere and tone in each story. Her stories are sensual, gothic, opulent, and somewhat angry. That last detail could be subjective. It was a tone I easily caught on to as I read every story, which was an exploration of female strength, oppression, and liberation.
In Coover and Carter’s books I discovered a different approach to writing folktale retellings. Things didn’t need to follow tried-and-true variations, and a writer can certainly venture down a different fork in the road. I learned that it was good to experiment with themes and tone while using familiar stories for my foundation.
Arabesque is a satire. More specifically, it’s a dark satire. Now our common interpretation of satire runs along humorous lines, and while that’s partly true, satire isn’t just comedy. From Wikipedia:
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
There are two kinds of satires: light (Horatian), which is gentle and humorous, and dark (Juvenalian), which is angry and bitter.
Arabesque is the latter, and I wanted it to be the latter. I’ve never written satire in the Juvenalian sense, and it was an odd experience for me. I wanted to express my disgust toward reparative therapy, which was the primary goal for my writing Arabesque. Along the way, homophobia and misogyny were instantly woven into the story, and it was inevitable since these three items are, to me, inextricably linked.
And in order to pull that off, I needed to step back and use the omniscient point of view, showing what went on with different characters, both major and minor. That “zooming out” approach helped me maintain a distant – even cold – voice that I thought would work well in satire. I wanted the tone to be dry and matter-of-fact, sometimes with a touch of dark humor here and there, but still overall critical of what I’ve always known to be the hypocrisies behind bigotry and especially among proponents of reparative therapy.
III. Fairy tales within a fairy tale
The book uses a number of other fairy tales mostly in brief references except for Roald’s nightmarish adventures, which make use of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in a longer and more detailed way. Traditional fairy tales are, unsurprisingly, awfully heteronormative, and it was that which inspired me to explore historical fantasy for gay kids when I started writing and publishing gay YA fiction.
In Arabesque, I wanted to show how those classic fairy tales can be used to break Alarick and Roald, how neither boy can be a part of those stories of grand adventures and true love because they don’t fit the bill. They’re gay. Sucks to be them. If they don’t see themselves reflected in those stories – stories from their childhood, stories they’d always held dear – it could only be because these tales favor the status quo, and if they wanted to be deserving of hope, redemption, and edification, they needed to change their behavior. Or, according to the cursed cottage, they needed to grow up and get over themselves. After all, homosexuality’s only a phase.
IV. Hybrid of mythology and folktale
I chose 18th century Germany for the setting as my way of honoring the Brothers Grimm. We usually associate fairy tales with the Middle Ages, with the romantic images of elaborate headdresses and robes. But I prefer the image of 18th century court life as well as the 19th century bourgeois and the 19th century poor for my fairy tale settings. 18th century court life is much more excessive in terms of visuals compared to the 19th century, so I stuck to that period. Exploring the increasingly out-of-control decadence and corruption of Lambrecht’s court tied in with images of tall powdered wigs, hoops, lace, satin, etc., and it was rather fun juxtaposing immorality and hypocrisy with finery and wealth. I’ll admit that it was an odd, somewhat unnerving headspace to be in, considering I’ve never written anything that purposefully attacked and ridiculed certain behaviors and mindsets. But I wanted to do it; I wanted to express my disgust toward reparative therapy in a story. Treading unknown waters was a way of testing myself as a writer. In the end, despite the doubts, I found that I enjoyed stepping outside my usual comfort zone, and I wouldn’t mind doing something like this again.
The three goddesses who figure largely in Book Two were inspired by Greek and Roman Mythology. When I first self-published this book, I took the German words representing each goddess and turned them into names: Kummerene, Weisheitta, and Liebella. For the second edition, I dropped those names and simply gave them their corresponding English identities: Grief, Wisdom, and Love. Roald’s adventures, while a form of reparative therapy, are also allegorical once we figured those goddesses into the mix. You can certainly read them literally as goddesses representing grief, wisdom, and love, but you can also interpret them a different way. Are they all part of Roald? Or do they come from people who surround him? Alarick’s adventures are a lot more straightforward, but I wanted to keep Roald’s a little more open to interpretation.
V. Blue roses
I love blue roses. I love their symbolism. In Arabesque, they’re everywhere, and they represent impossible dreams. There’s not much to say about them other than they’re very much a part of the setting as well as a recurring little detail that says something about the principal players (and two minor ones): Ulrike, Amara, Alarick, Roald, Trennen, Wilmar, and even Grief herself. Whether it’s about reclaiming their humanity (Ulrike and Amara), surviving the darkest times to live and to love (Alarick and Roald), finding acceptance (Trennen and Wilmar), and looking past one’s cursed existence and feeling empathy for others (Grief), these characters are up against a number of odds stacked up against them. There’s redemption in the end, and it always seems to be impossible, just beyond their reach. It’s this struggle that the blue rose represents.
VI. Final word
I initially wrote Arabesque as an experiment. It was my first attempt at pure (dark) satire, at an omniscient point of view, and at a sustained dry tone. It was also my first attempt at self-publishing a book. The second edition’s been trimmed down quite a bit and also cleaned up with the help of an editor. But the lesson I got from this remains. It’s scary stepping outside one’s comfort zone, but it’s necessary, I think. I feel more confident in tackling stuff like this further down the road. I love knowing how many options I have in telling a story, and I feel I’ve grown as a writer from this experience. And even if I were to not write another book like Arabesque, at least I can look back and reassure myself with the thought that, once upon a time, I set out to do something I’d believed to be risky and unreadable, and I did it. It might turn off more readers than attract them – I can’t say for sure, but that wasn’t my goal when I wrote this book. In this sense, I can safely say that Arabesque would be my most personal book to date.
BLURB: An ambitious young princess, Ulrike, turns to the dark arts in order to become queen despite her younger sister’s warnings of a fatal consequence to mortgaging her soul. She succeeds, yet Ulrike finds herself trapped in a hateful marriage, her mind slowly being devoured by her powers, while conceiving and giving birth to a boy.
Alarick — “the bastard prince” — becomes the court’s favorite object of mockery because of the scandal of his conception, his mother’s spiraling madness compounding his ordeal. When Alarick falls in love with a childhood friend, Roald von Thiessen, the added sin of an unnatural romance gets caught up in a tumultuous aristocratic environment that’s rife with hypocrisy, cruelty, betrayal, and murder.
Forcibly separated from each other during a bloody uprising, Roald and Alarick become helplessly ensnared in nightmarish adventures designed to twist their characters and destroy their minds in the process. The young lovers fight for their souls and a way back to each other in a world weighed down by the forces of dark and light magic, and gods grapple with each other over mortal destinies.
Arabesque is more than a gothic, homoerotic retelling of the Snow White folktale. It is at once allegory and a darkly satirical account of contemporary issues such as misogyny, homophobia, and the process of reparative therapy.
Author Note: This is not a work of Young Adult fiction and is intended for a mature audience.
Arabesque was reviewed in February of 2012 HERE
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