Re-Appropriated Text: Kate Bernheimer and the Potential of Fairy Tales

Kate Bernheimerby Julie Swarstad

Kate Bernheimer is the author of two novels, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold (2001) and The Complete Tales of Merry Gold (2006), as well a short story collection titled Horse, Flower, Bird (2010).  She has also edited several fairy-tale anthologies, including My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (2010). Bernheimer is an alumna of the University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA Program.  She founded and edits the journal Fairy Tale Review and is Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette each spring. She spends the rest of the year in Tucson.

A reading and discussion of "The Contemporary Fairy Tale" will take place at the UA Poetry Center on Wednesday, December 1, at 8:00 p.m.

Kate Bernheimer will read at the UA Poetry Center on Friday, December 3 at 8 p.m. along with fellow UA alum Joshua Marie Wilkinson.

Upon hearing the words "fairy tale," you might automatically think of "once upon a time" or "happily ever after," of simple stories set in a magical time and place.  For Kate Bernheimer, however, and a growing number of contemporary writers, fairy tales are a form and style of essential importance.  They are a critical lens for examining our contemporary lives and the world we inhabit, and they are full of potential for seeing things in a new way, for finding a fresh approach with the power to shatter conventions.

Bernheimer is an active writer and editor, composing her own work out of fairy tales and encouraging other writers who are doing the same.  In 2006 Bernheimer envisioned a journal publishing stories with what she calls a "fairy-tale feel," and that journal came to life as the Fairy Tale Review.  Since its inception, five issues have been published and the journal is now looking forward to its sixth edition.  The issues already published contain a wide range of writers, genres, and styles with works on widely varying topics from a broad array of viewpoints.  The common thread, however, is that these stories, poems, illustrations, and even comics all have some theme, character, convention, or simply the feeling of fairy tales to them, some sense of the unusual or the beyond-real.  These pieces take something from fairy tales and use it as a starting point for writing that is brilliantly new and inventive.

In addition to her work as editor of the Fairy Tale Review and the many anthologies she has edited, Bernheimer has also published her own fairy tales.  The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, the first of her trio of books about three sisters, takes yet another approach to fairy tales and how they might be utilized for telling new stories.  Ketzia tells the story of the middle of the three Gold sisters, the misfit of the family who is constantly being pushed aside by her parents and sisters, and eventually by her husband as well.  The underlying structure of the novel is a selection of German, Russian, and Yiddish fairy tales; with these stories as points of departure, Bernheimer weaves together a tapestry of Ketzia's life that is often surrealistic but always startlingly fresh.

The beauty of what Bernheimer does in Ketzia comes from the way we see Ketzia's life unfold from many different angles, the same events sometimes described in multiple stories scattered throughout the novel.  Bernheimer switches back and forth between stories from Ketzia's childhood and adult life, between first- and third-person narration, and between stories directly about Ketzia and short fairy tales that move parallel to Ketzia's experience.  Between these many voices, Ketzia's character slowly unfolds even as the story itself doesn't move forward, instead circling back around until the reader sees the many events that contribute to who Ketzia becomes.  When the novel ends, it's hard not to marvel at Bernheimer's skillful use of the pre-existing tales; she re-appropriates them masterfully, and the end result is completely enchanting.

Bernheimer's work with the Fairy Tale Review along with her novels and short stories points to the inherent power fairy tales have to continually be a relevant means of approaching and interpreting our contemporary experiences.  The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold and the works published in the Fairy Tale Review offer exciting possibilities for the use of fairy tales as a jumping-off point for students and young writers; they show us that fairy tales are truly storehouses of experience and emotion, and that they are full of doors to new possibilities and new understandings.

Created on: 
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents