Brothers Grimm story-writing competition

by Guy Somerset / 14 September, 2012
The judge's report.
Kate De Goldi

My thanks first to the Goethe-Institut, the Listener and Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters for the opportunity to take part in this imaginative story enterprise. It was very good to think again, and in some depth, about the Brothers Grimm and their marvellous stories, and equally interesting to read through the submissions.

And what an amazing range of approaches, narrative perspectives and subject matter was pursued within the fairy-tale grid and given word limit. One thing was very apparent: participants took up their pens to address some pressing social concerns - the treatment of our landscape; the parlous position of the elderly, children in poverty, threatened species; the need to accept difference, consumerism, filial neglect, estranged birth parents, to name just some themes. Writers also marrying ti kanga with European motifs, letting loose European magic in the New Zealand landscape, and – particularly successfully - using the cadence of Maori oral tradition within the structure of old fairy tale.

I have mentally awarded several private prizes. For most original character: Mrs Katipo, the truant officer watching from her hiding place in the dunes, a red umbrella in her back pocket. Most delightfully crazy cast: Red Cap – or Red Riding Hood - the metallurgist, Germanic tribal warlords, contemporary German authorities and someone with a touch of Munchausen’s syndrome. Most progressive hero: a seamstress prince.

The abundance of inventiveness was delightful, but I did notice, too, a number of recurring difficulties writers had with basic craft matters: many entries were let down by structural confusion and uneven pacing. There was often confusion in establishing a persuasive narrative voice or tone: contemporary vernacular often sat uneasily with orotund flourishes; there was much referencing of New Zealand fauna and flora and a great number of taniwha, Maori gods - hui and kuia, one might flippantly say - but without these being effectively reimagined or worked within the fairy-tale structure so that we regarded them anew. Many stories started promisingly but lost momentum – as if the writer was not sure, finally, where their idea was going.

The stories I was most taken with avoided these pitfalls for the most part, had fresh, occasionally startling, approaches, were modest in their reach but had underlying depth, obeyed fairy-tale structure and traditions (the rule of three, for example, the simple – almost representative – nature of character, the swiftness of plot, the invoking of primal forces), and most importantly, transplanted the tradition convincingly to Aotearoa.

I had no doubt about the winning story – which managed all the foregoing and more - but competition for second and third positions was a little fierce, so I’d like to commend several other stories: Jeri and Del, for its economy and wit and reimagining of the witch as a producer of reality television; Serena, for its largely successful reimagining of the frog prince as a Crab King and a most visceral evocation of a human turning into crustacean; Te Raiti Kahurangi, for excellent pacing and dialogue and a convincing portrait of a kuia passing on family story to mokopuna; The Three Cheeses, for very good structure and a clever riff on the trialling of suitors within contemporary foodie culture; Te Reinga, for really good writing - lovely sentences, believable dialogue and a most attractive fusion of contemporary Maori-inflected vernacular and fairy-tale voice.

The runner-up stories are: 1) Little Red Riding Hood Does Over the Big Bad Wolf, which I enjoyed enormously for its bogun-ish chutzpah: a young slightly macho, heftily comic motorcycle magazine editor is well gulled by a nymph in red lycra shorts while he is putting the Zumba – “the latest all-mountain bike in the Xtacy’s upcoming 2013 range” – through its paces. The story very nicely completes its modest intentions; it is well paced and structured, it invokes the comic lesson-in-humility of some Grimm stories; the narrative voice plays most amusingly with political incorrectness and ends with a little metafictional flourish: the narrator reports from A&E: “I ponder this postmodern truth: a broken leg is but a small price to pay for a twist on a classic story like this.”

2) Evil Fairy Tales: this is a simple story that blends Maori and fairy-tale tropes very well. It is beautifully written, seeming somehow both economical and leisurely. It obeys a number of fairy-tale “rules” but without overt display. A distinctly sinister undertow bobs beneath the smooth sing-song surface, making the story linger unnervingly in the reader’s head.

The winning story was a stand-out: The Cry Baby is a superb mash-up of Rumpelstiltskin, Clever Gretel and another old story that hovers in my head but which I can’t quite catch. The writer is completely in charge of tone, pace and structure. The sentences are musical, the vocabulary simple but freighted – contributing to the sense that this is a story that might have been told over and over again by many voices through the centuries.

The cast is kept dead simple: a mother, a baby, a witch – brilliantly transmuted into a possum (the possum appeared many times as baddie but this story easily did it the best). And the problem at the heart of the story is both simple and potentially devastating. It is in this way that the writer mines the “latent truth” of the story: the twinned emotions a mother may have for a new baby - desperate love and desperate fury.

There is sly humour (the possum’s voice is wonderfully contemporary but it has a glaring grammar slip; it is also impatient in a way that one somehow sympathises with). The story manages the swift temporal and geographic movements that fairy tale demands, but somehow never seems hurried. The baking of the substitute bread baby is rendered most sensually, the vanquishing of the possum is bloody, violent and deeply satisfying. Above all, the primitive nature of new maternity – in all its complexity – is thoroughly and lingeringly evoked.

And the ending is a treat: “They didn’t live happily ever after. But they did their best.” In this sentence alone, surely, we have a successful transplant of fairy tale to Aotearoa in 2012.
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