Books In Conversation
Jasmine Sawers with Kate Bernheimer
The Anchored World
(Rose Metal Press, 2022)
Wonder—as in a rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious—is a vital response to fairy tales across cultures, old and new. In their debut collection The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore, author Jasmine Sawers filters Western and Thai tales through their unique sensibility, yielding a curious and curiosity-evoking book with something to wonder at for every reader. Released this fall by independent publisher of work in hybrid genres Rose Metal Press, the New York Times writes of The Anchored World that “The collection brings to mind a bowl full of colorful, glinting objects: seashells, fruit seeds and flower petals mixed among mirror shards and needles.”
I have been an avid reader of Rose Metal Press titles since it was founded, around the same time I began Fairy Tale Review. Both of our ongoing editorial missions were crafted to celebrate and draw attention to literary forms that were, at the time, not only undersung but excluded from traditional publishing conversations. Hybrid books are now an everyday part of mainstream and artistic literary conversations, and we have Rose Metal Press to thank for their advocacy of so many vanguard authors. The hardworking editors at Rose Metal Press—Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney—have such an inclusive aesthetic and ethics to their overall mission. I was thrilled when Jasmine told me Rose Metal Press had fallen in love with their stories, just as I had myself.
For years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jasmine on my longstanding journal, Fairy Tale Review, and this past summer, just before the book’s release, Jasmine and I sat down by Zoom and talked about the power of fairy tales, the shortcomings of the mainstream publishing industry, the writers who delight us, and the importance of finding or being found by—as in a fairy tale—a supportive artistic community, a place where one feels understood.
Kate Bernheimer (Rail): To begin at the beginning for readers, the cover of the book is lovely. Below your title The Anchored World, the subtitle “Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore” appears. Rose Metal Press’s signature style calls for subtitles that draw open the hybrid curtain—from the beginning, they have curated their aesthetic with prophetic intention, nearly two decades before hybrid books became part of the literary mainstream as they are now. But can you tell me a little bit about how you would like that subtitle to operate for your reader?
Jasmine Sawers: The unsexy answer to this is that Rose Metal Press’s books mostly all have a subtitle and that’s the one they gave me. They gave me a few options, and that one was the one that made the most sense to me. It's a sense of knowing what you're getting into when you pick up the book so you're not like, “Oh, why is there this one longish story? Why aren’t all the stories a single page long?” Another way the cover is working for me is that it won’t strike you as a children's book. There’s a bit of a danger if you're going to work in fairy tales that your work will be misinterpreted as for children. I like the art in the sense it's looking at you, and it's beautiful, but it's not exactly like a happy amazement.
Rail: It's a beautiful piece of art, rather melancholy.
Sawers: That's the perfect word. And it's not a children's book art type of thing.
Rail: I could see that art on a volume of old fairy tales too, which children might stumble upon, as is the fairy tale way. They weren’t always for children, but children have been in their audience back to the hearthside, if accidentally. Not to focus exclusively on the cover, but some of my memories of books are deeply entwined with their covers, especially those I first encountered as a young reader. I remember going to the library, and the cover was my first encounter with the book, and if I liked it, I would open it and read the first line, and then if that drew me in, I would guard it in my armload of books to be sure no one stole it before I could check it out from the nice lady at the circulation desk, who might comment appreciatively. This cover does have an iconic fairy-tale look, like the covers of many old, translated volumes of fairy tales and folklore.
Sawers: Tina Berning is a German artist and a beautiful artist. There were several of hers where I was like, this could be a great piece for the cover. There’s one where there's a woman in a red dress, and she's beautiful, and there is a little tiny man sitting on her shoulder and I was like oh, that's perfect too.
Rail: That sounds great.
Sawers: Yes! I have this fairy-tale book from when I was young that’s probably the reason I'm a writer. It has some beautiful art in it and some of it is quite shocking! The Snow White one has the stepmother going up in flames. And there's one of the Snow Queen which was my favorite. This little girl is helping them, but then she turns on them. They’re stabbing people! I mean that's the tradition from which we come.
Rail: Indeed! When you look at the illustrations in Der Struwwelpeter, the German book, or the D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths, they don't shy away from the violence and trauma that might appear in the stories. Often the violence in an old tale is amplified more visually in the illustrations than in the language. “She burst into flames,” an author might write, but they offer no description of the flames let alone the pain of the burning. This abstraction, this gestural language, allows the reader to immerse in the story without suffering along with the character.
Sawers: One hundred percent. When I was growing up, those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were popular. The illustrations were done by obviously an extremely talented illustrator and they're horrifying and wonderful! Children love that bloodthirsty stuff.
Rail: Even in a book as fondly recalled as Where the Wild Things Are, the wild things are frightening—Maurice Sendak said that they were based on his Eastern European relatives, who vaguely terrified him as a child. But the wild things are also entertaining. Their dances invite not only Max but the readers into the pleasure of the story, which I think is part of the appeal of fairy tales: the reader’s imagination, including in a confrontation with fear, is engaged.
Rail: I’d like to ask a question about flash fiction. I’ve always encountered stories that sometimes come in very short form, such as in fairy tale collections or the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and when I began writing stories some of my own were quite short, but I never heard of flash fiction until I was in my late thirties. Are there short stories of a very short length that would not be considered flash fiction? Most of the stories I read that are called flash fiction strike me as a type of fairy tale with a gestural affect (including those in your book).
Sawers: Yeah. I work with Smokelong Quarterly, one of the premier flash publishers in the United States, and its editor, Christopher Allen, has a very specific thing he's looking for in flash. But for me it doesn't change from flash to another story. I'm looking for the same thing in flash as I'm looking for in any story.
Rail: So, for example, Joy Williams’s miraculous collection Ninety-Nine Stories of God where the stories are one to two pages long—these are stories, but not flash fiction, would you say?
Sawers: I think the thing we're looking at is a marketing term. I just want any story to have an arc, and I want something to change. I don't want a snapshot where nothing happens. People do want to argue things like, “this is a prose poem, because it’s an anecdote and nothing happens,” and I’m like, “That’s fine, but I don’t want to read it!” There needs to be a point to it. For me, as long as there's a narrative arc, as long as that is present, and it's under a thousand words, I’m going to call it flash. But Chris at Smokelong would have a longer and more specific answer for you.
Rail: This reminds me about how I’m often asked: “What makes a story a fairy tale?” I used to say, and still maintain, it’s the techniques. But another current answer of mine is, “The author, of course!” But maybe the answer is the reader. A story is a fairy tale that feels like a fairy tale, and that happens through its techniques, and with a reader. But I’m less interested in what isn’t a fairy tale than all the millions of stories past, present, and future that probably are. People also ask me about the difference between fairy tales and myths, or fairy tales and fabulism, and my theories ask instead to see these as part of a constellation that is not always visible—that existed, and sometimes exist, and will continue to exist, and to mean something. How to connect the tiny lights that hold meaning, not separate them and make meaning in the dark gulf between them, that empty space of nothing.
Sawers: I’m deeply uninterested in talking about the differences in genre forms and genre. Some people are like “oh, well, if it's under three hundred words it is micro.” And I’m like, where did micro come from?! I don't care, it sounds like a story to me and I like it!
Rail: Some American critics and editors, not us, but some American critics absolutely love to distinguish works of fiction through labels, and one of these is a work’s length. It’s exhausting.
Sawers: I have a friend, her name is Crystal K. She was in her MFA and had a thesis that was six hundred pages long, and it was going to be a novel. That story became a piece of flash, and that was just cutting away until you had the barest bone of the story. But that was the heart of it, and maybe that's all you need, right?
Rail: This sounds like a fairy tale. A friend named Crystal K., sculpting six hundred pages down to two. If it were by Hans Christian Andersen, she’d have written it on an ice pond.
Sawers: Yeah, and it’s real! For me, I might have a different approach if I go into it knowing it's going to be very short. Practical. And since I started working on this project, and throwing myself into doing a lot of flash, that's how I approach a lot of it, but I don't view it as inherently different and I don't view micros as super different either. I've had people call my stories poems, and I'm like, well, it's not, but if that's what you want to call it, cool.
Rail: That is so true. If it means something to the reader, it is their book to name. I've had people refer to my trilogy of novels as story collections, and my short story collections as prose poems. Perhaps somebody told them that's what they were or sometimes people feel secure when they can name things, classify them.
Rail: People like to teach writers to “read like a writer,” and maybe they get something out of that, but I prefer to “write like a reader.” I am happiest when reading like a reader, immersed in a story. There is a connection between reading and the desire to also find oneself. In your afterword you mentioned two fairy tale books that influenced you as a young reader, made you want to write. Was that one of them that you were just mentioning?
Sawers: Yes, and then the other one was a collection of Thai stories, I believe I sent that to you.
Rail: Yes, it’s amazing!
Sawers: And I guess it's not bad when you're ten years old, and you've never read Thai fairy tales before, and here it is in the language that you can read, English—because I can't read Thai—but when you're grown up and you're reading and you're like, well, this person was not good. This translation is not good. My dad was able to find me a set of fairy tales written by a Thai author and translated it by himself. On one side there's English and on the other side it's Thai. The translation’s not perfect, you're never going to get that, but to me it was much more than perfect.
Rail: That’s so cool. These words, authenticity and perfection, are words that the art of fairy tales rejects in certain ways—by which I mean new variations will be offered to correct or reignite past variations, to recover and transform them.
Sawers: Yeah, and when you find a beloved book from childhood, and you see that it was Thai fairy tales filtered through cultural bias or pure speculation, which itself is oftentimes filtered through stereotyping. But also there’s the imaginative aspect where you get into rich terrain for your own fiction. You can go to that question of where the line between imagination and authenticity is blurred. And then what you're going to do will be in this space that is created for you in the encounter with that once upon a time of your own childhood loves, and sort of collapsed with the now experience of what you want to say in your stories.
Rail: Do you find that conversation is part of your process? As you revisit old fairy tales, do you have a sensate awareness of that space?
Sawers: I wrote this over a long period of time, and when I started them, I was fairly young. I had just entered my mid-twenties so I was still an unseasoned writer, and I was only looking at Western fairy tales, and being like, well, there are these problems in the fairy tale, right? And there are these things that we could upend and look at the cultural lessons and maybe I could do something fun with them. In that way, you're resting on people's knowledge and expectations of the more common tales. But at the time I was also like, I'm not going to write like super Asian stuff, and that's a self-violence. There was an erasure there, but in the decade that has passed, I’ve come into myself not only as a writer, but as my own person. I can look at all sides of myself including that I’m Thai, but the Thai that I am isn’t what “normal” Thais are. It’s Muslim. A majority of Thais are Buddhist, and I'm not; I mean my mother isn't. So there are all these shades of who you become over time, and that leaks into your writing.
Rail: Yes, not only how we are other to other people, but to ourselves.
Sawers: Exactly. In my family I'm the only one that's mixed. My brother is full Thai. My mom is full Thai, and my dad speaks Thai but he's a white guy. You're just alone, and you're growing up in this very white town. It's very suburban, you're not seeing other people of color. For me there's also a sense of, okay, someday you're going to come into this Thai part of yourself.
But the Thai part of yourself is also that your mother is an immigrant. You don't know any other Thai Americans who are born here. You don't know other mixed people. There's a sense to that like, oh, if I look back at Thai fairy tales, those are Thai, those are from a different country, a different culture, and I may have access to that, but it’s also not the story of myself.
Rail: Do you think that part of imagining yourself into a story through the form of fiction might have been a way to fill your world with people who weren’t in your world? To find yourself, your story, through stories? And to write stories for the you who didn’t have stories about your specific questions about yourself, growing up in the library?
Sawers: They are, I think, for me. There's another little project that I haven't gone far with, but I started it at the end of writing this project. I started writing flash that was about the weird Gothic suburban experience. Especially as a person of color. But then I was like, this doesn't go in this book, because it's not a fairy tale. To a certain extent, you need to write what you needed to see when you were a kid, and that’s not to say that I'm writing for children.
Rail: Of course, and there’s something melancholy and nostalgic, in the sense that we’re all “former children” as André Breton said. You contain your childhood self as a writer.
Sawers: Although someday, I may write a middle school book. I'm interested in that level of books that are what kept me alive when I was a kid.
Rail: There's a truthfulness to children and to the best writing for young people. Sometimes I feel fifteen or nine when I write, even if I’m writing a novel that isn’t for young people.
Sawers: I feel like there's part of you that's stuck at some age you where when you needed something. I'm not very old, but at the same time when I was growing up, there was so little in terms of non-white authors for children.
Rail: It isn’t the same, but there is definitely a reason I read and re-read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. There weren’t too many books by Jewish girls in the library.
Sawers: I worked briefly in the children's department of a library a few years ago. There's so much more these days—just so much more—but, you know, there still is no one Thai, and there’s hardly any Southeast Asian at all. Though my book isn’t for children, at the same time, as a precocious reader, I would have picked up that book and read it.
Rail: One of the places you encounter non-white writers, without even really knowing, is in fairy tale collections, because pretty much all fairy tales that we encounter in English as children are translated from other languages. I wonder if you intuited that, even apart from the one beloved Thai collection you had (with its problems, later surmised). I remember an early conversation you and I had around the time you were reading submissions to Fairy Tale Review as one of our valiant editorial associates, and it was delicate and sensitive to exactly what you're saying now. You were filling out the collection that is now The Anchored World and I wanted to say—but didn’t want to say, because it's nobody's place to say—”what about these Thai fairy tales you keep mentioning, what about writing from those?” I did not want to be one of those people asking you to write about your non-white identity. Yet there you were, all lit up with passion on my screen, when you were telling me about this old Thai collection of fairy tales. And I recall that at a certain point, I remember we were talking about “The Snow Queen,” and we somehow got to that place.
Sawers: Because you were like “Oh, hey, Jasmine, forgive me but why haven't you written about ‘The Snow Queen’!” That's what it was, and I ended up writing about it—a story called “Icicle,” but it's too long. It's not flash.
Rail: Basically, “The Snow Queen” could be described as a sequence of flash fairy tales, through the lens we’re using today.
Sawers: It's a whole bunch of flash stories, you’re right.
Rail: There is something lovely in the way we are connected not only by storytelling, but by the stories we tell. The question is who populates them—which author, and with which characters, and who do they resemble?
Sawers: We’re connected by the kinds of plots that move us and I mean, I think Harry Potter is garbage, and the author is garbage and all that stuff. But there's a reason Harry Potter hit it big, because it's a Cinderella story. It's this poor orphan who's been mistreated by his family, and he finds his power, and he finds his voice. That’s a powerful story.
Rail: My newest work looks at fairy tales as the language itself, how there is a vocabulary of fairy tales, like there is in ballet or in dreams. It’s a language that centers the imaginary and hinges on abuses of power—false constructs that exist exclusively to dominate people. Fairy tales have been a way to speak the truth about abuses of power that make me so furious.
Sawers: Like people are angry that the Little Mermaid could possibly not be white.
Rail: And that’s a story about transformation, disability, patriarchy, friendship (possibly asexuality), and a girl who literally has her voice taken out of her throat—who has no way to participate in public speech. Like so much of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, its ethical heart is on a continuum with anti-racist literature.
Rail: Yeah, this story has gone right past them.
Sawers: Hans Christian Andersen’s version is essentially a queer story. With a liberation theology basically behind it. All you have to do is see the joy on a child’s face. Children prefer liberation.
Rail: Well, what's funny about these people is they're always like, “representation doesn't matter,” except suddenly it matters a lot to you—
Sawers and Rail in Unison: if you're not the one.
Sawers: Exactly. Also, you have one million princesses, and little Black girls don’t. I had a student recently when I was teaching a Kundiman class on fairy tales, and she has a whole collection that explores mermaids across the world. Every culture has a different mermaid story, apparently, and I didn't even know this.
Rail: Can you tell me a little bit about the influence of the Kundiman Asian American Writers’ Workshop on your experience of yourself as a writer and as part of a community?
Sawers: They have a journal called The Margins, and the first story in The Anchored World appeared there. Kundiman has been essentially a lifesaver. This book exists because Kundiman took me into their arms. I went to Kundiman in 2008, and I went again in 2019. It had been six years since I graduated from my MFA and I didn't have anything to my name. I had stopped publishing. It wasn't that I necessarily stopped writing. I was reading for Fairy Tale Review.
Rail: You had been a very engaged literary person. It sounds like you felt disappointed in your experience for a time.
Sawers: Yeah, and there's a sense especially when you're coming out of an MFA that you have to write a novel, that you can’t be successful if you don’t write a novel, and maybe this is what you have to unlearn. I got to this sort of self-punishment of “you're not allowed to write unless you're writing a novel.” All that does is tell you not to write.
Rail: Yes, you’ve lost the love then. I don’t know if you have read Natalia Ginzburg, but she said in an interview something along the lines of, when you're working at your best is when you are writing truly out of an enduring love for it, a true inner desire to do it well that is completely unattached to market value. The idea that a novel is a higher art form is a market driven fiction. The idea that people love to immerse in novels more than in short stories is taught, along with the idea that we are to leave childish things (like fairy tales, or short stories) in childhood. Their proximity to children’s books makes some adults who fancy themselves Very Important People quite nervous.
Sawers: A false construct like so many we’re talking about.
Rail: Also truly damaging. I hear that you felt damaged by that. Representation matters, but it is so much deeper than that, isn’t it, finding a place one might belong?
Sawers: Just the incorporation of the idea that there was a place for me was healing. At Kundiman, you share a lot and you talk about writing, which I hadn't been able to do since leaving my community of artists back in the MFA. “Still Life with Conch Shell” was born in a writing exercise at my first Kundiman retreat in 2019. That may be unremarkable in itself, but my experience at Kundiman was one of rebirth. My Kundiman peers gave me the kick in the ass I needed to return to writing and to write only what I wanted to write, and to do it without apology either for who I was as a queer writer of color or for what I was interested in writing. “Still Life with Conch Shell” marked not only the resurrection of my career but a necessary and liberating pivot in my writerly identity.
Rail: It’s a wonderful story!
Sawers: Thank you. That's my favorite Thai fairy tale. And at Kundiman people told me, well, people do want flash fiction, people do want story collections. It’s the Internet age. People want fast things. People have short attention spans. So I wrote more. If you put The Anchored World in chronological order, you would see my growth. Each story is a little bit better than the older ones.
Rail: That is the right direction. Imagine the newer stories, each one a little bit worse than the prior. That would be like a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book.
Sawers: Yeah, and at Kundiman I was like, wow, we get to be here and someday you're going to be the elder that some other poor Thai-American child is looking at. With Shawn Wong, it was like “I read your book, and I needed that, and now I owe it to that kid.” But that’s heavy. It's heavy if you're like, “Oh shit, I owe people things.” But it's quite a privilege. You belong to a heritage and you are part of the thread that goes into the future of Asian American literature, or fairy tale literature or queer literature.
Rail: Jasmine, what is one thing that could still be done for you? I hear what you want to do for others. But what is something that might be for you? I’m thinking about Rose Metal Press and how much they do for writers, for example.
Sawers: We are publishing more diverse stories and I don't just mean that racially, but across the board, we're publishing more diverse stories. But still something like 90 percent of our authors are white. All the people up top on all the big publishing companies are white, and most likely they're straight. They're coming from places of class privilege, because the publishing industry doesn't exactly pay well, so they can afford to have these lower paying jobs.
Something that we talk about in writer-of-color circles is that a lot of the times the stories that get picked up and given a lot of push are their ideas of what lives of color are. If something doesn't fit into that idea, then it's not going to get traction. So I want bad representation. I want lives of color and queer lives and disabled lives that don't fit into a cis straight white fantasy. Can it be truthful if not in the event but in emotion? That's what I'm looking for in any story, an emotional truth.
Rail: Do you continue to write fairy tales now, or do you pick up an idea and see where it takes you?
Sawers: Though I think my days of producing a massive stream of fairy tale content are over, I remain interested in the fairy tale both as a narrative form and as the progenitor of my understanding of storytelling. There’s something freeing about going, “This kind of story is what gets my brain percolating,” instead of trying to convince myself that I must graduate to Serious Business Realist Fiction and then I’ll be a real writer.
Right now, my favorite stuff to read and what I’m drawn to write is speculative, especially in a setting rather like the real world, but with some absurdist or fantastical twist.
Rail: Who are some of your favorite authors on the level of style?
Sawers: A.L. Kennedy is a master. Her work isn’t well known in the US which is a tragedy.
Rail: She is marvelous. I read one of her books in around 1997 or so and I recall thinking, “Wait, there are novels like this? Holy cow.”
Sawers: The sheer beauty of her sentences will bring you to your knees, even when what she’s depicting is beyond depraved, beyond horrifying. She is among our finest living authors. My favorite collections of hers are Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains and Now That You’re Back. Favorite novels are So I Am Glad, Everything You Need, and the harrowing Paradise. On Bullfighting for excellent nonfiction.
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was just mind-blowing. Spare, beautiful, devastating. Nothing overwrought or overwritten. I had heard it described as a “flash novel,” which sounded mutually exclusive to me, but once I read it I understood. It definitely contributed to my conception of flash as practice rather than flash strictly as form.
And I die of envy reading Kazuo Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day is the greatest achievement in English literature.
Rail: What's next—are you working on a new manuscript? What can you tell readers about it?
Sawers: I’m gearing up to write something longer. All my ideas lately are either flash or a full-blown novel, and that’s also all I want to read, so I’m going to follow that instinct. I’m in the plot-development stages of a speculative novel featuring a mixed nonbinary character whose family employs a charlatan to split them into two separate people who fit neatly into various social binaries (male/female, white/Asian, gay/straight) “to make their life easier.” I don’t want to get too much into it, since I do find endless discussion of a story often replaces the actual writing of it, but I’m excited to see where this takes me.