Artists Without Borders
Terri Windling, 2003
The Interstitial Arts slogan, "artists without borders," is one that particularly appeals to me since border-crossing is a frequent aspect of my life (I divide my time between homes in England and Arizona), as well as of my work (divided between writing, editing, and visual art). I'm interested in art that moves between worlds, or comes to us out of the borderlands — crossbred works for the crossbred, multi-cultural society we live in today.
My own work comes from the borderlands where contemporary fiction meets ancient myth, and where genre fiction rubs against American and foreign works of magical realism. When I left college in 1979, where I'd studied mythology and literature, I moved to New York City and — like many an English major before me — looked for work in the publishing industry. Before very long, I'd established a career as an editor of fantasy literature, expanding and shaping the fantasy line at one of the large publishing houses. The fantasy genre proved to be a good home, for it was there that writers and readers with an interest in myth and folklore were congregating. Just as important, it was also a field that was broad enough and diverse enough to welcome a young editor with interstitial leanings, allowing as it did a multiple number of approaches to the literature of the fantastic.
In the years since then, I've spent much of my career championing those works of interstitial fiction to be found on the margins of the fantasy field, and encouraging writers and readers to cross over the boundaries of genre. For the past sixteen years I've been the fantasy editor of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror anthology, an annual volume of stories and poetry from St. Martin's Press. (Ellen Datlow is the horror editor for the series; and I've recently passed on my own editorial duties to Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.) This collection surveys fantastical literature of all kinds, from traditional or "imaginary world" fantasy to works of mythic fiction, magical realism, surrealism, weird tales, nightmares and dreams. Some of this fiction comes from genre magazines and anthologies, the rest of it from mainstream anthologies, magazines like Harpers and The New Yorker, literary quarterlies, small-press publications, and foreign works in translation. Contributors to the volume have included Sherman Alexie, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Carroll, Angela Carter, John Crowley, Charles de Lint, Peter Dickinson, Emma Donoghue, Louise Erdrich, Pierrette Fleutiaux, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Ellen Kushner, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kelly Link, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Steven Millhauser, Patricia A. McKillip, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Rafik Schami, Vikram Seth, Marin Sorescu, Peter Straub, Tatyana Tolstaya, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gerald Vizenor, and Jane Yolen — in other words, authors drawn from numerous areas of the literary arts.
In the course of gathering their stories, year after year, I crossed over many borders and came to know the border guards (agents, publishers, permissions departments) quite well. These guards were sometimes reluctant to allow free passage of stories across the various category borders of contemporary fiction, as though harm would come to a mainstream story (or a children's story, or a poem in translation, or a tale from a gay or Native American author) if it rubbed shoulders with magical works from other categories. Usually a look at the impressive roster of previous authors in the series was enough to set such doubts aside, but there were also times when the border gates were firmly shut against me. This attitude can be explained as simple snobbery, of course — the reluctance of a writer to be seen in the pages of a book published for a genre audience; but I see instead a kind of timidity — a fear of the unknown, untamed lands that lie beyond familiar boundaries, and a distrust of the "wrong kind of readers" who come from the border's other side. I admire, by contrast, the boundary-crossing writers whose words are permitted free passage through a variety of literary landscapes. Best of all are those consciously interstitial writers whose stories are designed for such a journey.
A number of these writers can be found in the area of "adult fairy tale literature," which is interstitial by its very nature — crossing, as it does, the boundaries between oral and written storytelling, between adult and children's fiction, and between the genres of fantasy, historical, and mainstream literature, with dollops of Jungian psychology and feminist poetry thrown in for good measure. Since I was a child raised by wolves (to borrow a phrase from Tappan King), my interest in fairy tales dates back to my earliest reading memories, for these were tales (in their older versions, before Disney and his ilk turned them into pap) that directly addressed the darker themes of life: tales of children abandoned in the woods, of daughters fed poisoned apples and sons locked up in sorcerer's towers, stories of fear and courage, despair and joy, cruelty and compassion. In other children's stories of the 1960s, I could find no mirror of the difficult life I lived, but fairy tales spoke, in a symbolic language, of the harsh realities of my childhood.
I never lost my taste for fairy tales as I grew up; instead it evolved into a passion for adult fairy tale fiction and poetry of the kind pioneered by feminist writers such as Anne Sexton and Angela Carter. In the1980s, I discovered this passion was shared by the artist Thomas Canty, and so we devised the Fairy Tales series — a series of novels (eight of them to date) in which fairy tales are re-told for adult readers by various authors. In the 1990s, Ellen Datlow and I (with Tom, again, as cover artist) edited an anthology series of original adult stories inspired by fairy tales — beginning with Snow White, Blood Red and followed by five more volumes. In 1995, I also edited The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors, a volume that uses fairy tales to explore the subject of child abuse. None of these novels, stories, or poems were limited by genre conventions, only by the stipulation that each be inspired by classic fairy tales. As a result, they range from magical works that sit squarely in the center of the fantasy genre to works on the very edges of the field, straddling the borders fantasy shares with historical fiction, horror fiction, young adult fiction, magical realism, domestic realism, and a few other genres besides. Yes, there were works we published that didn't sit easily under their fantasy labels: Jane Yolen's brutally realist Holocaust novel Briar Rose (in the Fairy Tales series), for example, or Joyce Carol Oates's haunting story "You, Little Match-girl" (in Black Heart, Ivory Bones), or Peter Straub's splendid novella "The Juniper Tree" (in The Armless Maiden). But they spoke with a marvelous eloquence to the more fantastical works published beside them — and that was a conversation I wanted to hear, and wanted to share with readers. It was my job, as I defined it, to invite these disparate stories to the table — then to pass the wine, sit back, and listen as the talk began to flow.
Though as an editor I've been gleefully border hopping every since my first anthologies were published back in the early 1980s, as a writer I've been more conservative, sneaking up to the border slowly, slowly, and with many a backward glance. My first novel, The Wood Wife, is a work of mythic fiction that fits, more or less, into the fantasy genre — though it's closer to the borders of the genre than to its traditional center, being fantasy of the magical realist sort rather than a Tolkienesque story. For me, it's a novel about landscape — the Sonoran desert of southwest Arizona, to be precise. It tells the story of a 40-year-old poet who comes, by chance, to Tucson, Arizona, and subsequently finds herself seduced by the alien beauty and spirit of that landscape. In the process, she re-discovers her muse in her growing attachment to the land. But that story, as I've just related it, is embedded in an overtly magical plot, full of creatures drawn from folklore and myth and supernatural goings-on. It's a book with interstitial leanings, yes, for it owes as much to American and Native American magical realist fiction (and to biographies of women surrealist artists like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington) as it does to contemporary fantasy — but it's not fully a child of the border. I was aware I was writing "a fantasy novel," and there were certain creative choices I made in order to fit the book into its genre.
My various children's books are pure fantasy, and belong smack-dab in the center of the genre. But my second adult novel, The Moon Wife — the book that I am finishing now - seems to be perched precariously on the border wall between fantasy, mainstream, historical fiction, and faux-biography. It is scheduled to be published as fantasy, and I can only hope fantasy readers will be forgiving. Though the themes and structure of the book are deeply rooted in traditional fairy tales, there is little that one could describe as "magic" or "fantasy" within its pages. What it is, in truth, is a story about women artists from the 19th century to the present day, and the ways that fairy tales have been used to address the concerns of women's lives. I've been writing this book on and off for some years, delayed by such unavoidable matters as ill health and a death in my family — a delay that has caused me some consternation, yet one that I've come to be glad of. Because of the Interstitial Arts movement, it's going to be a somewhat different novel — the novel it should have been all along. Previously, I had made a valiant attempt to make the book fit its genre, to "beef up" the magical elements in the text — just as I'd done with The Wood Wife, but with far less satisfactory results. Due to my increasingly labored efforts to fit a star-shaped peg into a round hole, the book was resembling less and less the story I'd set out to tell. But by recognizing The Moon Wife as a work of "border" fiction, I have been able to allow the story to take its own natural shape — becoming a work that may please book-marketers less, but which finally satisfies me. Will it also satisfy readers, or will it end up as a kind of bastard child, spurned by the fantasy audience and roundly ignored by everyone else? Only time will tell. That can't be my concern, if I'm to stay true to the story.
Then there's my work as a visual artist, falling somewhere into the borderland between fine art and illustration — paintings depicting figures born from folk stories but rarely illustrative of specific texts. Like much of my fiction, these paintings are rooted in landscape — in the two beautiful lands I live in now, the moors of south-west England and the Sonoran desert of Arizona — and in the traditional stories that have seeped into the land over many generations. Language and stories are always part of my paintings, not in the illustrative sense, but literally scratched into the paint, wound into the figures. I also create collages — that ultimately interstitial medium — combining paintings and drawings with old bits of fairy tale texts stitched right into the page, bringing "old wives' tales" together with other arts traditional to women: spinning, sewing, lace-making...a bit of this and a bit of that...just as cooks create soup, and as women through the centuries have created their lives.
Now, what does one do with such work, which is too illustrative for most galleries and too singular for the average illustrated book? Which uses themes from tales we tend to think of as children's stories, but rendered in ways often more appropriate for adult viewers? Beats me. I just keep working, alchemizing my feelings about myth and land and women's stories into oil paint and thread and line, and whether there's a place in the art world for such works (outside exhibitions focused on fairy tale themes), again, only time will tell.
So yes, as a long time resident of the borderlands, I'm highly in favor of the Interstitial Arts movement. I have great respect for the genre I grew up in, the rich and mythic land of fantasy, but I 'm a traveler by nature and I feel at home in other lands as well. I support the free passage of all artists across the borders of their choice. I believe this is the future of the arts, a re-evaluation of category and genre boundaries. It's happening all around us now.
See you on the border.