Like the very best tangled and violent folklore passed down to us, Jasmine Sawers’s The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore, (Rose Metal Press), is eerie and beautiful. A strange, frightful, wondrous trip through the human condition.
Sawers mixes the Northern and Western European fairy tales so many of us have heard before with the Thai folklore of their mother’s family—though, as they write in their author’s note, they came by that folklore differently. Their discussion of these tales, and of the ways in which Thai and European folklore differ and converge, is fascinating reading for those of us who love a good bit of literary history. But by the time we get there, that’s all it is: gloss on a strange, eerie beautiful book, one which will pull us deep into ourselves.
The flash tales here are not all built around fairy tales and folklore, though Sawers gives us an incredible listing of those that are (and from whence their originals came). But all of them, from the aching “How to Commit Suicide” to the eerie “An Incomplete List of My Rodent Qualities, as Compiled by My Ex-Boyfriend When He Still Loved Me,” carry the strangeness and the wonder of a good fairy tale. It’s worth noting, too, that more than one of these flash stories—including the aforementioned “Incomplete List”—feel rather more like prose poetry than short stories. But perhaps that is more the uncanny beauty and precision of Sawers’ words than any inherent poetry-ness in the short stories.
Was the rodent-qualitied person perhaps the one who came before the princess? Was the man in “How to Commit Suicide” perhaps once the prince? We can’t know, of course: all we know are his interjections, thrown throughout and italicized, and that last bullet point, leading to the most fearful revelation in the piece: “Marry a cruel man,” it says. The narrator’s description of the wearing of an abusive relationship, the way it chips away at the abused person’s sense of self and security, is heartbreaking and agonizingly real: “Let him drain your colors, tear your lungs, clog your throat. Let him crush your hand in his and call it love.” Was he the prince, once? I know I’ve always wondered what those princes were really like, kissing unconscious women, marrying abused girls who couldn’t fight back. I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that prince would later crush a hand and call it love.
The uncanny edge carries throughout Sawers’ words in The Anchored World, and many of the flash tales are, in their ways, as violent and horrific as the medieval Snow White, or Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. But they don’t limit themselves to that edge of horror. No: they also explore humor. In the absurd, delightful little “Sasquatch and Gnome May Fall in Love, but Where Would They Live?” Sawers writes out a list of all the sorts of places Sasquatch and Gnome could live, despite their size differentials. There are all sorts of problems, almost hilarious in their mundanity, such as #4: “The Scottish Highlands, but Brexit makes the visa sticky.”
The love of Sasquatch and Gnome showcases another of Sawers’ many talents: their ability to explore the politics of the quotidian through the lens of folklore and of short stories that, even if they’re not quite folklore themselves, often feel like they are. From the very first story (“Still Life With Conch Shell”) to the very last (“The Gingerbread Cycle”), they do a magnificent job of looking at the ways in which gender and gendering happen in the world, and the ways in which they happen to us.
“Still Life With Conch Shell,” strange and horrible and beautiful, is a meditative piece, an exploration of sorrow and love and gender and, yes, the politics of the everyday. “Dragon Petal and Lotus Flower Go Home” speaks the names of murdered Asian American women, giving them agency and voice, letting them say, “Every word in our language is ‘no.’” These women, whose sarcastic voices remind us that they’re here for “all the spots you’d saved for your children at university,” are unwilling to go quiet. But, really, no one in Sawers’ collection goes quietly.
The Anchored World is, in the way of fairytales and folklore, beautiful and horrible and haunting. Sawers’ words are lovely and meticulous and eerie, a reminder of all the layers of the everyday. Theirs is a delicate, deft touch, and The Anchored World will haunt me, in all the best ways, for many years to come.
The Anchored World is available through most bookstores and at the publisher’s website.