Donna Jo Napoli–East of the Sun
Our guest this week is none other than YA Fantasy author Donna Jo Napoli. Napoli is best known for her stunning retellings of classic stories such as Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. She has set her stories in countries from Persia to Ireland, from Italy to Germany. She is a professor of linguistics, and her books have been translated into at least fourteen languages, including Farsi. She has authored non-fiction books as well, including a series of mythology treasuries for National Geographic. This week she’s talks a little bit about the orient, and a great deal about the importance of stories and her love for them.
Beast is set in Persia, Bound in China, Breath in Germany; the list goes on. What made you decide to explore other cultures when retelling classic fairytales?
The answer is quite personal, but it’s also relevant to strangers, so I will be forthright.
I grew up poor. Not ordinary poor, instead, sometimes desperately poor. We never travelled. I had very little experience outside the neighbourhoods we lived in (and I use the plural there because we got evicted often — so I lived in various places within a small radius).
But I was a reader. And books gave me the world.
When I went to college (on a huge scholarship), I was with wealthy students who had travelled the globe. Literally. But i was at no disadvantage in the classroom because I had lived so many places — I had lived everywhere the characters in the books I read lived — I had a rich inner life and it served me well. Very well.
When I write for children, I am writing for anyone — anyone at all — but that includes the child who was like me — who lived in a box. I want to give them a book that will open the box for them.
It is crucial to me to widen my reader’s world. It’s part of expressing gratitude to every book I ever read, every librarian who ever handed me a book, every teacher who ever gave me a list of things to read. And it’s part of spreading the beauty.
This week we’re exploring the cultures of the Far East—China, India, Japan, and so on. What is your favorite part of Eastern Oriental culture?
Cultures can be so different from one country to another, and even from one town to another, so this is hard to answer.
There is a Buddhist saying to the effect “after enlightenment, laundry”, which I interpret to mean, after you have had some soul-changing event, you still have to do all those things that ensure your survival. I love that combination of the ethereal and the practical.
But there are many other things I love as well — including the focus on aesthetics in ordinary things, such as what your plate of food looks like.
And I love the attention many cultures have traditionally given to the beauty of script — calligraphy. I can happily spend hours trying to mimic a script.
Of the various parts of the world that you’ve explored through fiction, does one culture or country stand out as your favorite?
I have to say Italy, but only because I’ve been there so often and I speak the language, so I get to know wherever I am there in a more thorough and personal way than I get to know the other places I’ve visited and studied.
Many fairytales and folk stories don’t belong to one specific culture, but can be found in variation around the world. A notable example of this is the archetype of Cinderella. What makes her story have such universal appeal? When choosing a particular cultural tradition for your version of the story, what made you go with China?
I’m not very good on making generalizations about literature — I am far from a literary critic. I would guess that the story appeals because we love to root for the underdog, we love to see the mean controller get thrown over, we love an unlikely romance that overlooks socioeconomic differences… whatever.
I didn’t really “choose” China. I decided that the story was, basically, Chinese. The oldest version I could find came from China (during the Han Dynasty — the 250 years before and as many after the year Zero). And the story is about the adoration of the small foot. So far as I know, that’s a Chinese tradition — enshrined in foot binding.
Your Wikipedia page lists a formidable array of academic skills, most related to the field of linguistics. What do you love about studying languages? What are some of your favorite aspects of language? How did this love of language structure translate into becoming a writer of young adult fantasy novels?
I love studying systems — so when I work on linguistics, I do theoretical work about the principles that account for the overall structures you find. Still, I believe that my love of systems and of language systems in particular does relate to my writing in that when I approach a fantasy (and, as well, when i approach a historical event), I search for the logic within it. I try to find the (psycho)logical realities that will make the events of my story feel inevitable. To me, that means the story has its own system … and is therefore more intellectually appealing. I am always writing for strangers, yes, but I am also always writing for myself. And I would not enjoy writing something that had no intellectual appeal.
Most fantasy novels written today are set in a fictionalized version of feudal England. If a writer is feeling especially adventurous, they might include other European cultures. And yet the world is so much bigger than just the west. What do you think the most important thing to remember is when studying world culture? Why do you think it’s important that we learn to appreciate other countries beyond our own?
When approaching another culture, the thing I hold most important is research. I try to learn as much as I can. Most of my stories are not in a contemporary setting ….so most require study of history and of an earlier stage of a given culture and sometimes of a (completely or somewhat) different culture from what is found there today. That means that I have (nearly) as much chance of “getting it right” as someone from the culture today would have. So my “foreignness” is not a hindrance, so long as I do my homework.
Why is it important? I believe we have never had a more interdependent world — technology has truly brought us together. But in order to face the challenges of today (and tomorrow) in a humane and effective way, we need to form some kind of cohesion. And that takes opening our minds to other ways of seeing — so that we can appreciate each other’s perspectives. Can books help do that? I sure hope so.