26 thoughts on ““Cinderella’s Secret Dream” by Ena Lucia Portela”

  1. The entire May issue of "Words Without Borders" is speculative, or in one case just mildly surreal, stories from Cuba.

    In my opinion "Cinderella’s Secret Dream" is the best of the lot; I thought "Project DreamReal" was also worth reading.

  2. Now this was funny. (Or at least I thought so.) Of course that is all due to the narrator, with her critical-yet-amused view of the follies of the people around her — whether she likes people or not, she regards them all with impartial amusement. A detached attitude makes life as entertaining as a soap opera. The ending of the story, revealing her identity, makes her seem awfully cold toward her mother and sister; the non-interventionist comic narration style can be, at times, contemptuous and callous, I admit. But if you view the world with soap-opera morality, bad things that happen to unpleasant people are what’s coming to them. That makes soaps a fitting successor to fairy tales as popular story-telling.

    Interestingly, this is a Cinderella story without a fairy godmother, and without a marriage. Cinderella gets nothing except what she earns with work. The fates of "good" and "bad" characters happen not by supernatural involvement, but partly because if their own actions and mostly because that’s the nature of the story they’re in. I don’t know whether this is a subversion of soap-opera morality or just gleeful use of it.

    Maybe one sign that Regan doesn’t fully accept the rules of this worldview is that she’s not discouraged by her own typecasting as the ugly one. She won’t win the prince at the ball, yeah, but by gosh she will have fun. You might say that Cleis provided a good example for her: although she’s the heroine, she’s not a wimp at all, and in soap acting, she’s determined to not play the weepy ingenue as everyone expects. She will choose what role she plays, and villainesses have more fun (even if doomed). And both she and Regan choose their role in real life as well as they’re able.

    There may be a connection to the Theodora Goss story we discussed a few weeks ago, where the protagonist encountering a fairy-tale character makes her realize that she too can make a story where she is the heroine and does things to change her life. Ena Lucia Portela’s story is less optimistic about its women’s chances for positive action, since after all they are stuck in a narrative style with an inherently sexist structure — about all they can do is exploit that structure for what they can get out of it, and if that means selfishness so be it.

    There are lots of amusing observations on materialism from the point of view of Cuba where, in the 90s, the brand names dropped were not familiar to most people. The author’s footnotes are a dizzyingly ironic lot. And Regan is rich in a way she did not earn, and glad of it. That makes her a villainesses.

  3. I confess, it takes a LOT to get me on board with a straight-up fairy-tale retelling. So much of this retelling is straight, the same story but with a modern voice, that I’m just not really convinced there’s much point to it. Not unenjoyable, but… unnecessary.

    Scattered thoughts:
    – The story doesn’t even begin to diverge until the end.
    – There are some fun little reinterpretations, like Cinderella only *going* to the ball to spite her stepmother; I liked those. In fact, they worked to the extent that the "prince’s" ball seemed awfully archaic and out-of-place! πŸ™‚
    – The mysterious narrator was a good note, adding interest to an otherwise predictable story. OTOH, she never really rises above a minor thread in the story.

    1. It never seemed like a "straight" retelling to me because of all the irony. The title, with its reference to acting in soaps, signals right away the self-aware nature of the narrator.

      The story has to be more-or-less the same as the original because the point is how its characters, Cleis and Regan, work both with and against the roles they are given in order to get what they want. Cleis goes along with the story but not passively, and she breaks out of it at just the right moment. Regan is going to take full advantage of being a villainess character — she gets away with it, too, at least for the moment.

      There was another pretty straight retelling of Cinderella last year, "Zofta" by Jasmine Fahmy, that just didn’t have the same spark. On the whole, the author seemed to think that setting the story in early-20th-century Egypt (no djinns) was sufficient. She did have the heroine use the prince for a ticket out of town without marrying him, though.

      You thought the prince’s ball was archaic? It was bizarre, true, but in a modern-billionaire way, the point being that the super-rich (like royalty formerly) don’t behave like ordinary people!

    2. Well, when I say "straight" retelling, I don’t necessarily mean that every detail is the same, but rather that it does feel like this story is essentially the same as the original in most ways. Same themes, same characters, same focus. There’s a difference in tone, sure, but it’s not much different than "modern readers livetweet reactions to the story you already know."

      The alternative is stories that don’t retell, but fundamentally *change* the story. Neil Gaiman’s "Snow, Glass, Apples" was revolutionary to me at the time. It transformed the story into something very very *different* by making Snow White into a vampire; that casts every element in the story in an entirely different light, and it works *shockingly* well.

      Or, another Snow White retelling that’s stuck with me, is "The White Part of the Apple" by Emily Tersoff, http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/fiction/the-white-part-of-the-apple/ . It changes the story’s dynamic entirely, making heart-wrenching use of elements we’re very, very familiar with. You feel like you’re appreciating a hidden layer of the story.

      Straight retellings can be delightful. That "Bluebeard" retelling we read a few months back was well-written and fun. Suzanne Clarke’s "On Likerish Hill" is a Rumpelstiltskin retelling that’s made of fey and sheer joy. But those rise and fall on making the story feel fresh and alive and maybe giving it a new, different voice. That’s *hard*, and relies almost entirely on connecting to the reader through voice and style instead of being able to use character and plot.

      I’m not saying I disliked "Cinderella’s Secret Dream." It just… didn’t go far enough from the original to make me feel like I was reading something *new* and interesting. [[SHARE]]

    3. Thanks for the story rec!

      I think fundamentally where we differ is that to me the narrative style of Cinderella’s Secret Dream *did* make it feel fresh, while you just weren’t grabbed by it. That’s legit!

      Tanith Lee also did Snow-White-as-vampire, one of the stories in her "Red as Blood" collection. Of course the writing was gorgeous. The stories varied a lot in theme; the Snow White one was an explicitly Christian redemption story. Lee could use religion in quite creepy ways sometimes, but this wasn’t (IMO) one of the better ones.

    4. Man, now I want to track down random authors whose stories I liked back in 2007 and see what they’ve written more recently…

      ::goes to google Emily Tersoff::

    5. Huh, that "White Part of the Apple" isn’t really for me. Such a mope the girl is! Very traditional theme, too, with sexual awareness (so often called "sexual awakening") equated with thawing of ice. Women who don’t want sex with men are called "frigid". It’s foisted on her without her active participation since the prince kisses her when asleep. As for the seven men for whom she’s an in-between girl, and she wonders if they’re real, they are the vague imaginings of a sexually-curious girl. Yeah, this is a view of a girl’s development I’d hope we were getting away from, that she has to be thawed against her will by a man… it was ubiquitous in romance novels up until 1990 or so, lingers on unfortunately.

    6. Oh, wow. Admittedly I haven’t read it in almost a decade, but what really resonated with me was the idea of Snow White loving her stepmother, instead of hating her.

      Having a warped, messed-up relationship with the only mother figure she’s known, who’s hated her all her life. Willing to win approval even if it’s only by willing to be hurt, killed, because that’s what the stepmother wants from her.

      One of the weird things in Snow White has always been her eating the apple – and here, that’s twisted into, "yes, she did, on purpose."

      I don’t think I read it as a sexual awakening at all. This is bit that stuck with me all those years:

      >For a moment she has a mother, gently combing her hair,
      >and she can pretend that the comb isn’t poisoned, that the
      >woman loves her.
      >
      >They wake her again. Why didn’t they let her sleep? She
      >was having such a lovely dream.

      To me, that’s just an overwhelming reinterpretation of the story. πŸ™‚

    7. All the conflict with the mother strikes me as Freudian conflict between longing for mother, for return to childhood, and the sexual impulse. Freud would have had a field day with this story. The fact that she is a stepmother who has replaced the real mother, and that return to her is death… I don’t know, would it be a good thing to remain a child if the mother was actually loving? Freud certainly wrote a lot about feelings of betrayal by parents. It’s the weaning conflict, I think, that he would say is reflected here. White=milk=childhood, red=blood=sex. You may think I am reading too much into this, but it strikes me as a story that is symbolic through and through. It has no real characters.

    8. As for why I think it is about sex — well, I’m just recognizing the symbols. First paragraph: "Her lips were purple until one of them wiped her face with a cloth and then her lips were red, red like falling leaves, red like ripe apples, red like blood." An almost-kiss from one of the almost-men, and her lips become red for the first time (she bleeds for the first time) the other color symbols are autumn (ripening time) and a ripe apple — obvious symbol.

    9. But yeah, there is remaining ambivalence about leaving childhood. And I think that the the introduction of "the people" to whom the stepmother is "a cruel queen" is an unexpected note in a story that up until then was so focused on three roles (girl, mother, prince) — but society does always play a role in weddings, and maybe their brutality is meant to make the prince look better by contrast (though he sounds hypocritical to me when he justifies the mother’s execution).

      The ending is a bit of a subversion of typical romance, though. After they say "I love you" that should be Happily Ever After with the path of having children of their own clearly marked out, but instead they both aren’t sure what to do next. Maybe the traumatic way that the girl was separated from her mother makes them hesitant to take the traditional next step and become parents?

    10. Ah. I think the ending is bittersweet at best, because I see the story as all about the relationship with the mother.

      Snow White still loves her mother, and has to watch her be tortured and executed. The Prince tells her its right and just, but that’s entirely external to her. She knows, intellectually, that he’s right, but she’s still scarred, grieving, waking up crying in the night.

      If there’s any joy in the ending, it’s in that now perhaps Snow White will be able to heal. But even if she does, it’s only by being torn inside-out with grief, only by having her mother executed and removed permanently, brutally, that she’s able to even hope for healing.

      The most she can say is "I don’t know what to do now." The prince says "I love you," she says it back, but is that anything more than desperate comfort?

    11. You think being traumatized can be read as a metaphor for a more average childhood? For just being influenced by one’s parent, having a difficult relationship with them, eventually leaving them behind?

    12. A key aspect of one of the schools of psychological interpretation of fairy tales is that fairy tales take ordinary conflicts and express them in extreme, violent terms.

    13. The thing I found unique here was specifically the expression of an *abusive* relationship.

      (And within that, it’s not about the cruelty of the abuser, but about the abused’s warped viewpoint which still leads to very real, very tragic pain.)

      I don’t see how that could be generalized to non-abusive relationships, except inasmuch of "every relationship *can* be abusive and this is specifically about the abusive subcomponent" (but that just means it’s about abusive relationships and also that its generally relateable :P)

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