'Tangleweed and Brine' : A Guest Post

'Tangleweed and Brine' is the latest novel from the bewitching Deirdre Sullivan. I read (and blogged about) her painfully stunning YA 'Needlework' this time last year, and some of her perfectly pieced together paragraphs within that story of a hideously abused young woman, fighting demons and yearning for a new life spent making art on others' skin, still sit in the corners of my mind to this day.

This gorgeous new hardback is 'A collection of twelve dark, feminist retellings of traditional fairytales are given a witchy makeover, not for the faint-hearted, from one of Ireland's leading writers for young people. You make candles from stubs of other candles. You like light in your room to read. Gillian wants thick warm yellow fabric, soft as butter. Lila prefers cold. All icy blues. Their dresses made to measure. No expense spared. And dancing slippers. One night's wear and out the door like ash. You can't even borrow their cast-offs. You wear a pair of boots got from a child. Of sturdy stuff, that keeps the water out and gets you around' (so says Goodreads).

I studied fairytales – the traditional, and the twisted – when I was doing my BA in Creative Writing. Our assignment at the end of that Textual Intervention module was to write a creative piece, and I bloody loved making my own bizarre world and inventing creatures and characters within it. I also loved actually studying Angela Carter and her ilk of white witches – and let me tell you, the delightfully wicked Deirdre could totally join those ranks. Her way with words is like no other author, she is utterly incomparable.
Yes, I am a Deirdre fangirl.
So imagine my elation when I was given the opportunity to share something written by this literary heroine!?

Below is her piece about bodies, and image. (So fitting for this blog, right?!)

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Tangleweed and Brine is about fairy-tales. Old, dark stories that lodge in our hearts and throats. That teach us lessons. What it is we want. What women look like. You can’t discount the drawings in a book. Slender, soft princesses. Crowns and gowns. Impossibly beautiful. And not in the way of people you encounter in real life. Waists smaller than necks, eyes saucer-big, breasts full and legs that ended in the smallest wisp of foot. This is what the people who get happy endings look like.
It isn’t true of course.

When I was a little girl, my mother didn’t wear make-up. She lacked the mobility to touch her own face. This was good and bad thing. Good, because her skin is very clear and very smooth. Bad, for obvious reasons. Limits. Itchy noses. I never thought of her body as different. There was a swing to the way she walked, got up. It suited her. My mother is full of energy. Always doing, planning things to do. She never met a challenge she didn’t face.

Bodies weren’t shameful in my house. They were functional. They needed to be kept clean, cared for, nourished. But they didn’t need to look a certain way. I loved to wear nice dresses as a child. Real floofy ones with skirts that twirled like peonies when I danced. I had short hair because my mother couldn’t brush it, comb it. It was very curly, and I had a sensitive scalp. Even with a bowl-cut I would sob when bristles tore my tangles apart. I once had a hairdresser break a hairbrush on my hair. The handle came apart, the top stayed put. My hair is stronger than a lot of things.

I wonder if my short hair was what made me aggressively feminine, loving dresses, wanting little shoes and little bags, crying when my parents threw out a Tinkerbell make-up set I’d been given for my birthday. I was often mistaken for a little boy when I wore trousers. Never a lad. Always a “little boy.” I looked like an angelic little douche. I liked stories where girls disguised themselves as boys. Viola in Twelfth Night. George in The Famous Five. Though, George didn’t want to be girl and people were always reminding her that she was one. I would have loved that. I hated sports and bravery.

I was twelve years old when I began to grow my hair out. I was old enough to take care of it myself. To decide that’s what I wanted. Twelve was an interesting year in terms of hair. One day, I was wearing a short denim mini-dress I loved. The son of a family friend looked me up and down and told me I “needed a waxing appointment”. I looked down at my legs and felt ashamed. I hadn’t noticed all the hair before, but now it was a carpet, was a forest. Thick and dark, unwanted and unwelcome. I hadn’t known that leg hair was a bad thing. My mother’s legs were not as fuzzed as mine, but they were lightly sprinkled with soft hair.

And I was used to that.
I didn’t know.

I never felt comfortable with bare legs again. I wear tights, and if I’m in the pool or at the beach, I try not to look at my legs. They’re chicken-skin bumpy, and no matter how often or close I shave, I always miss a spot. It’s never perfect. I am never perfect. I stopped loving my swimming lessons after that. My body wasn’t a body. It was an exhibit. On display.

It wasn’t functional. It was decorative. My teen years were when I began to pluck my eyebrows into sleep dark sperm and coat my face and mouth with pound shop make-up. Not every day. I still do not wear make-up every day. It feels like putting cream on a scone. Not always necessary, but it does make the whole thing a bit more fancy. I wonder if my mother made me that way. Her rebellious body teaching mine that there’s not one proper way to be in the world. You do not have to be a certain shape, a certain shade.

When I tell stories, I think about the body a lot. Not the physical attributes of my characters, but how they take up space. You can be very small inside the world and still feel much too big. You can be large and still feel very small, inconsequential. It is very easy for a woman to feel both those things, and all at once. In my writing, I often come back to The Little Mermaid, her unruly body not appropriate to catch a prince. And once she changed, her form was still imperfect. She couldn’t speak, the witch cut out her tongue. That made her pitiable. She had no voice. She had no agency. And was in chronic pain. Sharpened and blunted at once, she was denied the happily ever after.
Of course she was.
She couldn’t fit into it.

I don’t think anyone can fit into the shape the world expects. They grow and shrink, they fall ill or get healthy. It’s like a pair of jeans you close like a full suitcase round your body. A dress you push your back-fat in to zip. It taunts you, if you let it. And we all have our things. We all have those. But I think growing up with the small shoulders and round hips of a strong disabled woman as my caregiver built a resilience in me. A core of seeing through the nonsense. Not in a she’s-my-hero way. Sometimes she is, and other times she isn’t. She’s a person and I am a person.
We need to listen to each others’ voices, and experiences.
Resist the urge to hate the shape we are and love the shape we could be.
The shape we could be is a lure.
A lie.

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'Tangleweed and Brine' will be appearing on shelves in September.
You can find it at Waterstones, on Amazon or in The Book Depository.


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