Sep 28 2022
THE ANCHORED WORLD: Charles Rammelkamp admires a varied selection of fables composed and compiled by Jasmine Sawers
Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney – among the premier publishers of the flash genre including “how to” guides such as The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction and The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Fiction – have given us another stunning collection of short narratives, Jasmine Sawers’ The Anchored World, subtitled Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore. Indeed, these “sudden fictions” take on the fabulist world of myths, legends, tall tales, from a variety of countries and cultures, ranging from Thailand through Europe to the American Midwest, some inspired by familiar, traditional tales, others invented by the author. The child of a Thai mother and an American father, raised in western New York state, and now a professor in St. Louis, Missouri, Sawers draws upon a wide variety of perspectives and influences.’
“Storytelling is powerful magic,” Jasmine Sawers writes in the author’s note that follows these dazzling stories, and she also tells us that “Under its auspices writers become witches.” Indeed, these stories do seem to cast a spell. “Domestic Curses for All Occasions” is a humorous sales pitch by a professional caster of spells to a prospective client. You can’t go big on a curse, the narrator cautions. “We’re not giving people pestilent boils or snatching up firstborns here, man. Don’t be fucking crass. Go to the mall if you want that kind of thing.” Further, “a good curse, a real curse, begins in love.” The curses expert goes on to describe just how to drive somebody around the corner, by playing on their most vulnerable aspects – their Achilles Heart, as it were. It’s the art of storytelling, all right!
Of the thirty-three stories, twelve are riffs on actual fairy tales (Sawers includes a helpful index at the end of the collection), from Thailand and across Europe. “The Legend of Sung Tong,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel” are a few from which she draws inspiration. The title story, “The Anchored World,” is a mash-up of yak/yaksha stories – Buddhist tales that involve nature-spirits – Jack and the Beanstalk and others. The protagonist is a child named Samsara, which is the Hindu concept of the cycle of death and rebirth in the material world. It’s a story about the bedtime stories Samsara’s mother tells.
Sawers’s best stories reflect chillingly on our actual world, the way that ancient myths likewise take off from human circumstances. “Colossus,” for instance, implicitly recognizes the climate crisis we’re currently experiencing. “Polar bears are nesting in the freezer again,” the story begins. Climate change has driven animals to unexpected places. The narrator has called an exterminator out of desperation. “If you’re in the market, you can’t go wrong with Bruce’s Megafauna Removal. Humane, fair prices, no bullshit.” Giant tortoises are getting stuck in lawn mowers. It’s a problem. The story seems to come from the same place as the tales of Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox Babe, fantastical beings in the middle of America, folktales created and embellished by the lumberjacks.
“Dragon Petal and Lotus Flame Go Home” reflects the anti-Asian violence that’s always been a part of the American landscape, especially exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. “We have come to take your jobs,” the story begins and goes on with the usual fears: “We already stole your neighborhoods and your lovers and all the spots you’d saved for your children at university.”
“All Your Fragile History” reflects the same concerns. The story, which is a single two-plus-pages sentence, begins with the fanciful – “I got this DNA test for my dog because he looks like a cloud and he looks like a luckdragon and he looks like something your lint roller picked up….” The narrator swabs the dog’s gums, sends the saliva sample away and two weeks later learns her dog is part poodle, part Chihuahua, half rat terrier. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Huckleberry Finn, you have never caught a rat in your life….’” Sawers goes on to mock the usual DNA test results: the “3% Native American” or whatever other precise but incomprehensible puzzle piece, the “rainbow pie graph summaries white people love to tell other white people,” to “portion out their blood in riveting fractions,” and all inevitably coming with familiar racist agendas. She hints at the insidious and often cruel effects on those with a truly mixed heritage, the confusion that paradoxically results from this “scientific” precision; “the way you’ve been called a ‘nigger’ and a ‘chink’ and a ‘gook’ and a ‘slant’ and a ‘spic’ the way you’ve been called ‘the perfect Asian student’….”
Mostly, though, the stories charm the reader with their imaginative leaps. “An Incomplete List of My Rodent Qualities as Compiled by My Ex-Boyfriend When He Still Loved Me” (See? Even the title is spellbinding) is one of several “list” flashes. “How to Commit Suicide” and “Sasquatch and Gnome May Fall in Love, But Where Would They Live?” are others. The often hilarious list includes:
521. How I eat my young. 522. How it is better if I am housed by myself. 540. How I always shit where I eat. 625. How I gnaw at the bars. 639. How I will make my triumphant escape only to find myself underneath the refrigerator
and in need of rescue. 650. How I will never love him back.
Sawers also confesses in the author’s note that the original draw of fairy tales was their fabulousness but then later it was their darkness and finally “it became imperative that I fill them in with my own beating heart.” That beating heart is the source of all the magic between the covers of The Anchored World, an astounding collection of hybrid folklore.