Growing up in rural Philippines, where folk tales are part of everyday life and where the fantastic and the ordinary meld in a cosmos of danger and beauty, where were-creatures and spirits lurk in every corner, where the physical and the spiritual worlds are one, my early childhood was full of excitement, adventure, and uninterrupted marvel.
I have learned to navigate my seemingly incredible world from the stories my grandparents and the elders of our neighborhood tell. Their tales were always cautionary in nature. Most of them are instructions on how to co-exist with nature including the supernatural. They were hardly about love requited or otherwise neither were they about living happily ever after in a castle.
I was introduced to the happily ever after in school. I still remember the big three: Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
Not only were they read to me when I was younger, I also watched them in color thanks to Disney. However, as a “weird” little man (as my mother would introduce me to everyone, that was her euphemism for “my gay son”), I could hardly relate to these stories. I could relate to the were-creatures of my pre-school days, after all I was told that they live not in some distant castle but inside the huge balete tree in our backyard, and that tree always looked creepy and menacing at twilight and dawn and magnificent all day that one would believe that creatures would be living inside the tree and on its branches.
I was even intrigued by the thought of being able to tame a tikbalang, a half-man, half-horse creature, or sit on the shoulders of a kapre, a hairy giant that smokes tobacco; but living in a castle with princes and princesses was quite far from my realities then.
I also could hardly relate to the characters; I did not have blonde hair like Cinderella, nor was my skin as fair as snow — we do not even have snow. Of the big three, I could only relate, to some degree, with the Sleeping Beauty, after all sloth was and still is my favorite sin. I mean who would not want to sleep all day for days on end only to wake up to a gorgeous man? And besides she has three fairy godmothers, Flora, Fauna and Mary Weather, where Cinderella only had one so I thought of the three I wanted to be Sleeping Beauty.
However, after being introduced to other stories, I could say that I related most with the Ugly Duckling. I knew I was different growing up. I certainly did not quack like all the other kids at school neither did I walk like all the other kids at school. I was different. I knew I was and everybody else knew it too. But the comparison ended there. I decided early on that unlike the ugly duckling, if they peck, I will always peck back… harder… with such vengeance and bile that they would wish they never pecked at all. It did work for me. I was never bullied in school even though I was different from all the rest. I also did not grow up to be the graceful and supermodel-esque swan that the story promised I will turn out to be. I grew up to be just me. A more resilient version perhaps of the me that was.
Most of the fairytales and children’s stories I read as a kid were always either living happily ever after or otherwise end in tragedy — the death of a mermaid, of an animal, or of a little match girl. It was always about the fairest of them all and evil stepmothers and stepsisters. Most of the time, like the big three, it was always about a damsel in distress being saved by a handsome prince from far away. It was the classic romantic story we all wish and aspire to be ours. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that, I would give up my life right now to live in a castle with a prince. Throw in some animals that sing and sew clothes and I am all packed and ready to go. And did you mention an ego-stroking mirror that tells you that you are the fairest of them all? Count me in. Who would not want all of that? But life is not exactly like that. I tried sleeping for days in the hopes of waking up to a kiss of a handsome prince. Instead I woke up to deadlines piled up my work table.
One might even ask if all of these stories are still relevant in our times, when there are hardly any castles and fairies are mocked and are sometimes even victims of hate crimes. Two collections of a retelling of these traditional stories believe that these stories can still be relevant in this day and age. One is Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and the other is Cashorali’s Fairy Tales: Traditional Stories Retold for Gay Men.
Both are retelling of traditional stories with a different spin on things. Garner’s explorations are funny and even questions the political (in)correctness of our times. Cashorali’s retelling on the other hand were attempts to rewrite these stories for the urban gay male. I particularly liked Cashorali’s retelling of the Ugly Duckling and the Frog Prince. They are both poignant and funny at the same time. The duckling growing up and taking care of his sick friend and roommate, who happens to be a loon, not the simple minded kind but the avian kind. And the frog prince speaks of self-discovery, of growing older and finally of acceptance. Had these retelling been available to me when I was younger, I just might have been able to relate better to these stories and aspire to be other things instead of so shamelessly calling myself Princess Aurora, the sleeping beauty.
I have learned and needed to unlearn a few things from the fairytales which I have read when I was a kid. Allow me to share with you a few of my aphorisms:
- Not all stepmothers are evil witches. Some just want a fairy tale to call their own. The same is also true about stepsisters.
- You will never be the fairest of them all. Someone is always fairer.
- Never under any circumstances give up your right to speech in the hopes of marrying a handsome prince… unless you want to turn into sea foam.
- Sometimes, strangers have the best candies.
- There are days when you are the prince and there are days when you are the frog.
- Not all frogs are the same. Not all frogs turn into princes. Some are just frogs and are better off eaten for dinner instead of being wined and dined.
- Let us not judge a cross-dressing wolf. Some wolves are more comfortable expressing their individuality. Others run with a pack.
- Some ugly ducklings do not grow up to be swans. Some grow up to be bears*.
- Not all bears are the same: some are hard, others are soft and cuddly and still others are just right.
- Not all older men who show interest in you are trying to pick you up. Some are just fairy godmothers ready to help and guide you every step of the way. So get over it.
And finally, create your own fairytale. I tried being the sleeping beauty and it nearly got me fired.
*The most basic definition of a bear is a man who is hairy, has facial hair, and a nice cuddly body.
Tuting Hernandez teaches at the Department of Linguistics, University of the Philippines in Diliman. His research interests include the documentation of endangered languages and cultures in the Philippines and Philippine diachronic linguistics. He currently lives with his three canine companions, Nigel, Matilda and Balto. You can reach him through tutingh (at) yahoo (dot) com.