“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Tomorrow, November 4, we will be publishing the third short story in our Fall line-up, Mrs Yaga by Michal Wojcik. To celebrate the release, we invited the author to talk about the story, about his personal connection with Baba Yaga and how that shaped his writing of Mrs Yaga.
Please give it up for Michal Wojcik, everyone!
Of course I was going to write a story about the Baba Yaga at some point. That was decided when my father departed for a refugee camp near Rome, beginning the long journey that would take me from a small village in Poland to the Canadian north.
I grew up in the Yukon Territory, for the most part, going from a Polish home to an English school and back again, growing up between Polish and mainstream western Canadian culture. I never did feel like I “fit” in the latter, but when I finally did make the trip back to my place of birth, I failed to find that sense of belonging I so desperately wanted there.
That was my borderland of identity, negotiating between one culture and another. In Polish folklore, the borders are where witches dwell. Witches buried their spells “na granice,” on the borders. And the most powerful witch of all lives in the borderlands between the field and the forest, between the human world and something other: an old woman with wild hair and bony legs and iron teeth. She lives in a house perched atop chicken-feet, and she flies over the woods in an over-sized mortar. She is a mainstay of Slavic fairy tales, appearing as jędza baba in Poland, ježibaba in the Czech Republic, and (most famously) as Baba Yaga in Russia.
She’s fascinating, unpredictable. She’s fascinating because she’s unpredictable. For while Baba Yaga is a cannibal skilled in dark magic who holds a grudge against humanity, she will just as often help heroes as oppose them—by giving them useful items for their quest, by dispensing wisdom, by granting safe passage into the land beyond her strange hut.
Baba Yaga is the ultimate liminal figure, forged from criss-crossing identities, indelibly imprinted in Slavic culture as the eternal mother and yet living apart from it. I’ve been irresistibly drawn to her as a child and even more so as an adult, I think, because I’ve internalized her as a folkloric reflection of the immigrant experience.
That personal interpretation came into play when I started writing Mrs. Yaga. The initial spark, though, was encountering Midori Snyder and Taiko Haessler’s paired poems The Baba Yaga Duet about a year ago. It encapsulates Baba Yaga’s contradictions so well:
My daughter when you were small
How I wanted to eat you.
From there, I inevitably started to think about Baba Yaga’s daughter, who appears in a few fairy tales (though almost never as an antagonist). Surely she reflected what it was like to grow up na granice best! Yet she didn’t seem to appreciate her mother at all. Take, for instance, “The Bogatyrs Soska, Usynia, Gorynia, and Duginia,” where four Russian heroes (bogatyrs) encounter Baba Yaga and must do various tasks for her or face mortal punishment. Baba Yaga’s daughter hides them from her mother and helps them defeat the old woman in a final battle. The daughter is an aid and the ultimate prize, trapped in her mother’s home and waiting for deliverance.
That narrative doesn’t satisfy me…I like Baba Yaga too much to rejoice in her death. More importantly, I couldn’t accept the daughter meekly bringing about her mother’s destruction simply because the heroes were the heroes and that was the end of it.
I set out writing Mrs. Yaga in response to “The Bogatyrs Soska, Usynia, Gorynia, and Duginia” and stories like it, this time telling the tale from the daughter’s point of view so I could puzzle out how things got to that point. Yet the simple act of choosing that viewpoint ended up making me decide she hadn’t. All this was just one more of the many tests Baba Yaga foisted on the young peasant girls she allowed into her home. So the story diverged widely as more elements demanded inclusion. Well, yeah Baba Yaga immigrated to Canada along with all the Poles and Ukrainians who came here because western Canada is na granice, duh her penchant for testing the heroes would apply just as well to her adopted daughter, because she’d expect her daughter to become a hero in her own right. The bogatyrs vying for the daughter’s hand weren’t interesting to me. I wanted to explore the relationship between the daughter and her baba, between a second generation immigrant and her parent from the homeland. So I did.
That is the nature of retelling a fairy tale, adding our own lived experience to the bones of the story and coming out with something new. Mrs. Yaga is my small contribution to the corpus of tales surrounding Baba Yaga, as interpreted through my youth in an immigrant family. I hope you enjoy it.
Mrs Yaga will be available from November 4, 2014. You’ll be able to read the short story in full for free here on The Book Smugglers, but we’ll also have a DRM-free ebook (EPUB, MOBI, AZK) that contains the story, a Q&A and essay from the author, available for purchase on all major ebook retail sites.
Need a copy *right* now? Want to read it *today*? You can buy it directly from us!
Add the book on Goodreads: Here.
And read Mrs Yaga for free online HERE on November 4, 2014.