In case you missed it, my short story “The Kio Empress” was up on the Bronzeville Bee website last month.
As a child, my father delighted in telling me the tale of the “The Fisherman and his Wife.” In the German story, a hard-working but poor fisherman catches a magical fish (in some versions he is the king of the fish) and begs to be released. The fisherman lets the fish go. His wife, after hearing the story sends him back out the find the fish and demand a wish, which he does. Then she keeps demanding more and more until she demands so much that the fish gets pissed off and returns the couple to their original poverty.
What I didn’t understand as a young child was my father was still recovering from a divorce where he felt put-upon by his ex-wife and was stinging from repeated trips to court over child support. On some level, my father cast himself in the role of the hard-working fisherman and his ex as the greedy wife. He would lecture to me about not being greedy. The wife should have been happy with what her husband did for them.
As a married woman now, I find that narrative distressing. It feels sexist as hell, part of a long line of women-screwing-up-wishes stories. I am all too aware of how I sound when I (justifiably) nag my husband. Further, the wife wasn’t wrong on first finding out the husband had just let the freaking fish go! He did a powerful being a favor and it gave him nothing in return? What kind of end-stage-capitalist-dystopia is this? If you have the power to make someone insanely wealthy in the blink of an eye, and they save your life, you f’ng better give the man a reasonable tip.
I wanted to write a story where women aren’t treated as always nagging and never satisfied but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how to do it in a pleasing way. Just flipping the story didn’t work, it just turned the negging on the fisherman. People are complex and the frame of the story didn’t allow me to show how different people make different choices.
Then I read some stories about the Japanese folk hero Momotarō. The Peach Boy stories are very different from the stories I grew up with. They were about kindness and doing for others without demanding compensation in return. Good deeds aren’t’ rewarded, they are their own reward. Momotarō is what early Superman comics were — the earnest boy scout doing his best for everyone.
The Western tradition of wish stories is about clever wishing. It’s implied (and often explicit of modern stories) if you wish wisely, you will get everything you want but that people, most often wives, are too greedy or stupid to wish for the right thing or in the right way.
Applying the values presented in Momotarō stories completely breaks the Western wish story. Momotarō would have wished for something for someone else or simply passed on the gift of the wish at all. That gave me my wedge in to break the icky narrative of “The Fisherman and his Wife.” There is no story if a person wants nothing, but I think I did a good job of threading that needle of wanting, knowing wishing is a sucker’s game, and getting something anyway.
Did it work? Let me know.