“Which path are you going to take,” asked the wolf,
“the path of needles or the path of pins?”
No. 17: Su-Yee Lin
Q. “How names change depending on where you are but certain things don’t change. Who you are doesn’t change.” Did your folktale research in China help inform this concept, or did you seek out answers to this conundrum while traveling abroad?
I’d say that it was learning a different language that informed this concept. Sure, you see regional differences in English for certain things like soda but it’s a much more confusing issue to grasp in a language you’re still in the process of learning. In China, there’s an incredible range of regional dialects that sometimes don’t even have the same roots as Mandarin so it gets even more disconcerting. Even when you’re only focusing on Mandarin, you’ll find that this or that object is called something completely different in another area or the locals you speak to can’t even agree on a single name for it—it adds a sense of the surreal, to not be able to name a thing properly. Folktale research did play a role, though, since there’s so much historical/cultural/regional context that will come with certain words and phrases; they’re often imbued with meaning beyond the surface level of the characters.
Q. Fairy tales, folklore, and even religious texts feature snakes prominently—what makes them so appealing across boundaries and epochs of recorded history?
In my opinion, probably fear! They’re so opposite of human—scaly, without appendages but with those thin-slitted pupils and forked tongues—that I think it’s probably easy to put whatever characteristics and meaning you want onto them. I found it interesting that in Chinese folktales, there are two characters used for snakes, shé (蛇) and mǎng (蟒). If I remember correctly, shé are small snakes that are often associated with evil or bad luck in myths whereas mǎng are the larger snakes like boas and pythons that mostly signify good. I like that even within the same canon of folklore, different types of snakes can represent different things—there is no one definite meaning.
Q. What color snake would you choose to be—white or green or something else entirely—and how do you think a color changes the complexity of a thing, or what it might be capable of?
I think I’d choose to be pale green snake, something small and discreet and possibly poisonous. Obviously, in nature, color is often used for various effects—in mating, in displaying poisonous attributes, etc.—so I’d definitely say color changes the complexity of a thing. In mythology, Chinese and otherwise, color is very symbolic but in a way, it’s a shell (like a name!) that can change as the inner complexity of a character or creature changes—it reflects the inner self, but in the most obvious way.
Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Prose Editor Joel Hans.
Su-Yee Lin’s story “White Snake, Green Snake” appears in The Emerald Issue of Fairy Tale Review.
White Snake, Green Snake
The grass that covers the hill pricks us with two pronged seeds, dagger-like, and the path is stone and long-fingered grass. We weave through alleys with broken glass atop walls. The secret garden is a hill of tea, flowers fallen, but the haze makes the city hard to see. Next door, a pharmaceutical company, all big-barreled wind turbines and the smell of nail polish. Climb the brick well, feet on rusted rings, and feel like you’re on top of the world.
S— you called me, then S— again but different and I said, I have three names and they are all S— because language is not a barrier, it is just a means and there are things that can be communicated beyond the sounds coming from our mouths. On another mountain top, the stairs ran straight and wide but we ran up the mountainside because that’s what you thought I’d meant and it was. Point out the lake which looks like just another mountain hiding behind the city’s skyscrapers and tell me what why where.
The fish in the canals are caught by men wearing tiny umbrellas as hats. I watch them and you watch them but they don’t look at us, only at their own glimmering lines sinking into the green murk, but we are hidden anyway, behind palm fronds that cover our mouths like hands.