This installment discusses gender identity, Irish folklore, and formal experimentation in The Drowning Girl.

The use of haunting in The Drowning Girl presents a linkage between Imp’s abjection and postcolonial theory. For Maile Arvin, contact between colonizer and colonized constitutes a particular form of possession of colonial subjects by their knowledge of colonizing power. Arvin frames this concept within the context of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Antoinette’s possession therein:

Antoinette is possessed by the knowledge of England, and this knowledge dispossesses her of her lands, her money, and (to some extent) her very self. […] If we similarly approach colonialism as an otherworldly possession of colonized peoples by something unseen and thus unknown […] which nonetheless manifests a terrifying material reality, we realize that responses to this possession are necessarily much more varied than categories such as “resistance” or “complicity” might allow.[1]

In this way, Imp, much like Antoinette, is possessed by her knowledge of multiple subjugating powers. First, the context of the book’s authorial influence, that of Kiernan’s immigration to the United States from Ireland, lends the narrative and characters an ideological legacy of colonialization and decolonial struggle. The narrative takes place entirely on the East Coast of the US, however, references to Northern Ireland recur in the text, recalling the conditions under which Irish citizens were induced to emigrate (famine, religious persecution, extreme poverty) in addition to political and cultural ideologies in Ireland that made it untenable for people who did not fit normative identities to continue living there. References from the latter category are presented within narratively-specific contexts, but maintain links to folklore and mythology from Ireland. A conversation between Imp and Abalyn about Abalyn’s understanding of her gender is one such example:

‘You never told your parents about the dream.’ It wasn’t a question, because I was already certain enough of the answer. ‘Hell no. My mother might have murdered her demon child in its sleep if I’d told her. My dad might have come after me with a hot iron poker.’ She laughed, and I asked what she meant about a hot poker. […] That’s what people used to do if they thought the fairies had stolen their child and left a changeling in its place. Fairies can’t stand iron, so—’

The reference to fairies, and specifically their abhorrence of iron and their habit of replacing human children with their own offspring calls to mind the Irish mythology around Púca, which are alternatively spirits, demons, hobgoblins, and/or fairies. In keeping with The Drowning Girl’s emphasis on rural, forested areas and water-side communities, Púca are generally associated with rural marine, farming, and forest communities in Ireland.[2] According to Deasún Breatnach, the tradition of cold iron[3] as a deterrent for fairies is particular to the Irish tradition: “The only motif in Púca stories which may be confined to Ireland is that found in the first portion of Sean O Cr6inin’s narrative quoted above, namely the story of the person who got the better of the Púca by using spurs” Breatnach further explains that the use of iron spurs is particularly relevant in this context because of “traditions concerning ‘cold iron’ in Irish folklore.”[4] The reference here to traditional fairy stories and their real impact in the world—real deaths did occur as a result of communities suspecting a family member or neighbor of being a changeling—follows The Drowning Girl’s pattern of invoking archival, archeological, and scholarly work in order to disrupt traditional narrative forms, but as the passage continues, the physicality of the text itself disrupts the narrative flow. Imp continues,

I remembered then about changelings and hot pokers, or tossing children that might be changelings onto glowing coals, or leaving them outside on a freezing night. (See Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness by Carole G. Silver [Oxford University Press, 1999], Chapter 2.)[5]

The inclusion of a citation in the middle of the text is relatively jarring in what is ostensibly a fictional narrative on its own, however the electronic edition of the book takes this disruption further. In the electronic edition of the book, the “Chapter 2” at the end of the in-text citation is a hyperlink which leads to the beginning of chapter two in The Drowning Girl. The citation is from the middle of chapter five, so following the link brings the reader back three chapters, constituting a narrative loop. There are certainly multiple reasons for the particular placement of the loop, perhaps the most significant of which for the novel’s rejection of respectability politics is that the loop centers on Imp and Abalyn’s relationship. More specifically, it centers on the portion of their relationship in which Abalyn is described in the most detail, has the most depth. Once again, she is not “more perfect” by any means in the segment of the book, she is not more likeable or sympathetic if the reader begins reading at chapter two and stops in the middle of chapter five. A narrative loop of this kind, though, serves a primary function of amplifying. If the reader follows the link and then reads their way back to it at least once, they’ve experienced that piece of the story more than the rest. By centering this loop on Abalyn’s development as a character, her story and voice, with all of her flaws, contradictions, and strengths, becomes amplified. In this way, The Drowning Girl provides a narrative that centers queer women, prioritizes complex personhood, and actively rejects respectability politics, and also utilizes formal design to reinforce those ideologies.

[1] Arvin, Maile Renee. “Pacifically Possessed: Scientific Production and Native Hawaiian Critique of the ‘Almost White’ Polynesian Race. UC San Diego: b7759918. Retrieved from: 4.

[2] Breatnach, Deasún. “The Púca: A Multi-Functional Irish Supernatural Entity.” Folklore 104. 1-2 (1993). 105.

[3] Cold iron generally refers to unforged iron, rather than iron that is physically cold at the moment of contact with a fairy.

[4] Breatnach 107

[5] Keirnan 157

Image Credit: Elyssa Amezola © 2015




Author: Geneveive Newman