FAIRY TALES are frank about cruelty. The witch eats children. A king kills out of churlish despotism. At the center of the tale is someone, often a child, picking a path through a snarling wood of astonishing violence. It makes sense to turn to fairy tales now.

The fairy tale is a form about children as much as it is a form for children, which makes it an important reference point for Tina Chang’s third book of poems, Hybrida — a book of kingdoms, forests, wolves, and witches. The volume often draws from fairy tales, implicitly if not explicitly, in its poems of protection, kinship, and social critique.

In interviews and a moving contribution to the New York Times’s “Modern Love” series, Chang has discussed how the birth of her son has been integral to the writing of this book. Chang is of Chinese descent, and her husband is Haitian-American. Much of Hybrida reflects Chang’s experience of loving her Black and Asian-American son in a country shaped by violence against people of color, especially anti-Black violence. In “Hybrida: A Zuihitsu” she asks, “By raising a boy, do I understand what it means to live as a black boy? How do I speak of his existence without appropriating his existence? I return to the language of mothers.”

Hybrida reminds us of a shared responsibility to protect the most vulnerable and to cherish bodies as fragile and wondrous. Many of the poems grieve relatively recent and high-profile losses of somebody’s child, including Michael Brown in the poems “Creation Myth” and “Timeline for a Body: 4 Hours, 6 Bullets.” The poem “Mankind is so Fallible” responds to the racial terrorism of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Other pieces dig deeper into Black Atlantic histories of enslavement and resistance, such as the lyric essay “Revolutionary Kiss,” which considers histories of Black and Chinese diasporic migration. Chang weaves a bright gold thread of resistance within these entangled narratives:

Born from the urgency of immigrants, how futile all my years of worrying. I should have known my boy would row his small boat to me, regardless of the sky above that shook down its lightning, and even if the ground was bruised and famished of fruit and even freedom, he would continue on as if a force were lulling him to bedrock.

The scholar Marina Warner refers to the world of fairy tales as an imaginary place that reflects back the contemporary society of the storyteller. The fairy tale’s fantastic mirror image of society “throws light on circumstances [that] we know. Fairy tales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.” [1] It certainly feels like a moment where every kind of violence and injustice is possible.

As I write this essay, the country debates whether or not it is moral to take children as young as four months old from their families and lock them away in concentration camps that are filthy and dangerous. What is more characteristic of a fairy tale than the stories of children who are subjected to neglect, violence, and imprisonment by indifferent adults? I read these news stories alongside Chang’s poem “The Shifting Kingdom,” which draws from the life of Noemi Álvarez Quillay. In 2014, Quillay was undertaking the 6,500-mile journey from the southern highlands of Ecuador to join her parents in New York City in the custody of human smugglers. When they were intercepted by Mexican authorities, Quillay was taken to a children’s shelter and submitted to questioning. A few days later, the 12-year-old Quillay was found hanged. Her death was deemed a suicide. It’s a time to think about cruelty, a time to think about power and those who fling it about, carelessly.

In “The Shifting Kingdom,” we imagine an impenetrable seat of power resting on a moving bed of desert sand, always in the distance, “beyond the fences” and where “there are not exits, / no doorways or openings, there is also no way to enter.” Along the road to the kingdom: “dolls are strung in nettles, over whose skulls / prayers pass like a procession carrying cups / of wreckage.” The scene is funereal, even apocalyptic. The images of “strung” dolls suggest a warning and unspeakable violence. The prayers floating above the doll skulls bear a votive witness, but seem able to do little else. The childlike speaker of the poem remembers other words — “the tale my grandmother / spoke to me” and an “ancestor’s song” but words can do little in the dangerous borderland, “a country that is a splinter of a shelter.”

Marina Warner has also argued that fairy tales serve a protective function, educating children of the real dangers of being young and having little power through narratives of fantasy and magic. The questions pulsing behind Hybrida’s urgent grief are: What can words do? Could a poem be a prayer or a spell? What role might poetry play in protecting the vulnerable?

At the same time, Chang considers how language and narrative enable wickedness. The book prominently includes etymological definitions of two terms associated with racial mixing: “hybrid” and “mongrel,” prompting the reader to consider the longstanding American fascination with racial “purity”:

Hybrid (n.)

c. 1600, “offspring of plants or animals of different variety or species,” from Latin hybrida, variant of ibrida “mongrel,” specifically “offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar,” of unknown origin but probably from Greek and somehow related to hubris. A rare word before the general sense “anything a product of two heterogeneous things” emerged c. 1850.

mongrel (n.)

late 15c., “mixed-breed dog,” from obsolete mong “mixture,” from Old English gemong “mingling” (base of among), from Proto-Germanic mangjan “to knead together” (source of mingle), from a nasalized form of PIE root mag- “to knead, fashion, fit.” With pejorative suffix -rel. Meaning “person not of pure race” is from 1540s. As an adjective from 1570s.

The concept of a “hybrid” or “mongrel” as a mixture of two different species or races is traced back etymologically to the moments of early modern racial formation, the emergence of European colonialism, and the transatlantic slave trade. We learn that “hybrid,” does not become popular until 1850, which, we would do well to recall, was the same year that the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in the United States. This was a law that depended upon powerful narratives of inherited racial difference, exemplified in the American “one-drop rule” system of racial classification, which defines anyone with a Black ancestor as Black. Hybrida explores how these discourses of racial purity and mixture, the linguistic legacies of transatlantic slavery and colonialism, continue to shape our understandings of race.

Hybrida expresses discontent with these inherited forms, with our impoverished language for understanding identity and our famished stories of the body. Seeking out the role that poetry might play in reimagining identity, heredity, and family, these works attempt to tell new stories of kinship, especially the relationships between mothers and their children.

“Hybrida: A Zuihitsu” meditates on the stories we tell about the mixture of “heterogeneous things.” It begins with the once upon a time of a fairy tale:

Once, the past was in dialogue with the future, a hybrid form. The origin of the word hybrida is Latin, from ibrida, or “mongrel” — a creature of mixed breeds. Open interpretation of violence, collision of selves, histories, and languages. Is language a movement of spirit expressing itself through an outward mutation? I was born in America, contributing to a long line of mixed culture, crossed boundaries, the collaborative and combustible nature of words. If I grew up with dual language, dual identity, how can anything feel unified?

The zuihitsu, a Japanese literary form popularized in the United States by Asian-American poet Kimiko Hahn, is characterized by amalgamation and free association. One fragment of an idea flows into another, separate but connected, like ice floating in water. “Hybrida” engages the formal hybridity of the zuihitsu, interrogating fictions of purity and absolute difference. It contemplates the role of language in the formation of the body, always in flux, asking, “how can anything feel unified?” within the long and interlacing histories of global migration.

“Hybrida: a Zuihitsu” presents hybridity as a flow of constant change, rather than the splicing of two separate things into one. Here, Chang incorporates another common feature of the fairy tale — the fantastic fluidity of the body. In a fairy tale, human beings are transformed into bears, frogs, and beasts. Anything can happen to the body, but the body can also be anything. The formal mutability of poetry assists us in imagining ways to liberate the body from racial taxonomies: “The fragmentation of the zuihitsu welcomes randomness, collage, a piecing (and piercing) of memory and imagination that adds up to a feeling akin to liberation. The liberation of imagination is the body’s response to dominance and containment.”

When the body is restrained by racist categories, the imagination offers a path to freedom. In fairy tales, it’s often love that restores the transformed to their true bodies. Hybrida often contemplates love, and especially maternal love, as a means of radically reimagining the body as powerfully mutable: “Right here between his eyebrows, there is a swell of light, a country where I belong, no longer a stranger to my own skin.” The body can be an irradiant and borderless country, a scene of imagined liberation.

Paeans on the power of maternal love risk sentimentality both sopping and dangerous. Banal appeals to universalism and “instinct” become means of erasure and avoidance. On the other hand, our deeply misogynist and heteronormative world has little patience for the actual feelings and experiences of parenthood. Chang’s explorations of motherhood are self-reflective, fiercely loving, and necessarily uncertain.

There are many mother figures in Hybrida, each a skilled storyteller. They tell tales about protection and for protection, stories that are as bloody as the world they are written to safeguard against, as in “Theory of War”:

She wrote a book and called it Aftermath.
It was a large shelter made of ice, every object frozen
to its bereaved cold twin. The children loved her
when she told different endings to the same story
each time: The witch turned on herself, the witch
found herself among a pack of other witches,
the witch ate her hind leg to save herself from
the finality of death. The witch loved blood.
Each time the children gasped
and told her to tell the story again. She did so
willingly, opening a small shutter to her chest,
hearing a squeak and a tender clang. When she reset
the narrative once again, she readied herself
as if she would not be alive when the story ended.

The story must be told over and over, each time with a slightly different conclusion, always ending in blood. As with Scheherazade, each tale is bound to the extension of life and the menace of death. The children are hungry for the horror and the possibility: How will it end this time? The narrative cycle seems to hold something at bay, but how long can it continue?

What is the form protection should take? Could take? Hybrida brings a poet’s careful stewardship of language to the mobilization of moral conscience.

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[1] Marina Warner, Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2018), xxix.