Our Mermaid Craze / Interview with Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 
Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown, eds. The Penguin Book of Mermaids. Penguin Books, 2019.

I was thrilled to discover the recent The Penguin Book of Mermaids (2019), an anthology of mermaid stories from around the world. Though there are numerous books of mermaid stories, this is the first to curate a global collection in a scholarly mode and, poignantly, as the publisher’s blurb states, “A third of the selections are published here in English for the first time.”1 Meaning, the book collects and translates primary source texts so that mermaid stories can be read in relation to one another and as global literature. This vital scholarly intervention provides the foundation for further critical mermaid studies. (Indeed, the volume formed the basis of my new “Literature and the Environment: Mermaids” class, and it has been a dream textbook.)

It was thus a no-brainer to include Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown, editors of The Penguin Book of Mermaids, in this cluster. I was eager to hear about their prescience in bringing their book into the world in the midst of the mermaid craze, the process and purpose of their collaboration, and what they hoped would be the ripple effects of scholarship on mermaids. I hope you enjoy our brief email-based interview, below.

Jessica Pressman

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Jessica Pressman (JP):  I would like to know what you think of the book now that it’s out and has landed (which is a wrong metaphor, because it is too terrestrial for our topic) in the midst of a mermaid craze. Have you received any particularly relevant or interesting feedback?

Marie Alohalani Brown (MAB): I am thrilled with the final product and with how it has garnered a wide readership, which speaks to the longterm interest in merfolk. We both receive emails from scholars from around the world who are interested in mermaids, and I have even received messages from people who don mermaid tails. It’s really quite exciting!

Cristina Bacchilega (CB): I, too, am delighted with how the book participates in a larger cultural movement! When Alohalani and I started our research some 6–7 years ago, our goals were to place centerstage an abundance of stories about merfolk and water spirits from around the world. This meant not only decentering the Hans Christian Andersen “Little Mermaid” and its Disney adaptation, but also refuting the ignorance that makes the mermaid’s whiteness and stereotypical femininity the norm. What you call the mermaid craze is affecting commonly held images and assumptions, and this change is coming from a range of communities reappropriating the mermaid as part of their histories, embodied experiences, and futures. It’s exciting.

JP: On the topic of “our mermaid craze,” this cluster for ASAP/J is based upon my sense that we are in the midst of a cultural moment and movement—a fascination with mermaids that started around 2010. I wonder what you both think about this theory—do you agree? If so, do you have an argument about why mermaids matter now?

MAB: I am intrigued by the widespread interest in mermaids. It would be wonderful to hear from people about why they are fascinated with mermaids. In our book, Cristina and I offer a few theories about the older origin of human interest in mermaids.

CB: I can’t say I know when it started, but I agree that mermaids are having a cultural moment—and it’s moving us to reconsider not only mermaids but our sense of what makes us human and our relationship to the environment. In the Penguin Book of Mermaids, we assembled different kinds of stories across the planet and many of them as you know appear in English for the first time. In doing so, a point we make—Alohalani as a scholar of Hawaiian and Indigenous Religions and I as a scholar of folklore, literature, and cultural studies—is that the current preoccupation with mermaids has long and crossculturally interesting histories in religion and folklore. One of the reasons for humans’ captivation with mermaids that Alohalani and I also bring up is their crossing boundaries thanks to their hybrid bodies and their shapeshifting—which can in some stories project fear of so-called feminine mystery and duplicity, but in today’s cultural practices and stories is often reimagined as playful queerness.

JP: Are there certain narrative tropes or aesthetics that you saw as being shared across that mermaid stories in The Penguin Book of Mermaids that seem of particular interest or importance?

MAB: In my research on Indigenous mer-beings, I  noticed cross-cultural themes of power, punishment, protecting watery or damp environments (bodies of water but also forests), and seduction. Indigenous stories about mermaids and other water spirits are often cautionary tales about the power of nature and that humans need to remember their humble place in that natural world.

CB: When I think of mermaid stories, it strikes me how many feature a mermaid being abducted from her water world. Captivity and domestication seem to be a fairly common, and gendered, response to being attracted to a being who is different. Interestingly, these stories are—as Alohalani mentioned—cautioning us against such hubris or human supremacy. What also stayed with me is how many older stories located knowledge and power in the water realms and took the apparition of merfolk and other water spirits to be a sign, for instance of a storm or a death to come. Humans have a lot to learn from the elements, from the flow of life and death in the natural world, from its relationality. Mermaid stories do not address ocean mining, pollution of aquifers, or the island of plastic in the Pacific ocean, but these stories—especially the Indigenous ones as Alohalani says—can seriously impact how we relate to our environment and consider human-nonhuman relations.

JP: What would you like to see scholars focus on—questions to ask, theories to pursue, archives to explore—when it comes to mermaids in our contemporary moment? Are there specific questions that you would like to see scholars use your book to pursue?

MAB: More research on Indigenous mermaids and water spirits from around the world. I recently published a book on moʻo akua, Hawaiian reptilian water deities. This book—Ka Poʻe Moʻo Akua: Hawaiian Reptilian Water Deities (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2020)—is a product of more than a decade of research. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if others pursued some aspect of this research topic (Indigenous mermaids and water spirits or gods)? For example, I am currently researching Hawaiian ocean deities as a result of the work Cristina and I did for our mermaid volume. We Hawaiians have so many ocean entities—Kanaloa, the supreme ocean god; Hinaʻōpūhalakoʻa (Hina of the coral-passing stomach), the mother of coral and spiny ocean creatures; Kūʻula, an ocean god whom fishers honor; Moanoʻailehua (the moano fish that eats lehua blossoms), a goatfish goddess who is either a gigantic moano or who has the head and neck of an eel and a moano fish body; eels gods, shark gods, turtle gods, and gods associated with shellfish. The list goes on and on.

CB: I second Alohalani’s wish for “more research on Indigenous mermaids and water spirits from around the world.” And it is important for this work, which must be culturally grounded, to participate in a network that can, in its diversity, provide an alternative to an impoverished, white-dominated iconography. This special issue is working toward that, I think. But it’s as storytellers and teachers that scholars can contribute a lot too. Making traditional Khasi narratives about water spirits in Northern India, “Jullnar, The Mermaid” in the Arabian Nights, or “Karukayn” in Northern Australia better known is important to changing cultural expectations of mermaids globally. So is contextualizing and analyzing contemporary mermaid stories across media, and Jalondra Davis has done this with some of Nalo Hopkinson’s  fiction and Gabrielle Tesfaye’s haunting short film The Water Will Carry Us Home. Graphic novels like How to Be a Mermaid by Maya Kern (2013) and The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (2020) have had my attention in recent publications. What’s happening with Black mermaid novels and also children’s mermaid books in Europe deserves more attention. I’m going back to the idea that the contemporary mermaid moment has varied and long genealogies.

JP: Was there anything in particular that surprised you or that you learned from each other or the research and editorial process that you want to share with us that might help expand this cluster on “Our Mermaid Craze”?

MAB: My research on Indigenous merfolk and water spirits taught me that these beings are present in many cultures around the world and that attending to the lore on these respective water being can offer valuable insights into how different cultures perceive water (fresh or salty) and their relationship to the same, and what kinds of powers or abilities are attributed to these water beings; that there are many different kinds of merfolk—human-fish forms include dolphins, serpents, whales, reptilian, etc.; the origin of water beings is another interesting topic for which our book offers insights.

CB: I was humbled when I was doing research to realize how little I knew about merfolk and water spirits—and this means the book is done but I have a lot more to learn. I was also surprised by the wide range of physical representations of merfolk!

JP: I often get the question, “why mermaids?” So I ask it of you, both personally and professionally—why mermaids?

MAB: My answer to “why mermaids” is that I am fascinated with what the stories we humans tell about mermaids and other water beings and what these stories suggest about our ways of knowing and being, and our relationship to water and our environment.

CB: Mermaids because I am most at ease and at the same time energized in saltwater! We came from the ocean, we long to connect with it. And because mermaids exist outside of our rules. But I would also turn the question around and ask, “why mermaids only?” There are so many other powerful water beings.

JP: Do you have anything else you would like to share with us as the mermaid experts that you are ☺ ?

MAB: Some people dream of what it would be like to be able to fly like a bird. I dream of what it would be like to dwell in the ocean beneath the water.

CB: Don’t be surprised if you meet one in freshwater—they’ve been there all along.

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This is part of the cluster Our Mermaid Craze. Read the other posts here. 

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