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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is speculative fiction author Eliza Chan! Her short fiction has appeared in The Dark, Fantasy Magazine, PodCastle, and other publications, and her work includes stories selected for the Locus Recommended Reading List (“Weaving in the Bamboo“) and The Best of British Fantasy 2019 (“Joss Papers for Porcelain Ghosts“), as well as a British Fantasy Award finalist (“The Tails That Make You“). Fathomfolk, her fantasy debut novel inspired by East Asian mythology and ocean-related folktales, was released in February, and I’m thrilled she’s here today with “Into the Retelling-Verse.”

Cover of Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan

Into the Retelling-Verse
Eliza Chan

At a recent event, I was asked what the lure of retellings was. Why are mythological retellings trending right now? My answer is… Spider-Man.

I grew up with Tobey Maguire as my Spider-Man. (Yes, even the emo Spider-Man 3 that we don’t talk about.) Then along came Andrew Garfield. As an elder millennial, I turned up my nose at him, why do we need another Spider-Man? Tobey was fine. Aren’t Hollywood executives just being lazy and money grabbing? Then Tom Holland’s charmingly boyish Spider-Man came along and I swallowed my words. Even if you hate Spider-Man, you know roughly how that story goes: high school boy bitten by radioactive spider; with great power comes great responsibility; swinging between New York skyscrapers.

We know the story, and yet we are drawn to its retellings precisely because we know the story. When Teletubbies first came on TV it was criticised for having a repeated section in the middle. What an obvious way for them to save money, having the same clip twice! In reality, children love repetition. Again, again. That’s why we sing the same nursery rhymes and listen to “Let It Go” for the umpteenth time on repeat. As adults we pretend we are different, when we are just as comforted by these familiar things. Who has not watched a rerun of a favourite TV show or reread a beloved book?

Take fairy tale retellings. Many of us grew up on Disney fairy tales which were much more sanitised than the original Hans Christian Andersen or Grimm brother versions. Happy endings for everyone. Every children’s story book abridges and rewrites familiar fairy tales with the sensibilities of the time period they are in. I recently read an old nursery rhyme book to my son and hastily glossed over all the whippings and beatings that happened in it. We all do it to an extent. Modern YA and adult books go further, deliberately playing with conventions: from Hannah Whitten’s For the Wolf to Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. A familiar template, Easter eggs scattered throughout, and yet ultimately they are not the same stories you remember as a child.

Fathomfolk is a The Little Mermaid retelling. The Disney version is all about love at first sight and wanting something different to what her father wanted for her. In the Hans Christian Andersen original, it’s an unrequited love. It’s a million stabbing knives every time she walks on her newly acquired feet. It’s a literal fish out of water, not being able to fit into her new society, voiceless with devastating consequences. I saw the opportunity to retell the fairy tale to be about the liminal space between land and sea, the culture shock of moving to a new country, the lack of power or agency for minorities groups.

This brings me to folklore and mythology retellings. I love mythology and actively seek out different local mythologies when I go travelling. Fathomfolk was born from all the stories from the sea: from kappas to kelpies, water dragons to sirens. Water is important across cultures and yet female figures in mythology are often reduced to seductresses or damsels. Like many modern writers, I wanted to subvert the trope of a fridged woman with no agency other than to wait for a man. From Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi to Madeline Miller’s Circe, I am glad to be part of that movement of feminist mythological retellings.

In my Spider-Man filled opening, I didn’t mention the best version: Miles Morales and Into the Spider-Verse. This version is in conversation with the screen versions before, with the comic book versions and with those yet to come. More than that, it’s a version that offers a BIPOC Spider-Man. A female Spider-Man. A spider…pig. It pushed boundaries not simply with representation, but with animation style and plot.

I could have written my themes in Fathomfolk just as easily by using aliens or original creatures of my own creation. Instead, I chose to use figures from different mythologies because of the familiar touchstone. By offering a multicultural melting pot of mythologies, I was reflecting the realities of modern cityscapes and all the stereotypes that come with it. A siren is a seductress. A water dragon is wise and old. I wanted to take what is familiar and subvert it, making everyone, myself included, interrogate our own prejudices and expectations. It’s not the Spider-Verse, but I hope my retelling will continue to be in conversation with all those which came before, and all those that will come after—another interpretation that is both comforting and surprising in equal degrees.

Photo of Eliza Chan
Photo Credit: Sandi Hodkinson
Eliza Chan is a Scottish-born speculative fiction author who writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and reclaiming the dragon lady. Her short fiction has been published in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy. Her debut novel FATHOMFOLK — inspired by mythology, ESEAN cities and diaspora feels — was published by Orbit in Feb 2024.

She has been a medical school drop-out, a kilt shop assistant, an English teacher and a speech and language therapist, but currently she spends her time tabletop gaming, cosplaying, crafting and toddler wrangling.

Find out more on her website www.elizachan.co.uk.