Why Grim Tales was a highlight for 2016

Of my publication successes this year, one I was most proud of had nothing to do with me. Normally anything I write is the product of my own whimsy. This time it was not about me at all.

Grim Tales is a book of dark fairy tales that is a collaboration between The Incubator and Tauranga Women’s Refuge. Writers and artists were tasked with transforming real life stories of domestic violence into lavishly illustrated fables. The result is a beautiful book. It’s worth every cent and all of the profits go to Tauranga Women’s Refuge.

As one of the writers, I was paired with Deborah, a survivor of domestic abuse (credited in the book as Debbie). We were joined by Skye, our illustrator. My task was to condense the essence of Deborah’s story into a fable, a ‘grim tale’, which Skye would then illustrate.

None of us knew each other. We gathered for an afternoon at Deborah’s house to hear her story. She told us things that she had never spoken of, ever.

It is difficult to convey how much respect I have for Deborah. She trusted two strangers to reinterpret some of her darkest, most painful history and make it public. If you had been a victim of domestic abuse, would you trust a stranger – a male – to rewrite your experience as some sort of artsy fairy tale? Would you trust someone else you had only just met to illustrate it for publication in a coffee table book?

The writing was hard work. The subject matter was sensitive. I was handling someone else’s life. It’s not something I wanted to mess up.

The fable I ended up writing is called The girl who lived with a storm. I made it an exercise in symbolism rather than a biographical account. I didn’t want to focus too much on the violent details. That seemed like the easy path for a writer.

As I worked on it, Deborah’s story became less about the violence, and more about the crime of silence; crimes of the people around her who knew something was wrong, but didn’t speak up.

It was also a story of bravery: Deborah’s resilience, the gentle, unsung heroism of one person who did speak up, and the Women’s Refuge people who were there to wrap their arms around Deborah and provide a place of safety. This became even clearer to me at the book launch when the women who are featured in the tales stood boldly in the spotlight. Rather than a parade of horrific experiences, it was a showcase of astounding strength.

The illustration that Skye did for the story blew me away. Holy wow. In fact, all of the artwork throughout the book is stunning. Grim Tales belongs on any coffee table; the stories are grim but they are not explicit. The artwork and design is beautiful. The book as a whole is a labour of love, an uncompromising commitment to artistic excellence. I’m proud to be associated with such quality.

For copyright reasons I’m not including the story here but you can catch some snippets of it in this piece from Seven Sharp. It’s not my story anyway; it’s Deborah’s. I was merely privileged enough to be the writer who got to nurse this particular tale into its current form.

Some things I learned through this project.

  • If you think something is wrong, speak up.
  • Light scares away the darkness. I have noticed that each time Deborah opened up about her story, her dark past seemed to lose a little bit more of the power it once claimed over her life.
  • Grisly details are important for the police and the justice system, but the most important points for everyone else are that all domestic violence is wrong,  every level of domestic violence wreaks havoc for those who experience it, and none of it should be tolerated.

Grim Tales plays a small part in pulling back the curtain on domestic violence, not to glorify the terrible things that happened, but to affirm the dignity and strength of the survivors. It was a privilege to be involved in such a significant a project. Grim Tales drags something nasty out of the shadows and reveals the staggering, beautiful strength of the women and Women’s Refuge.
Grim Tales
The Incubator
Tauranga Women’s Refuge
Seven Sharp interview with Deborah
Radio NZ interview