Older and Out – Maria

If you told someone they were looking especially old, how would it go down? Why is ‘old’ – still – such a dirty word? As part of our research and development for Snow Q, a collaborative project inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen story, we’ve been meeting different groups in the community. It’s important to us to work across a range of ages. So often in our artistic work – unless we are teaching young students – we can end up spending time with people of the same age. Having worked with the Brighton Young Carers Group earlier in the project, Maria recently visited Older and Out a social networking group providing a monthly lunch & meet up for local older LGBTQUI people where she received a warm welcome and tasty fish and chips:

 In the Snow Queen story Gerda is helped on her quest by a range of characters,  including two of my favourite: the old Lapland woman and the old Finnish woman. They live in the far north of the world, nearest to the Snow Queen’s frozen domain.  The Lapland woman guides Gerda on her way and in order to communicate with the Finnish woman – and since she has no paper – she writes her a message on a dry fish.  When the Finnish woman receives the message, after she has read it three times so that she knows it by heart, she pops the fish into her saucepan as she never wastes anything…We had some wonderful discussions with the Older and Out group about stories and characters they remembered being influenced by or looking up to as children. These often included comic book characters rather than literary ones, Rupert Bear, Minnie the Minx, Desperate Dan, Wonder Woman, Dan Dare, also The Famous Five as well as actual war heroes such as fighter pilots Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson. Some of the group were children during World War 2 and could remember the impact of their stories vividly.  Some remembered growing up before TV and the thrill of being allowed to buy a comic. Not surprisingly, a couple of the women mentioned feeling alienated from female role models of the time.Cheeky fish

Although we’d already eaten our fish for lunch (followed by trifle!) Dagmara had kindly prepared some Snow Q paper fish for me which I then asked the group to write messages on. Being passionate about inter-generational dialogue I asked them to write messages for younger people on the fish – in true older Lapland woman style – in particular their messages for young LGBTIQ people. These messages will be worked into our installation with Dagmara’s help.Fish1

In the work I’ve done with both older and younger LGBTIQ people before as part of the ongoing heritage project Queer in Brighton I’ve been struck by how vital this communication across different generations is. We often don’t know our own history as it’s been erased or covered up in mainstream narratives. Our relationship to family is not always straight(sic)-forward so that feeling connected to those younger and older than ourselves is especially important. We need our elders. As someone who never had much in the way of role models and who is now older myself, I felt especially privileged and touched to be working not only with people of my age but also those older than me who struggled for years in the face of prejudice and persecution.

Katabasis! Dagmara and Wendy


Katabasis is an ancient Greek word meaning a descent. It can mean the sinking of the winds or sun, following a river down towards the sea (in some texts it’s a military retreat) or – more importantly for us – a trip to the underworld.  A gradual deepening or descending in the search for understanding.  Team Snow Q recently re-visited the Regency Town House Annexe Basement in Hove – the site for our collaborative installation re-imagining Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, which will take place at Winter Solstice, on December 21st, 2018. Details about this will follow in a later post but meanwhile Dagmara and Wendy explain why we chose this exciting space:

There are many stories within stories in the Snow Queen. They vary in length and pace and some may even lack an obvious purpose. The structure doesn’t have an apparent pattern, symmetry or rhythm, yet re-reading it doesn’t increase one’s frustration but allows one to see new and unexpected themes and moods. The layout of the basement annex, which was the former servants quarters of The Regency Town House and the chosen venue for our production, is not unlike the story of the Snow Queen. Once you step inside, the long dark corridor takes you straight through the entire basement. All the rooms lead off the corridor and the visitor can experience the space as easily as you can read Hans Christian’s Andersen tale within one sitting.

There was an obvious parallel for us between the story of the Snow Queen and the dark ambience of this basement annex.

The Annex wasn’t completely new to us as we had visited it over the years to see art exhibitions and events but the potential to transform the space still feels limitless. Like in the Snow Queen, there are as many moods and emotional textures as there are rooms within the basement. Each room seems to offer a different scope for an emotional narrative. The newly restored, austere servant’s room we imagined could be occupied by the puritanical Grandmother character of Kai and Gerda (or maybe even by Andersen himself) while the servants’ kitchen we can visualise transforming in to the flamboyant flower garden. There are stairs that lead nowhere. Hiding places for keeping secrets, windows and peeping holes and a claustrophobic, moody meat safe.

Every time we examine this space, we step into another world and discover something new.

If you would like to know a little bit more about the history of the Regency Town House and the Basement Annexe where our event will take a place, please visit this website:


Exciting events are organised on regular basis and you can even be taken on a guided tour by one of the many very knowledgeable volunteers.



Girl/boy – not? Maria

If you’ve been following our posts you know by now what a powerful source – Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen story – we chose for our collaborative project. We are Snow Q. What does the Q stand for? Questions? Queer? Quest? Queen? All of the above and more. Unusually, most of the protagonists in the story were women.  Maria wanted to build on that, while she also knew that she wanted the two young protagonists – a little older than Andersen’s children in her portrayal – not to represent girl and boy in a conventional way.  However she saw them as still caught up in a world which discriminates on a range of counts including gender, a world which destroys the planet, which forces people to flee from their homes or to live in poverty.

Growing up I looked like a boy, got mistaken for a boy (to my delight) and had no desire to become a woman (or an adult possibly.)  Grown women wore pinchy shoes and they didn’t climb trees, did they? Hard to tell now how much of that came from inside or outside. Boys had so many freedoms denied to me as a girl. My frantic mother carted me off to see a psychologist. As I grew older it got worse, since I was attracted to other girls as well as boys. Later I found women (and men) who were detonating the notion of what being a woman means in this society.  Ever since, I have embraced identifying as a woman. I still get mistaken for a man from time to time.

Back in those 1960’s/70’s, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy, June Arnold all wrote books with characters who either switched genders or defied categorisation. They used pronouns such as per or na, instead of he and she. I also read writers like Sheila Rowbotham* on the dominance of the male point of view, Don Milligan* on gender and sexuality. There were countless books, papers, meetings and discussions on how inextricably the rigid male-female dichotomy was linked to racism, class, all the ways of dividing people. I realised I was part of something bigger. I joined campaigns and protests, became a feminist.

are you a boy or a girl
By Tony Toggles, source: https://everydayfeminism.com

Perhaps because it was so hard for me to communicate with the generation before mine when I was growing up and also since I’m passionate about language,  I’m interested in the different ways older and younger people talk about the world. Younger people are also challenging preconceptions about gender. They’re using words like ‘non-binary’ which reminds me of my experience but I wanted to hear how they see it so I asked some friends:

Tate and Jude Fletcher wrote to me saying:

“A non binary person is neither male nor female. They would place themselves on the spectrum somewhere between or outside of those two genders. In Western culture this can be little understood, however there are many cultures around the world that recognise more than two genders and have done for many generations. Non binary people have always existed in our society but it is only fairly recently that they have been able to have a voice and be more visible. Often non binary people use different pronouns to the more widely recognised he/him, she/her. One alternative is the use of they/them pronouns. This is often argued to be grammatically incorrect which is in fact false. It is usual to use ‘they’ when speaking about a single person whose gender is unknown to you. For example: “Someone has left their phone here. I wonder if they’ve realised?” There is no correct way to present as non binary. You can present in a feminine, masculine or androgynous way. So a person’s gender should never be assumed based on their appearance.

It would be a big step forwards in making non binary and trans people feel more at ease if it became the norm when meeting someone for the first time to ask what pronouns they use as well as their name. A non binary gender is just as valid as male or female and hopefully this will be recognised legally in the not too distant future.”

Tate and Jude also pointed out that being non binary can mean different things to different people and and that non binary people can present in many ways. You can’t lump any people all together. I asked writer Elly J Morris what non-binary meant to her specifically:

“I’m a nonbinary person, specifically a genderfluid femme. It’s taken me a long time to decide on the words that best describe how I feel about my gender, and for me they work perfectly. Nonbinary in the rejection of the gender binary, genderfluid in my presentation and the way I feel on different days, and femme in my embracing of feminine energy separate to being born AFAB (assigned female at birth).

Engaging with gender in a deliberate way gives me power and agency in a way that being a cis women never did. As well as being a political statement, my gender is a feeling I have within me. I do experience dysphoria, but not as severely as others. It’s more of a frustration with not being able to present how I’d like to all of the time.”

*Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (first published in 1973! )
*Politics of Homosexuality

Why the viola? – Peter

After Peter’s previous post people started asking about the music he is composing for Snow Q, our collaborative project to reimagine the Snow Queen Story by Hans Christian Andersen. Why had he chosen the viola – when, as well as composer, he himself is a cellist ? When could they hear some of the score in his last post? No spoilers – but here is a little more about what he’s up to:

IMG_0966 crop colour_sml
Peter Copley

Since starting this project, a number of people have asked why I chose to compose the music for solo viola. In some ways, this was the kind of decision where I followed an initial instinct, rather than being something planned and carefully thought through from the start. Therefore, anything I write here is a rationalisation after the event, rather than a description of my actual thought processes at the beginning.

As I wrote in a previous post, one of the major themes of The Snow Queen for me is an underlying sense of loneliness, whether that of Kai in his enchantment, the Snow Queen or even Gerda herself, as she ultimately acts alone, although with help from others. Therefore, once the project had been agreed, I immediately decided to write the music for a solo instrument – and given the nature of the project as it has developed, this has proved in retrospect to be a fortunate decision from a purely practical point of view!

The specific sound of a solo viola has always seemed to me to suggest loneliness but the instrument also has a wide variety of tone, articulation and attack. Therefore, there is the possibility for a lot of contrast in the various movements that I have so far composed. These represent different stages in the story but rather than giving them specific titles, except for the purposes of identification for the performer, I would prefer that they only suggested and stimulated associations with aspects of the story for the listener, rather than making these explicit.

Header image from The Complete edition of Andersen and Grimm, 
illustrated by Joyce Mercer

What a difference a bear makes…Maria

In her book on translation, This Little Art, Kate Briggs points out that what we think of as various classics we have ‘read’ are often in fact, of course, someone’s translations.  This is certainly the case for all of us working on Snow Q, our collaborative project to reimagine Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen fable.  None of us knows the Danish original.  We are drawing inspiration from memory –  our memories of reading or listening to the story as children  – and from rereading it now.  However in both cases these are not Hans Christian Andersen’s words but how someone else interpreted them. Does that matter?

In one English translation (by H.B Paull) the Snow Queen invites Kai to creep under her cloak of ‘warm fur’. Which animal’s do you then imagine it was? In another (by Mary Howitt), as in various Polish translations it is a bearskin. Incidentally the Polish translator Stefania Beylin – like us – did not know know Danish, she in turn worked from a German version…But there’s more to it than details like this. What about the tone and style of how the story is interpreted?

I talked about this to Bogusława Sochańska director of the Danish Institute of Culture in Warsaw who has recently published new translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories from Danish into Polish. She also kindly sent me her insightful essay tracing the history of the reception of Andersen’s stories in Poland. I shuddered both as an author and translator myself at what liberties have been taken with his work to sweeten and sanitise his language as from the second half of the 19th century he was increasingly considered solely a children’s writer. (Andersen himself clearly believed his stories addressed both adults and children.) Suggestions of sexuality or drunkenness say, his irony and plain speaking were often simply excised; other passages were added to make the stories more didactic and in keeping with the morals of the time. (Exactly what Deborah Price was talking about in our previous post!)  This was done, Sochańska argues, at the cost of depleting Andersen’s humour and irony, his craft, deliberate use of everyday, non-literary language and his philosophical subtexts. In some versions of Snow Queen Kai puts together an ice jigsaw to spell out the word ‘love’ – Andersen had actually said ‘eternity’.  At the end of the story some versions added in that Gerda and Kai loved each other, granny and their families when none of that was in the original!

Bear in Danish zoo

As for Andersen himself was he drawing on/’translating’ from other sources? Stories in the oral tradition he had heard as a child? Is there such a thing as the original?

Fairy tales were part of my Polish childhood. I loved being read to. Which of my languages did I first hear the Snow Queen in? I’ve always been drawn to the magic of fairy tales, the way anything can happen.  I asked writer and translator Anna Blasiak from the European Literature Network, one of Snow Q’s partners, about their significance in East/Central European culture:

‘Fairy tales are and have been a rich source…A number of Polish literature classics in fact reinterpreted them (for instance Słowacki, Mickiewicz). Fairy tale elements also appear in more modern texts ( in Leśmian’s, Lem’s, Krall’s, Tokarczuk’s writing), often as anti-fairy-tales or stories mixing fairy-tale with other elements, sometimes in a post-modern attempt to startle the readers and make them question their habits and expectations.

The difference between their role in Western and Eastern/Central Europe might be the link to folk/popular culture, which remains a bit stronger in the East. Encouraged by authorities in communist times, it was never completely severed in the East and the folk/popular element of fairy tales and oral traditions, remains more embedded in contemporary culture.’

Anna said she knew the Snow Queen story – one of my absolute favourites – but it had frightened her. ‘I’m not sure if I liked it – I was a bit scared of it, definitely fascinated though. The question is – why do we remain so fascinated. Is it the fantastical element, which gives us a momentary respite from the everyday reality? Is it all the gore, which fits well with our minds desensitised with modern cinematography, TV and games? Is it nostalgia for the past, for what is long gone? Moral lessons? Or perhaps it is simply our need to touch the mythical, the archetypal?’

Writing anew or ‘writing-again’, as Kate Briggs talks about it, is intrinsic to all translation. In the Snow Q project we are ‘translating’ the story or aspects of it into our own medium, visual art, sound, spoken word… Ours is decidedly version rather than an attempt to render the original faithfully. Translation, from the Latin, means to bring or carry over. Translating the translation of a translation …we have entered a hall of mirrors. Mirrors broken into a thousands, millions, billions (depending on the version) of fragments in this case.  Yet each of us is attempting to capture some essence, there in the ‘original’ and to do it justice. Will it be wrapped in bearskin? Vegan fake fur?  Some other metaphor? Or laid…bare?