Review: Accalia and the Swamp Monster by Kelli Scott Kelley. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.
By focusing on a theme common to fairly tales--specifically, overcoming fear by traversing a difficult and dangerous journey that culminates in transformation (becoming more human or consciously aware), Kelli Scott Kelley, an associate professor of painting and drawing at Louisiana State University School of Art, gives us an aesthetically-pleasing, illustrated text as well as an updated, feminist rendition of a classic genre. (It's feminist because the women in the story are not dependent on men for their humanity.) The artwork throughout the book--"mixed-media painting executed on repurposed antique linens"--draws the reader in by the sheer power of its beauty. Quite fitting that the illustrations include palimpsests--images depicting an old document with faint, illegible text superimposed with new text/pictures, making the point that new stories have their roots in old stories. In this new fairy tale, Accalia, the heroine, must reclaim the arms of her father from the belly of the swamp monster (an alligator-ape) against all odds.
The tale incorporates a pattern made popular by the American scholar Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) through the use of an archetype called "The Hero." According to Campbell, the hero (Campbell, no doubt, understood the hero to include the heroine) ventures forth from the ordinary world on a quest. It's scary. The quest begins when the hero receives a call (often from an animal) to adventure. He inevitably meets up with a mentor or two who guides and advises him throughout the journey. After crossing the threshold into unknown territory, the hero undergoes trials that test his resiliency. He's successful if he can overcome the obstacles and perform the arduous task(s) at hand. As a result of the process, he becomes more human (or consciously aware). He's now ready for the journey home, possessing power(s) to transform the world just as he has been transformed.
In Kelley's story, Accalia, the heroine with "two dog faces," leaves home on her quest after a fish appears in a dream charging her with the task of reclaiming her father's arms that have been swallowed by the swamp monster. Several mentors aid her--a blue heron, an old fisherman "with tangled white hair and beard," and a humanlike, ape-boy. The most unusual help comes from a paintbrush she uncovers in a wooden box buried "at the foot of the old crepe myrtle." (The fish led her to the spot just before she launched on her journey.) The paintbrush gives her "a tingling sensation and a spark of energy" that course up her arm. "[G]iving in to the magic of the brush, she commenced to paint." Through her creative effort, Accalia discovers she has the tools for survival and success within her. The ape-boy (one of her guides) said, "I've seen that shack in your picture...To get to it you'll have to go further into the woods." Accalia pushes forward, stepping over the threshold.
Accalia endures trials--alone on an island where "wild things of all kinds" hide in the foliage. She also gives birth to a baby boy--a transformative process in itself--and notices that her two dog faces become one human face during the birthing process. Drawing on her own creativity to guide her further, she again paints. "The painting showed a dark tunnel descending from the dripping cavernous opening of the alligator-ape's mouth [swamp monster], and disappearing into the opening was her precious ape-baby." The excruciating ordeal for Accalia comes when she watches her baby boy climb into the swamp monster's alimentary canal in order to reclaim his grandfather's arms. The baby succeeds. Even better, the arms have been "upgraded." They "lay glistening in the sunlight...[her] father's arms had metamorphosed from his flesh and blood into a silver metal."
How interesting that our heroine, Accalia, has been called to reclaim the arms of her father! Her father lost his arms when Accalia's mother, a winged lioness, "savagely tore both of his arms off" because "she had become consumed by a ferocious heartache brought about by [her husband's] many deceptions." Hinduism, an ancient, complex, religious system, depicts deities (notably Shiva and Kali) with multiple arms. Among other things, arms denote power--the ability to influence many things at once.
One reading of Kelley's tale might tell us that the "old religious ways," staunchly patriarchal, are oppressive, chaotic, and deadly. Accalia's father was "sickly" and "too weakened by regret to care for himself...absorbed by his own misery." He lived under the kitchen table, too fearful to emerge since his wife (the winged lioness) was ever "ready to pounce should he come out from his hiding place...." Furthermore, Accalia's sisters, Lucilla and Lunetta, are conjoined below the waist, hobbling them. By cutting off her husband's arms, Accalia's mother cuts off her husband's power to dominate. Our patriarchal, religious institutions, in their push to dominate (the essence of patriarchy) women, children, "lesser" men, and nature itself--even from under the kitchen table--have indeed brought oppression, chaos, and death. (Lucilla and Lunetta ultimately die as a result of neglect.)
Perhaps Kelley's updated "quest" tale can spark our collective imagination to think differently about how we live upon the earth. Is it possible to live with "upgraded" arms in ways that foster respect and dignity for all creation, appreciating creatures and our environment for their intrinsic worth, not capitalizing on them for their instrumental value? One of the accomplishments of Accalia's successful quest is that her sisters are brought back to life and separate, paving the way for them to live independent, productive lives. Is it possible to imagine a time when animals, for instance, are no longer confined, enslaved, tortured, and killed either for food or religious ritual, but can live their lives in resurrected peace?
Kelley's new fairy tale, though, does not eradicate the old tale. The father's stumps (roots) receive the new, silver limbs, but not before Accalia "pulled on her father's silver arms, as if they were gloves...." Our heroine finds a good fit with her father's new arms. They had been transformed through the baptism of her trial with the swamp monster. She now navigates effectively, freed from the old, antiquated arms that had deceived her mother, bound Accalia, and brought chaos and death to her family. Accalia's father also finds a good fit with his new arms. "The silver arms seemed to magically connect to his flesh, instantly becoming natural extensions of his body." Using his new limbs, Accalia's father "lifted his grandson and the three [including Accalia] clutched each other tightly for a brief moment of peace." New, and better, ways of thinking, being, and doing are inevitably tied to old roots.
No mythology (or theology) is pure; that is, stories and theology grow from what has been planted and already taken root. All texts (word and image) sustain and create us; however, we, in turn create and sustain new texts (words and images) using the roots left behind by our ancestors. Through this new creation, we strive to become more fully human (consciously aware) and thus culture moves forward.
Reviewed by Esther Nelson
Esther Nelson, one of NOLA DIASPORA's editors, teaches in the Religious Studies program within the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She co-authored VOICE OF AN EXILE: REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM with Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.