ABOVE: Selkie seal and woman, Painting by Jessica Shirley
On Monday I came back from a fantastical weekend in Brisbane, having attended the Australian Fairytale Conference in Brisbane, run by the Australian Fairytale Society. On Sunday, I delighted in presenting a new workshop, ‘Fairytales for Challenging Times’. We did a physical warm up to get into our bodies, then I offered a guided visualisation inviting story spirits to whisper to us which stories want to be told at this time and how. Then we meditated on that and listened. After that people shared in pairs. What a warm, receptive, delightful group of 67 delegates to work with!! It was divine!
I left the conference resonating particularly with one folktale: the folktales about Selkie Seals*. I first heard of Selkie’s at Woodford Folk Festival, as I listened to the wonderful Australian author and storyteller, Brian Hungerford. Under certain moons and on certain tides, Selkies can choose to shape shift into humans, leaving their skins behind on the beach when they become human. This is a precarious thing, as sometimes human men would steal the skin in order to convince a beautiful Selkie to marry them. I have never told that kind of Selkie tale, only Liz Weir’s version of The Fisherman’s Baby, which involved a seal, that may possibly be a selkie, but it is not clear.
AFTS co-founder and avid historian, Jo Henwood told us in her historical presentation that in Australia, the Selkie stories were the ones most often retold. It’s an apt analogy for those who feel out of place, ‘like a fish out of water’, away from their tribe, like immigrants! It dawned on us, after our ‘Walk on Country’ and with Uncle Alan present, that the tale may also resonate with those who have been colonised: having been removed from their land, their language, culture and stolen from family and community. As I left the conference, I felt deeply renewed and nourished, like a Selkie reunited with her story skin and her beloved Selkie story friends and family: having been able to swim, frolic and deep dive into the waters of story and fairytale.
If you love fairytales, I highly recommend you visit the AFTS website. AFTS also has an active FB page. If you are really keen, consider ordering the completely FABULOUS, delightful and quite new AFTS Anthology, packed with sophisticated, feminist, post-colonial tales set in an Australian context, written by Australian writers. Kate Forsyth said ‘This is a triumph of an anthology that truly captures the contemporary Australian FairyTale.’ Order it here.
Just before I presented, Griffith Film School lecturer, Dr Leila Honari showed us her animated trailer. Dr Honari is Iranian and her video ‘No-Body’ addresses the dire situation for the women of Iran, which is currently escalating dramatically. It is very a brave and hard thing to release your creative work, when you know there may be repercussions- not just positive, but negative. Yet creative work is needed at the forefront of any movement for change.
Much gratitude to the AFTS conference organisers, Alex McCallum, Shirley Way, Bettina Eve Nissen and Kathryn Gossow and to Griffith University Film School for the beautiful lecture hall.
- ‘Selkie stories are usually associated with Orkney, Shetland and the west coast of Scotland but stories of the shape-shifting seal people are also found in Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland and Cornwall. They are not half human, half sea creature, like mermaids or sirens but change from seal to human when they remove their skin on the shore. Without their skins they are forced to stay human and cannot return to the sea.’ The Story Museum
- Recording of Selkie story by Jackie Singer at Story Museum
- A sung ballad of The Selkie by Joan Baez, of a male selkie who claims his child from the human mother.