How to retell the classics


27 May 2022
Novelist Jasmine Sealy explores retelling classic stories from contemporary perspectives

Like many bookish preteens with writerly aspirations I was a devout Jane Austen acolyte growing up. Still now I reach for Pride and Prejudice on bad days, losing myself in the comfort a familiar story, of truths 'universally acknowledged'. As a child I could easily conjure images of myself in Austen’s worlds – fantasies of falling in love with surly men at Regency balls – but even at a young age I recognized that those fantasies had limitations. There always came a moment in my reading where I was wrenched from the story by the realization that even if I could enter some magical portal into Regency England, my life would be nothing like Elizabeth Bennet’s. I was a black teenager living in Barbados, in the West Indies. I would have been a slave on a plantation, perhaps on one of those properties where, as it is often casually mentioned in her novels, Austen’s heroes 'made their fortunes'.
It is a strange exercise in cognitive dissonance to read classic texts as a person of colour, to simultaneously revere these stories while working to suspend belief, to immerse yourself in these words where your humanity is at best, erased, and at worst, a commodity. Then finally we were assigned Wide Sargasso Sea to read in school and this seminal text by Jean Rhys changed everything for me. I had of course read dozens of books by Caribbean writers set in a world I was familiar with and filled with characters that looked like me. But to read a book that engaged with such a classic text as Jane Eyre, once of those novels I loved so much as child, while also reflecting my own reality, was an immensely powerful experience.
Retellings are bridges, they can connect both writer and reader to worlds that, for whatever reason, feel foreign and distant. For all writers, regardless of background, retellings are also a powerful way to add depth to your stories, aligning your characters’ motivations and actions with those of the original text. They can also work as scaffolding, providing the narrative bones around which you can construct your own new, original world.
When I was writing my debut novel, The Island of Forgetting, I drew inspiration from Greek mythology, specifically The Odyssey and Odysseus’s relationship with the nymph Calypso. Like Jean Rhys, I wanted to give voice to a jilted woman, to see things from her point of view. But I also learned that there are many pitfalls writers can fall into when working with classic texts.
Here are some of lessons I learned along the way:
• Have a clear and compelling 'why”' Whatever your reason for engaging with a classic text it is important it is obvious to you and to your reader. It’s important to remember that a retelling should offer some new insight or perspective, a fresh take that justifies revisiting the text.
• Related to this – don’t rely too much on the original text. Don’t be afraid to take the story in new and surprising directions. The original text is there to inspire and support your story, but if you’re not careful the weight of that classic tale can end up overshadowing the story you’re trying to tell, becoming more of a distraction than a support.

• Do your research. This means reading not only the original text but also scholarly analyses of it. While you don’t have to become an expert, it is helpful to have some understanding of where the original text fits into the literary canon, and the societal impact it had at the time of its release. Was it considered a controversial work? Who were the original readers? How does your retelling grapple with this legacy?
• Finally, be brave! Sometimes as new writers we can feel like imposters, like perhaps we don’t have the right to tell the stories we want to tell. This can be particularly true when engaging with such classic and beloved texts. But our stories, our perspectives, have value. Don’t let fear stand in the way of telling yours.

The Island of Forgetting by Jasmine Sealy, is published by Borough Press

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