Book review: Ask Baba Yaga, by Taisia Kitaiskaia
The Hairpin is one of those sites I always mean to read, then don’t. I’ve read some great pieces there, also some that are too hipster for my taste. Apparently one long-running feature of the site was an advice column, featuring the typical everyday problems of life, love, loss, and existential dilemma, only with a twist – they were answered in the voice of Baba Yaga, the famous villain and forest-dwelling witch of Russian fairytale and folklore. That’s enough to get your attention.
It’s not my typical reading material, but I love Russian stories and folklore and it seemed like it might have some poetic gems. And it does, although it’s also a little on the thin and gimmicky side.
Author Taisia Kitaiskaia introduces this well-known character from the Russian wilderness with some background:
My parents told me fairy tales about this ancient trickster witch – sometimes cruel, sometimes generous, always dangerous. In one tale, the young maiden Vasilisa risks her life to seek guidance from the human-eating Baba. Vasilisa knocks on the door of the strange hut, which stands on chicken legs. Vasilisa is lucky, and instead of cooking her in a cauldron, Baba presents the brave girl with a human skull. The skull, glowing mysteriously from the inside, serves as a lantern. It saves Vasilisa, illuminating her forest path through the dark night, taking her where she needs to go.
Kitaiskaia communed otherworldly answers from her own idea of Baba Yaga, somewhere deep in the forest of the mind, eager to talk and tell it straight. “Indifferent and immortal, Baba offers no comforting pats on the back. But she can extend – with her gnarled, clawed hand – a glowing skull lantern. If you keep your nerve, that eerie light might just guide you through.”
Her dispensed advice of the last few years from the column plus some newly answered questions are collected here, punctuated by absolutely gorgeous, old-Russian style illustrations. The artwork is a truly lovely element.
Her suggestions are humorous, stark, sometimes opaque, often grim, tongue-in-cheek, and draw on what’s known, or imagined, of Baba Yaga in the popular culture of her homeland (and I think this is one Russian story that’s made its way into other cultures as well.) Both the advice and the concept are jokey as a whole, but find some surprisingly serious and meaningful moments.
And sometimes, it unexpectedly strikes a chord, not necessarily for the topic that someone’s begged guidance on, but for the strange, unsettling but understandable images or truths this voice of a fairytale witch imparts. Funny how an imaginary cannibal witch from Russian folklore has the power to reach down through history and hit you in the heart on modern issues.
Some favorites –
On anxiety: “There’s always something making clicks and clacks behind us, pushing us forward with a somewhat fear. No one’s road is silent.”
On letting go of painful memories: “Each memory is a bright fish you drop into the black sea. It is no longer yours; it lives its own life, jumping from the water at its will. Many of us are so haunted by one fish or even a school of such. But know this: even ghost fish meet their end. Next times you see that bright lurk in the waves, say this spell: One day you will age, / You little wretch, / Sicken & stop beating. / I’ll be here, on the shore, / When you are picked / Apart by sea-worms.”
On how to stop hating everyone after too many bad things happen: “In every being, now, you see their eyes as glinting black seeds, their limbs as sleeves of the dark roots and branches their bodies hold. Every creature now is a cloak over an evil plant, growing, wishing you ill or buckling from rot. Everywhere you look you see the clawing wasteland of your nearest time. And time, coming, will ungnarl the shapes you see.”
On whether moving will heal what hurts you: “Mortals think the next stump will make a better seat. But soon the woods thrush with the same sounds, the wind bites as before…Stop the search. Stumps are stumps, and you will always be yourself, birds, beasts, sun, moon, & the river that listened to your sorrow.”
On the hole left in your life after a devastating loss: “Everywhere you go, you will wake up next to the hole, fall asleep with it watching you. Burning down your trees will only leave the land more barren, so that the hole looks larger. Fire or no, the land will keep pushing out new beings. It hurts to hear the forest growing as the hole stares into you. But it is the sound and vision left to you, here and elsewhere.”
Other highlights were a vividly evocative yet strangely peaceful image to hold in mind when remembering a disturbingly terrible boss from the past, and words of wisdom for dealing with family members with aggressively opposite politics from your own.
There’s certainly an uncanny sense of calm that accompanies some of these obscure suggestions. But many don’t reach such impressive heights of wordplay or striking that emotional chord, and the gags of Baba Yaga’s personality and quirks get repetitive.
For some reason, any form of the word “your” is always written as “yr” and it was maddeningly annoying. I liked some of the other stylistic flairs that created a separate, distinct voice for Baba Yaga, but I guess she’s also a semi-literate angry internet commenter deep inside.
The witch’s words are clacked out on a typewriter and come complete with some purposeful typos and odd punctuation. Otherwise, with the mentioned illustrations, it’s visually beautifully executed. It’s also a quick read, so even when a particular piece of advice doesn’t speak to you, it doesn’t linger long.
A unique and unusual twist on the age old concept of advice columns, it’s worth it for a few gems and would make an interesting gift for someone with a quirky, black sense of humor and in need of dark words of wisdom.
Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles
by Taisia Kitaiskaia
published September 26, 2017 by Andrews McMeel
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.
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