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cover of The Mussel Eater shows a woman with blood on her lips craddling a dying man


“You smell like the sea,” says Karitoki.

“What else would I smell like?” she says, and beneath the salt and the brine and the under-tang of shellfish is a faint, sweet odour of rot, of mussels left too long on the beach and under the sun, of the torn fragments left by seabirds, breaking open calcium carbonate and leaving fleshy feet to spoil. When he is done with her hair, he sits back and watches her coat herself with oil.

As part of their quest for world domination, The Book Smugglers opened their new publishing arm Book Smugglers Publishing in 2014. The theme of their debut collection was Subversive Fairy Tales and they published six original riffs on older stories from "Red Riding Hood" to Scheherazade's story in One Thousand and One Nights. So, far I've read two of these stories and I'm impressed by Ana and Thea's selections.

The fourth story in this series, "The Mussel Eater" by Octavia Cade, is a retelling of a Maori myth, Pania of the Reef. In her "Inspirations and Influences" post Cade lays out the version of the story she worked with:

the one I grew up hearing had Pania heading back to the sea each dawn, and sneaking back to Karitoki at dusk so that they could spend their nights together. This wasn’t enough for Karitoki. Hopelessly in love, he wanted her with him all the time and he learned that if he could just get Pania to swallow cooked food, she’d be trapped on land with him forever. So one night he waited until she was asleep and slipped a morsel into her mouth—but Pania woke before swallowing and was highly unimpressed to have the decision taken from her. She spat out the food and ran back to the ocean for good. Pania and Karitoki’s son became a sea guardian off the Napier coast.


In this post, Cade compares Pania of the Reef to Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid" and remarks that she 'wavered' about submitting a retelling of the Pania story because Pania is already a subversive feminist figure. This raises an interesting wider point about retellings. Do retellings have to offer a correction, or a significantly different approach, to the original story to be subversive? Can presenting the same story using different words still count as subversion if that story is told to a society still rooted in prejudiced behaviour? Is there a subversive value to new authors repeating the substance of an old story with different turns of phrase, rather like a translation?

There's certainly a long tradition of fairy tale re-imaginings; stories which are drastically rewritten to combat the problematic ideas found in original, older stories. Thinking outside of The Book Smuggler's specific submissions call, I wonder if that culture makes authors reluctant to rewrite older stories, which are already subversive, unless they significantly reimagine them. I can already imagine the flack a straight retelling would receive from the corner of SFF criticism that assesses works entirely on "originality". Still, I would love to see writers take on the challenge of redefining the idea of what is new and original by creating imaginative artistic works that subvert society's preconceptions without changing the basic materials of a story. Perhaps we'd get versions of stories that develop form and language' stories that advance a really defined aesthetic style kind of like if Matthew Bourne were a writer. it would be interesting to see what authors could make, and if we can have an industry of neverending straight up remakes of certain classic fairy tales I don't see why we can't expand the straight remake purview.

Diversion over - back to "The Mussel Eater". Cade mentions that she did make changes to the Pania story when she wrote "The Mussel Eater":

I thought I could make Pania the sea guardian instead of her son, give her a role other than wife and would-be victim. And not just her—she would be the Pania, a singular creature from a species of Pania that exist to protect the ocean mammals of our waters. And if the Pania is going to guard dolphins and whales and seals from hungry predators, from careless fishers, then she’s going to need some serious heft to her. Pania of the Reef was never a submissive little girl — this Pania has teeth and claws and a mission she’ll defend to the death.


I have to admit the ecological implications of this story largely passed me by. I'm a landlocked reader and backgrounds are important. Instead, I was captivated by the way the story communicates the Pania's wildness. The story is loaded with sensual description, from her distinct and clearly outlined smell to her hair which 'feels like seaweed—air-dried, stiff with salt, and so matted with sand from the shallows he can hardly get his fingers through it', which links her to nature and the sea. And the Pania is a powerful creature; her hands are 'stronger than [Karitoki's] and the nails are pointed'. It's easy to fall in love with the raw nature of the Pania, just as its easy to fall in love with the deadly water horses from Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races. Both works capture the deliciously dangerous beauty of a gothic, slightly degraded side of nature as well as the attractive fluid power and ease of a muscled, unrestrained carnivore:

There is crabmeat caught in her gums. Her teeth shine like broken glass in her mouth, but not the glass that washes up on the beach as pebbles, worn smooth by the ocean, opaque. They shine like sharks’ teeth, and if Karitoki thought to check his foot for bleeding he thinks better of it now.


Karitoki claims to be fascinated by the Pania in her natural state, and he and his friends have certainly spent enough time ogling her kind oiling themselves, but the more time he spends up close with the Pania the more he angles to change her. He urges her to replace her salty sea smell and the oil she covers herself in as he 'prefers that scent on his plate and not on his women'. He slathers her in orange oil and then, when she scrubs that off because 'the oil is thin and stinging, and when it’s left on too long it makes her itch.', he brings olive oil. When the Pania finds a way to change her scent in a way she does like he finds it worse than the fish oil:

The butter, he thinks, is worst of all. She no longer smells purely of fish—she is rancid fish, now, and there are small lumps left on her flesh where the butter hasn’t yet sunk in.

But the Pania is happy, sniffs herself in constant fascination. “It’s like fat,” she says. “Like the blubber on the seals, or the whales.” She wears it as if it were perfume as well as warmth, and Karitoki eats upwind of her.

I'm quoting this story a lot, aren't I - can you tell I love the writing? The rhythms are so soothing, but the word choice presents a mix of sometimes brutal, but always well observed, detail that provides a constant undercurrent of menace. Many of the words conjure glossy and decadent images that match the alluring yet troubling tone of this story to a tee.

Karitoki's desire to change the Pania's nature is a manifestation of humanity's historical struggle with nature. We adore the rawness of wild landscapes but often also desire to tame nature to better suit the practical needs of our species. When the Pania convinces Karitoki to walk out into the ocean without his sandals, he is immediately uncomfortable and insecure; aware of all the injuries that could befall him. And so, finding himself uncomfortable, Karitoki sets out to convince the Pania to come home with him to an environment that is made for him but is entirely unsuited to her. He would change her entire nature and settle her somewhere entirely unnatural in order to keep her. This element of the story complements the way Cade says she strove to comment on ecological protection by making the Pania guardians of marine life.

Karitoki's attempt to change the Pania, to bring her over to an appreciation of cooked mussels and his way of life, also represents a more personal and political struggle; the desire of a man to tame and own a woman. Karitoki may seem like a perfectly nice guy. And at first glance it may seem that any sexism on his part is fleeting, and low level, only expressed in little quirks of phrasing like 'his women'. However, in reality, the entire story is one long power struggle between a man who thinks he knows best and a woman who wants to remain free. Even if he could get her to follow him back to the village and make her stay he would make her miserable and unsafe, as miserable as he would be in the sea, but this doesn't concern him. His only thought is to 'win'; to conquer her. In this respect, "The Mussel Eater" has much in common with the story of seal wives, imprisoned by husbands who steal and hide their skins, which Sofia Samatar retells in "Selkie Stories are for Losers". It is the story of free women tricked into domesticity; a story which I think resonates with all feminist who know their history is full of women pushed into limiting roles they never wanted.

In the end Karitoki is right about venturing into the ocean with the Pania. It isn't safe for a fragile human and he gets his. Nice guy and accomplished cook that he is, I wasn't sorry to see him go under. I know many women find great pleasure in traditional domesticity and as part of traditional heterosexual couples, but history (and present day life) is full of women confined by these kind of roles. Hell, stories are full of women squeezed into these roles and we're still breaking them out. In a sexist world, there are days when I need to see women devour men with no compunction. And stories provide safe spaces in which female characters can kill straight, cisgendered men. If you think I'm alone in feeling that way, look to the recent popularity of Laline Paul's The Bees. I never thought I'd see a book about a matriarchal society, which routinely kills off men, receive so much mainstream praise and reach so high in the bestseller charts.

"The Mussel Eater" is perfect for readers who like stories that show off both the allure and the brutality of nature. If you enjoyed The Scorpio Races, Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child or Alyssa Wong's "The Fisher Queen", or if a guy looked at you wrong on the bus this morning, try out Cade's latest story.

"The Mussel Eater" is available to read for free at The Book Smugglers.

Full disclosure I've met Ana from The Book Smugglers offline.

Supplemental Material

Wikipedia: Pania
A Smugglerific Cover: The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade
The Mussel Eater: Octavia Cade on Inspirations & Influences
Smugglivus 2014 Guest Author: Octavia Cade

Date: 2015-03-13 10:44 am (UTC)
dolorosa_12: (ship)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
I really loved this story, and am glad it's been picking up awards nominations.

It's really interesting how many variations on this story there are around the world, and how often they seem to arise in cultures associated with the sea.

Date: 2015-03-14 04:55 pm (UTC)
dolorosa_12: (ship)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
To be honest I was mostly thinking of selkies, which you already mentioned. There's also a similar type of tale with swan-maidens instead of selkies.

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