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Radiya Hafiza on the Importance of Revitalising Fairy Tales

Posted on 31st March 2021 by Mark Skinner

In Rumaysa, Radiya Hafiza retells the stories of Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty with a new emphasis on inclusivity and representation that brings traditional fairy tales to vivid, exhilarating life. In this exclusive piece, Radiya explains how important it is that damaging messages and stereotypes are not perpetuated in literature for girls and young women.    

I have a lot of love for classical fairy tales and old stories. They’re some of the first books I read, they shaped my love for literature and when I was a child, I could get lost in fairy tales for days. There are universal messages in fairy tales and a magic that makes them timeless. However, not all of these messages still stand today, nor should they.

When I set out to write Rumaysa, I wasn’t thinking too hard about updating the old fairytales. I was mostly just looking at ways to incorporate my South Asian heritage and some aspects of my Muslim identity into the stories of Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. In all the stories I read as a child, the characters were mainly white, the girls thin and beautiful and the happy endings only came about when a prince came to save the princess’s day. Of course, when I was younger, I would often think the missing part of my story was a prince charming. But as I moved through life and grew up, this certainly wasn’t the case.

I wanted my stories to have girls saving themselves because it felt truer to my life experiences and many of the girls and women that I know. I wanted to celebrate the heroes in my life – family and friends, and particularly sisterhood. There are a lot of harmful undertones in some of these classical tales, particularly pertaining to the role of girls and women in society, and I wanted my fairy tales to subvert this. It wasn’t necessarily a political statement but simply an honest one: sometimes there is nobody out there to save you but yourself. I wanted my lead characters to be the agent of their own happy endings, while celebrating sisterhood and friendship along the way.

Another important part of modernising the fairytales in Rumaysa was visually making the book inclusive. I had Princess Sara as a plus-size girl and asked my editor to get the illustrations of my characters shaded in so that they looked visibly brown. I come from a community with a lot of stigma around dark-skin and plus-size girls, and I wanted to feature characters like this to celebrate those identities. When I first saw the illustrations of Rumaysa by Rhaida El-Touny, I was completely stunned. There she was, a hijabi character, just casually hanging out on the pages of a book. Flicking through and seeing my brown characters on the pages felt incredible. It meant so much to me because I never had this growing up, I never imagined that experiences like mine could be in a book. But it makes me happy to think that the new generation of young readers will grow up having more stories like these to see themselves in, and know that they can be the main character in any story they want.

Stories are for everyone. They taught and continue to teach me about life, take me on adventures, share happiness and grief and so much more. I wrote Rumaysa partly for fun and also for the younger me who wanted to be a princess in her own clothes and her own skin.

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