The Filaments of Fiction: Nisi Shawl on Peter Pan


Cover detail from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

I started young. The sylphin song of the fantastic filled the long days of my childhood, sunny or stormy, and I’ve never stopped my ears to its harmonies as I’ve aged. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror have provided me with what I read for, then and ever since.

Out of the many books I came across during that time in my life, the most influential is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. But was it as a book I first encountered it?

After its initial incarnation as a play in 1904, Peter Pan has been transformed into a novel, multiple movies, TV specials, picture books, cartoons, comics, games, and a ballet, to name a few art forms. It has inspired numerous sequels, prequels, and retellings. It has inspired me. It’s a jumping off point for my unpublished novel “The Blazing World” and my forthcoming short story “She Tore.” Everfair, published by Tor in September 2016, contains several references to Peter Pan, and Utopian colonist Sir Matthew B. Jamison is modeled in part on its author.

I can summarize Peter Pan’s plot in two sentences: children of a lower-middle class British family fly off with a mischievous, eternally young boy named Peter to his home on the magical island of Neverland. There they have lots of adventures with mermaids and fairies and pirates and American Indians (sans cowboys) until, worried that their mother will have forgotten them, they leave Peter behind, return home, and proceed to grow up.

So what did I see in that? What’s so compelling about a bunch of white kids playing at savages? About a chronically immature alpha male and a gender role-chained female? And blatantly racialized others, including not just the fierce “redskins” but the fairy, Tinker Bell, who is “quite a common” mender of pots and pans–a swearing, hot-tempered stereotype of one of the Irish Travellers, the ethnic group known by the epithet used as her first name?

As a child, I owned a picture book depicting a red-haired boy clothed in improbable green. As a child, I resisted the soporific effects of holiday suppers to see a televised black-and-white-and-grey-all-over Mary Martin sing of a land where dreams are born. My current theory, though, is that it wasn’t these early encounters that led to my love for this story. Instead, I trace the effect from a matinee performance I attended in my twenties.

January 1976. A high school auditorium. On the grey marble floor of the lobby, wafers of trampled snow turned translucent in the heat of hissing radiators. Behind dark, swinging doors, on a black-painted stage hung with musty velvet, teenagers enacted the story of a lost god, a broken boy doomed to never do what boys are born to do: grow. Somehow his flights, which we, his audience, knew to be faked, were meant to make up for this. Somehow those playing along with him showed us the saving nature of play: the ephemeral rendered immortal. These were games memorialized, the ever-fraying fabric of make-believe fashioned into a glancing semblance of the mundane and worn with pride. As when I had menaced grade school bullies with spears of goldenrod, and with my sisters climbed the bluffs north of our historically black neighborhood in search of dragon’s gold.

I felt this truth in my humming marrow. I knew it in my clear, dissolving heart. Maybe because of the LSD I’d taken that afternoon? Probably.

But acknowledging drug usage doesn’t invalidate what I learned under the influence. Research into Barrie’s life supports my thesis. According to the bios I’ve read he spent long weeks playing with children: earnestly, loyally, seriously. And then he wrote about those experiences. The author of Peter Pan came as close as any adult can to capturing on the page the magic of pretend, the magic so many of us leave behind us as years pass.

What a gorgeous garment Barrie wove. I vowed to incorporate the fringes hanging from its delicate folds into my own work. Here are three ways I was able to do that:

Mo Kree, one of the twin protagonists of my unpublished novel The Blazing World, wants desperately to grow up. The alternative is death. Guided by an adult with an identical genetic background, she journeys to an island refuge where deliberately stunted clones like herself can safely mature.

In “She Tore,” a submachine-toting, race car-driving Wendy Darling worries how to choose between the romantic attentions of Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily, the latter now revealed to be a shapeshifter. The nefarious Captain Hook puts in an appearance as well; Peter is heard of, but never seen. This story has been accepted as part of the Hath No Fury anthology out from Ragnarok Publications in February 2017.

Everfair is the name of the imaginary Utopia at the center of my novel of the same title. Both country and book were originally called “Everland,” in obvious tribute to Barrie’s similarly fictitious realm of Neverland. Though I changed that, among the Peter Pan references remaining are two other names: Tink and Fwendi. Tink is the nickname of East Asian inventor Ho Lin-Huang, whose macho personality I intended as a contrast to the flitting fayness of the original. Fwendi comes to Everfair as a child; her name is an Africanization of one of the sobriquets applied to Barrie by a young playmate, Margaret Henley.

As I mention above, Barrie, Peter Pan’s author, serves as the inspiration for Sir Matthew B. Jamison. And Peter Pan itself serves as the inspiration for Sir Jamison’s play Wendi-La, in which several of my characters act.

Many works of horror, fantasy, and science fiction have influenced me, but none are so directly traceable in their influence as the queer, rich story of Peter Pan. I’ve learned from it, questioned it, set it on its fascinating head. I’ve turned to it before and will do so again, as long as the world’s aging children are gay and innocent and heartless. As long as I am one.