115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Unhoming the Child: Queer Paths and Precarious Futures in Kissing the Witch

Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo, University of Hawaii, West Oahu

Focusing on Emma Donoghue’s fairy-tale retellings for young readers, my paper explores the implications of stories that stray from the conventional script of children’s literature. Instead of securely positioning the child on the path toward reproductive futurism, these tales “unhome” their characters, present radical visions of queer futurity, and upend normative child-adult relations. 


In following the Home/Away/Home Again plot structure, many texts for children afford their protagonists the opportunity to venture off the straight path laid out by the heteronormative, adult-controlled space that “home” represents. It is during their time “away” that child characters may “grow sideways,” to use Kathryn Bond Stockton’s term, yet this sideways growth is halted once characters are homed again at the end of a text. The return home effectively returns child characters to straight time and the demands of reproductive futurism, while the queer temporality of sideways growth is left behind. But what happens when characters are not homed in a straight time and place, when they remain, as it were, away and in queer time?

            My paper seeks to respond to this question through a reading of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch, a collection of fairy-tale retellings for adolescent readers that unhomes rather than homes child and adult characters alike. While classic fairy tales often home their protagonists in marriage or the family unit, Donoghue’s re-visions keep characters off the straight path both at the end of each retelling and afterwards. Indeed, none of the characters’ stories truly ends: in a fashion that resembles a Russian nesting doll, each tale is told from the first-person perspective of a character in the previous tale, and hence even as this first-person narration ends, the character’s story continues in the tale that precedes it. Thus refuting the chronology and the closed, “happy endings” of classic fairy tales, the very structure of Kissing the Witch queers the temporality of reading and storytelling.

            The individual tales in Donoghue’s text further showcase how different possible futures can be visualized once the heteronormative script is exposed as an oppressive mode of reading and becomes subject to disidentification. Drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work on queer orientations and happiness in particular, I focus on Donoghue’s versions of “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel” to analyze how these tales “unhome” their protagonists from heteronormative futurity. The heroine of the former “know[s] how the story went: [her] future was about to happen,” but in turning away from the marriage plot script and realizing that she “had got the story all wrong,” this Cinderella instead reorients her desire toward the fairy godmother (5, 7). The latter story is told from the perspective of a girl whose disability renders her queer since she is of “no earthly use” for the reproduction of the family line (134). This tale, too, flips the script of its classic predecessor by celebrating not the return to the family home but the opening-up of the girl’s possible futures as she envisions instead a life in the woods with the witch.

Donoghue’s fairy tales ultimately speak to a queer futurity that revels in the limitless potentialities and continuous becomings of children and adults alike. Yet the text refrains from utopianism as it also reminds us, by rejecting closure and happy endings, that the happiness and “good life” affectively attached to reproductive futurism are, for better or worse, outside the reach of queer subjects whose open-ended futures “away” remain steeped in precarity.