"The Foresight to Become a Mermaid": Folkloric Cyborg Women in Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's Short Stories

By Graham, Rebecca | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, July 2017 | Go to article overview

"The Foresight to Become a Mermaid": Folkloric Cyborg Women in Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's Short Stories


Graham, Rebecca, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Eilis Ni Dhuibhne is a formally experimental contemporary writer whose published works include short stories, novels, plays, and children's literature, in both English and Irish. She has a PhD in folklore and has described herself as a "literary ethnologist... who is interested in the detail of life" (Ni Dhuibhne, "Negotiating" 70). Ni Dhuibhne is also a self-proclaimed feminist. Her feminism was galvanized by the Women's Studies forum at University College Dublin, started by prominent feminist Ailbhe Smyth in the early 1980s. Ni Dhuibhne has stated: "Feminist theory changed my world view... I began to write exclusively about women from that point. I began to focus on specifically female experiences. I took an interest in rewriting or re-inventing women's history, a history which had been largely unwritten" ("Negotiating" 73). One of the primary ways in which Ni Dhuibhne reimagines women's history is through the repurposing and revising of folklore stories and motifs. Using Donna Haraway's cyborg feminism and Karen Barad's deployment of Haraway's theory of diffraction, this article focuses on issues of voice and orality, and the female body in Ni Dhuibhne's short stories, to argue that her repurposing of folklore is a radically feminist undertaking.

The dualistic logic of Western ideologies whereby nature opposes culture and, woman as aligned with nature opposes man, has resulted in what Donna Haraway calls the logic of domination, that is, "domination based on differences seen as natural, given, inescapable, and therefore moral" (7). As Val Plumwood explains:

the category of nature is a field of multiple exclusion and control,
not only of non-humans, but of various groups of humans and aspects of
human life which are cast as nature. Thus, racism, colonialism and
sexism have drawn their conceptual strength from casting sexual, racial
and ethnic differences as closer to the animal and the body construed
as a sphere of inferiority, as a lesser form of humanity lacking the
full measure of rationality or culture. (4)

The establishment and management of boundaries is vital to the preservation of this binary logic of domination (Legler 229). Western patriarchal societies diligently demarcate self and other, centre and periphery, culture and nature, and so on. Donna Haraway, in her cyborg manifesto, conceptualizes a way out of the dualistic binaries of Western ideologies: "My cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities" (154). Haraway's cyborg "is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self" (163), recalling the fairies and shape-shifters of folk tales and legends that are always in the process of being 'disassembled and reassembled' over time. Significantly, the tools of cyborg writing are "often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalised identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin in Western culture" (Haraway 175). I would argue that Ni Dhuibhne's shape-shifting, vocalizing female protagonists in her folkloric stories enact a kind of cyborg feminism which breaks down the binary logic of Western patriarchy. In her article, "'Some Hardcore Storytelling': Uses of Folklore by Contemporary Irish Writers", Ni Dhuibhne reveals:

I believe I refer to folktales and legends in my stories because I feel
their rich images and symbols enhance and deepen the texture of my
stories of contemporary life. I see them as a poetic thread in the
tapestry of the thing I am trying to make. The rich coloured light of
the folktales illuminates the grey shadows of modern life which I am
trying to capture in my writing. (215)

Ni Dhuibhne's reference to light and shadow recalls Karen Barad's description of diffraction in which "there is no sharp boundary separating the light from the darkness: light appears within the darkness within the light within" (Barad 170). …

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