scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Sabrina Orah Mark seeks the place where old and new collide

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of "Wild Milk" as well as the poetry collections "Tsim Tsum" and "The Babies."handout

In “Happily: A Personal History — with Fairy Tales” Sabrina Orah Mark looks to stories of elves, talking animals, dragons, and magic to explain her own life as well as the off-kilter world around her. The essays are based on ones she contributed to the Paris Review in 2018. She is also the author of two poetry collections, “The Babies” and “Tsim Tsum,” and the short story collection “Wild Milk.” She lives in Athens, Ga., with her husband, the writer Reginald McKnight, and their two sons.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

ORAH MARK: “Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing” by the French writer Hélène Cixous and Kelly Link’s new “White Cat, Black Dog,” which is seven reinvented fairy tales. It’s absolutely incredible. I’ve been reading through John D’Agata’s gigantic anthology, “The Making of the American Essay.” It rethinks what an essay is and includes Gertrude Stein, Joe Brainard, and Renata Adler, as well as Thoreau and Emerson. I’m also reading Rachel Zucker’s “[The] Poetics of Wrongness.” I like to move between books that are very much about rethinking what language can do.

BOOKS: Do you still read fairy tales?


ORAH MARK: Yes, I have on my pile “The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales” by Vasily Eroshenko. He’s an early 20st-century writer from Ukraine who lived in Japan, and this is the first time his work has been translated from the Japanese. His fairy tales have been described as making the work of Kafka look meek.

BOOKS: When did you start reading fairy tales?

ORAH MARK: I didn’t read them as a kid. I grew up reading and studying the Torah because I was brought up Orthodox. I came to fairy tales as an adult. First, I was drawn to the fabulism of authors such as Aimee Bender and Kate Bernheimer. Then I went to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and saw the fairy tale frescoes that the author Bruno Schulz was forced to paint on an SS officer’s children’s bedroom walls. Seeing these images of the princess and the horses emerging from a white foreground, I thought, that is what I want to do in my writing and reading. I want the collision of the old and new, and fairy tale provides that.


BOOKS: Which fairy tale is a good place to start for an adult reader?

ORAH MARK: Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” That’s my favorite because it’s a story about the act of the imagination and there are so many wonderful characters, like the snail. I also would say Maria Tatar, who has so many anthologies on fairy tales, but has one in particular I love, “The Classic Fairy Tales.” That’s a wonderful point of entry. If you want to begin with the retelling of fairy tales, there’s Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”

BOOKS: How much time do you spend reading poetry?

ORAH MARK: A lot. I have Kaveh Akbar’s new collection, “Pilgrim Bell,” which is absolutely beautiful. I especially love prose writers who feel like poets, like Caren Beilin’s “Revenge of the Scapegoat.” There’s an attention to language that is so extraordinary, and it’s also funny.

BOOKS: Do you have a lot of books?

ORAH MARK: I did. About a year and a half ago we had a horrible house fire. We lost almost everything. My husband’s a fiction writer, so between the two of us, we had a lot of books. In fact, when we combined our fiction, when his novels were touching my novels, that felt like a bigger commitment than marriage. But our gigantic library is gone. As a friend of mine said, “Writers have a very flammable career.”


BOOKS: What was your biggest loss?

ORAH MARK: My copy of Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles,” which was always on my desk along with my Donald Barthelme’s “Sixty Stories.” I had so many notes in them. They were being held together with rubber bands. Books contain so many memories: the memory of the writer, your memory of reading the book, and then the memory of your notes. So, I can replace the book but the memory of reading the book is different. Now, when I open the new book I’m like, “You’re not that guy. You’re a different guy.”

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at