A highlight of my ‘80s-scented hill-folk childhood was fantasies about girls doing rad magical stuff. This was a nigh forbidden interest for a boy growing up in fundamentalist backwater Ohio, but that made it all the sweeter. Girls who solved their own problems, like Jem and the Holograms or She-Ra or Sailor Moon. Girls who glowed like fireflies and overcame all odds in clouds of pink and purple sparkles, unselfconscious of how girly and attention-grabbing this was.
But before any of them, there was Dorothy Gale.
Dorothy is a girl who gets her power from witches. Ruby slippers, a magic belt, an panoply of enchanted accouterments which gift Dorothy with magical solutions to an array of troubles. Oz is kind of all about witches, because witches rule the kingdom, most of the conflict in The Wizard of Oz is conflict between witches, and even when little yokel Kansasite Dorothy plops her farmhouse down in Oz, the most immediate question is whether she’s a good witch or bad.
Good question, as it turns out.
She became a prototype for a significant space in my imagination. A girl tied to her dusty stretch of the Midwest, defined by a backdrop of rainbows you could one day find a way over, a girl who was thrown headfirst into my worst fear as a kid—a tornado—and came out of it with the power to cross any distance.
A girl with power that made her, in future books, considered a proper witch in her own right by the people of Oz.
Here’s the thing about Dorothy. The thing I never thought to ask, even though it was staring me in the face, a question threading through my connection to all these other imaginary surrogate selves with their jeweled implements and cherry blossom hair.
Do the people back in Kansas also think she is a witch? And if so, good witch or bad?
Is there a difference?
My fascination with girls like Dorothy was perhaps cute when I was four years old. Boys grow out of that stuff, right? Add four years to the equation. Into those years, add the attempt to acquire ruby slippers of my own, because ruby slippers can ferry you away from your problems. I remember being in a toy store, asking my mom why I couldn’t get this awesome pair of magenta high-heel shoes, designed after some line of knock-off princess dolls.
“You won’t be able to wear them anywhere, honey.”
I knew what she meant, because we’d had versions of this conversation before. What she meant was, there wouldn’t be anywhere safe for you to wear them. We’d similarly talked about my desire to be a mermaid, to have a witch’s cauldron, to have an apple tree so I could grow enchanted apples, all these sundry dreams that didn’t seem all that strange to me. None of them could come true.
I could even list the reasons. One: you’re not a girl. Two: it’s okay to have fantasies, but in real life, magic is bad. Witchcraft wasn’t treated as mere superstition in my swampy slice of fundamentalist Ohio, but as a real thing to be feared. Feared as much as my plainly burgeoning trans girlhood.
This is why I made the main character of my novel, The Calyx Charm, both a trans woman and a witch. Because to me, there has always been a thread tying the two notions together.
Discussions of the fantasy genre often entail the assumption that a witch is more or less the same thing as a wizard, a sorcerer, a magician. Lots of settings use the terms interchangeably, or use “witch” to describe women and “wizard” to describe men. They’re purely fantasy constructs with no direct map to real life. We might think of a scholastic wizard as comparable to a philosopher or scientist, an image of competency and wisdom, more like someone’s pleasantly wizened grandpa than a creature of myth.
This isn’t the witch I’m most familiar with. I was taught that witches were dangerous. Becoming a witch was classed alongside getting into drugs, listening to devil music, experimenting with homosexuality, and being a boy with long hair. They were all said to be ways to rebel against God, and thus touched with the shadow of exile.
Witch was a thing the people around me were afraid I’d become. My elementary school librarian lectured me with a vengeance when she overheard me talking to a friend about a fantasy character casting spells. The danger here wasn’t based in magic being fake, but being real. She saw herself as intervening in the beginning of a conversion process, one everyone was interested in stopping.
My best friend’s parents wouldn’t let him play with me if we continued to read books about magic together. Some of my relatives had talks with my mom about how fascinated my siblings and I were with fantasy games. We’d role play various spell-casting characters in the backyard, and this rang alarm bells. “We have to stop this early. Kids getting into the occult is a serious problem.” A family friend gave me a series of Christian fantasy books that were meant to curb my appetite for magic, books in which kids who played D&D became possessed, or got sucked into Satanic cults because they tried meditation.
I was taught witches would be lost to their families, to God, to any future happiness.
The consternation about my slipping into the occult was a constant theme of my young life, and once which mirrored another, more serious concern.
I was taught by my church that a boy having long hair was a sin. A boy wearing earrings was flaunting the will of God, and worse still, probably broadcasting the appearance of homosexuality. It was understood that if I ever came out as gay, I would lose my family. I used to lie awake at night and imagine what they’d do if they found out I liked boys, or that I’d never stopped wanting to call myself as a girl like I had when I was three. The message my fundamentalist community sent me, in a thousand ways, was that these things would merit my complete and permanent exile. No good Christian family could suffer a cross-dresser. No good Christian family could suffer a witch.
This too had a road back to The Wizard of Oz. As a four-year-old, I used to put a towel over my head at my grandma’s house, saying, “look at my long hair!” I was just like Dorothy. And I’d ask her to call me Dorothy now, or some other girl’s name.
She’d cry. She’d cry because she said her grandson had disappeared and this new girl had appeared, and she wanted her grandson back. She didn’t want her grandson to be gone forever. It stopped being fun. I took the towel off. My grandma was basically my favorite person in the world.
I don’t really blame her. She might have felt guilty for encouraging it, both the girly and witchy aspects of my deviation. She was the one who read me Oz books, the one who lent me her fantastic costume jewelry collection, the one who let her try on her dress scarves and showed me how to apply face powder.
It was a piece of my grandma’s jewelry that got me in trouble on my first day of kindergarten. I brought it to show off to a friend, bright flower-pink with rhinestones, and one of the boys got hold of it. Those precious sparkles were what earned me the status of classroom faggot, a marker that never seemed to go away.
It all blurred together. My mom got called into the school because my teacher couldn’t handle me. This kid reads picture books during math class. This kid won’t stop drawing faeries on test sheets. This kid is obsessed with magic and spells. This kid keeps getting beaten up. This kid won’t stop acting like a girl.
I understand now why I identified with Dorothy, and the stream of fantasy figures who came after. Because Dorothy got to be good. She got to go home to her family that wanted her back, the way my grandma wanted her grandson back.
If I went over my rainbow, I could not come back. That was the lesson.
Dorothy’s story is about appreciating what she has, going from boredom to gratitude. Her passage on jeweled shoes across a magical desert is an adventure.
Imagine her differently. Imagine what she hopes to find over the rainbow this time is safety. Imagine what she’s running from isn’t boredom, but violence. Imagine that the enchanted shoes are a last ditch effort to have a life, to be something people can love. Imagine that her passage over the desert is an escape, and once she makes it she can never come back.
Because she will have become a witch. And witches have no homes.
This was my fear. Thudding always in the pit of my viscera, a lurid rhythm setting beat for the future. I could feel it, a spiral toward what I had been taught was a progression of deviation, rebellion, exile, and death.
Maybe Dorothy became a witch because Kansas would have killed her. Maybe in Oz, she was as wicked as the rest, because good witches and bad are the same.
I prayed to stop being attracted to other boys, to make life work as a boy myself. I understood later what I was feeling: I was turning into a transsexual, the word that still rings with the power of the first time I named what I was. I was trying not to be this. Because transsexuals, I feared, could not come back. Good and bad transsexuals were the same.
Ironically, this did not push me away from fantasy or magic. Because in the pleochroic sugar sparkle of my imagination, in the world of thorned curses and shapechanging sorceresses, I still got to be me.
I doubled down to find my pair of ruby shoes at last, in some form or another, because this passage was the only hope left. I wanted to accomplish two things before I died. I wanted to become a fantasy author, and I wanted to realize myself as a girl.
I’m doing that. Against the odds I didn’t think I could beat. I wrote about a transsexual girl who does her own version of that. Because to me a witch is not just a metaphor, not just a symbol or a power fantasy, it is one of the earliest things I was taught I might become and should never be. This simultaneity with the pressure to not be a girl has bound them together in my mind, in a way that profoundly colors my storytelling. It is rebellion. It is defiance. It is dark sorcery.
It’s no surprise, then, that I seek out books infused with this essence, stories about rebellion and witchcraft and homes. As deeply as I love my magical girls and my ambiguous witches, I love anything that sheds light on these passages across the deserts of alienation.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is a book I looked forward to because its premise is so dashing, sparkling like wine with a vulnerability you feel with every swallow. This is such a tender, heartful book that pulses with themes of necessary rebellion and the desire for a home. The story centers on a community of brujx in Los Angeles in a way that is profoundly Latinx, with the main character Yadriel’s Cuban and Mexican identity as deeply important to the story as both the magic and his being transgender. It would be remiss to correlate the brujx in his world with the witch concept I was taught, and the book comments on that. There are, however, common threads as well as contrasts, which gives the story tremendous impact for me.
In Yadriel’s perspective, being a brujo or bruja is a positive thing, both everyday and sacred. His family are all brujx, most of his closest friends brujx. In his world, magic is also real, and tied inseparably with culture. Yadriel isn’t contending with the fear that he might become a brujo, but his lack of recognition as one. Because Yadriel is trans, and the difference between a male brujo and a female bruja means a difference of magic. He has a boy’s magic and wants to prove it, because being a brujo and being a boy are united.
The magic isn’t a metaphor, it’s part of the real world. Not every culture hates or fears “the occult,” the mystical and magical, and so this magic represents the lived entwining of culture and spirituality, of self and community. “Why do you have to prove you’re a brujo?” Is one question the book asks, and it comes back to the same question asked of Yadriel as a trans boy—why does he have to prove he’s male?
Yet trans people often do have to prove this, time and again, amidst echoes of this paradigm of good and bad. It’s amazing to see it portrayed with such sensitivity and grace.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom is another book about rebellion, magic, and safety. I cannot say enough about this book. It’s one of my absolute favorites of all time, rippling with writing of such diaphanous beauty that the story may as well be printed on spools of luminous ribbon. Kai Cheng poetically narrates running away, trauma, community, love, hate, violence, peace, healing, magic, and miracles, all set in a fantastical world of trans women making lives together.
This book also isn’t exactly about witches per se. But it is, deeply, about magic. It is about the revolutionary miracle work of trans women without homes except the homes they make for themselves, in the City of Smoke and Lights, weaving through layers of truth and illusion. Much of the story takes place on the Street of Miracles, a street infused with the sacred power of the First Femme, who was slain there by a would-be john. The force of her passage, heavy with the spiritual weight of a lineage of trans women punished for serving others, bestows eternal night on the Street of Miracles.
Here the line between symbolic and literal is both less clear and less important. The fabulist contour of the main character’s world is vibrantly imagistic of real world situations, which hang and glitter in the lives of trans femmes with or without visible miracles to attend them. But the content of the story, even at its most dreamlike and fantastic, feels viscerally, literally real.
The main character leaves home and decides to transition on the day the mermaids in her town die, great jewel-toned creatures of sadness and beauty whose beached cries herald the end of the world. Mermaids die like unicorns die, like witches vanish into wastelands, like ruby slippers become lightless with trauma, and so a journey must be made. On the Street of Miracles, the drug Lost magically transforms people into whatever they want to be, so long as it is not what they truly are.
The main character’s journey is about who she truly is, and the transformations through illusion it takes to get there, and how the line between them—like the line between magic and mundane—is never fully clear. A bad girl, riding the shimmer of dying mermaids, with a silver knife and a heart full of bees, makes her own passage away from and toward home. Bad trans femmes, like bad witches, have no homes. So we have to make home exist, somewhere. Even if what it takes is magic.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that these truths—the truths of stories like these, written in the fantastic that is nevertheless real—saved my life. I needed to know that I could rebel. I needed to know that if I rebelled, I could come out on the other side, and there might yet be a home for me.
The point was that these were rebellions that I was told would make me lose everything, and I still rebelled. I rebelled, and I won. I won as much as perhaps any of us can do, with the rainbow of faded dreams behind me, the desert streaked with the signs of my passage. And in that desert came not decay, but flowering. Flowering like a field of violets, blessing the blasted sand with new life. Becoming a witch—becoming a girl—does not mean destruction. It means restoration, a miracle of fearsome power.
So it meant the world to me to write a heroine with light-up magenta hair whose magic covers everything with lucent lavender flowers, as if straight out of a glammy girls’ cartoon, and who rebels with her magic and her womanhood. She rebels, and wins, and makes a home. She gets to finally be good, because she was allowed to be bad. It’s true that good witches and bad are the same, but because being a bad witch saves her. It saves her because it saved me. In this way writing is a straight path across the desert—you just tell the truth.
May Peterson, a lifelong lover of stories, has always had a deep fondness for books, animation, and comics. May is also rumored to be some kind of magical creature, but exactly which kind is still debated by scholars. While they sort that out, May busies herself as a romance and fantasy author, as well as a freelance editor. She is drawn toward both writing and reading stories that are magical, hopeful, and distinctive, as well as those that explore identity, queerness, and connection. May, who also writes as M.A. Peterson, believes that bringing a daydream to life with its own tale to tell is always a small miracle.