In June of 2013, an unlikely voice emerged in the internet advice industry: Baba Yaga, the witch of Slavic folklore who lives in a house held up by chicken feet, began appearing on The Hairpin, doling out ancient truths on a typewriter in a distinctive, unmistakable syntax.
Ask Baba Yaga soon became one of The Hairpin’s most popular columns, with Baba answering questions like “How do I stop craving male attention?,” “Can you help me with work and money?,” and “Should I put out the fire in my belly?”
Behind Baba Yaga is writer Taisia Kitaiskaia, whose love of witch folklore and her Russian heritage has led her to create—or channel, she’d argue—one of the most neutral-yet-enigmatic characters to grace our computer screens, and now the page, as well.
Released in late September, Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles is now available in book form, a pocket-sized tome that holds the key to many of life’s mysteries. Jezebel recently had a chat with Kitaiskaia about how she works, what Baba Yaga means to her, and what Baba’s future holds (spoiler: no one but Baba knows). Read the interview, as well as some original Baba Yaga advice, below:
How did Baba Yaga emerge?
It’s all my fault. Four years ago, I was working on a play that included Baba Yaga. I was casually interviewing her in my notebook to get a better sense of her character. She didn’t yield any answers to my questions about her habits and preferences, but started asking about my life and offering advice. I should have known: if you summon Baba Yaga, you have to be prepared for anything.
What is the process of writing as Baba Yaga? Have you found that she’s taken on a life of her own?
After the interview experience, I started taking questions from strangers on The Hairpin and passing them on to Baba. If I get a good question and settle in at the typewriter, she usually shows up.
Baba Yaga had a life of her own long before I entered the picture! Our communion is just a small blip among her eternal days.
What excites you about witch folklore?
The Witch figure is irresistible to me. Throughout millennia of patriarchy, the Witch has been there to show us another way. As Pam Grossman notes in the foreword to my other new book, Literary Witches (illustrated by my brilliant collaborator, Katy Horan), the Witch is the only female archetype who’s not defined by relationships to other people. Her worth isn’t tied to her beauty or fertility or nurturing qualities, but to her knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. The Witch is her own wild animal, an outsider in touch with the reality of life, including its gruesomeness, darkness, and hilarity. Baba Yaga is an old woman who lives in the woods in a magic chicken-legged hut, doing what she wants and cracking herself up with shenanigans. What could be better than that?
Have you had any funny interactions with people who don’t get who/what/why Baba Yaga is?
Oh yeah. Baba Yaga is a major figure in the world of folklore, but for those who didn’t grow up with Baba Yaga imagery and tales, Baba’s rich, mysterious mix of wisdom and mischief can be disorienting. Sometimes, people are confused by Ask Baba Yaga because they can’t figure out the tone: Is is funny, or is it serious? Well, it’s both! The tone changes from answer to answer, and even within answers, just like Baba Yaga herself: one moment she tries to eat you, the next she’ll throw you a ball of yarn that solves all your problems. Also, some readers are thrown off by the complexity of Baba’s language, her weird punctuation and strange syntax, her cryptic, poetic statements. Ask Baba Yaga isn’t poetry exactly, but there’s no way this crone would choose to speak in banal daily prose.
Why is the advice industry so easy to parody?
Ask Baba Yaga isn’t a parody—the witch means what she says. But any genre built on earnestness and ethics is easy to topple. Advice columnists typically dictate what is “appropriate” and what is “inappropriate.” Baba Yaga speaks a different language, from an amoral point of view. She lays out the problem in terms of natural imagery, pointing out cause and effect and exposing the situation for what it really is. Many times, all people need to move forward is clarity and acceptance.
Do you—or Baba Yaga—have any inspirations or advice heroes?
Generally, I don’t think it’s wise to take advice from human beings. But there’s no doubt Baba Yaga’s voice is shaped somewhat by that of my parents. They were the ones who introduced me to Baba Yaga as a child, and they are wise, harsh, delightful Russians themselves.
Have you thought of doing other advice columnist characters?
No way! I never wanted to do an advice column. I just opened the portal with that silly interview, and in Baba came with all her opinions.
Do you think Baba Yaga will ever retire? Or will she always emerge when so inclined?
Baba Yaga is immortal and will always be here, lurking on the periphery. I’m definitely going to stay in touch, but, as usual, it’s up to her.
Check out Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles here or at your local bookstore.