Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is It Authentic if it Aint on Google?

How far do you go to make sure stories from other lands are authentic?

I tell stories every week at Lakeview Preschool here in Oakland. Each week they "visit" a different country. I try to have a story from that country when I go in on Wednesday.

A few weeks ago, they were visiting the southern part of Africa (yes, I know, Africa is a continent, not a country. To their credit, they spend a week in each of the four quarters of the continent, not just one week on "Africa").

Searching through books for a story from southern Africa, I found "Mulha" in the collection, The Maid of the North, Feminist Folk Tales From Around the World, edited by Ethel Johnson Phelps. "A South African Tale" the book says. "Perfect," I thought. "I haven't been telling enough stories lately with strong women characters and this one seems just right for 3 and 4-year-olds."

Now, when I'm telling a folktale from another land, I try to:
  • Compare a couple of different versions.
  • Pick and choose from the different versions the parts which I like best.
  • Know something about my source. (More below.)
  • Look up and verify any words I don't know.
  • Try to get the right pronunciation of all words.
  • Learn a little extra about the country so that I'm not just telling the story straight out of the book I read.
Regarding sources:
  • Is the source a native of the country or an outside observer?
  • Is the observer just recording or are they judging, moralizing?
  • Did the observer change anything or make something up?
Now I change stories all the time in the process of making them "mine." Sometimes I connect dots or supply missing motivation. Sometimes I just find that a story works better for me a certain way. Although some tellers I respect disagree, I think such changes are fine as long as I don't claim that my way is the way the story "is told." But I like to know what's authentic and what's some other collector's interpolation or invention before I work with a story.

So I tried to find another version of "Mulha" online. Nothing. The only listings Google gave me for the word "Mulha" were links either to Phelps's book or to Fairy Tales of South Africa (1910, Sarah Bourhill and Beatrice Drake), the book she got the story from.

I Googled "Inzimu," and "Imbula" which the story calls "male and female ogres." No listings for Inzimu, only one listing for Imbula and it's obviously someone's name.

Well, I went ahead and told the story. It was a good story. For a little more background I read (to myself, not to the kids) an article on Wikipedia about Swaziland (mentioned in the story) and another one on southern Africa. I decided not to include the words which I couldn't verify. I just said "ogre" for the monster. I introduced it as a story from the southern part of Africa. The kids enjoyed it.

How far do you go? Probably if I was going to put this story on a DVD, I'd try to research it further. For telling to a small group of kids, I think the amount of research I did was okay. But what do you think? How authentic do you keep stories? How far do you go in verifying what you read?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Love to Practice; I Hate to Practice

Why is it so hard to get myself to practice?

I love telling stories. I love creating them. When I'm involved in the magic of a story that's unfolding just right, I feel like I could go out and hike to the top of a mountain (and I could, but getting back down would be a problem -- more in another post on why it's harder for me to hike down hills than up them).

And yet. I'll do the dishes first. I'll check my email and read my daily dose of Doonesbury (I'm up to 1998 in my year-and-a-half-long trip through the entire Doonesbury archives -- did I mention that I'm a bit compulsive?) I'll give the cats their treats. I'll reread a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery or an old Heinlein novel. Here I am right now, writing my first blog post instead of working on that adult version of Sindbad the Sailor or that vulnerable true story of hiking the Lost Coast alone in 1982 when I was age 22, strong-legged, and sad too much of the time.

Practicing brings up emotions. The true story I just mentioned: to really talk about that long, lonely, wonderful, miserable time in my life means embracing who I was then. Deciding just how much I want to share. How much can I recreate that young man? How much distance should I keep from him? The Sindbad story I want to do: will it be original enough? I've been telling mostly to kids for the last couple of years: can I still engage audiences of adults? Am I doing a racist stereotype "Arab" voice for one of the villains?

Practicing doesn't always go well. Sometimes I just sit there. Sometimes the best I can do is to read a traditional story out loud from a book. Or tell a story in funny voices, doing everything "wrong." Sometimes I try every technique I know and a story just lies there.

But oh, when it goes well, I feel so good! It's like I'm touching some elemental magic, riding a sparkling river down a sensuous canyon. It's like I'm opening a door to another world. I once heard Greg Brown, the folk singer, say that he wrote songs every day not because he felt that the world needed more mediocre folk songs but so that when a great song was ready to come through, the gates would be open.

That's the way I want to live as a storyteller. So I'm posting this first blog entry -- and going to practice!