Telling Stories From Cultures Not Our Own

This week’s guest post comes from Eric Maddern, writer, teacher, singer, storyteller and mastermind behind the Welsh retreat centre Cae Mabon.

Eric – an experienced traveller and storyteller – kindly agreed to share his thoughts on ‘Telling Stories from Cultures Not Our Own’.

By what right do storytellers tell stories from Africa, Native America, Aboriginal Australia and other similar cultures? Isn’t appropriating and telling these peoples’ stories an extension of colonialism? We stole their lands and livelihoods; we decimated their cultures; we virtually drove them to extinction. Now we want to tell their stories. Isn’t this just the latest stage of colonial theft? It’s not surprising that some survivors from such cultures think so.

Storytellers who want to tell stories from other cultures need to be sensitive to this issue, in terms of both choice of story and where and when the story is told. It seems any story in print is fair game and therefore tellable. But first you have to find a story you like.

A storyteller may read dozens of stories before finding one he or she wants to tell. And then it’s not just a matter of liking it. You’ve got to develop a relationship with it. Learning it for telling requires effort. In time you must grow to love your story. If you don’t it won’t survive in your repertoire.

The more you love and relate to a story the more meaningful it becomes. It helps if you care about its culture of origin. You have to make the story your own, but in the telling you have to show an appreciation of its source. As you get inside the story so, to a degree, do you get inside the culture itself. The story should help you cultivate an empathy for the culture that you will convey in the telling.

It makes sense to look, initially, for stories from cultures you already have some relationship with, whether it be ancestral, geographic or perhaps through travel. Knowing what is your ‘own culture’ is not always easy these days. The mixing of bloodlines, geographic mobility and increasing globalisation mean that roots and influences can be many and varied.

I was born in Australia with Cornish and Scottish ancestry, spent my teenage years in England, travelled for ten years around the world through the Americas, the Pacific and Australasia, and now live in Wales. That’s quite a mix but at least it gives me scope to choose stories from cultures with which I have associations.

One of the biggest influences on me was the work I did in the Aboriginal communities of Central Australia. This led me to feeling great sympathy for the people. Not surprisingly the first story I ever told was an Aboriginal story. I wanted a tale that would convey the power and beauty of the culture. The story I chose came from ‘Australian Dreaming’, a beautiful coffee table book edited by Jennifer Isaacs. It was from the Dalabon people in northern Australia about how the rainbow bird stole fire from the crocodile.

The story was only a paragraph in length so I was soon embellishing it in the telling. I’d throw myself on the ground to become the crocodile, stand on one leg with outstretched arms to be the bird. After telling this story for years, my publisher – I was writing children’s picture books by then – asked for another story and I sent them ‘Rainbow Bird’. An artist was chosen and the book progressed to the point where ‘the galleys’ were done. The text and pictures were ready to be made into the book.

It was at this time that I went to Australia again, my first visit in ten years. Eventually I made my way to Katherine in the Northern Territory to visit a cousin who worked in Aboriginal communities. He took me to Manyallaluk where, it turned out, they knew ‘Rainbow Bird’ story. I had the galleys with me and so showed them to a young man who carefully read the entire text then said: ‘Come to me tomorrow and I’ll tell you the story.’

The next morning he dictated the story and made me write it down. He wanted to be sure I got it right. This meant I could ask questions for clarification. I wanted to know, for example, whether at the beginning the main character was a man or a crocodile. He was a man. The young man and his friend demonstrated the fire making referred to in the story. And I learned about the nits! It was a much fuller and more satisfying version of the story than my original.

But back in Britain my publishers couldn’t change the galleys, as it meant redoing the whole book. So the picture book remained based on the Dalabon version from ‘Australian Dreaming’, not the more nitty gritty, personal version I’d been given at Manyallaluk. Paradoxically, though it is the picture book I’m least satisfied with, it sells more than any other book I’ve done. Perhaps the title ‘Rainbow Bird’ has the appeal. Would it have sold so well if it had nits in it? Who knows? Fortunately I was later able to get the fuller version published in the ‘Young Oxford Book of World Folktales’ edited by Kevin Crossley Holland.

I was lucky to track down my first story to its source and to be given both a fuller version and, it seemed, permission to tell it. Very rarely will storytellers be able to do such a thing. Even though I feel I have permission to tell the story I’m still careful about where I do. I feel OK telling Aboriginal stories in Britain where there are very few Aboriginal people to speak for themselves. But in Australia I’d be more cautious. If I was trying to get white Australians to appreciate Aboriginal culture it might be fine. But if there were Aboriginal people present I probably wouldn’t, or at least I’d ask them if it was OK first.

Paradoxically I now live in Wales and am often called upon to tell traditional Welsh legends and folktales to Welsh kids and sometimes adults. Perhaps here the difference is that very few Welsh adults can tell the traditional tales and they enjoy hearing them told well. Also, the time when those stories were a really live part of the culture is, for most people, long ago, so there’s not so much of an issue about ownership and rights any more.

But in other cultures – the Native American for example – the stories are still very much a live part of their culture. Although plenty of their stories are in print and therefore available for retelling (always bearing in mind the context), if you hear a Native American storyteller tell a story which you’d love to tell, you must ask for permission first. And don’t expect it to be granted. Or if it is it may come with a condition. For example I once asked a Lebanese storyteller if I could tell a story she’d told which had been written by a Palestinian man for his daughter. ‘You can tell it,’ she said, ‘As long as you tell it better than I do!’

So we have to be sensitive in choosing the stories we tell. Those in the public domain are, by and large, available to tell but, as always, need to be appropriate to your audience. Preferably choose stories where you have some personal connection to the culture of origin. Develop a relationship with the story. Get inside the story and let the story get inside you. Be cautious about telling someone else’s story where it’s clear they’ve done a lot of work on it. You must do your own work to make it yours. And where the story is particularly personal – either culturally or autobiographically – leave well alone. There are plenty of stories to choose from. Find ones you love and love them into life.

Find out more about Eric Maddern’s work at www.ericmaddern.co.uk

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