Diane Wolkstein – Storytelling across cultures from Australia to NYC

Is the universe made of stories? Human beings can’t keep from telling tales, or listening to them – whether it’s creation myths or the “grand narratives” of science and politics, flights of fantasy or just an answer to the question, “So what did you do today?”

For more than four decades, one woman has sustained the tradition of oral storytelling in the heart of Manhattan. In 1968, Diane Wolkstein began an official role with New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation which has brought stories from around the world to life through her passion and craft.

Diane Wolkstein

Diane caught up with me recently to discuss her career, the challenges of drawing on stories from other cultures, and the business of telling tales in the modern metropolis.

New York has been described as the “capital of language density in the world” – hundreds of cultures are represented within its five boroughs. For Diane, the diversity of the city is key to her role: “My role as a storyteller in the city is partly to be a guide: furthering tolerance, respecting diversity and enriching lives by communicating the cultures of other peoples.”

In this capacity, Diane travels extensively, working with storytellers across the globe. She told me: “I’m interested in finding stories from cultures that resonate with me, whether they’re Haitian, Hasidic, or epic tales – traditions that help me articulate the myriad wonders of the world. It’s about diversity of cultures as much as storytellers – so I include Chinese stories in our programs even if I can’t find an English-speaking Chinese storyteller.”

This is a real challenge for today’s storytellers, as different cultures claim ownership and control of traditional tales, often resisting appropriation by others. Katherine Langrish’s piece ‘Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour’ goes straight to the heart of this problem, asking

whether it’s ever appropriate for a writer to ‘use’, as fictional material, the myths and legends of a culture to which he or she does not belong.

The example of the late Australian writer and folklorist Patricia Wrightson was discussed here on my site back in 2010. She saw her reputation decline over the last 30 years as Aboriginal groups increasingly took issue with the appropriation of their beliefs by white Australian writers.

Diane’s own work in Australia recently appeared in the storytelling magazine Parabola, where she interviewed Aboriginal storyteller Josie Wowolla Boyle. I asked Diane about her position as an American who creates her own versions of tales from many nations.

“Relating to storytellers from other traditions is about the heart connection,” she told me. “When we met, Josie told me, ‘You’re the one who makes life’s rivers flow for other people.’ “

Diane feels that stories can and should be adapted, ‘especially if their essence has relevance.’

“The culture I most feel out of touch with is that of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” she continued. “They often seem stiff  as if they are protecting themselves from feeling, and so I find myself awkward and ill at ease and have difficulty forming relationships with them. Storytelling requires trust.”

In the age of Occupy Wall Street, Diane reminds us that storytelling remains a powerful political practice. She is currently working on the Chinese tale of the Monkey King, made famous to my generation by a kids’ TV show.

In Diane’s rather more sophisticated version, the Monkey King is “a rebellious figure who questions authority, and fights against injustice, even railing against the bureaucracy in Heaven – like an Asian Robin Hood.”

Diane is adamant that storytelling is a moral and even subversive practice, calling the powerful to account and highlighting injustice.

“We have to always ask – who’s benefiting from the stories being told in the mass media? There’s two kinds of storytellers – those whose tales reinforce the status quo, who once upon a time would have been the entertainers to the king, to the courts of the powerful. And then there’s those who tell the stories of protest. The spirit of rebellion is crucial to all of us.”

Diane’s piece on Josie Wowolla Boyle and Aboriginal storytelling traditions appeared in an issue of Parabola entitled, “Many Paths, One Truth”. While respecting the communities who have created and preserved traditional stories, Diane believes that each culture’s tales tap a universal reservoir of human wisdom, on which we all must draw.

“The best stories show us many factors in the world and how they connect. The cultural costumes that dress these stories up are important, but underneath them lie the heart and spirit of the message. All stories offer a different template for living at different times and under different circumstances.”

For more on Diane’s work, see www.dianewolkstein.com 

You can find out more about Diane’s Monkey King show at www.monkeykingepic.com  

For more on oral storytelling from Australia, see my 2011 guest post from Lee Castledine, secretary of the Australian Storytelling Guild.

7 thoughts on “Diane Wolkstein – Storytelling across cultures from Australia to NYC

  • Loved ‘meeting’ Diane through your post. She’s a champion of story. I like her Monkey King concept that ‘the spirit of rebellion is crucial’. The rebel ‘scamp’ is a type glorified in Chinese literature: “the champion of human dignity and individual freedom” (Lin Yutang). I think this is also the role of story, to uphold the individual in all his or her dreams and ideas. Monkey magic!

  • Thanks, Raymond. Good to meet you as well. I just finished reading for the second time Three Kingdoms by Lo Kua-chung. Do you know it? I read twenty years ago. Now as I read it, it seems a pacifist track. All the leaders (killers) die from their own internal grief.
    But I’m still learning about Chinese culture. Who is Lin Yutang?

  • Ever since I started the original Diane Wolkstein Pages in 1996 (this was three years after we became friends, and four years before her official website went live and I became her webmaster), I felt like I was one of the few people wanting to give her more visibility beyond her New York stomping ground and the small but devoted audiences who have known her for longer. It is now 2012, and as her version of the Monkey King Epic continues to develop and roll along, I hope more people will take notice of the gift of story that’s in their very midst.

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