Sunday, July 29, 2007

Culture Vulture/ Story Quarry

I'm trying to figure out which folktales are okay to tell and which ones I shouldn't bring into my storytimes. Everyone exhorts "multiculturalism" and "world folktales" yet there are so many pitfalls to sharing stories from cultures outside one's own. Then again, just because someone has a particular ethnic background doesn't mean s/he is an expert. My paternal background is Syrian, Eygptian, Russian and Lithuanian. Does that mean I have carte blanche for telling stories from those countries even though I'm not overly knowledgeable of my heritage? (Answer: I think not.)

Some folktales are sacred, and aren't meant to be told outside of those sacred contexts. Many stories have been lifted from other cultures and then tweaked to reflect the values of one's own culture.

As much as I'd love to share some of the stories I've read and learned, I don't want to be a culture vulture looking for story quarry (yeah, I just made up that second part). I want to do the right thing. I wonder: if I find a collection of Iroquois stories published by someone from the Abenaki, does that constitute permission to retell the stories? Or should I just leave alone all stories that come from people who have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed? That's a lot of people and a lot of stories. I'm tired of people being identified by how they've been oppressed... as I am sure are the people who are actually oppressed.

Here's a long article that puts some of the issues in perspective: Swapping Tales and Stealing Stories: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Folklore in Children's Literature, by Betsy Hearne, published in the Winter 1999 edition of Library Trends. Hearn writes,

As more good source notes appear, however, the underlying issue of ownership comes to the fore, sometimes because information makes the question of ownership all too clear. Identifying the source of a story, is only the beginning, it turns out. The next step is considering the broader implications of who tells stories and how they tell them. Indeed, the argument of who owns a story is almost as old and traditional as the stories on which the argument focuses. (page 3 of the article)

And further in the article, Hearn points out that

certainly a culture can simply be omitted because of the complexity of dealing with all these problems, witness Eva Martin and Liszlo Gill's (1987) Tales of the Far North: "The only indigenous folktales of Canada belong to the native Canadian Indian and Inuit peoples. Because these native peoples have such a unique and beautiful tradition of storytelling, no attempt has been made to adapt their stories for this collection. Too often English-speaking storytellers retell native tales only from their own perspective, imposing upon the tales their own vision of life" (p. 123).

True, and conscientiously stated, but now we have a beautiful volume of Canadian tales with no representation of an important cultural group. So how do we deal with folktales crossing cultural and aesthetic borders in the "innocent" fields of children's literature, which on closer examination sometimes resemble battlefields of social values? Is this a no-win situation?
(page 12)

If you read through the article, you'll recognize some familiar names: Debbie Reese, Roger Sutton, Jane Yolen, Julius Lester, and Joseph Bruchac, to name a few luminaries.

07/30/07 update: Debbie Reese commented a couple of times on this post and has just published her own post in response: An often posed question: "Who can tell your stories?"


Kate said...

I just picked up a book called "The Best of the Best" which was a project inspired by a UN speaker who advocated for foreign books to be in school libraries. It lists the "best of the best" from over 100 countries and I think that we all should be aware of what others have to offer.

TadMack said...

Last year I attended a multicultural conference featuring Jane Yolen and Joseph Bruchac as guest speakers... it made me a lot more mindful and thoughtful. These are really good thoughts that bear reflection.

eisha said...

This is a sticky issue, indeed. I tend to think that the nature of storytelling is that a story changes a little with each teller, anyway, so it's to be expected that a storyteller from a different culture than the story she tells is going to transform the story somewhat. But that's how these stories spread in the first place, and why there are Cinderella stories, for example, in so many different cultures. It seems to me that sharing another culture's stories, as long as it's done as respectfully as possible, is a good thing.

Lady K said...

Holy cow. I am REALLY going to have to do some reading when I'm

limpy99 said...

I think that if stories are to survive, they need to be told. It really doesn't matter who tells it, as long as they tell it faithfully.

Jules said...

Thanks for the article link. Will read later.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I appreciate reading everyone's thoughts and opinions on this piece. Keep them coming!

Lone Star Ma said...

I read the article (I love the author's picture book Seven Brave Women) and think it is a way-complicated issue. I do think it is very important for children to be exposed to cultures that are different from their own and cannot think ill of people who try to be respectful when telling such stories, but it is very true that you just cannot ever really know if you are getting it right, in terms of respect. I don't want this to result in the stories not being told widely, but I am very glad that folks like you and the people in the article are so aware of the trickiness of the issue and are trying to find a way to be conscientious. It is a tough issue.

Debbie Reese said...

I am troubled when anyone (insider or outsider to the culture whose story is being retold) changes the story so much that it no longer resembles the original story.

Case in point is Pollock's retelling of the Turkey Girl story. Pollock changed it so much, that it can no longer be called a Pueblo, or specifically, Zuni, story. But, it carries "A Zuni Cinderella" in its title.

Rodanas' retelling of the dragonfly story is also problematic. She turned a very complex story about the cosmology of the Zuni people into a pourquoi story.

Both books, when reviewed by major journals, were positively reviewed. On what merit? Good stories, maybe, but stories about Zuni people or their culture? No.

Gerald McDermott's Caldecott book, ARROW TO THE SUN is also deeply flawed, if you look at the way that Pueblo culture is presented.

There are many things to consider.

Consider the Pueblo kids in a classroom in which a teacher uses one of these books. Pueblo culture is strong, vibrant. It is likely that a Pueblo child would easily recognize the errors in these books. Yet, his/her teacher is standing there, an authority figure, reading this book. How does that child respond? What is that child thinking? Can that child continue to function in that classroom as he/she did prior to that moment?

These are difficult questions, and for storytellers who wish to change details because "that is the way of storytellers," I ask you to consider what you do when you change a story.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thanks so much for coming into the discussion on this blog. My question is: as a storyteller, what stories are okay for me to tell (faithfully, not changing the details, etc.)? As a non-Native storyteller, should I just leave all Native stories alone? I want my listeners to know [Navajo, Choctaw, Iroquois...] stories, and I want them to be authentic, just as I want the stories I tell from West African and Middle-Eastern countries to be authentic. Over the past few years, I've left Native stories alone, not because I haven't loved them, but because I've not found satisfying answers as to what constitutes permission to tell.

Debbie Reese said...

I don't have an answer for you...

The best I can offer is something I heard James Ransome say a few years ago at a conference. He was asked why he had not done illustrations for a book about American Indians. His reply, and I'm paraphrasing: "I haven't held their babies."

He was pointing to trust and responsibility. If someone entrusts you to hold their baby, they trust you won't hurt that baby. If you've gained their trust, then perhaps, you can tell their stories.

cloudscome said...

Fascinating conversation. I am learning a lot from Debbie Reese. I would like to see more Native American stories told by members of those communities. I'd like to read them written from the Native American community's perspectives. That's as a parent, teacher and librarian.

If I were a storyteller I am not sure I would feel confident to tell other culture's stories, even though I feel sad of the loss that would mean to me. Even after listening to Julius Lester read his rendition of Breh Rabbit (which I love) I hesitate to read them out loud myself. It's my and my student's loss.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Cloudscome: The thing is, if we're not supposed to tell other culture's stories, then does that mean other cultures aren't supposed to tell our stories? I don't want anyone to get the stories wrong, of course (I am thinking specifically of writers who haven't grown up in the Mennonite tradition writing a story about Mennonites and Amish, and getting them all mixed up). It's wonderful when one can hear stories told directly from a member of a certain cultural group, but what if, say a Senegalese storyteller doesn't make it out to the middle of Kansas, or an Appalachian storyteller doesn't make it out to the West Bank? Anyway, these are things I'm thinking about.