Cynthia James, St. Augustine
University of the West Indies, June 30, 2004
Searching for Anansi: From Orature to Literature in the West Indian Children’s Folk Tradition--Jamaican and Trinidadian Trends
There is a lot of sentimentalism and ambivalence surrounding the importance of the folk tradition for children in the English-speaking Caribbean. On one hand, adults, especially older adults (over 40) give the impression that the folk tradition was central to their childhood and they consider that the children of today are growing up deprived of important indigenous moral, cultural and spiritual values in the absence not only of the stories that they were told, but also the way in which these stories were told.
On the other hand, all evidence indicates that even in the old days this treasured folk tradition was a hidden curriculum, saddled with the stigma of inferiority to a British literary tradition considered superior. For, at some point formal schooling took over, migration to urban centers for social mobility became the goal, overnight what was rural became urban, and grandparents died off. To be honest, most West Indian adults do not seriously want their children exposed to these moments that they extol with such nostalgia. In the vision they have for their children, the tales they grew up on would smack of illiteracy and time wasting.
All the same, in 2004 the reality is that in Caribbean daily life, folk mores exist side by side with globalized Western norms. West Indian society is a young society in which foundational ancestral Old World cultures with strong primary oral bases — mainly African, Amerindian, Asian-- are just getting to know each other, although they have long lived side by side. New hybrid oral forms keep evolving in cross-cultural fusions. These hybrid folk forms with their base in primary ancestral orality exist side by side and compete with the secondary fast-paced electronic and print orality of modern Western culture. Standard English and Creole jostle with each other in the creation of a Caribbean linguistic identity. These are some of contexts in which orature and literature operate for children in the English-speaking Caribbean or the so-called West Indies in 2004. These are some of the concerns that will be developed in this paper.
The paper observes that early West Indian folklorists have been engaged in a crude process of transcription from orature to literature in the way that they have worked, transcribing stories told orally in Creole to written Standard English. It also posits that “from orature to literature” in the West Indian children’s folk tradition is an ongoing continuum with overlapping stages, marked by growing self-knowledge but ambivalence. The ambivalence can be imputed to (1) fragmented agendas due to West Indian diasporic and migratory tendencies, (2) lingering colonial prejudices and perceptions of the folk as inferior, (3) the paucity of publishing opportunities which has retarded self-representation and visibility (4) and the slow adaptation of oral modes rooted in social interaction and participation to print technology. But oral and folk traditions are regaining importance because of the noted benefits of storytelling in the development of literacy and oracy among children.
Three overlapping stages within the development of the folk tradition in its use with children are identified: (1) a documentation-literacy phase; (2) a period of reclamation of the voice, marked by respect for and understanding of the evolutionary nature of Creole orality and (3) the present phase marked by a fusion of oral and literary agendas, propelled by changing concepts of education and literacy.
But before an examination of the three stages is undertaken, some preliminary definitions are in order. “West Indian” is a Columbian misnomer (Christopher Columbus), but it is still used in the Caribbean to identify the English-speaking Caribbean or the territories last under the influence of the British. Most of these territories achieved independent or republican status during the 1960s and 70s “Orature” is defined as the system of traditional word-of-mouth transmission of folkways, folktales and other cultural verbal art forms such as riddles, parables and proverbs in anecdotal form. “Literature” is used to refer to the printed stories, usually designed to be read, and is consonant with modern day literacy that connotes the reading and writing of text.
The use of Anansi in the title of this paper (also spelt Anancy) needs also to be explained. Anansi is used here both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, Anansi connotes “Anansesem” the Twi word of the Akan people of Ghana meaning Anancy stories. Therefore, the paper makes reference to the ubiquitous tales that Puny Spider won from Mighty Tiger as well as to the trickster figure, the spider himself. But in the indigenous Creole-Caribbean storytelling tradition, these trickster tales are almost inseparable from creation tales, animal tales, imaginative lies, outrageous fabrications, and stories of forest and supernatural happenings. Riddles and games, as used in the telling of tales are included in the ambit of this paper, but not as discrete genres since they are more akin to verse and song.
Metaphorically, the paper engages Anansi as a paradigm for the West Indian ethos of survival, inherent in the resourcefulness that has sustained West Indian people, regardless of particular ethnic ancestry. In this sense Anansi represents the indigenous syncretism that has evolved over centuries of Caribbean creolization. The indigenous syncretism emanating from the mixing of peoples (in the main Amerindian, African and Asian) is not being simplified to signify an amalgamation of cultures. What it signifies is that the similar economic and social conditions of the plantation beginnings of the West Indian landscape have thrown up an identifiable, mainstream, Creole folk ethos. This Creole ethos is not static, nor is it identical on all the territories. In a pan-West Indian way (and in places like Jamaica with its large population of African descendants), it is West African in root. But on islands like Trinidad where successive waves of plantation labour from different Asian ethnicities were brought in until the latter half of the nineteenth century, this Creole ethos is composed of accommodations of Asian, and European overlays, on an entrenched West African base.
Whatever its composition, though, in this Creole folk ethos, Anansi is well accepted as the mascot of the small man’s triumph. Although diasporic claims on him are universal, the West Indian cultural pantheon immortalizes him in tales fashioned out of the particular West Indian landscape where he has become a synecdoche for Caribbean ingenuity, endurance, and commitment to self-preservation. How this protean aptitude for self-preservation, creativity and endurance is evident in West Indian tales, in their passage from the orature to literature with specific reference to children, is also pursued in this paper.
Stage I: The Documentation-Literacy Phase (Beginnings of West Indian society to the 1970s)
Original West Indian society (which was a slave society) was not designed around a concern for children as different from adults. If children were valued it was because they would grow up to take their full share of labour for the profit of their owner sooner rather than later. The need for community in the presence of common adverse conditions and the near absence of a period called childhood knitted old and young. This means that in traditional West Indian oral culture, folktales for children are not discrete categories or separations. But not all that was said in the presence of children were they intended to understand. Censorship may have had less to do with omission than with the manipulation of language with an emphasis on linguistic devices such as double entendre, innuendo, and wit.
It is in this context that one must understand the near absence of live records and mere snatches of transcription that remain. In Paula Burnett’s The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, for instance, the section entitled The Oral Tradition is small by comparison with The Literary Tradition and contains only an idea of the kinds of material children would have been exposed to in the earliest periods. The transcriptions are flat on the page, without important oral elements such as audience participation and song. Most of it is in English and so does not capture language as spoken. Furthermore, the discontinuity and the hiatus in these records leave the reader without a sustained sense of the live lived.
Yet, the transition from orature to literature in the West Indian context can hardly avoid reference to the onset of formal education at the close of the 19th century after Emancipation. And as Norrel London notes in his “Ideology and Politics in English-Language Education in Trinidad and Tobago: The Colonial Experience and a Postcolonial Critique,” the effect of this rigorous British education was “to silence (forever in some cases) or to suppress relevant or indigenous ways of knowing and living” (300).
Almost simultaneous with the stranglehold of formal literacy on ancestral and indigenous ways of knowing in the British Caribbean, though, foreign ethnographers were beginning to take an interest in documenting the vanishing traces of folklore and ancestral retention in these very societies. Creole folk tales derived from these print sources, such as “How the Crab Got a Crack on its Back,” “Trouble Made Monkey eat Pepper,” and “The Monkey and the Alligator” (Monkey Liver Soup) found their way into West Indian children’s readers from the inception of formal education. All the same, the manner of their retelling lacked the cultural and stylistic features that are inherent in their Creole orality. Encoded in Standard English, these tales emphasized alphabetic and functional literacy objectives.
A wider documentation and use of folk stories for children, however, occurred in the pre-Independence and Independence era of the 1950’s ad 60s, and is a distinct marker of the beginnings of West Indian children’s literature. One of the first compilations of folk stories to be popularly used with juniors is Sir Phillip Sherlock’s West Indian Folk-tales (1966). Sherlock’s tales consist of retellings of the exploits of Anansi, but also include creations myths of the Amerindians. As with the beginning of children’s literature in many other cultures, these retold tales may not have targeted children or have been written in language easily accessible to children. Furthermore, in these early days of West Indian nationhood, formal education and the ability to speak the Queen’s English as paramount literate virtues dominated the language in which these stories were written. Thus while the West Indian ethos is present in this work, the language of the stories is at odds with the content of which it speaks. Andrew Salkey, another Jamaican, can also be considered a pioneer in the establishment of a West Indian children’s literature. His Anancy’s Score, which was widely used as children’s reading, is a forerunner in the use of Creole in narration. Creole narration would come to dominate Creole storytelling from the mid-1970s to the 1990s. In Anancy’s Score Salkey mixes Creole with Standard English, not only for the speech of his characters, but in the portrayal of the narrator as well.
Literacy and documentation, then, were the main elements propelling the production of compilations of folktales that initiated West Indian children’s literature, which began mainly in the textbook trade. The main thrust was didactic—both to promote literacy and moral rectitude. Laughable Creole traits were employed toward achieving the latter. The overriding depiction of Anansi was of a creature, who disliked work, cheated, lied, took advantage of those smaller than him, and loved to eat at the expense of others.
In the 1960s at the beginnings of children West Indian literature, though, the folk tradition is evident in forms other than in Anansi stories. West Indian society was still largely peasant, or employed in the trades and crafts such as carpentry, joinery, plumbing and masonry. In other words the ethos of the pre- and post- emancipation folk culture remained pervasive. But in islands such as Trinidad, the education drive and an enlarging access to secondary education were fostering an increasing demand for books for teenagers. Surrounding this new post-Independence educational thrust, a children’s literature other than folktales began to accumulate. Nelson Caribbean’s Authors of the Caribbean series, for instance, which included Michael Anthony, Monica Skeete and Everard Palmer, is evidence of such a thrust in children’s literature.
How did children from largely peasant families see their culture portrayed in the increasing literature, written specifically with them in mind? The character Teppy in C. Everard Palmer’s The Wooing of Beppo Tate (1972) gives a good indication.
The Wooing of Beppo Tate depicts the typical rural settlement that had solidified after post-emancipation. Children attend the village school, class-consciousness has developed surrounding the church, education and mimicking of European culture, but real living is steeped in peasant pursuits such as growing food for sustenance and for sale in the market, plus cray-fishing in mountain streams and pools. The gender plot of this children’s novel entails the eventual marriage of the haughty class-conscious Mrs. Belmont to Mr. Tate, the man who adopts the male child protagonist, Beppo. Unlike the autobiographical Francis in A Year In San Fernando, who constantly thinks of his mother and home, Beppo spares not one thought for the family he has left behind: “For it was poverty which, under all circumstances means little food to eat, had made my parents gladly consent to the Old Man adopting me” (9). As for Mr. Tate, the new father, Beppo describes him in this first-person narration as “ . . . handsome, with hair streaked with grey and soft as cotton, his nose non-flat and his features generally clean” (3).
But it is the portrayal of Teppy, the trickster in the text, who illustrates one way in which the oral and folk tradition passes into the literature in this literacy phase. Like Anansi, Teppy is a survivor. One of his main interests is food. Teppy is a human parasite; he does not work and his speech is different from Mr. Tate’s. Whereas Mr. Tate is a Standard English speaker, Teppy is a Creole speaker as the orthography of the text indicates. As the story progresses Teppy’s actions become more and more reprehensible, ending with him blackmailing the eleven-year old Beppo. But Beppo’s first impressions paint the lovable, laughable character he remains:
I liked Teppy. He seemed an out-and-out joker. I judged him as a happy-go-lucky bachelor, capable of talking himself into obtaining anything of anybody. As the Old Man had said, he ate Sunday breakfasts with him. I wondered where he ate Sunday dinner. He was a lovable rascal. (16)
In sum, where the early archivists and documentalists like Sherlock in the 1950s and 60s had retained the talking animal features of Anansi, one early integration and transformation of him in children’s literature in the early literacy period is that of the Creole-speaking ne’er do well--the human village character with negative stereotypical features.
It can only be surmised how much the negative and stereotypical vestiges from early British colonial schooling, which passed into the children’s literature of the post-Independence period, contributed to lingering poor-self image and retardation of respect for regional identity. In the early gestation of the children’s literature, ambivalence about the portrayal of the folk prevailed. Anansi could be represented as talking spider either with a moral lesson attached to his portrayal or just merely as a humorous rascal. But he had also begun to take on social life, relevant to and visible in the society as a character to whom children could relate. Negative representation of the folk anchored in the colonial perception has never really abated. In the 1970s the stance of detachment, mock-indulgence, and semi-ridicule in the portrayal of the folk deepened to an ambivalent endearment, but humour, although of a different sort remained.
Stage II – Reclamation of the Voice: Respect for and Understanding of an Evolving Creole Orality (1970s-1990)
The work of two pioneering Jamaicans, Sherlock and Salkey, have been used to illustrate the continuum from orature to literature in the West Indian children’s folk tradition during the early documentation and literacy phase. In this section, the work of Trinidadians, Paul Keens-Douglas and Albert Ramsawack will be the prime focus in noting how the children’s folktale progresses into new respect for orality, albeit within constraints of old prejudices.
The 1970s ushered in the Black Power movement and negative reactions against the subtle subversions of neo-colonialism. Language became one of the media of protest among minority cultures in their effort to assert their indigenous identities in the face of Western-styled cultural hegemony. In the English-speaking Caribbean, the advancement of Linguistics as a field of study was challenging old perceptions about the inferiority of Creole, especially with regard to literacy, as mass education spread.
In these new thrusts, peasant elders, in whom vestiges of ancestral traditions remained, became central to a new storytelling. In Trinidad it was the era of the talk tent—a makeshift stage under canvas that could be held in any open savannah for mainly comedy performances, fictionalizing the everyday foibles of ordinary citizens. Yet the pressing need for verbal art (whether orature or literature) to meet the demands of an expanding children’s audience remained unfulfilled. As Merle Hodge notes:
One of the reasons why Caribbean literature has not yet fully invaded the school curriculum is that there is not a sufficient body of good fiction suitable for all age groups. Children in secondary school are exposed to Caribbean literature that is aimed at an adult audience; and at the primary school level, teachers seeking to bring Caribbean literature into the curriculum tend to rely heavily on folk tales.
(Caribbean Women Writers 207- 208)
In the area of the folk in Trinidad, “dialect” verse performed in talk tents as entertainment (but sometimes with moral message attached) began to fill the gap created by a need for more than Anansi, Douen, and Soucouyant stories for children of all age groups. Thus in an uncanny way, orature had begun to be reclaimed in much the same way that it had presented itself at the beginning of West Indian society during slavery and Emancipation, most of it targeting a general audience.
Paul Keens-Douglas is one of the best-known storytellers of the period who performed his “dialect” stories and poems for a general audience as well as for children. Anansi stories had a place in Keens-Douglas’s repertoire, but he was better known for orature that vivified solid peasant characters such as Tanti, who had endured as a Creole icon. Bringing Tanti, everybody’s village, surrogate, mother-figure back center-stage and in the forefront of West Indians’ minds connected a socio-historical continuum.
Among the memorable dialect monologues and dialogues produced in this new orature of the 1970s and 80s centering on childhood pursuits was the children favoured “String Bank” (When Moon Shine, 1975, pp. 9-10). In “String Bank,” the mother of the child protagonist Vibert, harangues her son for the yards and yards of kite-tail that he has amassed. Keens-Douglas artfully turns the harangue into a kite-flying epic, built around a child hero, single-minded and persevering in his aim to have his works of art “touch the sun.” Another children’s classic is “My Daddy” (which Keens-Douglas dedicated to his own father), a tribute in the vernacular to West Indian fatherhood, usually much maligned:
My daddy is de bes’,
Don’t tell me nutten,
My daddy is de bes’!
My daddy could drive de fastest,
His car is the bes”,
My daddy strong, strong,
Ask mommy, ask her.
My daddy does lift weight,
Ask him if yu tink ah lie
Yu ever hear ‘bout Maracaibo?
An’ Venezuela? An’ all dem kind ah place?
My daddy been all dere,
My daddy travel far.
(Tell Me Again 85)
The floodgates were now open to orality of earlier periods. Children could now recite Louise Bennet’s “Colonization in Reverse” and “New Scholar”(Facing the Sea, 15) within the school context and in public fora. These poems could now be found in more liberal children’s anthologies and school texts that were replacing earlier, more conservative collections such as Anne Walmsley’s The Sun’s Eye of 1968.
One major limitation of the new orality, though, was its tendency to be used mainly to generate humour and entertainment. Orality within the folk tradition had been rejuvenated and the range of its cultural content had been extended. However, where the earlier tales of the documentation-literacy period tempered entertainment with serious messages of spiritual belief, moral values, and cunning, this new orality was stage-oriented and to a large extent its subject matter thrived on individual Creole quaintness, which could draw ridicule. Thus it was more susceptible to subversion and dismissal. In other words, enactment was no longer for the in-group, but was being rifled and distorted by commercialism. This orature was de-natured from the folk by being too external; and so, although it generated freedom to speak without embarrassment in Creole and fostered indigenous pride, it was difficult to consolidate a durable serious identity around it.
Innovation rooted in the evolving indigenous folk landscape, then, to supplement the Anansi tradition of the earlier documentation/literacy phase was one of the hallmarks of this reclamation of the voice in the West Indian children folk tradition. This second stage of development of literature also evidenced a growing regional publication, albeit, to quite an extent self-published. Furthermore, this new folk literature was a crossover variant, in that it appeared almost simultaneously in orature, book, and electronic form. Keens-Douglas’s records, books and later CDs hit markets almost at the same time as his performances. It is clear that in anticipation of the third phase of fused oralities, primary orality (ancestral) and secondary orality (print and electronic) had begun to meet simultaneously on the same ground.
It must be reminded, though, that the continuum depicting the development of children’s literature in the folk tradition is not a straight line drawn in the sand; and in this regard the work of another Trinidadian needs to be highlighted.
No history of the West Indian children’s folk tradition can ignore the more than 30 years’ work of Trinidadian Albert Ramsawack (first name shortened to Al) for all age groups of children. His contribution is outstanding because he was both illustrator and writer. Ramsawack is best known for his folk stories in the weekly Sunday Guardian Magazine and later the Sunshine Magazine, both produced by the Trinidad Guardian newspapers. His writing and illustrating of children’s folk stories in the newspaper began in the 1980s and ended in 2001 when the newspaper concluded its arrangement with him for financial reasons. But he began publishing children’s folktales at least ten years before, as his Anansi the Tricky Spider and The Greedy Goat: A West Indian Folk Tale, both published in 1970 as single-story booklets, indicate.
Ramsawack’s productions show an affinity with the documenting and literacy first phase of the use of folk literature with children. His Sermon of the Drunkard and Other Selections (1983), for instance, a mixed folklore and short story collection featuring mainly rural East Indians, is fitted with questions, suggesting an intended use as English exercises by teachers. However, in spite of the fact that his output was in the written tradition, Ramsawack can be credited for the large amount of work that he did in the orature that is its base. For he literally enacted the process from orature to literature in the manner in which his stories were received and retold. He traveled to Trinidadian rural villages in search of people whom he had heard knew interesting stories or were entertaining and competent storytellers.
The language choice of Ramsawack’s is also an example of the early ambivalent response to orature evident among West Indian folklorists. For although he received his stories in Creole, he explains that he writes even the dialogue of his stories for the younger age group, strictly in Standard English, because he does not want “to confuse” children. In his folk stories for teenagers, however, although he sticks to Standard English for the narration, in his dialogue he tries to recreate the authentic voices of his characters in Creole.
But two other aspects of Ramsawack’s work, his inventiveness and his mixture of folk genres and story elements from various cultures, already alluded to as overlapping features of the children’s folk continuum, need to be highlighted. With regard to inventiveness in the children’s folk tradition, Ramsawack’s Monkey Polo stories with their personified, animal analogues in the Caribbean trickster pantheon stand out as indigenous tales in the Anansi tradition. Among the tales that Ramsawack produced as single volumes with illustrations are Monkey Polo Meets Sly Mongoose and Monkey Polo’s Treasure Hunt. In Ramsawack’s stories everyone gets back at Sly Mongoose, who has been long immortalized in West Indian calypso. In Monkey Polo’s Treasure Hunt, the astute monkey, who spies happenings from his vantage point of a tree, is able to recover the President’s treasure through the use of “a black Witch Bird,” and win the customary reward.
Ramsawack explains that his Monkey Polo grew out of memories of his first twelve years growing up as a boy in rural Sangre Grande. After he had exhausted Anansi tales in his own home as storytelling material for his children, he began inventing tales about a monkey of his childhood, owned by the rich neighbour, that he christened with the first and last names Monkey and Polo. Ramsawack’s claim to fame in children’s folktales is the approximately two hundred stories he wrote about Monkey Polo, some of them vivifying specific Trinidadian cultural understandings such as “Monkey Polo plays Tamboo Bamboo.” The Trinidadian steelband, the hallmark of Trinidadian inventiveness and identity originated in “Tamboo Bamboo,” the beating of bamboo trunks as drum accompaniment in the early steelband orchestra. In “Monkey Polo plays Tamboo Bamboo” Ramsawack’s master-stroke is that he indigenizes his main character as a true Trinidadian for his children readership, by incorporating him in their young minds as part of the Trinidadian landscape and social history, identifiable with their cultural beginnings.
Some of Ramsawack’s children’s folktales also evidence a combination of folk cultures and genres. A notable example is his Flamme Belle. In this story, forest spirit and animal folktale elements combine with Creole obeah, magic, and the Western Cinderella folk tradition to produce a folklore fusion. This fusion in children’s folk stories is more marked during the period of Creole oral revival than during the first documentation-literacy phase, perhaps because West African influences were stronger during that earlier stage when exposure to formal education was not as prevalent among Caribbean populations. In accordance with the Cinderella motif, Flamme Belle marries her “Prince Sunshine of [the] island” (23) and the story ends with the “happily ever after” fairy tale ending. But tropical elements such as the dry season and poui blossoms mark this story as Caribbean.
But before Flamme Belle could have had such a happy pass, she suffered a skin affliction that made her a cross between the Trinidadian Soucouyant and European Sleeping Beauty, thus situating her French Creole or patois name (Flaming Beauty/Bright Flame) dually between both traditions. Her skin affliction is cured by the equivalent of a West Indian bush bath administered by the old man with obeah powers with whom she lives.
Other features of this story, such as Flamme Belle’s servitude to the old man and his vindictiveness when she leaves him, would perhaps meet with adverse criticism from reviewers of children’s literature for their patriarchal portrayal of relationships between women and men. Indeed, Some of the stories in Ramsawack’s young adult collection Sermon of the Drunkard would probably suffer similar criticism because of their violence. All the same, his work indicates that no history from orature to literature in the West Indian children’s folk tradition can ignore its blend of Western and ancestral traditions. It also indicates that research needs to be done on the wealth of folk archives contained in regional newspapers.
By the1990s, however, women, both as teachers and writers, had begun to make an impact on West Indian children’s literature in similar fashion as their contribution began to be increasingly seen in the general literature of the region. A landmark event bringing the group together was the First Caribbean Women Writers Conference held in Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1990. A very important feature of this conference was the diasporic composition of the participants--women writing about a Caribbean from which they had migrated.
Both the diasporic and the female-authored elements of West Indian writing after the 1990s usher in the third stage of development in the West Indian children’s folk tradition. This third development bears evidence not only of intertwining external and internal regional developments, but it is also a stage in which the interactive and participatory nature of orality becomes embedded in texts in new ways.
It will be observed, however, that preoccupation with formal literacy, that has been an overriding feature from the earliest adaptation of orature to literature, remains a basic concern within the children’s continuum, and that although educational understandings of literacy have changed, some of the diehard views of Standard English literacy remain.
Stage III: A Fusion of Oral and Literary Agendas (from 1990s into the 21st Century)
In “Oralizing Literacy: A New Model for Peripheral Ethnolinguistic Education, Constanza Rojas Primus notes that “several ethnolinguistic groups [like the English-speaking Caribbean] have maintained, either consciously or unconsciously, significant elements of their oral traditions,” such as “styles of speech, sociocultural dynamics of group [and] moral values.” She argues that countries that have been forced to adopt patterns of Western literacy for modernization and socio-economic purposes need to redefine “the fundamentals of orality to transpose this system into the world of literacy” (10).
West Indian children’s literature in the folk tradition since the 1990s, both from the diaspora and from within the region, has been showing such redefinitions as Rojas Primus suggests. Lynn Joseph (New York/The Dominican Republic/Trinidad) and Cherrell Shelley-Robinson (Jamaica) are two female authors whose work shows new approaches in this regard.
Lynn Joseph, a writer from the diaspora, incorporates the folk tradition in a very wide sense both in cultural content and in language. Joseph includes indigenous festivals, ceremonies, culinary features and rhythms of Caribbean Creole life, alongside supernatural tales in her depiction of oral and folk traditions. Her two folktale collections, A Wave in Her Pocket (1991) and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister (1994) go beyond the retellings of traditional tales of Sherlock and Salkey in the first phase, and beyond Keen-Douglas’ oral stage-oriented narrations of folk events and folkways, into fashionings of new tales specifically designed to inculcate a sense of history and identity in her readers.
In the two folktale collections, for instance, new folktales, such as “Colin’s Island” and “Tantie’s Callaloo Fête” are created out of Trinidad’s oil wealth history and multiethnic composition, respectively. In “Colin’s Island,” during a drought a young man implores the sea to yield to him the treasures of its water, so that his grandmother’s wish to see flowers before she dies can be fulfilled. Flowers surround his grandmother’s bedside, but in addition, an island of oil emerges from the sea, which he alone can see. He subsequently wishes the island away when he becomes aware of the consequences of environmental pollution and greed that can accrue. Not long after Tantie, the grandaunt tells this story to the children, oil is discovered in the sea around South Trinidad. The children discuss the implications. Tantie leaves them to find answers on their own. Among the new and old learnings infused in this folktale are (1) the need for responsible environmental practices to safeguard against pollution, and (2) that the history of the island is an on-going documentation. In “Tantie’s Callaloo Fête,” the island cultural pot is threatened because the crab-man has migrated, and so a crucial ingredient of the cosmopolitan mix up endangers the holding of the feast for that year. It is the children who gather the crabs for the pot so that the feast can take place. The tale draws on Trinidadian values such as the importance of all racial groups and multiethnic tolerance in the Trinidadian society, composed of many races, religions and cultures.
By the end of the second folktale volume, The Mermaid’s Twin Sister, Tantie, the storyteller has successfully passed on the gift of storytelling, oral features and all, to Amber the twelve-year old female narrator, so that she can continue the oral tradition that has sustained the family over generations.
In another oralizing context, Cherrell Shelley-Robinson, a Jamaican, shows her adeptness at integrating Jamaican folk legend and embedding the Anansi figure in her Jojo’s Treasure Hunt (2003), much more successfully than did her compatriot Everard C. Palmer in The Wooing of Beppo Tate two decades earlier. Jojo’s Treasure Hunt is a novel that spans the genres of social realism and historical fiction. The treasures that are the subject of the story are the legendary jars of gold coins that the Spaniards, on their fleeing Jamaica at the attack of the British in 1655, are reputed to have buried under silk cotton trees inhabited by African spirits. In this novel, Robinson is able to capture the elements of storytelling, usually muted in print, in her recreation of the story that Maas Pablo, the village griot, tells to the child protagonist and his friend Bigger, who are his usual audience.
Maas Pablo’s tale is a veritable folktale panoply, grafting Jamaican rolling calf and silk cotton spiritual elements with tales that challenge the boys’ straitlaced interpretations of Western folk elements. In achieving both its cultural and oral agendas, the story employs a contestatory voice—the voice writing back to the Empire—in the banter that the griot encourages from the children as his story goes along. Maas Pablo counters every attempt to reduce his indigenous Jamaican folk legend to the formulae of Western folk norms.
Not all efforts with orality and cultural content in children’s fare in the twenty-first century have been this successful, though. The folk elements incorporated in Jean Goulbourne’s Freedom Come (2002), for instance, are engaged in a dense and didactic literary style perhaps more suited for adults. In the case of Velma Pollard’s Anansesem revised in 2002, too, the twinning of formal literacy and cultural literacy aims robs the collection of its vitality. The workbook-comprehension exercise format intrudes, and the stories and poems read like snippets, robbed of their indigenous literary ethos. Also there seems to be an avoidance of natural language patterns in the portrayal of characters. The point is that in the West Indian children’s folk tradition, there is still much overlap, but the genre shows a coming to terms with the cultural misfits between orature and print culture, occasioned by the meeting of ancestral and Western traditions.
It would be wrong, too, to give the impression that the Creole-West Indian folktale is a holistic genre, moving one step backward and two forward, toward a foreseeable cultural and oral harmonization. The disparate nature of the Caribbean cannot be overlooked. Children’s literature produced abroad such as Maureen Aldred’s Marcana the Fairy (1985) and Lucille Fraser Burkett’s Barbadian Fairy Tales (1987) indicate some of the variations in the perception of the folk, inherent in the cosmopolitan history of the Caribbean and also more recently, in its various diasporic needs. Burkett, who is of Scottish ancestry was born in 1917 and left Barbados for the United States since 1943. Her six Barbadian Fairy Tales can be thought to bear affinities with both European and African traditions. Among her stories are “Millie the Mongoose and her Little Friends” and “The Sugar Cane Fairies.” Although a story like Burkett’s “Millie the Mongoose” owes much to the Perrault, Grimms, and Hans Christian Anderson tradition, its Afro-Caribbean folk ethos is present in cultural details such as the Creole-speaking cook, the culinary delights and the calypso chanting monkey, who throws picong at the sedate mongoose, Millie. These embedded features reflect elements of contestation inherent in Creole-West Indian folk traditions.
Similarly, Burkett’s “The Sugar Cane Fairies” includes the telling of the story of the famous Barbadian Sam Lord’s Castle, the British eighteenth-century owner of which used “to force his slaves to walk up and down the beach with lighted lanterns in their hands” to lure ships to shipwreck on the rocky coast, so he could ransack them. Rum, the fairy, beats a drum that he has fashioned out of a nearby cane stalk as he tells the story. Burkett’s Barbadian Fairy Tales can hardly be excluded from the Creole-West Indian folk tradition merely on the connotations of externals such as the word “fairy” which would on first glance suggest that the work belongs to the European folk tradition.
While Barbadian Fairy Tales is set in the Caribbean, Marcana the Fairy, written by a Caribbean migrant to England is a Black tale set against the British folk tradition of witches. West Indian motifs are subtly crafted into this book, apparently fashioned to support the identity of the West Indian immigrant child at the center of it. In the first tale, young Marcus who seems to live in estrangement and devoid of a folk tradition of his own, needs to believe that fairies come in all colours. Just when he is despairing of ever seeing his tooth fairy, she arrives as “tiny pretty black girl wearing a green, gold and red dress” (the colours of Jamaican Rastafarians), singing the West Indian children’s song: “There’s a brown girl in the ring, tra, la, la, la, la.”
Does Marcana the Fairy belong to the West Indian folk tradition? Undoubtedly, it does, but to the folk tradition of the British West Indian resident in London. Needless to say, Marcana the Fairy finds its way back to the island West Indies as children’s reading material and there is nothing wrong with that. The complexities of children’s literature in the West Indian folk tradition are merely being highlighted.
Implications for On-going Development of Children’s Literature in the West Indian Folk Tradition
What then are the major observations that can be made about the West Indian children’s folk tradition in its passage from orature to literature? Does the folktale continue to be the most entrenched of the West Indian children’s literature genres among primary school students almost two decades later at the turn of the early twenty-first century? As seen in the work of authors like Lynn Joseph, folk elements both of Creole language and cultural content interlace written genres to date, either as motif or plain tale, so entrenched are the oral and the folk roots in everyday living. It cannot be ignored either that publication preferences for Caribbean difference have skewed writing toward exotic scenes of the peasant-speaking Creole and stereotypes such as portrayals of Carnival, the calypsonian, and Anansi. The market propulsion of this exotic stamp has contributed to retention of folk elements in all genres as hallmark West Indian. Also the preference for writers who left the Caribbean many years ago activates nostalgia of a West Indies of their childhood, whereas writing of the contemporary West Indies is overlooked, since it seems to evoke little special difference from Western globalized lifestyles.
The point is that the oral folk tradition is not limited to use in folktales only, as in the earliest periods of West Indian children’s literature. Interlacings of strong folktale elements blend with social realism and historical genres in the children’s literature of the early twenty-first century.
The question that this prompts is: Can West Indian children’s literature bear classification of the same order as the Western tradition? Again the answer may be that because we are still so close to the peasant and the oral culture, our various genres will inescapably be interlaced with folk and oral elements.
The final observation comes out of a children’s storytelling session that took place recently at the St. James Amphitheatre in Trinidad, hosted by makers of a brand of children’s food products. The storytelling aimed at getting pre-teens to “ internalize more of their heritage through knowledge of our folklore, before influences from other cultures take root” (Joseph 27). According to storyteller Nikki Crosby popular comedienne, radio host, and talk tent performer, “the stories being told [were] the old Anansi stories that we grew up on, and here we are now as adult, presiding over a whole generation that isn’t even quite sure who Anancy is or the relevance these folk tales” (qtd. in Joseph, 27). The storytelling also had literacy aims as Crosby (Aunty Nikki) revealed: “The way the project is structured, these sessions also encourage the children to read. These Anansi stories always had a strong moral to them and were simultaneously quite entertaining” (qtd. In Joseph 27).
The dramatization of the stories involved an integration of drumming, the singing of relevant calypsos, and the imitation of forest creatures by the dramatic cast, with the children audience participating in singing the choruses of contemporary calypso hits and chanting story refrains on the prompting of Aunty Nikki, the storyteller. Aunty Nikki herself sat at one corner of the stage reading from a big book, while the cast enacted appropriately. It must be observed, though, that although performance enlivens storytelling done in this way, the effects are very different from the traditional orature. For one thing, the children may sit with their parents surrounding the storyteller, but the urban public theatre element of the venue and the presence of sponsors with their products are two elements that lend to the artificiality of the event. At this event, the stories were told mainly in Standard English and there were no risqué choices. The creativity lay, not in the words of the stories themselves, but in the fusion and adaptation of other indigenous art forms such as contemporary calypsos to enhance meaning and give a contemporary spin on interpretation.
In the use of the book as memory, improvisation, spontaneity and inventiveness of oral craft seems removed from the person of the griot. Secondly, in the performance elements introduced through structured drama, stories are rehearsed and preordained. In other words, modern story telling especially with its declared literacy aims is a programmed hybrid form, more akin to print secondary orality than to traditional orality. These hybrid contours do not make the storytelling less indigenous, but the storytelling is more controlled. What is the impact on children? Are cultural literacy aims such as familial bonding and transmission of heritage achieved to the maximum in these tailored environments? In this respect, can the librarian and entertainer replace the patois-speaking community elder in transcending formal literacy toward achieving a broader more knowing and comprehensive cultural literacy?
Searching for Anansi, from orature to literature in the West Indian children’s folk tradition has disclosed transformation in the cultural nature, the method of transmission and purpose of folk takes. The evolution of West Indian children’s folktales reminds of Okpewho’s observation that modern usage of tales recognizes the inapplicability of their wholesale use in today’s world. In using tales with children, contemporary West Indian society no doubt has come to understand that however much the past may be reenacted, it sometimes can be no more than symbolic, meaning that romance and nostalgia apart, the past cannot totally be reclaimed.
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