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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Building on the Potential

I was met with good news when I learned that the Live to Tell Series (two books so far) was awarded with Honors from Storytelling World. This was for the category "Special Storytelling Resources." This issue of Storytelling Magazine lists the winners and honors recipients in a large spread right in the middle of the magazine. It was heartening to feel that the books have been noticed, and that there is a small group of people who have value for them.

This news has given me a burst of energy with which to continue the work on the third volume, which is about blending folktale with personal narrative: mixing festival with story slam; fierce goddesses, with my mother; tricksters, with my father in law (r.i.p.). 

The very same issue of Storytelling Magazine that announced the award featured a guest editor's section by Simon Brooks on "Young Tellers, and Folk and Fairy Tales," which is closely related to the topic of my third volume, but also something that I have been thinking about constantly. And not just me... The Do Tell Story Swap core committee is always wondering how to involve young people with traditional storytelling, the same young people that will listen to a Moth Podcast or an episode of Snap Judgment, but roll their eyes when you mention fairytales. 

Simon Brooks wrote the following:

"Most of my audience (discounting peers) are either adults over fifty, families, or children. When I attend story slams and swaps where the emphasis is personal story, the age range is people in their twenties, thirties, and forties. With the growing interest in programs like The Moth and NPR's StoryCorps, personal, true stories have all but drowned out traditional stories, or so it seems."

His observations are presented as somewhat of a crisis, because, he states: One cannot enter the personal story and experience growth. One cannot enter the personal story of someone else, identify with the personal narrative, or experience it in a transformative manner. This, I believe, is where lies the power of the old stories. 

Therefore, according to Brooks, the young audiences are missing out, for without the old stories, they will be unable to "unpackage this mad, crazy world, into digestible and discrete parts, and smile as they do so."

The divide is present without a doubt: the old stories versus the new; the personal versus the cultural; the profane versus the sacred. As many such as Simon Brooks see it, the tragedy is that there is a trend that is moving away from the old to the new, as the packed theaters of Moth StorySLAMS would indicate. On a late Sunday two years ago, after the closing of a festival, Cathryn Fairlee, with a tear in her eye, bemoaned the fact that there had only been one traditional story told the entire festival. 

The gist of the matter is that there is the feeling that young people are no longer able to appreciate traditional stories, and they shun them in favor of something splashier, and, in so doing, miss out on the deeper meanings that are available. I aim to actually correct and clarify what is happening just a bit.

The young people, at least the ones I teach at high school and college, are actually able to appreciate the older stories, and I use them all the time in class. The reason they do not go to traditional story festivals is a bit more complicated than that, and it has to do much more with the younger generation being awakened to being sensitive to other cultures and instinctively cringing when they see a teller appropriating something that is not theirs. 

This was certainly the case when I left a Fringe Performance at the National Storytelling Network in 2019. A white teller had told a set of three tales from East Asia that were woven together. Part of the telling involved the white male teller using voices in broken English possibly to convey the fact that his three characters were not speaking English but Chinese, or, if they were to speak English, that would be what they sounded like. I have seen this teller use accented voices to represent Japanese and Hawaiian speakers as well -- something that caused one young audience member to walk out of the performance. 

Jeff Gere gave a workshop at this same conference entitled "You Ain't Brown Enough to Tell Stories Here, Brah." While I wasn't able to attend, I heard that the workshop had exploded in angry comments from those that felt you must be from the culture to tell a story from that culture. In a later reflective email, Jeff wrote: 

"WORKSHOP: YOU AINT BROWN ENOUGH TO TELL STORIES  HERE BRAH  confronting racial prejudices, appropriations, the thorny issues of international storytelling. The title comes from a sentence said to me. The room was PACKED! EthNohTecs, Dana Sherry, Sean Buvala... all over the floor, on desks, alll (sic) chairs full.  I had cards with situations, bits of news, ‘tradition’ vs. ‘contemporary’, all meant to spark conversations. I was referee, commentator, and defender, and it got hot. Oh, it sure sparked conversation! I felt attacked personally & unheard, although everyone thanked me for getting a difficult conversation started. It took me a few weeks to stand up straight. That night, I drank wine in a funk, licking invisible wounds. Hard session!"

I did get to speak to one attendee, who left the workshop wondering if they would ever be able to tell a folktale again. 

The issue of cultural appropriation is at the forefront of young people's minds. Just recently, our school performed a version of "Electra," which featured Taiko drumming, and, although the students were all trained by Sonoma County Taiko, and although the costume designer was a student of Japanese heritage, there was a backlash to the performance. Actually there were students who had gone to the Assistant Head of School well in advance of the performance alerting them to the fact that they found the program to be appropriating Asian culture. 

The issue of cultural appropriation is very hard to talk about, but it lies at the heart of why some tellers may be feeling that traditional stories are less appealing to younger audiences, who choose to see personal true stories. Maybe the experience is not, as Simon Brooks states, "transformative," but at least the younger people feel safe while listening to a teller relate something that happened to them, something that they have authority over and ownership of. 

This is the issue at the heart of what I am exploring in the third volume of Live to Tell. It is ambitious, I acknowledge, and, as my friend Arnold Shimizu of Sonoma County Taiko has told me, there may be no middle ground... that the debate is the final answer... that there is truth on both sides, and both sides of the argument will continue to exist as long as white storytellers are attempting to tell folktales from "other cultures." The best the white teller can do is to try to get permission to tell the story, to cite the sources of the story, and acknowledge that they are trying to share an appreciation for that culture without appropriating it. 

I am actually taking a different approach by blending personal narrative with myth. Without going into it into too much depth here, I will just say that I present myself within the story as a limited character full of faults and misunderstandings so that never do I adopt the ethos of someone who is claiming authority over the world of the myth. More to come. 


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