Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation, Part 1: Carolina Quiroga-Stultz
I spoke today via Zoom with storyteller, podcaster, and educator, Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, who currently resides in Eastern Georgia. My aim was to gain perspective on my current project, which is the third volume of the Live to Tell series. This one focuses on the connection between personal storytelling and traditional storytelling, and it raises issues and concerns around cultural appropriation, white privilege, and systemic racism. Originally I requested Simon Brooks to write a preface for this book, but when he read a draft of the work in progress, he encouraged me to reach out to tellers of color to gain their insights on the matter and to possibly write the preface instead of him.
Simon emailed about a dozen tellers to introduce me and my project, and Carolina was the first to reply. I expected many tellers of color to be, as Donna Washington describes in her blog, weary and tired of having to educate white people about cultural appropriation. In fact, my project was originally aimed at trying to model a white teller doing the work that is necessary to provide sensitive and respectful approaches to stories from other cultures. Simon was skeptical as to whether I could do this without the perspective of tellers of color, and so there I was face to face on Zoom with Carolina.
Carolina tells in classrooms and festivals, often to young children, but she also hosts a podcast entitled Tres Cuentos (see trescuentos.com) for all ages. She listened to me as I explained my project, and then she needed no further prompting.
She began with an anecdote about attending a conference at which she admittedly said very little. Other tellers said things that mirrored exactly what I had been worried about: that white people should really do their homework and figure this out for themselves. While Carolina didn’t actually say anything, she was full of ideas and feelings about this matter, which she expressed in our chat. She told me that if tellers of color remain silent, the danger is that when white tellers go off to figure it out on their own, they might figure it out in their own way, and possibly not a very respectful or accurate way. She said that if tellers of color do the homework for others, both other tellers and audience members, a bridge can be built. She didn’t want to close a door on anyone, and, she poignantly pointed out that if she puts up a wall, then she is prompting others to put up a wall as well.
She continued to elaborate on her stance toward educating white people about South American culture by stating that she sees their misconceptions about her place of origin as an opportunity. There was a time, she mentioned, when she first arrived in Johnson City, Tennessee, when she would become frustrated with Americans who didn’t know where Colombia was. Was it a city in Mexico? Was it in Africa? She was astonished that the best place in the world, America, with its great education system, was so ignorant of its neighboring southern continent. But over the years, in a feat of patience and grace, has come to feel that she is like a mother bird, digesting the cultural knowledge and history necessary for her audience so that they can respect and appreciate her stories. She is compassionate toward audience members who may not have access to literature or to the internet. “I want them to know that Latin America is gigantic,” she exclaimed. “I want to intrigue them. It’s about intriguing ‘the other.’”
She addressed other storytellers more directly in a second anecdote. She was at a storytelling event at which a white teller got up to tell a Peruvian myth. Her problem was not with the teller being white American rather than a Peruvian, something that she acknowledges that many tellers of color would have a problem with. Her problem was with the way the white teller told the Peruvian myth. She prefaced her specific criticism by pointing out how loose Westerners are with Greek mythology. We treat the myths as entertaining stories rather than as sacred and inviolable, and that was just what the white teller did with the Peruvian myth. The teller characterized one of the goddesses as “promiscuous and even sluttish,” which was very entertaining to the audience at the time. The worry that Carolina expressed was that some of the audience members were going away, laughing, and thinking, “Oh my God! Those Peruvians!”
This proved to be a launching point for Carolina to comment on why storytelling, when done irresponsibly, can be harmful. “We live in a world where truth is relative,” she began. “We live in a world of illusions… a world of stories.” She pointed out that the purpose of stories can be to overcome differences and fears, but when we tell them to fuel these differences and these fears (like what is happening politically right now in America), we are aggravating our problems and differences and fears of one another rather than resolving them.
And so she continues to educate and contextualize and “do her homework” for her audience members. However, she never aims to spell out what her stories are teaching. Sheila Arnold, a well known storyteller on the East Coast, taught her this early on in Carolina’s career. A story is meant to plant a seed in the listener, and you may not see the result of the growth for a long, long time. Stories mean different things to different people at different times in their lives, and they continue to grow. She ended on a very poetic note when she told another anecdote. She is very fond of gardening, almost as fond of gardening as she is of eating papayas. She used to do a lot of composting for her garden, and when she put papaya seeds from one of her snacks in her compost, to her surprise, the papaya seeds started sprouting. Not just in the compost, but everywhere! All over her yard and garden. She was particularly surprised because in Eastern Georgia, the ground is quite sandy, but that didn’t prevent those papayas from growing. And this, she felt, was like the audiences of her stories. Seeds grow in surprising ways. And then, in a way that was quite in keeping with her generous, open-minded, and kind spirit, she added, “There is no such thing as bad soil.”
Zoom Interview with Carolina Quiroga-Stultz July 30, 2021