Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thoughts on capturing elements of our culture in story: folksongs

In my last post I said that I deliberately bring into some stories aspects of our culture. In truth, every story has it's genesis in our culture because we exist in our culture. However, some things can be made to play more active a role than others. One of the things I have used is the Jamaican folk song. The inclusion of folk songs is as specific to my emotions as any thing else in the story. In other words, I like them and they have meaning for me. So in Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, a picture story book, I introduce the folk song. 'Cordelia Brown'. This is how it goes:

O Cordelia Brown whe mek you head so red?

O Cordelia Brown whe mek you head so red?

For you siddung ina de sunshine

Wid nuttin' pon you head

O Cordelia Brown dats why you head so red.

(I hope the words are correct. I am taking them from the book, and I trust that at the time I did thorough research, because that's what I usually do).

The story is about a little girl who is teased because she has red hair, in a village where everyone else has chocolate coloured skin like her, but they do not have red hair. She survives the teasing, and in fact, her red hair becomes something of importance in her 'fame and fortune'. It stands out.

Persons may wonder which came first, the folk song or the story. The story is about overcoming and finding fame and fortune where you least expect it, at home. So one would have to say the story. However, it may be sort of a symbiotic relationship, or something which just sprung whole from my mind, neither one coming first. Like other folk songs I put into stories, it is a folk song I remember liking when I was a child. It isn't linked to any distinct childhood images, except that it does seem to exist in a reasonably happy realm of folk songs, Anancy stories and duppy stories. I say reasonably, because duppy stories were not ever a happy thing for me, so it exists in a nostalgic happy realm. Cordelia Brown is the happy memory.

To add this folk song to teasing, something which many children experience, would seem like a good idea for a story. However, and I tell this to my writers in workshops, 'be aware of who you are, what you believe, what is hidden away in your mind, joyous and painful'. I was teased in school. We were doing A Midsummer Night's Dream in what would now be grade 7 and the children decided that I should be named after a character in the book, and be teased accordingly. I was distraught, of course. So perhaps that was the genesis of the story. How does one put a painful experience next to what is a happy memory? Perhaps that is part of the rewriting of our own stories, even as we write for another generation of children. (Something like the recording of childhood in adult stories so skillfully used by West Indian authors who survived colonialism.) And then again, perhaps not.

This book is for children from about age 6. When I use it at readings I bravely sing the song. I can't sing but children of that age are really good sports and will laugh good naturedly at you and then sing along, and it's fun doing simple movements with it, hand on head etc. And the children assure me in discussion that, of course, Cordelia's hair is not red because of being in the sun. So much wiser they are these days.

Does this inclusion of the folk song do anything towards preserving our culture? I would like to think so. But even if it doesn't, I think it makes for enjoyment in the story where it is repeated more than once, and so lends itself to the repetition of recognizable elements which young children enjoy in stories.

This story actually went with me to the Miami Book Fair some years ago and was well received in the student outreach encounter programme. Because it was quaint? Perhaps. It was fun though.

As a matter of interest, some years later this book Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune was used by an American publisher in a set of books for libraries. They changed the words of the folk song so that it would be more easily understood, and so it became, "Oh Cordelia Brown why is your hair so red?" I kid you not, as the Americans would say; or one Jamaican version might be, "Is not lie a lieing. Is de gospel trut'. Yes, they changed all the lines. No, I was not unduly upset after the initial shock. Would I like to see it happen again? No, I would suggest they use both versions, but at the time I really didn't think I had much say in the matter. At the time I think I was just glad that it reached a greater audience, and we had the correct version here and that was okay.

So we have two things to think/talk about. Do we need to be quaint to reach a wider audience? And to what extent does quaint travel?

Next blog will continue my use of folk songs.

(Apologies for any spelling mistakes. There was one in my last posting , 'word' instead of 'world'. I could never spell to begin with, and now with the computer correcting words, whatever little ability I had in that regard has disappeared.)

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to link to this on my bog, hope you don't mind!