Sunday, September 7, 2014

Whose folktale is it anyway?

Bookends in The Sunday Observer of August 10, carried a piece by me on Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story. The content  was much like my blog of August 6, for those who want to see the local elements I introduced into the story.

The piece in the newspaper got me to thinking about folktales, the desire to rewrite some in our own image, the recording/rewriting  of our own.  There are many Cinderella stories, most, it would seem, originating from the societies in which they are located. Amazon has a  number of them,  including another Caribbean Cinderella by Robert Sans Souci (wonderful artwork), which I think is set in the French speaking Caribbean. I have not read it recently, and regrettably, do not own a copy.

When I was doing my MEd. research (not that long ago) I found that the teachers I interviewed had not been exposed to many Jamaican/Caribbean children’s books, which was distressing, but not that surprising. Interesting however, was one teacher’s response to my question about what she perceived to be our cultural heritage of children’s stories/material ( as well as Anancy). She said that Bible stories were part of our heritage because that’s what we grew up with, and so were traditional European fairy tales/folktales, for the same reason. I know, many of you are cringing. However, perception is reality.

Consequently, this could be a case for rewriting some of the traditional folktales in 'our own image'.  Cynically, I suspect that any rewritten ones would  not catch on. What can compare with the folktale characters, renamed as the ‘Princesses’ by Disney, with massive marketing of everything that can possibly be connected to them?  I have  attached to this post  covers  from two books written by  author /illustrator, the late Fred Crump Jr. (American)  in the 1980s/1990s. They are traditional fairy tales  with Black characters for African American children. These are from my collection of children’s books. I wonder how well these books did; he wrote a number. I googled him and found that he had one called Ebonita and the Seven Boys (my Ebony and his Ebonita). And no, I did not read his Cinderella  when I was writing Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight. I haven’t looked at it in years. Moreover, I never read anything similar to what I’m writing, at any given time.

We, as minorities/majorities, depending on where we live,  may wish to rewrite the traditional fairy tales/folktales in the hope that  some children will read them and be inspired to greater self confidence, or even be moved to rewrite some themselves (perhaps  modern ones with 'lego type' figures). However, I suspect that any such endeavour would  not meet with much success, except for the exercise itself.

Clearly, it would seem that writing our own folktales would be the best way to go. And indeed at a workshop I facilitated with an overseas YA writer earlier this year, it was suggested that we have so much folklore (and by extension, folklore figures)  that we can create all sorts of exciting stories waiting to be discovered. This sounds wonderfully simple.  The problem I see with this is that many of our folklore figures are extremely malevolent.  Here in Jamaica, rolling-calf with eyes as red as coals dragging his rattling  chain; three-foot horse, which even with that handicap, or perhaps because of it,  will surely catch you;  Ol  Hige, shedding her skin;  River Mumma, at whom you shouldn’t look because  she could drag you down into the river; these are not the stuff of delightful children’s stories. And these are only the ones from Jamaica. Some of them from other territories in the Caribbean are even more frightening; soucouyant,  a shape-shifting blood sucking creature, or douens without faces and feet turned backwards, who lure children into the forest, for them never to be seen again. I think that our folklore is still too threatening, too close to us. European folklore was no doubt just as terrifying; witches and dragons, and wolves and beasts, but over the years they have been sanitized, and are seen as being from a very distant past, with no ability to frighten us anymore. In addition, they seem to lend themselves to being overcome by knights in shining armour, brave woodcutters, clever children and magical kisses. I know of no story of ours where anybody has been able to overcome anything, because ours speak to the supernatural, which one cannot overcome without a priest/parson,  calling on the blood of Jesus,  or some other religious activity. And I’m not being at all flippant.

This leaves us with good old Anancy and his comrades in mischief/deceit, Brer Tiger, Brer Rabbit, Brer Alligator, and so on. I enjoyed Anancy stories as child; the week overcoming the oppressor. These served the slaves well. However,  Anancy was also not averse to tricking his wife and children. This trickster side of Anancy, this ‘samfie’ side, may well be out of place as we move forward. The first time I heard this proposed (some years ago) I was horrified. What! Our precious Anancy! Never! Now, I’m not too sure. Time for samfie to be over and done with as a national construct? Never mind, guys. Calm your fluttering hearts. Anancy will probably always be with us.

It is against this background that I created Auntie of the Starlight, and she makes her second appearance in Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story, as a benevolent ‘fairy godmother’, although one that is somewhat annoyed with  silliness, like you not realising your worth. I must also point out that Helen Williams, (Bill Elm) made wonderful use of River Mumma in Delroy in the Marog Kingdom (Macmillan). Note however, that that book  is for an older child, and not for the Cinderella/Snow White generation. (Yes, I know the Cinderella story has lent itself to teenage movies, but you guys, know I’m not talking about that.)

I’d love to get feedback on this, the use of our own creatures/folklore in stories for younger children. I plan to follow this post with others on multicultural children’s literature, so we might find a connection. There have been recent  articles on this topic of children needing to see themselves in books, by Malorie Blackman in the UK and  the late Walter Dean Myers (USA) and his son.


  1. Thanks for the mention, Diane. There is also Debbie Jacob's 'Legend of St. Ann's Flood' with some of the characters you mention. She wrote it specifically for that reason.

  2. As you say, European folklore has been sanitized, but some of the earlier versions are scarier eg. in Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf eats the grandmother, and her father has to cut him open to let her out. Where did you find your Cat Woman story? That was a bit drastic. I think some people want to keep our folklore characters as scary as possible so they can frighten children into behaving themselves!

  3. The Cat Woman story seems to have some connection to Ol Hige, however Cat Woman is far less frightening than some of our other Caribbean folk/supernatural creatures. I'd be hard put I think to work out a happy ending for some of these, or they would be so frightening that the child couldn't wait around for the happy ending.