Ananse worked hard to disrupt the 6th leg of his Sound Splash at Montego Bay Community College on Saturday, November 22, 2014. Amina Blackwood-Meeks was delayed on the road, and some of the presenters had been informed that the conference was to begin at 1:00 p.m., so the conference itself didn’t start until 12:30 p.m. Perhaps Ananse was not pleased that 3 of the presenters were white women, with other than Jamaican accents and that the other 3 were brown women. Where were the Jamaican men? Professor Fred Hickling, who was to have chaired the conference was struck down with chikungunya, and Philip Clarke, the Montego Bay organizer, had to attend a funeral. However, I hope Ananse has forgiven us now, having heard that our presentations were in his favour, and that his story-telling conference is taking on an international flavor.
The late start also gave a chance for people whose names were not on the programme to make a contribution. School children told their stories.
|Dr. Angella Samuels-Harris|
Then Dr. Samuels-Harris, Principal of Montego Bay Community College, surprised us by telling “Big Boy” and Ananse stories.
The charming Ms. Sophia McIntosh, Human Resource Lecturer/ Toastmaster and chairperson for the conference, prevailed on me to read “Errol’s Taxi”. Ananse at work again. Perhaps I should have declined to read, as this festival about the oral tradition. If I had known I was going to be asked to read, this is not what I would have chosen. It is a reader in Pearson’s Stepping Stone series, which has 6 levels, with 10 books in each level, for emergent readers to read. I wrote Errol’s Taxi at least 8 years ago, and since several publishers rejected it, I was happy that Pearson accepted it. However, the story which ended up in print is not the same story I wrote. As Mary Nelson said in her presentation “sly messages slip in”. Although I can’t write creole, I usually write dialogue in non-standard English. That was edited out. As Diane Browne said “They want standard English”. Only the setting and the characters remained Jamaican. I would love to hear the boy who told the Cinderella story retell and renew “Errol’s Taxi” in his lyrical voice.
The conference finally began and we were not disappointed. Amina Blackwood Meeks welcomed us all her usual energetic manner.
|Presenters l-r: Barry Marshall, Jeri Barnes, Denise Valentine and Mary Nelson|
Jeri Barnes, with Barry Marshall helping with the power-point presentation, spoke on “Revitalizing Traditional Stories – A Cultural Imperative”. She discussed what it is about a story that endures – we are part of a story, we keep expecting stories, we expect conflict and resolution. When we tell a story our brains light up and the listener’s brains light up also. We share stories to communicate and share our culture.
Barre Toelken’s twin laws of folklore – conservatism and dynamism. Stories evolve – the extent to which they remain the same or change depends on what the tellers of these stories choose to keep or to add. Stories change because they are open to multiple interpretations, the socio-cultural context changes and because we tend to distort stories.
Old stories have advice. Some stories are as relevant now as they were when they were written but can be told in new ways. Jeri encouraged us to share the old stories, by telling them in our way, in our voice and with spice.
Denise Valentine, Professional Storyteller, Historical Performer, Archivist, from Philadelphia, USA, whose maternal great-grandparents are from Portland, Jamaica, spoke on “Storytelling, History and Reconstruction”. She highlighted the damaging effects of suppressing the truth when historical information is passed from one generation to the next.
“…unspoken from our past are making the soil toxic, this sickness prevents generative energy and collective innovation from being able to help shift the community forward.” (Katie Boone – Storytelling & Healing | The Art of Hosting).
This has relevance for the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S.A. Ms. Valentine gave examples such as George Washington having slaves and taking them to Philadelphia, where the remains of slave quarters were found within feet of Liberty Bell, but they didn’t want people to know.
We can reveal the truth in stories by reclaiming names and honoring ancestors. Content for stories gleaned from research into historical documents can be woven into traditional story structure. Ms. Valentine showed how this can be done by telling a story herself, in which a girl who had been born into slavery was told her history by an elderly enslaved woman.
Mary Nelson chose to speak on “Ananse and Cultural Decolonization”. She is from Wales, where, when she was a child, the Welsh language was not used in schools, and example of colonizers, (the English) attempting to cut off the Welsh from their culture. Similar attempts were made to cut off enslaved people from their culture without them being aware of what was happening. Ananse stories have been used to portray Jamaicans as tricksters, but these same Ananse Stories can be redesigned to show Ananse as hero or mentor, and the colonizers as shape-shifters and villains. Among the Asante people of Ghana, Ananse was synonymous with skill and wisdom of speech. Surely these abilities should be respected and sought after? Hence the purpose of this storytelling festival – to focus attention on the unique value of Jamaica’s rich oral tradition and its potential for enhancing national development.
My presentation was entitled “If we don’t tell our story, who will?” You can read the full text on my blog post of November 23, 2014.
The final speaker was Gloria Malcolm Foster, story teller, teacher, entertainer, and healer. Her presentation was entitled “Saluting my Grandmother”.
I regret that we didn't have more time to spend with the presenters, and that there were no break-out groups in which the members of the audience could have had a more interactive experience. I nonetheless hope that those in attendance were inspired by what they heard to themselves become storytellers or story-writers.