Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Paper Presented at Jamaican Storytelling Conference 2014

 If we don’t tell our stories, who will?
 Paper presented at Ananse Sound Splash: Storytelling Conference and Festival  
November 2014

This written version is more or less what I presented, and I have included links.
Helen Williams at mic
After graduating from Oxford University in the UK, Helen Williams embarked on a 38-year teaching career, 34 years of which were in Jamaica, at Rusea’s and Green Island High Schools, Lucea Prep School (as founding principal) and Montego Bay Community College. Since retiring, she has taken up writing for children.
Her short story “Finding My Roots” was published in Tony Bradman’s Anthology, ALL IN THE FAMILY in 2008.
DELROY IN THE MAROG KINGDOM, a chapter book in the Island Fiction Series, published by Macmillan Caribbean in 2009, under the penname Billy Elm, won the people’s choice award for Best Children’s Chapter Book in the BIAJ’s biennial awards 2011. It was chosen by the Jamaica Library Service to be read by children aged 9-12 in the Annual Reading Competition 2011.  
ERROL’S TAXI, a reader in Pearson’s Stepping Stones Series, was published in 2013.
A short story, FLASH, won a silver medal, and an award for Best Junior Short Story in JCDC’s Creative Writing Contest in 2010. It is self-published as an e-book. 

Robert McKee, a well-known creative writing instructor, said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
Who is telling our stories, my story, your story? If we don’t tell our stories, who will?
I know this festival is about the oral tradition, but I beg the forgiveness of the organizers in including mention of written stories, because I write. But I also affirm that the telling of stories gave birth to their writing.   
I now make 2 assertions, which I’d like you to remember if you don’t remember anything else.
1.     Jamaican children need to hear about themselves in stories, see themselves in picture books, and read about themselves in books, not as tricksters, shape shifters and villains, but as heroes and heroines, mentors, heralds and gatekeepers.
2.     Reading for pleasure is the single most important educational activity for a child. It improves comprehension, it increases vocabulary and improves grammar. It even improves math scores.
I would like now to discuss the importance of telling of stories to children. Repeating point #1, Jamaican children need to hear themselves and about themselves in stories.
Before children learn to read, they need to hear stories. Thus they learn to listen, hold ideas in their heads and follow stories. They need to remember and retell. They learn to experience emotions and situations vicariously. Whether they recognize themselves or others in a story, they feel empathy for characters in stories.  They will transfer these skills when they learn to read. How often do our Basic School and Grade 1 teachers tell children stories? What stories? How many different stories? There should be a story time every day, with a variety of stories repeated often. Are teachers taught to be storytellers?
Now here’s a dilemma. Stories can be told in creole, but children are not taught to read creole. Although creole is written, and is easy to read, they are taught to read English. Countless studies have shown that children, who learn to read in their mother tongue, transfer that skill to the reading of a second language better than if they were taught to read in that second language, but suggest that common-sense approach in Jamaica, and there is an uproar. Ask a creole speaking 5-year-old to remember and retell a story told to him in standard English. He will retell it in creole. Look at the comments on Facebook by Jamaicans, who learnt to read and write in English, and transferred that skill to the writing of creole. But if you present a child in the first few grades of primary school with text in creole, they will have difficulty reading it. So we are stuck with teaching the reading of standard English, with its countless idiosyncrasies in spelling, grammar and syntax, for the time being.
Expanding on point #2: Reading for pleasure is the single most important educational activity for a child, but most Jamaican children are short-changed by not having enough books available for them to look at in Basic School, or for them to read in every grade of primary school, and certainly not enough about people like themselves. Even in the USA, where in 2010, 14% of the population was African American or African, only 4.5 % of the books were about them; while 63% of the population was Caucasian (and not Hispanic), and 91% of the books were about them. (See my blog Racial and cultural bias in books for children.)

When I went to teach at Green Island Secondary School (as it was then) in 1974, I was in the library when the librarian opened boxes of new books. Many of them were Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The children pounced on them, wanting to borrow them immediately.  I wondered, “Where were the books by Jamaican authors?” I didn’t see them in the bookshops either. The only Jamaican author that came to my notice was Orlando Patterson. His “Children of Sisyphus” had been prescribed for the older students. There was a big argument in the staff room about whether the students should be allowed to read this book. I didn’t read it myself until recently and now wonder what those students made of it.
Years later, I was to discover that there were at that time many wonderful stories set in Jamaica written by Jamaicans – Jean D’Costa, Vic Reid, Andrew Salkey, Everard Palmer, James Berry and since then many more by Diane Browne, Hazel Campbell, Cherrell Shelley-Robinson, Jean Gouldbourne and others, published by LMH and Carlong in their Sand Pebbles Series. (See a list of books for 8-12 year-olds on my blog.) Why were/ are these books not prominently displayed in the bookshops? Because, according to the boards of these bookshops, they won’t sell. Obviously they won’t sell if you don’t stock them or display them. Parents read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and books by Enid Blyton, which are prominently displayed in the bookshops so that’s what they buy for their children. 
Island Fiction on the shelves in Fontana, MoBay
Novelty Trading distributes books, including my book “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom”. It was on the shelf in Fontana Pharmacy, Montego Bay, along with other Island Fiction Books, then I didn’t see it again. On enquiring, I was told it wasn’t selling, so was removed to make space for other books. What other books? Do they really need the space to display 50 copies of the Diary of the Wimpy Kid?
So, that’s part of my story. If I don’t tell my story, who will? Going back to 1974: assuming that there was a dearth of children’s books by Jamaican authors, I was presumptuous enough to think that I could contribute in that area. I started a story in 1981, and worked on it sporadically over the next 2 decades, starting by writing long-hand, then using a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter and finally a word processor. When I retired in 2003, not knowing how to get a book published, I started to read “How to” books on writing fiction, and I took a UCLA online course on children’s writing. The book I’d been working on went into a box under the bed, and my energies went into writing adventure stories for boys. I wrote four of these, none yet published but I’m always optimistic.
My break came in 2007, with 2 stories at once. My short story Finding My Roots was published in an anthology “All in the Family” edited by Tony Bradman. This story included a great house, a moonshine baby, a rolling calf and Grandma Aggie’s Tamarind Switch (my original title!).
My chapter book “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom” was accepted by editor Joanne Gail Johnson’s for inclusion in Macmillan Caribbean’s ‘Island Fiction Series.’ The requirement was for Fantasty, Sci Fi and Folklore set in the Caribbean. The fantasy – Delroy turns into a marog – a type of frog. The folklore – River Mumma. (No Sci-Fi – I’m not a fan of that genre.) What turned out to be pivotal was that in my research on frogs, I found a Taino legend that if mothers went away leaving their children hungry, the children would turn into frogs. Normally, no Taino mother would have done this, but when the Spaniards enslaved them, it happened. It happened also to a Taino princess, who tried to drown herself, but, as Jamaican legend tells, she was turned into River Mumma. I have written 2 sequels to the published book – “Delroy and theMarog Princess” in which she returns to Delroy’s village in human form, available on Amazon as an ebook.  In “The Last of the Marogs”, Delroy time-travels to the time of the Tainos.This story won a silver medal in the JCDC Creative Writing Contest 2013, but is not yet published.
The treasury of Jamaican culture and history, and the infinite variety of settings and characters is my inspiration and can be yours too. Our children need many, many more Jamaican  stories - there aren't nearly enough. Don't forget they need illustrations as well. With the advent of the tablets in schools project, and the ease of e-publishing, the doors of opportunity for you to write for them are thrown wide open. But don’t expect to make money immediately – do it for love.
If we don’t tell our story, who will?

TO FOLLOW in a future post: An account of other most interesting presentations at the conference.
I welcome comments and questions on this post.


GwynethHaroldDavidson said...

Thanks for the post and the affirmation of the need for content that will be useful for us. Writers need to collaborate with other creative people to transform the stories into film projects, events, apparel, video games and more and more and more.

Melanie K Wood said...

Great points, especially about the call for children to have stories of characters that reflect ideals of people not so unlike themselves, with whom they can identify as "friends" and be inspired to be more heroic and aspire to ideals in real life.

Kids are absolutely influenced by what they read. How much, in light of so many characters in games and movies and TV, it's hard to say, but time-wise, they have to spend more minutes reading, and they absorb a character and plot via written words which is also its own unique input. What a very good opportunity to work in seeds that may bloom in the years to come as they develop as individuals and reflect on this world in which we live. Perhaps they will elect to do good, and their role models did in stories read and digested.