The overriding theme during the Sunday morning plenary sessions was ‘Who owns the story?’ In a world where issues of cultural appropriation and misappropriation are raised, how can a writer approach telling a story about a culture that is not their own?
The flow of stories around the world was the subject of the first session with Elizabeth Laird, Jamila Gavin and Beverley Naidoo. All three spoke engagingly about their experiences of hearing the threads of stories meandering along trade routes and across oceans. The art of the storyteller looms large for all three and they told of their own journeys to collect stories and pass them on to their own readers; of how storytelling in many cultures is not for children and children are driven away if they try to listen. How is it, they asked, that storytelling has been infantilised?
Whilst travelling across Ethiopia meeting storytellers and collecting their stories to be published for Ethiopian children, Elizabeth Laird found a traditional of storytelling made richer by isolation. ‘I had no idea.’ She said, ‘what riches I would uncover.’ Jamila Gavin spoke of the link between folk tales and biblical stories and asked the question, which came first? As stories travelled along trade, silk and spice routes, how did they shift and change to reflect the culture of those hearing them and then passing them on in their own interpretations? Beverley Naidoo told of how stories of Mmutla the clever hare journeyed across the ocean to be told by slaves ripped from their homeland, Mmutla transforming into Brer Rabbit. So was the slave experience reflected in the stories they told; stories where animals are humanised and humans dehumanised.
All three are accomplished storytellers in the written form and it was three accomplished storytellers in the oral tradition that followed them on to the stage to brilliantly illustrate that culture and language are no barrier to understanding the story. Michael Harvey had the audience in stitches with his tale of Jack who, given more and more difficult tasks by the King, was only saved by his own cunning and kindness. Michael told his tale in a mix of Welsh and English, alternating language without translation. The audience were happy to follow along and even participate when necessary. When his story was over, Sonia Nimr told him that the same story is found amongst Palestinian folk tales, reiterating what the first session had stated over and over. Sonia herself first told her tale in English and then told it again in Arabic. ‘Are you following?’ she asked us. ‘Yes!’ we replied. Finally, Mongolian travelling storyteller Dashdondog Jamba sang and recited his tales in Mongolian and, despite what I imagine was an audience with few Mongolian speakers present, we all understood the intend and sheer joy of the story though probably not the words themselves.
In the second session, Patsy Aldana spoke with great vigour about her own cultural heritage and how she believes that the human face of globalisation is migration. When the publishing scene is predominantly white and obsessed with vampires, how much does the cultural identity of the writer matter? She posed questions on the authority of voice and the appropriation of voice. ‘What right,’ she asked, ‘do you have to tell my story when I cannot tell it myself?’ It was these questions that have led her to search for writers and illustrators who could tell their own stories, and then publish them through Groundwood Books, the publishing house she founded in 1978. ‘Homogenisation of books,’ she said, ‘is dangerous for our society.’
Following Patsy and ending the plenary sessions of the Congress, Michael Rosen also spoke passionately about the need to embrace multicultural literature. ‘Why is it,’ he asked at one point, ‘that some people think being interested in other cultures makes your life less?’ Michael then went on to regale the audience with stories and poems from his own rich cultural heritage. Growing up in East London with Jewish Communist parents he touched on political activism, parenting and, in one memorable story, corned beef! With typical humour and candour, he had the entire audience laughing along with tales of Harold and Connie as they raised their family in a time of huge change and cultural upheaval. The perfect way to end the Congress, with the joy of listening to storytellers doing what they do best, engaging their audience and leaving them wanting to hear more.
Photography by Jack Dix Davies