George Hunt reflects on storytelling in Dominica… and its importance in classrooms everywhere.
During the early eighties, I worked as a tutor at the Dominica Teachers’ College. My main job was to try to help teachers enliven their children’s reading experiences, which in those days tended to consist of recitations from the adventures of Janet, John and other redundant whitefolk marooned by departing colonialists.
While working in Dominican schools, I’d had some success in persuading children to compose their own texts by presenting them with unfinished stories based on dramatic local landmarks like the Boiling Lake, the Sinking Hole and the Pool of the Drowned Dogs, so one of my suggestions was that Dominican folklore should be used in the classroom as a starting point for shared writing. However, my knowledge of this folklore, and of Kweyol, the creole language in which it’s expressed, was very sketchy, so when the science tutor mentioned in passing the word ‘conte’, I asked for further information.
I learned that conte is a form of oral storytelling, in which the teller recites a tale while incorporating songs, jokes, comical repetitions, satirical contemporary references, flattering remarks to the audience, and whatever else seems likely to please the listener. Without having heard a conte, I was hooked on the tradition already. A conference of headteachers was in preparation, and I pleaded that a conte should be included as an acknowledgement of the oral tradition and, perhaps, as a way of initiating a discussion of how folklore might contribute to education.
On the last day of the conference, Mr Bertram, the long-serving principal of the school in the mountain village of Laudat, volunteered to oblige. A tall and dignified figure, he stood in the centre of the lecture room, surrounded by teachers and tutors who radiated the eagerness of children awaiting a treat.
The performance began with a salutation of ‘Messiez Kwik?’ to which the audience responded with a resounding `Kwak!’. We then heard the story of how Anansi humiliated the poseur Rat by tricking him into performing an ostentatious dance on a ballroom floor greased with okro slime. Throughout the story, episodes were punctuated with calls of ‘Messiez Kwik?’ and enthusiastic responses of `Kwak!’, a device which pulls the audience into the action and helps the teller to structure the tale. In spite of my ignorance of Kweyol, I was carried through the story by the narrative power of the teller’s words and gestures. At the climax, when Rat writhes into the fandango which will end in a trouser-splitting pratfall and a shamed retreat into holes and corners, the venerable Mr Bertram began to undulate around the room with all the lubricious rhythmic liquidity of an houri dancing in paradise. Ecstatic laughter broke out, and the story ended with the teller declaring his conviction of the truth of the tale, since Anansi himself had told it him last week in the market.
Over the next three years, I witnessed other such marvellous performances . . . but never in a classroom. Once at a somewhat restrained staff party one evening, Ma Lestrade, the college cleaner, took a swig of her severalth rum, said ‘Messiez Kwik?’, and after our delighted `Kwak!’, took us on a journey to Hell, accompanying a hapless bride who had inadvertently married the Devil. As I too was on my severalth rum, the details of the story were lost to me, but I do remember a sweet song sung as the river between Earth and Hell was crossed, a wall of drawers full of human offal, and a faithful brother in pursuit of the bride. The climax came with the drowning of the Devil, an episode accompanied by a chilling mime of futile, bubbling struggles. Or was it the bride and her brother who perished? In any case, the story ended with Ma Lestrade rapping her right forefinger against her left wrist, sternly warning the women in the room to be vigilant, as she herself had seen the Devil on the prowl in the market yesterday.
Many of the stories featured the grisly inhabitants of the Dominican bush, a mythopoeic landscape of waterfalls, rainbows and jungle pelted mountains as jagged as a child’s drawing of mountains. Here one might meet Papa Bwa, the old man of the woods; or La Diablesse, a cannibalistic beauty whose passion might be assuaged by offering her a lock of freshly plucked hair; or, most ghastly of all, the Soucouyants, women who can peel off their skin and fly through the air as balls of blazing flesh.
Was it because of the macabre nature of so many of the stories that I never heard of them being performed in classrooms? More probably, this was due to a lingering belief that Kweyol, a language forged in slavery and frequently used to confuse the oppressor, is a subversive influence which should be kept out of the schools. Once a year, on Independence Day, Kweyol is allowed onto the premises, but this token annual airing reinforces an establishment view of the language as a vestige of an impoverished past.
This marginalizing of the oral tradition and the language of the people is perhaps symptomatic of a more widespread phenomenon in education generally: the tendency, when seeking inspiration, to overlook the marvellous treasures in our own locality. For me, conte provided a glimpse into a book of visions, but for many Dominican teachers, struggling to improve their pupils’ mastery of English, it seemed to be an irrelevant relic of a vanishing culture. Similarly, while teaching in London, I’ve sometimes found myself neglecting surrounding riches close at hand while seeking to engage children in the strange and distant.
I was reminded of this while visiting a neighbour in a geriatric ward recently. The tales he managed to spin from his straitened circumstances were both poignant and hilarious. They were not the sort of tales I could get away with repeating in school though, a point which brings us back to the appropriateness of conte to the classroom or, more pertinently, of the classroom to conte. As with many other forms of oral storytelling – playground gossip, factory floor yarns, pub talk – there is something essentially anti-establishment about conte, an irreverent delight in the vulgar and bizarre which defies any schoolish constraints. (I once heard a conteur describe a giantess as having `an arse the size of that wall behind you, and farts that made Hurricane David seem like a breeze’.) Certainly, my attempts to persuade teachers to try to create classroom literature out of conte now seems as realistic as asking them to make a statue of a whirlwind. A written tale is as stiff as stone compared to the live performance with its spontaneous ramblings, pantomimic gestures, and interactive calls of `Kwik?’ and `Kwak!’.
Creating a Space for Storytelling
Still, making room on the classroom shelf for La Diablesse and the Soucouyants might help to preserve the vitality of these now threatened characters. On a return visit to Dominica last year, I heard many people express the fear that the recent arrival of round-the-clock American TV must accelerate the decline of conte and of Kweyol itself.
I’m convinced that Kweyol will survive for at least as long as teachers continue to strive to persuade children to speak `good English’, but perhaps the future of conte is more precarious. The successful oral story creates a transient magic in unexpected circumstances, but this very transcience implies vulnerability. It’s the fragile attention of the audience which sustains the spell offered by the teller, a relationship voiced in `Kwik?’ and `Kwak!’. If this mutuality vanishes, then so does the story.
Thus, closer to home, I’ll never know the details of how Father Tuohy, the local herbalist, cured my grandma of her spectacular nightmares, nor the ending of the tale told by the town drunk as he wandered down our street years ago, raving of the day when a butterfly `with wings as wide as a football pitch’ appeared in the sky over Prescot. I wasn’t listening attentively enough to these tales when they were told, and now it’s too late.
Storytelling as a Subversive Activity
But perhaps the ephemerality of individual stories is outweighed by the richness of their source: a universal desire to sing out, from within the iron constraints of the ordinary, a celebration of hilarity and strangeness. This source seems to be inexhaustible, its freshets breaking out in distantly divided places, and proclaiming their common origin through striking resemblances of incident and image. The girl who married the Devil is clearly related to Bluebeard’s last wife, but her confrontation with those drawers full of carrion also reminded me of the joiners’ mate in one of my brother’s apprenticeship yarns, who, while working in a hospital, asked the way to the canteen and was directed into the anatomy lab.
The unruliness of such imagery illustrates its roots in the storymaking of people traditionally excluded from formal literature. Perhaps this rebelliousness, together with the desire of almost everyone to share their hopes and horrors in a good yarn, will ensure the survival of conte and related customs throughout the world. Haven’t most people, with or without the aid of literature, visited both the remote enchanted harbours and the dead dog clogged back-alleys of the imagination, gathering the wordhoard that is shared in story everywhere?
George Hunt, a regular reviewer for BfK, is a London primary school teacher, and no mean storyteller himself.
See Michael Rosen’s book Did I hear you write? (Deutsch, 0 233 98436 4, £5.95) for an approach to writing that checks squarely with George’s article – Ed.