The Power Of Stories
By Brendon Smith
How important are stories?
Are they more important than books?
Better than blogs?
There are so many wonderful stories, modern favourites, classics or legends from old cultures. Many great stories are from religious texts. Due to their longevity, these often blur or transcend the boundaries between accurate account or imaginative writing.
Written versions can be keenly debated, translations or interpretations add interest, depth or isolate specific lessons. Whether new or old, written or told, some stories have a life of their own. For thousands of years before writing and paper, most humans passed vital information within stories and songs.
It has been said that Pacific cultures, with recently written histories, have retained even better oral histories. Young, prospective waka captains were sent to navigator school, taught the stars of the southern skies on the three-panel ceiling of a fale (hall), with songs listing the winds, currents or birds to watch for when exploring our oceans.
After a time, some stories may be deemed less useful, local legends or more modern ideas may replace old dialect. Yet, if a tribal culture’s original stories were not told or maintained, how would future generations improve on or learn their most likely talents?
Printing may have meant universal access for stories, but only since paper has it been possible to write, file and forget.
Educational thought and the bureaucracies built on written submissions ensure fair comparison but may restrict original talent.
In local terms, language and television support have ensured a renaissance in te reo, helping new and old New Zealanders connect with our earliest legends. Indeed, New Zealanders remain among the world’s busiest readers, while local storytellers, film directors and especially children’s writers are regularly rated among the best.
Last week I went to a monthly Auckland Storyteller’s Guild session. The attendees witness each other’s stories, most of which are for children or based on true accounts, discuss and offer feedback. Some storytellers use the meeting to practice a performance before a big event.
Others present new stories, possibly refining them while practicing the art of storytelling. The proof of a good story, is bound to be found in the telling.
That night, our host opened the meeting with three “creation” stories, from New Zealand, China and Sri Lanka. With common metaphors, ancient beliefs and some real history, each story had elements of creative license or myth.
We debated the need for accuracy and as storytellers might, pronounced that as long as the essence of a story is sound, it should be told, there is far more to gain from telling than to be held up by details.
One of the story-tellers was Alex Great. He is from Bulgaria and has a strong accent, but his ability to convey a story is all that really counts. Alex has lived in Cyprus and Japan for the last few years, so it was his children who rekindled his interest in stories.
Wondering whether his kids felt like jet-set travellers or Kiwis, he asked them whether they remembered anything from Bulgaria.
They all asked about the tales that were told by older relatives, Alex scratched his head and compiled them an old story.
Almost every night, for months afterwards, he had to tell Bulgarian folktales, sometimes for an hour or more without the children getting bored!
He found their interest amazing, especially for kids with computers, animation toys and the latest action movies.
Alex visited the Central Auckland Library where he found support in the Bulgarian language section. Bulgaria is a well-connected city with an ancient history of folk tales and story telling. Luckily Alex had to visit Bulgaria soon after that, and now has over 100 original story books, mostly from Bulgaria, some from other Balkan countries.
While he was reading or translating on-the-fly, English versions, his children would be doodling on pads with crayons, occasionally capturing a character or scene from a story.
As his confidence grew, Alex attended his first story-telling evenings, refining the tales and sharing his children’s pictures, encouraged by the interest from local story-tellers.
Alex and his wife formed a publishing partnership called Ellefun (www.ellefun.com). They published their first book, “Vampire’s Bride” in July. With an old but unusual storyline, powerful ancient symbols, attractive and complex characters, the story makes an enjoyable and rewarding reading experience.
Alex’s son Yulie has received a reward from Prime Minister Helen Clark, for his artwork at Mt Albert Grammar. He now studies at Freelance Animation School in Auckland. Ellefun have a contest for children’s drawings and more stories coming with “The fox and the Hedgehog” in the final stages of illustrating and layout. Their next project is a collection of stories with wisdom for children or the whole family.
Working in electrical maintenance by day, selling Bulgarian stories by night, Alex is happy to benefit from and enjoy, old stories from his homeland so far away.
But that, you might say, is how it goes, with stories. Some we learn, some we don’t, but beware, if we try to ignore them, important stories may come back and bite us!