Friday, August 20, 2010

Caribbean Children's Lit - The Gatekeepers

I begin with a quotation:
“It can easily be suggested that children’s literature is not about children at all.  Rather, it is about how adults define children. After all, it is adults who write the literature and illustrate it, they edit and publish it, sell and promote it, recommend and scaffold its reading. They are the ones who decide what is appropriate to be in it, and whether children should or should not read it. 
In other words, as they make all of these decisions, benevolently or paternally, acting as mediators, scaffolders, gatekeepers, facilitators, guardians or whatever they might be called, adults censor children’s literature.” From Introduction – Censorship in Children's Literature by David Beagley
Who are these adults censors ?  They are (not necessarily in order of influence):
Author, Publisher, Parent, Teacher, Librarian, Public opinion.  Do the children, the target audience, have censorship powers?
The author of children’s books knows that he(she) will only succeed if he manages to please himself, the children and the gatekeepers.
Appropriateness for children is always a major concern for the adult gatekeepers and woe be unto the author who singlehandedly decides to write outside of the conventions of his time. 
Despite the availability of world news (full of horror stories), questionable advertising, video games and films which seem to glorify violence and other wrongs, there is still a tendency to idealize childhood, to talk as if modern children live in a bubble - uncomplicated and predictable and without opinions and experiences of their own. Therefore, adults can project their interpretation of innocence, which the children are expected to soak up like a sponge.
How does this apply to the Caribbean? Some of the life experiences of too many of our children are as traumatic as the adults’.  Can the Caribbean writer of children’s literature be realistic and gain acceptance by the gatekeepers? Outside accepted folklore, can we write our own fantasies and adventures which the gatekeepers will accept? Are there subject areas and themes which we cannot explore in our writing? There seems to be a creeping outcry that Caribbean writers for children depend too much on the idealistic tales of yesteryear; childhood in former times – rural existence with simpler lifestyles.
In the Caribbean, who are our most influential gatekeepers? I would argue that it is the teacher, given the fact that for any book to get reasonable sales it needs to be recommended reading from the Ministry of Education - .in a context where many parents are non-readers, and rely on ‘teacher’ to make the right decision to turn their children into readers and scholars.

Every now and then there is public outcry against certain aspects of book lists especially for the older ones. Recently, in Jamaica, some literature texts were condemned for having ‘bad words’ (curse words). Some recently published YA books might not reach the schools’ reading lists because they contain (bad) supernatural content. In a recent parenting advice column in one of our daily papers a parent asked this question – “Where can I find books for my child which do not contain magic? It seems to me that the books I see all rely on magic.”( not an exact quote) The advice was to check the Christian book stores.
So, what are the children reading when they can make their own choices? Only the librarians can probably answer that question since book buying for pleasure reading is not an important item of expenditure for too many of our parents. 
Our libraries mainly stock foreign titles.  What Caribbean books are the children reading - for pleasure?  Outside of those used in schools, are they reading Caribbean stories? Research is needed to answer these questions. If there is research,  it is not readily available for consideration by editors and publishers.- a very unfortunate situation.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Caribbean children's fiction - Anansi and the Magic Pot

Anansi jester pot by Shannon

Once upon a time there was a great famine in the land. People could hardly find anything to eat.

Anansi and his family were starving. One day Anansi was walking in the forest and his foot kicked over a pot which was just lying on the ground.

“What a pretty little pot!”Anansi exclaimed.

“Don’t call me pretty pot,” the pot replied.

“So what a must call you?”asked Anansi.

“Call me ‘Do mek mi see!’ ”

Anansi feel kinda foolish, but since him never had nothing better to do him call out, “Do mek mi see!”

Immediately the pot begin to cook up a delicious dinner of chicken and rice and peas. The smell nearly kill Anansi who was very hungry. Him eat an eat till him belly nearly burst. But as he was about to wash out the pot in the nearby river, the pot shouted, “No! No! You mus never wash me. Leave me same way you find me.”

So Anansi turn down the pot and hide it under some leaves and went home with a big bellyful. When he reached home his wife and children eagerly asked him if he had brought any food. He gave them two little wingy bananas he had found in the bushes and didn’t tell them his secret.

Next day Anansi returned to where he had found the pot. To his great delight, it was still there so he quickly said, “Do mek mi see!” And the pot boiled up another delicious dinner - yam and salt fish and mackerel and green bananas. Anansi had a feast. Everyday Anansi eat him belly full but him never share the secret with him family.

However, Anansi wife soon begin to notice that her husband seem to be getting quite round, and him was looking very well-fed in the midst of the famine. She couldn’t understand this because nowadays he never bothered to take any portion of the meagre food they could find for the family. He always generously declined to eat anything at home. So one day she decided to follow him when he left the home.

She follow Anansi and see when him tek out the pot and she hear him say ,”Do mek mi see,” And her eyes nearly pop out of her head when she see the big pot of food the pot boil up.. Anansi sit down and eat it all off, licked his lips and turned down the pot and covered it over with leaves.

As soon as he left, Mrs Anansi wasted no time. She ran home and fetched her starving children, then she turned over the pot and said, ‘Do, mek me see', just as she had heard Anansi say it.. The children were overjoyed as the food bubbled up in the pot - ackee and saltfish, dumpling and yam and coco, fry chicken! Food them never see for a very long time. Them eat an eat until there was nothing left.

Now, Mrs Anansi is a very tidy lady, so when the food finish, she tek the pot down to the riverside and even though the pot tell her not to wash it, she still give it a good wash, and then she put it back where Anansi leave it

Next day, Anansi arrive, turn over the magic pot and say,”Do mek mi see!” Nothing happen. “Do mek mi see!” Anansi shouted over and over, but the pot remained quiet. Then he examined it and discovered that it was quite clean. He quickly realize that somebody had found out his secret but had washed out the pot and washed away his luck. He was very vexed. He ranted and raved through the woods and as he walked along kicking everything out of his path he stumbled on a whip.

“What a pretty little whip!” he exclaimed.

“Don’t call me pretty whip,” the whip said.

“So what a mus call you,”Anansi asked

“Call me ‘Do mek me see,’” the whip replied.

So Anansi thinking he would get more good fortune cried out, “Do mek me see”.

Immediately the whip set upon him and give him a good beating.

Anansi plenty vex now, but him see a way to get him revenge ‘gainst the person who wash out him magic pot.

All along him had a suspicion that it was him wife. So him go home and announce how him find a present in the forest but him have to hide it cause somebody might want to take it away.

Mrs Anansi she just as greedy as Anansi so she hide and follow him and see where him hide the whip, but Anansi never do anything him just look pon the whip and go away.

Mrs Anansi she come out of hiding and tek up the whip.

“What a pretty little whip!” she said

“Don’t call me pretty whip," said the whip.

“So what a mus call you?” Mrs Anansi ask.

“Call me ‘Do mek me see’.”

Hear Mrs Anansi, “Do mek me see,”

The whip turn pon her and give her one piece a beating. And Anansi who was nearby laugh and laugh till him side nearly split.

Jack Mandora me no choose none!

(This disclaimer ends all Jamaican folk stories. The story teller wants none of the bad luck to follow him.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Folktales - Brer Anancy

Shannon's Anancy
Anansi (a.k.a  Anancy) the cunning spiderman came to Jamaica with the slaves from West Africa. So his stories contain lions and tigers and even an ‘asunu’ (elephant)  which we certainly don’t have in Jamaica. However, Anansi stories are  part of our cultural heritage. Jamaica embraces Anansi to the extent that some people think that his trickster mentality is a national trait. A prominent educator once stirred up a storm in a teacup by saying that Anansi stories should be banned from our schools since they encouraged the children to think that  ‘trickery’ is the best way to succeed. However, with the advent of round- the- clock televison and cable facilities, and the demise of story time when old folk would entertain by telling and re-telling our folk tales, many Jamaican children now know few, if any, Anansi stories.

Anansi stories invariably show hero Anansi getting the better of his opponents by tricking them into doing what he wants. But, every now and then he gets his come-uppance; meets his match. Quite a few of the stories deal with the problem of famine or shortage of food, but often while others starve, Anansi manages to get a bellyful. In his introduction to “Anancy and Miss Lou”  (Miss Lou is the Hon Louise Bennet-Coverley -a famous Jamaican poet and storyteller) Mervyn Morris has this to say:

“In many of these Jamaican stories, Anancy is credited with godlike power. He is the prime cause why pig mout long, why rat live in a hole, why mongoose love chicken meat, why fowl eat cockroach, why dog fight cat, why owls hoot, lizards croak and mosquitoes hiss. - Is Nancy mek it.” He is a past master of using the other animals’ vanities to bring about their downfall.

Miss Lou herself describes Anansi: “the trickify little spiderman who speaks with a lisp and lives by his wits, is both comic and sinister, both  hero and villain of Jamaica folk stories. He points up human weaknesses and shows how easily we can be injured by our greed, or stupidity, or by confidence in the wrong people and things.”

Anansi stories are best told in the ‘patois’ (English-based creole) spoken by most Jamaicans. Writing or reading the stories robs them of  the richness of the patois and the nuances which can only be communicated orally. Like most stories in the oral tradition, the details of the stories change as they pass from mouth to mouth, so although the main storyline will be recognisable, several versions of a story will exist. Also, depending on the teller, the language will range from standard English to deep patois sometimes even in the same sentence. The story will also be embellished in different ways to suit the particular audience at the time of telling.

Another time I’ll tell you one of my favourite Anansi stories which my mother told me, and which I have recently had the pleasure of  telling my grandchildren on an night when there was no electricity and, as in the old days, storytelling was the best way to entertain ourselves.

Please see my new ebook on amazon Mr. King's Daughter which is a modern folktale referencing Anansi. You can read a sample on the page. Also you can download a free app which allows you to read kindle books on your PC Have fun.