Thursday, May 31, 2007

Connecting with the audience through storytelling

Last July, my wife and I attended the National Storyteller Conference in downtown Pittsburgh overlooking Fort Pitt and Heinz field. Other than being so close to where our favorite team, the Steelers plays football, we had a great time meeting storytellers from around the country and hearing not only their stories but what helps to make their stories so interesting to listen to, or what makes them good storytellers. It was the first time for us to attend a National Storytelling Network (NSN) Conference. After attending several of the workshops, we came away convinced that telling stories is an engaging and memorable form of communication. We decided to tell stories rather than presenting our work and vision through a progression of points. The first thing we did when we arrived home was to redo our 'presentation' by selecting stories that would communicate the same ideas. Having practiced weaving stories together at the conference, we wove together stories, some of which were ancient, some current and some from Vanuatu. The audience we spoke to knew us, but after this talk they commented that they had a much better idea of what our work is all about and what we hoped to do in the future. It was an 'aha' experience for me, as well as being somewhat humbling, in the sense that I thought we had communicated those same ideas several times previously. The experience was also somewhat exciting in that we received unsolicited and positive feedback and had a taste of connecting with our audience through storytelling.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Storytelling and Oral Tradition Graduate Course Notice

This year I (Karl Franklin) am again offering a graduate course (August 20 to September 17) on oral tradition and literature (storytelling) at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (GIAL) in Dallas, TX. It provides insight into why storytelling is so important in oral cultures and what it has to offer in literate cultures as well. Although illustrations are given from Biblical storytelling sources, the course is designed to encourage fieldworkers to understand and document oral histories, genealogies and folklore through stories, which include parables, proverbs, songs and other genres. The course runs for two hours a day and is divided into information processing in the first hour and practice in the second. There is also a fairly heavy reading schedule. My background is in linguistics and anthropology (Papua New Guinea for almost 35 years), but it is only in the last few years that I have worked on storytelling. - Karl Franklin

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Land ownership and oral tradition

Thanks for stopping by. I've been thinking more of what Walter Ong has written in 'Orality and Literacy' lately under the section of 'From Memory to Written Records'. I find what I'm reading as fascinating and resonates with current issues in the Pacific, especially with regards to land. In some parts of the Pacific, like Vanuatu, land is owned solely by people from Vanuatu. It is largely inherited, passed on from generation to generation. Others can lease the land for around 75 years (see Oxfam NZ report). Land disputes frequently come before chiefs, land councils and the courts. It's a problem. Land disputes traditionally are settled by what the claimants can say about the land in question, which has to do with ancestors, lineage, stories concerning the land and ancestors, and the language of the area. The oral memory is crucial to land ownership. In the last several years there has been a push to prove ownership with written records. It would be a major step toward a very different way of settling disputes and connection with one's land. Here, the story is more than something about the land, it is vital to the future of one's family. I'm not sure where the process is at the moment, but at the least it points to how one's story is one's identity in the Pacific. What got me thinking on this was this quote from Ong on page 97:
"Customary law, trimmed of material no longer of use, was automatically always up to date and thus youthful – a fact which paradoxically, makes customary law seem inevitable and thus very old (cf. Clanchy 1979, p. 233). Persons whose world view has been formed by high literacy need to remind themselves that in functionally oral cultures the past is not felt as an itemized terrain, peppered with verifiable and disputed ‘facts’ or bits of information. It is the domain of the ancestors, a resonant source for renewing awareness of present existence, which itself is not an itemized terrain either. Orality knows no lists or charts or figures.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Variability on a story theme and oral memory

While living on Epi Island, Vanuatu, my wife and I started collecting what is known as 'custom' stories from adults in the Lamen language group. Custom stories are traditional stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. The Lamen language community is mostly an oral community and although a multilingual community they use their own language, Lamen when telling stories to each other. Most of the stories we collected had to do with the origins of Epi and Lamen Islands. Much to our surprise, none of the stories were the same. Our assumption was that if not the same, they would be very close to being so. We assumed oral memory would equate a verbatim retelling. I mentioned earlier that I'm reading Orality and Literacy by Ong and came to a section that made me reflect back to our experience on Epi Island learning the Lamen language and culture. Ong writes on page 66:
"In all cases, verbatim or not, oral memorization is subject to variation from direct social pressures. Narrators narrate what audiences call for or will tolerate. When the market for a printed book declines, the presses stop rolling but thousands of copies may remain. When the market for an oral genealogy disappears, so does the genealogy itself, utterly."

Friday, May 11, 2007

Storytelling and language communities with small populations

Language groups with small populations are often bypassed in language development projects, partly because agencies that are involved in aspects of literacy and translation do not have trainers or consultants to assist. Translation and literacy involve infrastructures that are available to only a limited degree in isolated areas. In addition, there are economic factors that affect small, isolated groups. The two articles given here ('Re-thinking stories' and 'Proposing an alternative initial strategy') suggest that storytelling can be a viable initial language development strategy for small languages in particular.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Orality and Literacy - Walter Ong - 'Wish I read this years ago'

I'm finally reading through Walter Ong's book 'Orality and Literacy' and wish I had done so years ago. It would have helped me to appreciate some issues that we recognized while living in Vanuatu, but wished I had understood . We lived in Vanuatu since 1991, spending several years on rural Epi Island and several more in the 'urban' center and capital, Port Vila. During that time we ran many training events dealing with language development, literacy and translation and learned that our 'normal' mode of training wasn't working with people from Vanuatu. While people from Vanuatu are not what Ong would call 'primary oral' cultures, probably the majority operate in an oral mode. Because we were intent on making our training fit the trainees, we recommended that trainees learn in groups and be the sole speaker of their language in the course. We also learned that not all needed to write what the group had learned, but one could serve as the scribe. In this way, the small group could process orally what they were learning.
Had I read 'Orality and Literacy' I think I might've appreciated repetitive stories more than I did. When meeting Vanuatu friends, we'd hear what was happening since our last meeting, then we'd hear the same story a couple more times before we departed. I don't know how normal this is for mostly oral cultures but I would imagine it would be fairly normal. It's a device for helping people remember the story and provides continuity. Ong states on page 40
"Since redundancy characterizes oral thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than is sparse linearity. Sparse linear or analytic thought and speech are artificial creations, structured by the technology of writing.... With writing, the mind is forced into a slowed-down pattern that affords it the opportunity to interfere with and recognize its more normal, redundant processes."
Even when I read the word 'redundancy' I get a negative connotation as my educational experience taught me to be concise, being educated from a mostly literate culture. Had my childhood been in a mostly oral society, redundant probably would've been good and normal.
More on Ong later, thanks for dropping by.