Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Sourcing and appropriating traditional tales

image courtesy of child's play
Hello everyone and welcome back to Ask the Storyteller. I hope you're enjoying this series where you pose your questions and I answer them to the best of my ability. It's a place for conversation and debate. I'm having a great time and am grateful for your participation. I'm looking for new topics all the time so please send me your questions in an email entitled Ask the storyteller or post them in the comments below. Thanks!

I've had several people ask me about sourcing and appropriating traditional tales. I opened a conversation about telling traditional tales several weeks ago; today's post will delve more deeply into sourcing a story and living mythologies. As always, this answer reflects my own biases and experience.

I love traditional material. I hold a degree in folklore and mythology and have never stopped exploring the world of traditional stories. I tell many folktales and myths, though I have some criteria for the stories I choose to tell. I'll get to that shortly.

Today's question is really two questions.
1. How do I determine if a story is in the public domain and, if it is, how do I then tell it?
2. May I tell stories from other cultures if I am not of that culture?

Let's start with How do I determine if a story is in the public domain and, if it is, how do I then tell it? 
Many storytelling organizations ask their tellers to have three separate sources for the traditional stories they tell. For example, I may find a version of Snow White in one of Andrew Lang's books, in a collection by Jane Yolen and in a picture book. Each version has subtle differences of plot and phrasing. I can cite these three examples as proof that the story in it's most basic form is in the public domain.
My personal version of the story must be distinct from all three cited examples. I cannot emphasize this enough. Storytellers do not get to steal the intellectual property of other artists. If we do tell a version of a story that isn't our own creation we must have permission to do so or it must be a piece that is wholly in the public domain. I may tell Snow White word for word from Andrew Lang because it is in the public domain. What's more, I should cite my source and make sure my audience knows this version isn't original to me but was written by Mr. and Mrs. Lang. I may not tell Jane Yolen's version without her express consent. This is really a topic for another post if you're interested, but suffice it to say intellectual property theft is still theft. How would you feel if someone told one of your stories verbatim without your permission?
Once I have my sources I then play with the material. I love doing this. I think about the story from different points of view, I imagine the settings, I engage my senses, I think about what most resonates with me in the tale. I create my own version of the story. We all can do this. We may be inspired by Jane Yolen's telling, but we are all able to take the same plot elements and put our own interpretation onto it. Start with sense and what you love. Get someone to listen to you. Dream aloud.

Finding three sources is all well and good, but what if the story is specific to a culture you are not part of? This gets tricky. What follows are my personal guidelines, the steps I go through before telling a traditional story. Your mileage may vary.

  1. I get my three sources to determine that it is, in fact, a traditional story in the public domain.
  2. I do some research. Is the story a sacred tale? More importantly, is the story sacred in the culture from which it originated, whether or not I consider it sacred? If it is, I then have two choices. If I know the story is widely told in my culture I decide if I want to tell it. A good example of this might be an Anansi tale. I ask myself how I would feel if someone told a similar story I find sacred. If I decide I do want to tell it I craft it with as much cultural relevance and respect as I can. When I tell it I always give it context so the listeners hear not only the story but gain an understanding of its importance.
    If my research tells me that this story is still sacred and then either is still used in sacred ways or is not a part of the common vernacular, I stop. It isn't my story to tell. Again, consider how you might feel is someone took the stories most sacred to you (say the Christmas story since we're in the season) and told it out of context without believing it. That might make you uncomfortable.
  3. On the rare occasions that I feel deeply drawn to tell a living sacred story I contact representatives of the culture from which it comes, preferably elders, preferably storytellers. I approach them respectfully and talk with them about the story, about why I feel so strongly I want to tell it. I do the work to ensure that the story remains sacred. Sometimes I've been told yes, I may tell the story. When that happens I give it as much context as I can and I express my gratitude each time. Sometimes I've been told no. When that has happened the story leaves my repertoire. Period. It isn't mine to tell. To the best of my ability I will not engage in cultural appropriation
All of this being said, different tellers follow different rules. There are some people who believe that no one who is not of a culture should tell that culture's stories. There are others who believe all stories belong to everyone. I fall in the middle, with a set of personal guidelines to help me make my decisions. 

I have certainly made mistakes but generally speaking these guidelines work for me. I know the stories I tell are mine to tell. I know I am not stealing anyone else's work, that it is my own intellectual property and that I am being respectful of other cultures.  It's not a lot of work, when you get down to it, to make sure you aren't stealing or blaspheming. And it makes me feel better about the stories I tell.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and your questions. Are you interested in hearing more about intellectual property? How about fracturing fairy tales? What else? I'm going to tackle some of the practical aspects of being a working storyteller in the next post, I hope that is of interest to you.

I hope this season of light and dark finds you safe, warm and with those you love. Keep telling your stories.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Good advice, Laura. All storytellers who want to tell traditional tales need to read this post. Thank you.


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