Sunday, July 27, 2014

Long stories, short stories, true stories - NSN Conference, Mesa, AZ

While I did not get to live blog everything that happened in these past 5 days of the 2014 NSN conference, now that I am sitting at the airport gate I feel like a report is in order.
Short version: The NSN conference, as usual, was epic.
Long version:

I feel like this year's #NSNStoryCon had a very balanced lineup of workshops. The proverbial pendulum that swings between the extremes of "personal stories only" and "traditional stories forever" seems to be approaching some kind of a middle ground - in my 7 year experience, this year showed a lot more attention to long-form storytelling and traditional stories than a couple of years ago. This in itself made me happy.
Master Class: I took Joe Hayes' master class on telling traditional tales from cultures other than our own. While we established up front that the discussion will not get political, that was easier said than done. People have strong feelings about telling folktales, especially from Native American cultures, without working with the community behind them. With that said, Joe did a good job of telling us tales he works with, and then guiding us backwards through the process of adapting them all the way to the original sources. We learned a lot about Southwestern Native American and Hispanic cultures. While not all of us agreed with the idea of treating stories as text separate from the culture they came from, in the end we reserved that discussion for another day.
Workshops: Too many to choose from! I would have loved all of them, but short of Hermione Granger's time turning thingy, I had to make some hard decisions. The good news? There really were no bad choices.
Pam Faro's Interfaith Interplay was a treat, especially because she drew many of her stories and examples from medieval Andalucía. We talked about spiritual stories, sacred stories, stories of faith traditions, and how to use them to create connections and bridges. Pam is a lovely lady, and a true master of the topic.
Also attended the "No Moth? No Problem!" workshop with Liz Warren, Megan Finnerty and Marilyn Omifunke Torres. It was a tour de force through organizing community storytelling events. Professional, efficient, to the point, no-bullshit presentation. We need more of these so we can all learn how to put on more quality storytelling events! Also, someone's gotta say this: Megan is the Darcy Lewis of the storytelling world. There, I said it. She is an amazing, powerful lady.
Liz Weir's Out of the tunnel and into the light of peace workshop was also eye-opening and much needed. While I thought it was going to be all about stories of ethnic/religious conflict, she gave us much more: She talked about the importance of storytelling in all kinds of conflict in one's life, from bullying to family discord. She drove home the age-old idea that it is a lot harder to hate someone once you know their story...
One of my favorite things this weekend was Rivka Willick's workshop on what storytellers can learn from comics. It was so much fun! We got to browse comics of all kinds, read them, and then play around with adapting their visual and narrative style to our storytelling. We all had great fun, came up with some great lines and images, and I personally felt sorry this was not a 3-hour intensive. We also introduced a bunch of new people to comics, which was lovely.
The last workshop of the weekend for me was Priscilla Howe's presentation on long-form storytelling. That is really where my heart is these days, so it was great to learn and talk more about it. Priscilla told us part of her Tristan and Iseult show, and then we went into questions like how do you prepare to tell one story for hours, what to do when your audience goes into a trance, and how to market long-story events to new audiences. I was so excited by the end of it that I spent dinner break with Priscilla, swapping tales and discussing possibilities.
Swaps and Fringes: The Wednesday evening healing story concert was truly a healing experience. It featured a wide variety of stories from many traditions, which was fascinating to me, and I also learned a lot from them. Thursday evening I attended Cassie Cushing and Ann Harding's fringe The Wily, the Kind and the Bittersweet. What a quality event! Both girls did a beautiful job adapting well-known fairy tales and elaborating them in their own style. They produced the best versions of the Twelve Month Brothers, Snow White and Rose Red, and the Snow Maiden that I have ever heard. The Fairy Tale Lobby story swap similarly turned into a great spontaneous lineup of stories: 7 tellers told 7 tales (including myself, trying out a new Hungarian folktale about a king and his three clever daughters). It could not have been better if we planned it that way!
The Grand Slam was also a treat to behold. Linda Gorham did a wonderful job hosting it; while the judges deliberated, she entertained us with quotes, poems, and songs related to the theme (Fire and Light). We even ended up singing some Johnny Cash. Ha! The stories ranged from hilarious to heartwarming, and for a while we had a spontaneous Chicago Fire theme going. Since I was the only name in the International Region's hat (cup), I got to tell my story too. It was the first time I told the wonderful true tale of the Győrújbarát Naked Cyclist, and I got a huge kick out of the audience reactions. I didn't make first three, but the naked man on a bike became a running joke for the rest of the conference. Some people swore to have seen him, and some people swore it was them. Fun times.
I closed the conference experience with Noa Baum's It's impossible to translate but I'll try, and it was a perfect closure. She guided us on a journey to the Jerusalem of her childhood. We laughed until our sides hurt, and we sighed in nostalgia, and listened with rapt attention as she told us personal stories filled with emotion. I heard people say this was one of the best she has ever done. I can agree with that. She is a wonderful presence on stage.
Keynotes: The opening keynote on Thursday night was much needed and well done. Queen Nur, Kiran Singh Sirah, and Doug Bland all talked about the importance of story in communities, and storytelling work that can change people's relationships to their communities and to each other. And while Kiran's kilt was the undisputed highlight of the evening, we all learned truths and went to sleep filled with hope for the future.
The Friday morning panel on Ancestral Stories was similarly much needed and deep. Four Native storytellers representing four nations talked to us about story, about myth, about the importance of water and earth, and how science and story are not only not mutually exclusive, but cannot even survive without one another. Things that needed to be said were said, and I think we will remember them for a long time.

Of course, a storytelling conference is always a lot more than what is on the program. I could spend a lot of time describing the dedication and lovely hospitality of all the organizers; the fun moments of hurried conversations with old friends in the hallways between workshops; the lunches and dinners that take forever because everyone is talking; the spontaneous and wild dance party that ensued after the end of the Oracle Awards ceremony; the explorations to downtown bookshops and restaurants; the project ideas that were born and exchanged; and the quiet conversations in corners between people who live and understand story.

Thank you all who were there, and all that wanted to be there, and all that will be there next time.
See you on the road!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just What ARE You Anyway? - A folktale about gender and confusion

Today I found a collection of gitano (Gypsy) folktales in Spanish; I bought it a couple of years ago at the Maratón de Cuentos in Guadalajara, read a few of the stories, and then got distracted by another continent. Browsing through it this time I came across a folktale that caught my interest for its treatment of gender roles and expressions.
There is a lot to say about gender fluidity and gender identities, and a lot of it has already been said. I would merely like to add my two cents, and a folktale, to the discussion.

The folktale in this particular case is titled "The Warrior Girl" but it is a type that exists in other forms and in other cultures as well (including Hungarian). At the beginning of the story, we learn that there is a man with seven daughters, which is a great shame, because if a family cannot send a son to the king's army, they are not respected by others. Moving on, the youngest daughter offers to go and take her place in the army (think Hua Mulan), but her father tells her that she can't do it, because she is a girl. Hearing that, she decides to go disguised as a man. The father argues further: She can't pass for a man because her hair is long, and her breasts are full. The girl doesn't give up: She cuts her hair and puts on clothes that conceal her breasts. This is apparently good enough for the father, who begrudgingly allows her to go.
However, arriving to the king's court, the girl soon catches the prince's eyes, who insists to his father that he would wager his life that the young soldier is, indeed, a girl in a man's clothes. "She has too delicate a face to be a man," he says. The king doesn't quite believe his son, but suggests a test: He should invite her for a walk in the palace gardens, and if she goes to admire the flowers, she is a girl. The girl, however, goes for the pear tree instead and picks some fruit, as she says, for herself and for her (female) sweetheart.
At this point the prince's naughty bits are confused, and he opts for another sure-fire test: He takes her shopping. Girls, he reasons, go for the textiles at the market. This one, however, goes for the swords, preparing for battle (since she is, you know, a soldier).
The prince, who has entirely too much frustration going on in his pants, now decides he should just see her naked and tell what she is based on her... er, equipment. But when he invites her for a swim, she jumps into the water fully clothed, claiming that she had made a sacred oath not to undress until the war is over.
The prince gives up.
And then: Divine intervention.
Gearing up for battle, the mysterious soldier's sword breaks. She curses the sword, and curses herself (in a frustrated, "**** me" kind of phrase), revealing her true gender: She refers to herself with a female adjective (this really only works in Spanish, sorry). Ta-da! The prince is happy to find out that the object of his fascination indeed identifies as female, and therefore she is fair game. He asks her to marry him right away, and the folktale goes out with a happy bang.

Sooo... yeah. I'll just leave this here as food for thought.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

10 reasons why the Nart epics are epic

I spent most of last week reading the 500-page Hungarian edition of the Ossetian Nart sagas. It was a special treat for a lot of reasons.
While a huge chuck of the Nart corpus has been published in English in the wonderful translation of John Colarusso, the Ossetian sagas, which some people argue are the original Iranian core of the epics, have yet to be translated. In the meantime, archaeologists of the Sarmatian era (an Iranian people related to the ancestors of the Narts) in Hungary have presented an amazing translation.
The Nart sagas tell us about a group of legendary heroes who essentially are one big, sometimes dysfunctional, over-powered badass family. There is a matriarch on top (Satana), and about four generations of archers, lovers, fighters, and even the mandatory trickster. The stories are not less complex or engaging than any other epic from around the world - yet they are a lot less well known.
So, here is a sampling of the epic that is the Ossetian Nart sagas:

1. Two heroes having a dance-off for the hand of a lady.
It's a refreshing change from people beating each other into the ground (which also happens a lot). Dancing happens on the blades of swords, with a bowl of water on one's head, and also on the feast tables around the food (and this was the only way I could picture it).

2. This story ending, after the hero wins the hand of a lady: "And they lived very happily for a while. But they realized that they were too different, and they decided to go their separate ways." Peaceful divorce ever after. Good for them.

3. This prophecy one hero comes by in the Underworld (which, by the way, is also a place that gives Dante a run for his laurels): "One day men and women will live peacefully as equals."
Important words from a culture where kidnapping wives was common practice at the time.

4. There is a God of Wolves called Tutir. I rest my case.

5. Sirdon the Trickster, Curse of the Narts. Dog person, single father of three. Pretty much described (accurately for a trickster) as "the Narts can't live with him, can't live without him." He is very close to Loki in attitude, but he is bullied way worse than the Norse trickster. Looks like the Narts torture him for kicks. To which he responds with nasty mischief of his own. Very layered character.

6. The practicality of the tale when Satana wants to tamper a newborn and red-hot hero baby in wolf milk (as you do), and her husband's response is: "Where the heck am I supposed to get wolf milk?!" He then goes on to ask for the help of the Mother of Dogs, and she herds a couple of hundred she-wolves into a pen. To which our hero responds: "Umm... okay, now how am I supposed to milk them?"
And really no one ever responds "Hey, we are in a mythical saga, it will just magically happen!"
Nope. He milks them with his own two hands.

7. The Nart hero Hamic has a Mustache of Steel.
That he kills a snake with. Enough said.

8. The time the Narts got God on a technicality: God cursed them saying that no matter how much wheat they work a day, it will only amount to one bucket of grain. So they started only working a handful of wheat each day, and they still got a full bucket out of it. Sheer brilliance.

9. Smart woman moments such as "I am not marrying you, hero of the Narts, because your mother is evil" or "If you don't leave my tower right now, I will put your eyes out with my scissors." Nart women might not be equal to their heroes, but they sure do run things in the background. And they do raise a raiding army every once in a while.

10. The moment one hero explains how he learned not to hurt women: He tells his companions of a time when he was a guest in a house where only women lived (men were away) and he overheard them talking among themselves in a language they didn't know he spoke. He listened to their conversations and learned from them. In the adventure he claims that he would never hurt a woman for making a mistake (namely, even for cheating!) because he listened and now he knows better.

I'll have to read the sagas over again to fully savor every awesome detail. It is definitely a repeat read.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Legendary Fathers

When I set out to make a little list of traditional stories about fathers, I thought it was going to be a cake walk. Mothers die a lot more often in story, right?... And yet, once I started really looking, and setting some criteria, the pool got smaller and smaller.
I wanted stories where the father is good (there goes Hansel and Gretel), where he takes an active role in the story (there goes Cinderella), and, most importantly, where the father does something for his child(ren), rather than being the noble image to thrive for. I wanted fathers that are good examples of parenthood, likable, and on top of all of that, have good stories. They don't throw their daughters at strangers, they don't abandon their families, and they don't sit on a pedestal waiting for their sons to measure up, or for their daughter to explain why she loves them more than salt.
Well, damn.

Stories of this kind, I had to note once again, do exist. Quite a few of them, actually. But they are not always obvious, and not always easy to find. In honor of Father's Day today (in the USA and Hungary anyway), here is a list of my favorites.

Zal takes the prize. He always takes the prize, if you ask me. This amazing white-haired prince from the Persian Book of Kings is the main hero of one of the stories I love the most in the world. On top of starring in the oldest known (and best) version of the Rapunzel tale, he is also an excellent father figure. He is abandoned by his own father early on; and when his wife is about to die in childbirth delivering their son, Zal makes a stand: "My father abandoned me once; I am not giving up on you." And then he summons a giant mythical bird who teaches him to perform the world's first C-section with his own hands, saving wife and baby. Damn right.

King Metabus
The father of Camilla, one of the most famous characters from the early legends of Rome. Running from his burning city with his infant daughter, he has to cross a river. Tying the daughter to his spear, he throws her across the water before he also flees swimming. Not a very safe way of parenting (don't try this at home), but he gets points for paternal badassery.

Fionn Mac Cool
Once when I was telling the story of the Birth of Oisín in 10th grade, and got to the point where Fionn finds his son in the woods five years after his pregnant wife is kidnapped, a teenage girl started sobbing. The reunion of father and son is one of the most emotional scenes in the Fianna legends. Good fatherhood, by the way, runs in the family; there are also lovely moments between Oisín and his son Oscar (and also between Fionn and his grandson).

Okay, so his marriage with Thetis is kind of forced, and definitely not romantic, but in at least one version of the story Peleus does display some serious paternal instincts. In the story I included in my book about how Achilles gained his superhuman speed, Peleus finds Thetis burning the baby over the fireplace at night, and freaks out, like a worried parent should. Turns out Thetis was going to make the child immortal (as an alternative to dipping him into water), and she flees after the ensuing fight, leaving daddy stranded with baby Achilles. Peleus takes the child to his own father figure, Chiron the centaur, to be healed from the burns.

And finally, talking about stepfathers: Gotta give a shout-out to the guy who saves one of the most often forgotten legendary babies. Aslög, the daughter of Brünhilde and Sigurd, is spirited away after her parents' death by Brünhilde's stepfather, Heimer, who hides her in a lute, and travels from town to town, playing soothing music to keep the baby quiet and fed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Story of a Story

This is not the first time it has happened. Being a storyteller comes with its own mysterious mechanics: Stories find you, one way or another, and sometimes, when you don't notice them the first time, they will find you again.
A couple of years ago (seven or eight) when I was just starting to dip my toe into the pool of storytelling, I found a book on my grandparents' shelf. They borrowed it from someone, and it was a slender little volume on the folklore of our region (the wetlands of nothwestern Hungary). I found a story in it about fairies; how they used to live in the marshes, and help people fish, and pee in the water to make gold (that's right, fairy pee). There was also a story about why they had to leave our world, and when they will return. It told about one fairy girl who wanted to stay, and was transformed by the Queen into a water lily so she could watch over people from the waters. I was enchanted by the story, but I was not yet in the habit of recording things I read, so I let it go.
Some time later I went to the USA for the first time on the Kellner Scholarship, and I immersed myself in the world of storytelling (that's how this blog came to be). One thing I did was conferences; I designed a workshop on Hungarian storytelling, in which I mostly told folktales to many audiences. When I was picking the stories from an endless pool of possibilities, I returned to the tale about the fairies leaving, because I thought it was unique, and yet something people could relate to (see: Lord of the Rings). Because I was in the USA at the time, I couldn't find the original book, and the story was not on the Internet either. I had to tell it from memory.
After I came home, I started looking for the book and the story, but by that time I didn't remember the title or the author. My grandparents didn't either; and it turns out there is a surprising number of books written on the folklore of our area. The books I vaguely remembered turned out to be not the one I was looking for. For years, every once in a while when I remembered the story, I went on binges of trying to figure out what the book was, and where the story is, but I never found it.
Skipping ahead to yesterday. I am in Hungary for the summer, and I was walking down the hill to visit my grandparents. There is a castle in their backyard (that's right) that has been remodeled into a school and a library. I stopped by the library; I have been frequenting it since I was a kid, and I wanted to say hi to people. Turns out they are going to rebuild, and they were in the process of weeding out their stock of books, and throwing out the ones they don't need anymore. They allowed me to go through the stacks of books taken out; even better, they had already put some of them aside for me, the ones that had something to do with folktales or storytelling. One of them was a book on local folklore; I opened it up at the Prose chapter, just in case.
And there. Was. My story.

I learned pretty early on that you can't just go out, gather up a handful of stories, and call them your repertoire. You will read an entire collection; you will mark some of the stories that you like... and then you will never use them again. But some time later, one afternoon while doing the dishes, you will suddenly think "what was that one story with the water lily in it..." and you will go through your notes, and you will realize that it was not even one of the stories you marked before. It was something completely different. And yet that is the one that finds you again in the end.
Don't ever pretend that you are the one doing the choosing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

5 books that are not as famous in the USA as they should be

I don't usually book blog, but I have been reading a really great Russian sci-fi novel this week, and I realized that probably not many people on the other side of the Pond have ever had a chance to read it. I have made a list earlier of 6 books that need an English translation a.s.a.p.; this time, I would like to make a list of books that are already available in English, but not well known and kinda hard to find.
Please take this as a cry for help: I want my American friends to experience these awesome stories and be able to talk to me about them!

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky: Monday begins on Saturday
Imagine if a Russian Terry Pratchett wrote Harry Potter. That's exactly what this book reads like, with a dash of Doctor Who in the mix, all in glorious Soviet sci-fi fashion. It is essentially the parody of bureaucracy and academia, in which magic, witchcraft and folklore are all supervised from a scientific institute filled with weird researchers and professors that have never done anything useful. Hilarious, especially if you have ever been in academia. Or bureaucracy.

Vladimir Obruchev: Plutonia
Still on the topic of Russian science-fiction. This story, essentially, is their version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Except, in this case our heroes are Russian scientists that do everything the accurate way: They document, they experiment, they collect and conserve samples, and they take their sweet time exploring the world of dinosaurs and cavemen. No mas, no fuss, exciting scientific solutions to being chased by giant ants. Neil deGrasse Tyson's wet dream.

Michael Ende: Momo
The true masterpiece from the author of The Neverending Story (which, by the way, is also sadly underrepresented in American bookstores. Most people think it was only a movie, which makes me want to hit something with the book.) Momo is the tale of a strange orphan girl who tries to stop a worldwide conspiracy of well-dressed businessmen stealing free time from people. A story with lovable characters (one of them is a storyteller!), and a deep message about what we decide to spend our time on.

Selma Lagerlöf: The wonderful adventures of Nils
Also the basis of one of the best cartoons of my childhood, this book tells the story of a young boy who gets transformed into a tiny version of himself by a gnome to learn a lesson. He embarks on a journey with a flock of wild geese and a domestic goose from his own backyard, to learn about the life of animals, and the many wonders of Sweden.

Tove Jansson: The Moomins
Talking about the cartoons of my childhood: While the artwork is adorable, The Moomins books are also a great read for children. And adults. And everyone. A family of trolls and their various friends of all shapes and sizes get into fascinating - and often supernatural - adventures.

Bonus: I wrote on MopDog about two amazing (I'm picky) Hungarian historical novels that are also available English, but sadly unknown. You can check out the post here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Aesop's Fable of Internet Arguments

Most people, when they hear Aesop's name, think "talking animals." That, however, is not the complete picture. Many of Aesop's short stories feature people, and several of the Greek gods and heroes also make an appearance. They address a wide variety of morals and teachings, sometimes longer than the story itself.
I just run into this particular Aesop's fable today, and I thought I'd share, since it is very applicable to modern day situations:

One day our favorite hero Heracles was traveling through a narrow passage in the mountains. As he trudged along, he noticed a small object, not unlike an apple, on the ground. At this point Heracles employed his go-to solution for encountering strange objects on the road: He hit it with his club. But instead of resulting in a satisfying squishy sound and some apple juice, the object seemed to grow twice its size from the hit. Heracles did what Heracles does best: He hit it again, harder. The object, in complete disregard to the hero's ego and effort, once again doubled its size. Heracles, legendarily strong but not renown for critical thinking, kept hitting it until it swelled so large it blocked his way through the passage. While he stood there, scratching his head, trying to figure out if there was a way to un-hit a solid object, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, spoke to him from the rock she had been sitting on, watching the show:
"Oh Heracles, don't be surprised! That object you have been trying to smash so heroically is Strife itself. The more one tries to destroy it by force, the larger it gets. If you leave it alone, it stays small; but if you try to fight it, it will become a rather large inconvenience."
"So... it wasn't an apple, then?"
"No, Heracles, it wasn't an apple."
"Oh good. That would have been embarrassing."

Okay, so I might have embellished it a little, but the gist is the same. I wanted to share it as an illustration to the idea that "not feeding the trolls" is by no way a modern concept that came about with the age of the Internet. People have been perfectly well arguing endlessly about insignificant things long before technology made the option global.
I also find it fun that Strife resembles an apple; it is probably a nod to Eris' golden apple that stared that whole mess with Helen of Troy.