Monday, July 31, 2017

Of singing turtles and magic orange trees (Following folktales around the world 36. - Haiti)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

I was tempted to read The Magic Orange Tree for Haiti - but in the end, I decided to pick a less well-known and well-read book by a Haitian storyteller instead. Most of the American storytelling community is very familiar with Diane Wolkstein's volume already.
When Night Falls, Kric! Krac!
Haitian Folktales
Liliane Nérette Louis
Libraries Unlimited, 1999.

Liliane Nérette Louis is a Haitian storyteller of great skill and a long family tradition. Reading the tales in this book, you can sense that they were honed in the oral tradition; the text is alive, showing call-and-response elements, rhymes, songs, and other features of live storytelling. The thirty stories are organized by themes (Stepmothers, Love, etc.), representing various facets and genres of the oral tradition. The book has introductions written both by the author and the editor, introducing Haitian history and culture; in the back we can find color photos, a glossary, and some wonderful Haitian recipes. A very complete and compact volume, much worth reading.


My favorite tale from the book was about The turtle that could sing. In it, birds go to steal peas from a man's garden in the time of famine; they give their feathers to their friend, the singing turtle, so that he can go with them (he doesn't even like the peas, he just enjoys the flight). Of course the garden's owner eventually catches the turtle; when he finds out it can sing, he makes a whole lot of money from putting Turtle on display. Eventually the king decides he wants the magic turtle, but the animal is exchanged for a non-singing turtle by a boy the night before, so both gardener and king are left empty-handed. But at least the turtle got away...
Talking about singing: I would love to hear the story of Kinan Kinan told live. In it, a prince is reluctant to select a wife; his advisers offer him all kinds of willing princesses by singing their praises, but in the end, he takes a liking to an "ugly" peasant girl, who turns out to be lovelier and more beautiful than any other woman. There were no music notes attached to the story, and I am really curious how it sounds in live telling.
This book also contains the story of the Stepmother and the orange tree. In it, a stepmother abuses a girl constantly, and even eats the oranges the father brought home for the both of them. The girl plants the seeds of the oranges on her mother's grave, and from them grows a wonderful orange tree that does not only feed and obey her, but it also throws the stepmother off hard enough to shatter her into a million pieces. This is not the only story that was familiar from Wolkstein's collection: I also found a version of Taizan the Fish-lover, where a girl fell in love (and made love to) a fish, and when her parents wounded him, they merged into one body, and became a mermaid.
I also enjoyed the tale of Bouki wins the king's contest, in which suitors had to count to ten before an orange tossed into the air landed, in order to win a princess (I read this in a Liberian folktale before). Bouki won by trickery, but the princess hated him, since he only wanted her so that he could eat meat from the royal kitchens. In the end, his greed led to a hunting accident, in which Bouki was shot. At least the princess got away...


In the chapter about stepmothers there were multiple Kind and Unkind Girls type tales. In one of them (The lost silver spoon), the old woman helper's back had to be washed, but it was covered in shattered glass and made the girls' hands bleed; it reminded me of the Trinidad version that I really liked.
I was also familiar with the tale type of King Vletout, in which a king had all old people killed, so that the youth in a village could not resist his conquest. One family hid a grandmother, and she gave them advice that helped save the entire community. I have read this story from various cultures, but this was one of the best variants I have encountered so far.
There was a terrifying Bluebeard-like tale called the Case of the Key, in which a girl found out that her aunt kept zombies (zonbies) in the closet under the stairs. There was an entire chapter of zombie and monster stories, by the way, following their popularity in the Haitian oral tradition.
The local trickster is Malis (Konpé Malis or Ti Malis), usually accompanied by his silly and greedy friend, Bouki, who never fails to gets into trouble (with or without help). I remember reading that originally Malis was a hare and Bouki was a hyena, but in these tales they both appear as people. Several of the stories was already familiar from the other half of the island, the Dominican Republic (where, according to the other book's notes, they migrated from Haiti).

Where to next?
To the Bahamas!

1 comment:

  1. I tagged you in the In Case You Missed It tag! (

    Also trickster stories are always a good time. :)