By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University
In the Amazon, people often laugh at their own belief in fantastic stories. But all the same, they believe the stories.
Taylor p. 55
As we continue our inquiry into folktales, we travel south to Brazil to investigate The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon written by Sean Taylor and illustrated by Fernando Vilela. Sean Taylor, a Brit married to a Brazilian woman, lives part-time in her home country. Taylor frames the retellings of these stories as stops along his journey up the Amazon River. In inter-text between stories, he describes how he traveled up the river and into the forest and met storyteller after storyteller who graciously shared tales with him. This framework seems a perfect vehicle for recounting these tales—personalizing the story collector’s journey and giving readers a context for each story in this collection. This technique is also a great reminder to readers of all ages that these are oral stories that have been written down and are not the products of the author’s imagination.
The book begins with “The Legend of the Jurutaí,” which tells about a bird who falls in love with the full moon. After trying many different strategies and still unable to reach her, Jurutaí sings her a love song that rings throughout the forest. Unfortunately, his song seems to fall on the moon’s deaf ears. From this story, we learn that Brazilian people know that singing and lighting fires in our hearts are the best ways to get rid of sadness. In the source notes, Taylor says he heard this story from two tellers, one of whom sang it. Song would be a perfect match for a story about a lovelorn singing bird. Of course, print cannot replicate the sounds of music, but I wondered if there was a refrain that could have been included in this story to capture its musicality.
Brazilian artist Fernando Vilela illustrates this book with woodcuts that capture the animals, plants, and environment of the Amazon River and forest. It is compelling that in much of his work Vilela uses the wood of this great forest to depict the ecology of his home country. With green, orange, and black and splashes of yellow and red, the artist’s illustrations capture the colors of the rainforest and life along the river.
This collection includes eight other stories that introduce readers to real and mythical creatures of the Amazon. As I read these stories, I thought about what I know about the Latin American literature tradition of “magical realism.” In most traditional literature definitions, it is the magic that distinguishes fairy tales from folktales. In The Great Snake, the stories that I expected to relate to as folktales have stronger magical elements than in the European folklore tradition with which I am most familiar. Connecting to Taylor’s quote (above) about how people in the Amazon “believe” in these fantastic stories, I wonder if an understanding of the characteristics of magical realism would help readers connect more deeply with these tales. (For more information about literary magical realism, author Albert Ríos’s definitions.)
At the end of the collection, the author includes brief source notes for each story that focus, for the most part, on the individual tellers from whom he heard these stories. Taylor includes a glossary as well that describes some of the Amazon’s flora and fauna and the Portuguese words and expressions used in the stories. While some of the tales seem to be unique to native Brazilians, others reflect the influence of 16th-century European colonizers and Africans shipped to South America as slaves. In his author’s note, Taylor says, “These are not the stories from the Amazon. They are just a handful of stories I have come across while traveling through a small part of the forest… I have rewritten them in my language and in my way” (56).
The reteller’s disclaimer reminds readers that if told or written down by a cultural insider these stories would be shared in Portuguese, the national language, or one of 180 indigenous languages. Language carries cultural markers that reveal cultural or societal norms. Did Taylor hear these stories spoken in Portuguese? Is he a fluent Portuguese speaker? Or did he have a translator on his journey? Today, Portuguese is the only language used in schools and in the media in Brazil. With 99% of the Brazilian people speaking the national language, we might wonder how these tales would be different if they had been translated into English by a native Portuguese speaker. We might wonder how a Brazilian would have set these oral stories down in print.
How did you respond to stories in this collection? Which one(s) spoke to you? Considering the fact that Sean Taylor is a cultural outsider, that the illustrations are rendered by Brazilian artist Fernando Vilela, and that present-day Brazilian culture has had varying cultural influences, what makes these tales authentic? What can 21st-century readers in Brazil and around the world learn about this culture from The Great Snake?
The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon, first published in Britain, is included on the the USBBY Outstanding International Books list for 2009.
Next Week: The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, the Trickster Spider by K. P. Kojo
Ríos, Alberto. “Magical Realism: Definitions.” Magical Realism: Definitions. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. <http://www.public.asu.edu/~aarios/resourcebank/definitions/>.
Taylor, Sean. The Great Snake: Stories of the Amazon. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2008. Print.
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