Inquiry into Cultural Authenticity in Traditional Literature: The Great Snake . . .

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

Works Cited

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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10 thoughts on “Inquiry into Cultural Authenticity in Traditional Literature: The Great Snake . . .

  1. I really enjoyed the stories in this book and way in which Taylor tied the stories together as storytelling stops on his journey up the Amazon. I think this through-line makes reading this book from cover-to-cover more attractive and engaging. However, it would have been nice if a map had been included to provide readers with further geographical context.

    Thank you for the link with the many definitions of magical realism (Rios). In our literature discussion group we talked about the theme of transformation that is present in many of the stories, which I now understand to be an element of magical realism. Angel Flores writes, “In magical realism we find the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal. It is predominantly an art of surprises. Time exists in a kind of timeless fluidity and the unreal happens as part of reality” (as quoted by Rios). Many of the stories in this book have a magical timeless quality to them; Taylor relates them as though they could have taken place hundreds of years ago or maybe just yesterday.

    Your thoughts on possible language barriers are justified and bring to mind another extra that would have been helpful. The book includes a detailed glossary for Portuguese words, but there is no pronunciation guide. Before sharing this book, I would want to look up how to correctly pronounce the terms in the book so that my reading would be as true to the culture/language as possible.

    Works Cited
    Flores, Angel. “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction.” Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 113-116.
    Ríos, Alberto. “Magical Realism: Definitions.” Magical Realism: Definitions. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. .

  2. Roger Grape says:

    Overall, I enjoyed this book and its stories. My favorite is “A Long Way to Go,” (pg. 27) about the sloth and the taperebá fruits. I enjoy humor, and the line about the sloth fretting that he raced up the tree in a mad rush cracks me up just thinking about it.

    It was interesting to read all of the definitions of magical realism (who knew there could be so many!), and the one that resonated the most for me was Alejo Carpentier’s explanation that in Latin America, the strange is commonplace. During our group discussion, we talked about the fact that many of the stories dealt matter-of-factly with transformations to or from human to animal.

    Although I understand that Sean Taylor is a cultural outsider, I’m going to defend him and the cultural authenticity of this book. During our group discussion about the book, we searched online through Sean Taylor’s website, where I found this tidbit in his autobiographical page titled “Where was you born from?”:

    “When I’m in Brazil I quite often get asked to tell folktales in Portuguese.” (Taylor, 2013)

    Now, granted, that doesn’t mean he’s fluent in Portuguese, but I’m guessing that people wouldn’t be asking him to tell them their own folktales if there wasn’t a high degree of trust in his abilities.

    I also found some interesting facts on the author’s website that lend themselves positively to the cultural authenticity of the book. It was awarded “Highly Recommended” status by Brazil’s National Foundation for Books for Young People, and chosen by the Brazilian government for free distribution to school libraries for children seven years and up (Taylor, 2013). To me, that means that the author did his homework sufficiently to receive the “thumbs up” from a book foundation and a government in the native culture. I would call that high praise for the book and its cultural authenticity. Such authenticity is important for storytellers, because we do not want to perpetuate misinformation and/or stereotypes of a culture with which we are unfamiliar. But here’s something I hadn’t thought of until now – were the books distributed to Brazilian schools Portuguese translations of Taylor’s original text? Hmmmm. What would that mean about the book’s cultural authenticity?

    Works Cited

    Alejo Carpentier, The Baroque and the Marvelous Real. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 102-104

    Ríos, Alberto. “Magical Realism: Definitions.” Magical Realism: Definitions. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

    Taylor, Sean. “Where Was You Born From?” Sean Taylor RSS. Sean Taylor, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2013. .

  3. Roger Grape says:

    Amy:

    I agree with your comment that a map could give readers a geographical context for the book, and I would go even further and have a star on the map that says “I found it (this story) here.” The same map could collect stars along the route throughout the book.

    Dr. M. asked what 21st-century readers can learn about this culture from this book. What I got out of this book about the culture of people who live along the Amazon River is that they are very connected to nature and their surrounding environment. And like many people, they developed folktales to try to make sense of things they could not explain, or to teach lessons they thought were important.

    Stories such as “The Dolphin and the Fisherman” (pg. 30) and “The Curupira” seem to have a decidedly environmental message. And of course, the author makes his own plug for the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development (pg. 61) at the end of the book. So although I sensed a strong environmental theme in the book as a whole, it didn’t seem too heavy-handed to me (but then, I think of myself as an environmentalist). And unfortunately, it’s true that the rain forests are being devastated bit by bit each day, so I don’t think its a bad thing for those of us far removed from that part of the world to be reminded of that fact periodically. As Dr. M. likes to say, “I am now stepping down from my soapbox…”

    Roger

  4. Roger:
    I think your idea to mark story origins with stars on a map is a great idea. If I were using this book in a classroom or for a book club I’d love to have the kids create a map or have a map to illustrate this idea.

    I also noticed the emphasis on acknowledging and respecting the wonders of nature in this book. As you note, it didn’t strike me as heavy handed or didactic (although I consider myself a “tree hugger”). I think it’s especially important for people outside the Amazon to be aware of the environmental issues Taylor mentions on the final page. Although I think the author’s note could have been presented in a more attractive (to kids) manner, the content is pertinent and timely. As with most books, I can see how sharing and discussing this book would be beneficial for readers.

    -Amy

  5. Roger:

    I think you’ve hit upon a good cultural authenticity indicator when you write about cultural insiders asking Taylor to retell their own folktales back to them. This isn’t something that came up during our lit group discussion, but I think it makes sense and I would consider it a point in Taylors favor.

    I also love the way magic is incorporated into each story so matter-of-factly. It seems to be a part of the environment and atmosphere, like breathing air or paddling through the water.

    -Amy

  6. Roger Grape says:

    Amy:

    Your last two comments got me thinking about the need (and yes, I mean NEED) to incorporate books like this one into cross-curricular studies/projects. If students are doing cultural studies, wouldn’t delving into the culture’s folklore be an important part of that? As you noted, magic is incorporated so matter-of-factly into these stories, and students should understand that that is part of this culture. Using our knowledge of genres and specific books is just another way that librarians can help enhance instruction.

    Roger

  7. Roger-

    I agree, I think that using folklore in cultural studies is very important. I’d like to go a step further and say that I think it’s important to include at least one contemporary perspective of the culture, along with the folktale. I think it’s really important to show cultures as living and breathing and happening now. I think having multiple perspectives of a culture not only provide a fuller, richer picture, but also encourage respect.

    -Amy

  8. Edna says:

    After reading The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon by Sean Taylor I was intrigued into finding out more about the stories found in this book as well the author. According to the Sean Taylor website he is originally from the UK but spends some time in Brazil with his family because that is where his wife is from. Knowing this little fact I give the author a lot of credit for writing this books, which from my perspective gives the book some authenticity, because he is familiar with the area and has experienced it first hand.
    I truly enjoyed this book and would use it in my class in the future for the appropriate grade levels if given the chance. My favorite story was The Dolphin and the Fisherman. When I first started reading this particular story I was unsure of how the ending would turn out and as a reader it kept me wanting to read more. This story had a hint of magical realism just like the other stories. Angle Flores says, “In magical realism we find the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal. It is predominantly an art of surprises. Time exists in a kind of timeless fluidity and the unreal happens as part of reality.” Which is what truly happened with the dolphin in this story as well as some other characters we came across during our journey in this book.
    The other thing I found really helpful was that before each story the author took us on a journey of where he heard the tale. In his preface of each story details like smells and colors were included that made the reader feel like he/she where traveling right along with him.

    Ríos, Alberto. “Magical Realism: Definitions.” Magical Realism: Definitions. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 April. 2013.

    Taylor, Sean. “Where Was You Born From?” Sean Taylor RSS. Sean Taylor, n.d. Web. 23 April. 2013. .

  9. Edna says:

    -Amy-

    I like your idea of using a map at the beginning of the book. I recently came across a book of folk tales that used this same concept and it helped me better understand the region it was told in. I was also able to look up the same story within the same region to see if any variations were found.

    -Roger –
    I too came across the authors website, and ill admit at first I was skeptical wondering if he was getting to much credit for writing this book about Brazil’s folk tales. But reading the information on his website about his family and how he has experienced that culture first hand put me at ease. As Dr. M mentioned in her blog he does give the readers a note on how there are different variations of the story and that the way he has written them are his own and his own language.
    “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).
    I think he saw that people might question or judge this book and so he put that in there before anyone could say anything.

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