Inquiry into Cultural Authenticity in Traditional Literature: The Parade: A Stampede . . .

By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University

The week’s selection The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, The Trickster Spider was selected for grades three through five on the 2012 USBBY Outstanding International Books list. This collection was written by KP Kojo, the pen name of Nii Ayikwei Parkes, who was born and raised in Ghana, the original homeland of Ananse (sometimes spelled Anansi or called Kwaku Ananse or Anancy). Many U.S. children are familiar with picture book versions of Anansi stories. Authors such as Verna Aardema, Eric Kimmel, and Gerald McDermott (who also illustrates), have retold these stories for a young readership; they are all cultural outsiders to West Africa. Illustrators of these titles include Lisa Desimini and Janet Stevens, who are also cultural outsiders. There is no information in The Parade about the illustrator Karen Lilje, whose charming black ink drawing are sprinkled throughout KP Kojo’s collection.

It is believed that the Ashanti people of Ghana were the first to tell Ananse stories. “Ananse” is the Akan (language) word for “spider.” Although Ananse often assumes the physical appearance of a spider, he behaves as a man in almost all his stories. He is always a trickster. In folktales, the trickster is a character who breaks or bends the rules. He appears both clever and foolish but in the last analysis and regardless of his intentions, the trickster’s actions usually have positive outcomes. Told well, Ananse’s stories are funny, especially to listeners who can laugh at their own foibles. The Ananse stories spread beyond the Ashanti to other Akan-speaking peoples and were brought to the Caribbean by African slaves. When this character came to the southern United States, tellers changed his gender and he became “Aunt Nancy.”

In the introduction to this collection, KP Kojo, whose heritage languages are Ka and English, tells how, as a child, he learned the Akan language, which deepened his understanding of the tales. In these retellings, Kojo uses or combines words from several Ghanaian languages to create African animal names that cultural outsider tellers may struggle to pronounce correctly. Tellers may also need to conduct a bit of research to learn more about the foods mentioned in these stories, such as kontomire, fufu, and jollof rice. The book does not include a pronunciation guide or glossary.

The title story in this collection is called “The Parade.” The author said he made up this story to answer two burning questions that had stuck with him since childhood: “Where did Ananse’s wife come from? And why did Ananse become a trickster?” (7). KP Kojo based this original story on the characteristics associated with authentic traditional Ananse stories: “encapsulating origin myths of animals, pointers for good behavior, and examples of Ananse’s inventive thinking” (7). Of course the author has the “right” to use motifs from these stories to develop his own, but I wonder if including that story in a folktale collection could confuse readers or tellers who may not realize it is an original story.

How does KP Kojo’s original story and his retellings compare with other versions you have read? I looked at several picture book versions of the story KP Kojo calls “The Pot of Stories.” Reteller Verna Aardema and illustrator Lisa Desimini share this story in their book Anansi Does the Impossible (Atheneum, 1997). Author-illustrator Gail E. Haley retells it in her Caldecott award-winning book A Story, A Story (Atheneum, 1970). Adapter Stephen Krensky and illustrator Jeni Reeves call their variant Anansi and the Box of Stories (Millbrook, 2008). In two of these books, Ananse is illustrated as a spider; in two he is a man. In two of these tales, Ananse wants stories in order to share them with children; in the other two, Ananse believes it is wrong for one person to own all the stories. In KP Kojo’s book, Nana Oppong, chief of the entire forest, keeps the stories in a clay pot. In the other three versions, it is Nyame or the Sky God who keeps all the stories in a box or a calabash (gourd container). In each of these stories, Ananse has to trick three or four animals and bring them to the chief or god to exchange for the stories; the combination of animals is different in all of these variants. In three of the stories, the chief or god declares that Ananse “paid” the price and bought the stories. In KP Kojo’s version, Nana Oppong refuses to turn over the pot of stories. In anger he throws the pot and the stories are scattered far and wide, accessible to everyone.

With all of these variations one could ask if details matter in the Ananse tales. “Folklore is, of course, imperfect history because it is history constantly transforming and being transformed, putting on, chameleon-like, the colors of its background. But while it is imperfect history, it is the perfect guidebook to the human psyche; it leads us to the understanding of the deepest longings and most daring visions of humankind” (Yolen 50). The Ananse stories surely give story readers, tellers, and listeners an opportunity to consider the human psyche. How did you connect with the stories in this collection?

For many classroom teachers and librarians, reading and telling folktales has been a staple of support for young readers’ development of cultural competence. While folktales provide a historical perspective on cultures and give insight into a people’s core values and beliefs, these tales do not reflect many aspects of present-day societies. What do you believe about the role of folktales in the classroom curriculum and in library programming? What is the role of these stories in the canon of children’s and young adult literature?

 

Next Week: Aesop’s Fables by Beverly Naidoo, illustrated by Piet Grobler

Works Cited

Aardema, Verna. Anansi Does the Impossible. New York: Atheneum, 1997. Print.

Haley, Gail E. A Story, A Story. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Print.

Kojo, KP. The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, The Trickster Spider. London: Frances Lincoln, 2008. Print.

Krensky, Stephen. Anansi and the Box of Stories. Minneapolis: Millbrook, 2008. Print.

Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel, 1981. Print.

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17 thoughts on “Inquiry into Cultural Authenticity in Traditional Literature: The Parade: A Stampede . . .

  1. It is ironic that Dr. Moreillon mentions that “The Parade” was a creation of KP Kojo, as it is my favorite tale in the entire book! Moreillon asks us to think of whether or not it is a good idea to include this original story in a compilation of folk tales and after consideration I feel that it is. In 1971 Ben-Amos redefined folklore in his work “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” In this paper he stated, “The notion of folklore as a process may provide a way out of this dilemma. Accordingly, it is not the life history of the text that determines its folkloristic quality but its present mode of existence. On the one hand, a popular melody, a current joke, or a political anecdote that has been incorporated into the artistic process in small group situations is folklore, no matter how long it has existed in that context. On the other hand, a song, a tale, or a riddle that is performed on television or appears in print ceases to be folklore because there is a change in its communicative context.” I agree that in this modern era defining folklore as a medium that is only orally expressed or historical in nature is limiting to the genre. However, a lot has changed since 1971, and I feel that if an author is willing to list their work under the Creative Commons, meaning that they allow others to perform it and modify it without copyright limitations, then that work can also be considered folklore. In other words, if Kojo is willing to treat “The Parade” as folklore and allow other storytellers to perform it with their own modifications then it should be considered another Ghanaian folktale!

    In our group discussion we debated a lot over the nature of Ananse; is he a malicious trickster or a clever man defending his family; is he the bully or someone that uses their smarts to avoid being the victim. I feel “The Parade” goes a long way to help characterize this trickster. Though it is an original story, it sets up the other folktales well and helps characterize the Ghanaian Ananse. I have read other stories about Anansi (spelling change intentional) such as Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman and Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott where the focus is more on Anansi’s sons than the man (spider) himself. I enjoyed Kojo’s original story and retellings very much because they made me rethink Anansi as a character and added more depths to stories such as the one written by McDermott which is also a tale from Ghana (the Ashanti).

    Ben-Amos, Dan. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” The Journal of American Folklore. 84.331 (1971): 3-15. Online. Retrieved from

  2. Garra Ballinger says:

    Folktales represent stories from the past which have been passed on through oral tradition. The mere fact that these stories continues to be told generation after generation is reason enough for them to be shared in classrooms and libraries. They are full of motifs that children enjoy such as talking animals and magic, and they teach lessons of morality. What better way to teach culture to students than to draw from the literature written and passed down from the culture itself? In my opinion folktales such as this preomote thinking and involve the reader in a story with many twists and turns.

  3. Garra, you bring up such a great point about trickster tales and listener engagement! I LOVE trickster tales because I find them fun and they force me to think. I’d like to think that these tales of cleverness help promote cleverness in others! I also find myself absorbing morals from folklore even as an adult. I read “How the Chipmunk Got His Stripes” by Joseph Bruchac a few months ago and the lesson “not everyone can do everything” really resonnated with me. It was a nice reminder that I do not have superpowers and that I should be a little more forgiving of myself.

  4. Venora Aaron says:

    Folktales serves as form of entertainment (for children and adults), an opportunity to introduce children to unfamiliar cultures and a chance to share laughter the audience. One of the wonderful things about folktales is that they reach across cultures, ages and genders.

    Folktales can be used in a library programming and in classroom curriculums as an opportunity to teach life lessons. In The Parade our Circle Book Group elaborated on how Ananse’s actions affected him as well as his family and friends. This could very well open up a dialogue for parents at home with younger or older children and/or teachers in a classroom. It is my belief that a many of times we make or fail to make certain decisions because we fail to consider the consequences. In this case we need to realize that our decisions affect others. Growing up this is one of the lessons that my parents constantly instilled in me and my siblings, “there are consequences for your actions and they not only reflect you, but those who you are connected with.” This thought has always been embedded in my mind and even today as an adult, before I make a decision, I consider how it will affect others.

    In essence, sharing folktales are a chance to convey a message or life lesson while providing entertainment and laughter.

  5. Carolyn Lemons says:

    The very first story I had ever experienced about this funny little spider was called Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric Kimmel. In this version of Anansi , I did not think Anansi was really a trickster; he was more of a fun seeking spider. In the stories of Ananse by KP Kojo, portrays Ananse as more of a trickster. He did not seem to care about many things unless it directly entwined with him. I did enjoy this group of stories and found that the character Ananse was written with more of a trickster attitude. Our book group talked often about Ananse’s attempt to get the best of everyone at any cost. These groups of folktales hold great lessons that we can all learn from and would be a great opportunity to teach children moral lessons.

    Kimmel, Eric A., and Janet Stevens. Anansi and the Talking Melon. New York: Holiday House, 1994. Print.

    Kojo, K. P., and Karen Lilje. The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, the Trickster Spider. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s, 2011. Print.

  6. Garra Ballinger says:

    Nora,
    Your post reminded me of our group discussion on the trickery involved within these tales, and whether ot not trickery is really worth it. Tales such as these help us to introduce students to things such as lying and stealing as well as the consequences that may come when you commit them. As we discussed, Ananse was always on a mission, and the trickery was his key to the lock. Just as with any kind of misbehavior, many times the individual involved forgets to “think”. They get so caught up in what they are stealing, or lying about, and do not realize the consequences or pain that it may deal others around them. This brings up a whole new lesson from the Ananse stories with which children can relate to. We want to instill values in our children where they think before they act and feel when they do something wrong. These types of values help us make the right decisions in life. If trickery is what it takes to get what you want, is it worth it? We want our children to think about this.

  7. Garra Ballinger says:

    In response to how this collection relates to other stories read, there are many variations. One thing we seemed to notice in our group discussion was the age difference as this collection was written for ages 9-12 and many of the other Anansi tales are in picture book form and can be shared successfully with 6-8 year olds. Another big difference we noticed was in the illustrations. Our discussion of the lack of color that is normally found with Anansi stories led us to conclude that the stories focus is meant to be more oral, in folktale tradition, and the pictures are just extra. In other Anansi selections, ones we were most familiar with the illustrations offer very bright colors, and the culture is more evident. They almost appear as “tribal” in a sense. Above all this collection was unique and different! It provided a fresh look at some very clever folktales for older students with diverse contexts suitable for class discussion.

  8. Christopher Alello says:

    As I read through Dr. Moreillon’s thoughts about Ananse, I realized that many of the Ananse stories depicted more animals as the subjects. I read one of the retellings by Eric A. Kimmel,”Anansi Goes Fishing.” It related to many of the traditional folktales that were told by KP Kojo. Anansi was portrayed as a trickster spider trying to get out of work as he often tried to do. In our group discussions, we often find that many of the stories relate all sorts of ages. One of the things I learned by reading these stories is that I need to know where I came from, or better yet my origin. Once we understand our origin, we enter into a life that we lead, or one that is hidden behind a mask. Through all of these stories, Ananse, was portrayed as a trickster spider. Why would the author use a spider as the main character? Are spiders tricksters to capture their food? These are some of the questions that I thought about while reading these stories. Did you think the same thing?

  9. Carolyn Lemons says:

    Christopher,
    I think you have made some great connections to where we come from and/or our origin from your readings of Ananse. I can only hope children reading these stories will come to the same realization. Our origins are important and make up a huge part of who we are. I think this is the ultimate purpose of folk tales. In regards to your questions about spiders, they are opportunistic and sneaky. There is one species of spiders that sets a trap and waits for their prey to come passing by. You have made some nice connections between the main character, Ananse, and the animal that he is.

  10. Venora Aaron says:

    Garra,
    I appreciate that this collection of folktales targets an older age group as well. I believe that the Ananse folklores serve as a lesson for children of all ages and a teaching resource for teachers and educators. However the average 9-12 year older would never pick up an Ananse picture book title. I am inclined to believe that they would be willing to reading this title and it would make for a good book discussion. It’s fun and easy reading. There are a lot of lessons to be learned. Even as adults we can learn or be reminded or life lessons from reading Ananse titles as well as other folktales.

    Reading “The Parade” and discussing in our Literature Circle Group did remind me of things that I learned growing up. It took me back so much so that I shared the book with my sister who is an attorney. We occasionally read and discuss books. Initially she viewed the book as a “kiddy” book. However she said that she enjoyed it. After reading the book one of her comments was, “This book sent an important life lesson: be wise, but not conceited. However, it was very entertaining the way it explains the different characteristics of the animals and their behaviors based on the outcome of each story. It gave the book a very light and playful tone which is, I believe, the true essence of storytelling.”

    This title is definitely different from the other Anansi folktales but it is refreshing and ingeniously influences across other age groups.

  11. Michelle Dupuis says:

    Hi Chris,
    I really did not think of Ananse as a spider while reading the stories; I know the images depict a spider but I could not help but think of him as a human. The author used personification allowing the reader to connect with Ananse on a personal level. Your comment did get me thinking about spiders and how they obtain their food. Spiders are animals that actually use a tool to catch their food; they build webs that will in turn attract them a meal. Ananse used all the tools at his disposal to catch himself whatever was needed.
    Michelle

  12. Michelle Dupuis says:

    When I first began working in the children’s department at the library, our children’s librarian introduced me to the Anansi books. We held a story time for the kids and read them many Anansi tales. The story time group loved Anansi and began telling Miss Donna and myself about people they know who are like Anansi. The story is easy for children to connect with and make it their own. Anansi is a wonderful folktale but I think it stretches past that and allows for all cultures to connect with it; Anansi is a trickster and his personality is seen over many cultures and ethnicities; this makes the story more effective.
    Dr. M discusses how folklore changes as it is passed on; each person changes little things to make it their own. This is an interesting thought, because we can see how a historical account would change as it is passed down. Dr. M also talks about different cultures changing Anansi’s tale when retelling his stories themselves. I did not think of folklore as being a historical account, previously to reading that comment, but now it makes sense, those stories present the history of a culture. I enjoyed reading the stories about Anansi, and sharing a discussion with the group, this assignment allowed me to consider new thoughts and information.

    References
    Kojo, KP. The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, The Trickster Spider. London: Frances Lincoln, 2008. Print.

  13. Carolyn Lemons says:

    “The Parade” teaches great lessons and reminded me of my childhood lessons taught from my family as well. My family like Nora’s taught me right from wrong and I would not be the person I am without them. The lessons taught by Ananse are great ways to teach children lesson that might not be stressed at home. “The Parade”is aimed at a more older audience and will remind the older reader of valuable lessons that hopefully will stick with them for a long time.

  14. Christopher Alello says:

    Venora,
    I agree with you that folktales does reach across cultures and often find that some cultures are connected in some way. Each of the folktales does give people a peek into other cultures and how these cultures provide the morals and values to each generation. Each age can learn something differently from the folktales of Ananse and how each gives a sense of pride. I like how the Ananse folktale uses interpretations of animals to explain the story in order to capture the imagination of any age.

  15. Christopher Alello says:

    When I commented earlier, I had read a different version of Ananse by Eric A. Kimmel. This version is a little different that KP Kojo version. All the same, they both depict the culture of Ghana and show how interactions between different animals are the same as when we interact with people that are different from ourselves. It provides us with an opportunity to embrace what makes us different in all aspects of life. The opportunities are endless.

  16. Venora Aaron says:

    Dr. Moreillon mentions and I agree that the “Ananse’s stories are funny.” I was specifically amused at the end of the tales when Ananse offers justifications for some of the familiar characteristics or behavior of the animals. For example at the end of the very first story, “The Parade,” Ananse offers an explanation of why hippos now live in water (page 23). Another example is at the end of the story “The Pot of Stories.” The explanation that Ananse provides as to why snake bodies are never straight, the reasons for bees living in a hole and especially why tigers roar in the jungles (page 41). These were absolutely hilarious. Of course my all time favorite was how the leopard got his spots (page 52).

    Dr. Moreillon also comments on the variations of the stories and how folktales are “imperfect.” Folktales are passed down from generation to generation and like any other as it goes from person to person, the details change. It picks up the storytellers personality. I remember the activity where one person would whisper something in one person’s ear and they would pass it to the next person. By the time it reaches the last individual, people have added to or taken away, but it’s based on the original statement. This is how I see folktales.

  17. Venora Aaron says:

    Christopher,

    You bring up a good point. Folktales “provide us with an opportunity to embrace what makes us different.” This is the reason that folktales are important in classrooms, at libraries and at home (in our lives). Sharing folktales is an excellent opportunity to share other cultures and teach children to accept and respect others for who they are. However more importantly it’s an opportunity for teachers, librarians, parents and educators to teach children to embrace their own culture and understand that the things that make us different also make us the same.

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