Weaving Magic with the Spoken Word

Article excerpt

Storytellers in Latin America have gained a cult following in the past decade. Some are delving into ancient traditions, others are spinning stories with a distinctly post-modern edge

Halfway through his performance, Diego Camargo notices that he's forgotten one of his characters. He asks the audience for permission to go backwards and finds the rebel climbing a tree, crestfallen and upset. To convince him to return to the story, Diego promotes him to the rank of main character, giving him the assurance that nobody will ever drop him halfway through a tale again.

To hear stories like this, fans turn up in numbers every year to the International Congress of Oral Storytelling, an event held since 1995 as part of the annual Buenos Aires Book Fair. Last time round, over 800 people flocked from Argentina and neighbouring countries, all keen to hear stories old and new, but also to learn how to tell them--those subtle tricks of timing and voice, of gestures and facial expressions.

Many were teachers eager to get children to read by adapting stories from world-famous authors, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ray Bradbury, and telling them in the classroom. According to Nora Fonollosa, a narrator and researcher into children's literature, pupils often go to the nearest library to look for copies of a story they have heard, and if they can't find it, ask for another book by the same author.

But this enthusiasm is not confined to schools. Juan Moreno, from Argentina, stopped teaching literature 17 years ago and began a new life telling stories and legends from around the world in the atres, bars, universities and libraries. If they happen to be in French, English, Portuguese, German, Italian or Hebrew, he tells them in the original language. He also runs workshops for psychologists, lawyers, housewives and grandmothers. What does he teach to people from such different walks of life?

"The value of the spoken word," he says. "Words that heal and restore, that can give life but also take it away." Learning this is very important for a lawyer involved in mediation, he says, but also for social workers in hospitals and senior citizens' homes. He remembers what a despairing woman once told Dora Pastoriza de Echebarne, the pioneer scholar or oral storytelling in Argentina: "When I heard you tell the story, I didn't feel sad any more."

Witches and goblins mingle with spirits of nature

On a more material note, storytelling is said to have its bonuses. It's usually better paid than acting in a theatre, and even more enticingly, has lots of travelling thrown in. Cuban storyteller Fatima Paterson has already been twice to Liverpool, in England, to tell stories accompanied by her musicians. Every year, there are congresses, festivals and seminars, such as those in Bucaramanga (Colombia), Monterrey (Mexico) and Aguimes, in the Canary Islands.

After 15 years of slowly taking root, storytelling is now flourishing in Latin America. According to Argentine anthropologist Adolfo Colombres, the wave is not so much a revival of Latin American narrative traditions, but simply an enthusiasm for oral communication. In countries where few people read, "oral narration strangely enough encourages people to write," he says.

The continent's storytelling traditions are nevertheless very rich, a mingling of three historically oral societies: the indigenous Indian, the African and to a lesser extent, the local Spanish. "The European tradition of witches, goblins and fairy tales mix in with Indian and African traditions of the spirits of water, jungles and mountains," says Bolivian writer Victor Montoya. "There are spirits that defend nature and severely punish those who harm it, such as Marimonda in Colombia and Coipora in Brazil. Then there are the ships condemned to sail the seas forever, never reaching port, such as Caleuche in Chile and the Barco Negro in Nicaragua. And beautiful women who seduce men but when you kiss them, their heads turn into frightening skulls. …