Brother Anansi, Sister Lou

Anansi stories, about a trickster spider-man, originated in West Africa, and spread out via slavery across the world, as first enslaved Africans and then people in places like the British Empire-dominated Caribbean islands looked to story as a way to provide hope in the midst of oppression. Walter Jekyll was among the earliest collectors of Anansi stories in Jamaica, with his 1907 Jamaican Song and Story, but Jekyll was a folklorist (like Andrew Lang in his own time, or Zora Neale Hurston or Alan Lomax later); although he lived in Jamaica for some time (even tutoring future Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay), the stories were not his own stories, and they were published primarily as anthropology, not as entertainment, and for adults rather than children. Two later folklorists who were born in Jamaica and grew up with Anansi stories later published some of these stories for children, but their approaches were very different.

In many ways, Philip Sherlock and Louise Bennett had very similar backgrounds. They were both born in Jamaica, educated at local schools, and completed their studies in London, England, Sherlock for education and Bennett at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Both studied Jamaican folklore, and both were eventually recognized by Queen Elizabeth for their work (Bennett with an MBE and Sherlock with a KBE). But their Anansi stories particularly had very different receptions and levels of success.

Sherlock’s Anansi, as drawn by American illustrator Marcia Brown.

Sherlock’s stories were published internationally, by Oxford University Press and by Macmillan. His Anansi the Spider Man (1966) was illustrated by Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Marcia Brown. But although the publisher’s blurb suggests that, “As a child growing up in Jamaica, Philip Sherlock listened in the evenings to these West Indian tales,” Sherlock admits in Tales from the West Indies (also published in 1966) that “For some of the Anansi stories I drew on Walter Jekyll’s excellent collection”. Sherlock may have heard the stories in his youth, but the versions he chose to tell were those written down by an English folklorist. Sherlock may have chosen these versions in part because as a teacher, he preferred a “standard” (which is to say standard British) form of English; or it could have been because, as a person of English descent, he did not feel comfortable using the “standard” Jamaican language, or patois.

Louise Bennett, on the other hand, embraced patois in all her creative work. Despite her middle-class background (and her ability to speak with a cut-glass accent when she wanted to), Bennett felt that Jamaicans had for too long relied on a European tradition of pastoral poetry; she wanted Jamaican poetry to sound like a Jamaican had written it, and the best way for her to do this was to write in patois. She, like Walter Jekyll before her, also collected songs and folklore, but unlike Jekyll she did not try to modify, soften, or eliminate the patois from them. Bennett often performed her work long before she ever attempted to write it down, and as a performer (whether of poetry, songs, or folktales) she did not have the same restrictions or concerns that an educator like Sherlock (who went on to become vice-chancellor of the University of West Indies) had. Patois as a language was also not simply one that she heard around her, but one that was spoken in her home and amongst her school friends. Both Sherlock and Bennett had a deep and permanent connection to Jamaica, but only Bennett had that same connection to patois.

As a performer, Bennett was popularly known as Miss Lou.

The difference can be seen just by looking at the opening lines of the story of Anansi and the Plantains as told by each author. Sherlock’s story, “Anansi and the Plantains” (found in Anansi the Spider Man), begins like this:

It was market day, but Anansi had no money. He sat at the door of his cottage and watched Tiger and Kisander the cat, Dog and Goat, and a host of others hurrying to the market to buy and sell. He had nothing to sell, for he had not done any work in his field.

Bennett’s version of the same story is called “Anancy an de Plantain” (in her collection from 1979, Anancy and Miss Lou), and the opening lines are quite different:

Once upon a time it was hungry time an Anancy had a hard time fi fine bittle every day fi him an him wife and de four pickney dem. Moresoever Anancy was a man dat like sleep late a mawning time an him wife had was fi wake him up and shub him outa door a day-time fi go look livin.

Both versions are lively tellings of the tale, but the Sherlock version gets its liveliness from movement and action, whereas Bennett’s is alive with language and humor.

There are arguments to be made for both versions of the Anansi stories, but child readers (and indeed their parents or teachers) do not generally get to ponder the merits of Bennett’s stories. While Sherlock’s stories were published by major publishers in the metropole cities of London and New York, Bennett’s were published only in Kingston, by the Kingston bookseller and publisher Sangster’s. While famous in Jamaica (and known throughout the West Indies), Sangster’s is a relatively small operation compared with London publishers; it does not have the distribution links and marketing found in global publishing conglomerates. Most of these publishers have a requirement that potential publications meet market projections and have a guaranteed international audience. By publishing in patois, Louise Bennett kept the language of the people central to her version of Anansi, but lost out in international market share. Bennett would have been at peace with this trade-off, but for child readers in Buffalo, New York or Brighton, England, it is a definite loss. Last week I wrote about Jacqueline Woodson, who started to see herself as a writer when she saw an African-American in a picture book. Diversity is about how we look, but also about how we express ourselves. Somewhere, there may be a young poet—or artist, or future prime minister—who might benefit from “hearing” herself expressed in the words of Louise Bennett’s Jamaican patois.

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