Tag Archives: Caribbean folktales

Three Kings of Puerto Rican Children’s Literature

Happy Three Kings Day! While most Americans celebrate Christmas as their major winter holiday, in Puerto Rico, where I was last week, Christmas extends from (as one person there told me) Thanksgiving night when they put up the tree to the San Sebastían Festival in Old San Juan during the third week in January.  One highlight is today, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos.  Everywhere we went in Puerto Rico there were signs and statues and light displays marking today’s festival, which was at one time the traditional gift-giving day of the holiday season.

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One of several books available at Libreria Laberinto for Three Kings Day; as you can tell from the glare on the photo, it was wrapped in plastic like many of the children’s books and therefore could not be browsed through in the store.

Now, as always, influence from the mainland and larger powers have had an effect on how Puerto Ricans celebrate, and Christmas has gained prominence accordingly.  Outside influence is, of course, historically the norm for Caribbean islands.  And like the three kings who came from other lands to bring their gifts, exploring imperial powers have changed—and continue to change—all aspects of Puerto Rican life.  This includes children’s books. While I was pleased, especially after my forays to bookstores in former British colonial islands, to see a wide variety of specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature available, they were dominated by three elements: the history of the island, language issues, and the value (in all sorts of ways) placed on reading.

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The folktale section was dominated by Juan Bobo tales. This is only a small part of the wall of books by and about Puerto Rico for children available at the bookstore.

As with many attempts at creating a national children’s literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the history (both factual and folkloric) of the island in its children’s literature.  At Librería Laberinto, a well-stocked bookstore at the heart of Old San Juan, they had a whole wall of children’s books from and about Puerto Rico.  Many of these are folktales.  Prominent among the stories were Juan Bobo tales; Juan Bobo is an apparently foolish character in Puerto Rican folklore who yet often succeeds against ridiculous odds.  Like Brer Rabbit, Juan Bobo has been discussed as a trickster character who wins out over the greater power—in Brer Rabbit’s case, the tales are often seen as an allegory of slavery, and in Juan Bobo’s, an allegory of colonialism with the Puerto Rican succeeding over the Spanish colonizer. Sharing the shelves with the Juan Bobo tales were Taíno folktales, stories from the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the island.  The Taíno were almost entirely wiped out in Puerto Rico by Columbus and the Spanish, but today they have gained a revered status.  As Ivonne Figueroa has pointed out, “Much has been said of the Taínos lately, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the study of the Taínos took off” (http://www.elboricua.com/history.html).  This time period accords with both movements for Puerto Rican independence (from both the Spanish and the Americans) and with the international rise in the study of anthropology and folklore, which often manifested as a search for the noble primitive, an antidote to an increasingly industrialized world.  Renewed interest in folklore emphasizes this rejection of the globalized world of technology.

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European architectural styles and buildings dominate the counting book, Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers.

But the power of colonialism is also present in Puerto Rican children’s books.  One of the books I brought back, Yvonne Sanavitis and Karen Dietrich’s Los Números en Ponce in Numbers (Plaza Mayor 2009) is a counting book that tells the history of the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico.  Most of the sights associated with the different numbers are connected to la Plaza de las Delicias, the main town square built by the early Spanish settlers in the 1670s, including the Fuente del Léon (Lion Fountain), City Hall, the fire station, and the Armstrong-Poventud house.  These buildings and monuments are all displayed in their European-style decoration, and a brief description of the Spanish colonizers who created them and held sway over them is given.  The Taínos, on the other hand, are not mentioned until the last number of the book.  The page describing 100 shows an isolated path of stones outside the center of the city.  The text reads, “Floods caused by a hurricane washed away layers of earth in the Tibes neighborhood of Ponce and revealed an indigenous Taíno ceremonial site.  Tibes excavations have provided important information about ceremonies, eating habits, ceramics and construction of homes of the indigenous population of Puerto Rico” (51).  It is difficult to see, looking at the illustration, how any of this information could have come from the pile of rocks; additionally, the book says nothing of the people living in the neighborhood at the time of the floods or what happened to them.  The focus is on the people with the power to shape history; the book opens with a quotation from educator Rafael Pont Flores stating, “Ponce no longer repeats its history, it makes it better” (5).

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The Tainos are only represented in Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers by the number 100; the illustration shows an unreadable pile of rocks.

Los Números en Ponce in Numbers also highlights another trend I found in the children’s books in Librería Laberinto, a focus on language.  Many of the books available came in dual editions or dual languages, showing the tension between English and Spanish on the island.  Spanish is, of course, the native language of most Puerto Ricans, but—especially in tourist areas like San Juan and Ponce—English is increasingly necessary at all levels of the economy.  In 2012, the island instituted a pilot program to shift instruction in Puerto Rico’s schools from Spanish to English (https://www.caliricans.com/2012/08/english-to-replace-spanish-in-puerto-rico-schools/).  But it is a fraught issue that mirrors the tensions between the island and the mainland United States.

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This board book highlights words specific to Puerto Rican culture–perhaps it should be labeled trilingual instead of bilingual.

Perhaps the concerns about language come to a head in Palabras Boricuas/Puerto Rican Words (2016), a bilingual—or perhaps trilingual—board book by Hector E. Baez.  Right on the front cover, along with the title and the Puerto Rican flag, is the sentence, “No decimos Banana . . . decimos Guineo.”  Translated into English, this says, “We don’t say banana . . . we say banana.”  This epitomizes for me the struggles over language found in books specifically for Puerto Rican children.

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The Thiago series focuses on issues and concepts important to Puerto Ricans–but because publishing on an island is expensive, even short books like this are costly.

But how many children have access to these books is something I would be interested to know.  As I said, Librería Laberinto had an excellent selection of books, showing how much specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature is valued.  But these books were also incredibly expensive compared to their translated counterparts.  Most were produced by the educational arm of the University of Puerto Rico or the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña.  Again, this shows that children’s literature is of cultural value, but the cost of publishing books on a small island means that most picture books are hard cover only (many of them in the bookstore were sealed in plastic, and therefore unbrowsable).  The books designed for beginning chapter book readers, such as the Thiago series by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and published by EDP University of Puerto Rico, can cost ten dollars for a twenty-six page paperback book.  These prices mean that many children will only encounter books in libraries or schools, rather than being able to have shelves of books in their homes.  This is true in other places as well, of course.  But Puerto Rico’s past and present shape the audience for their specifically Puerto Rican children’s books—leaving the treasures of reading out of reach for many.

Repeating or Renewing Island? Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock

Last week I considered a poet, John Agard, who also wrote prose.  Today I’m going to look at two prose writers from Jamaica, who published works for children contemporaneously (between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, more or less) and who occasionally forayed into poetry: Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock.  The two men have many things in common; both were raised in Jamaica (Salkey was born in Panama but his Jamaican parents brought him back to Jamaica for schooling), educated in British colonial schools, went to England as young adults, and attended London University.  Both were interested in the education of young people and specifically in connecting children to their cultural roots.  Sherlock worked in education throughout his career, and eventually became Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.  Salkey was known as a generous spirit who helped many Black writers and publishers through his promotion of them.  He worked for the seminal programme, “Caribbean Voices,” both as a presenter of his own work and seeking out the talent of others, he was an advisor to the Black British publishers Jessica and Eric Huntley, and he taught creative writing in America.

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Anansi as top-hatted spider, illustrated by American artist Marcia Brown.

Both of them published versions of Anansi stories, and it is here that I want to start.  Anansi, half-spider and half-man, is a folklore figure from West Africa, the son of the sky god and a trickster; when Africans were sold into slavery and transported to the Americas by Europeans, Anansi came with them (although he became somewhat more domesticated in the Caribbean than he was in Africa).  Philip Sherlock was one of the first to publish the folk stories of the trickster figure for children through mainstream—that is to say, British and American—publishers.  His Anansi the Spider-Man, published by Macmillan and illustrated by the American illustrator Marcia Brown, first appeared in 1956, and some version of his Anansi tales have remained in print in America and Britain ever since.  I mention this because Sherlock was focused on the education of Jamaican children, but it is likely that more children outside of Jamaica than in it have seen Sherlock’s version of the tales.  Sherlock’s stories are, in keeping with both his (white British) cultural background and his interest in promoting education, in “standard” British English rather than patois.  Sherlock is absolutely to be credited for bringing attention and cultural capital to the folktales of Jamaica, but his depiction is certainly less verbally adventurous than those of Black Jamaican writers, including Andrew Salkey’s.  Compare Sherlock’s (prose) introduction to Anansi in his 1956 collection to Salkey’s poem, “Anancy,” found in Time for Poetry (1988) edited by Nahdjla Carasco Bailey.  Sherlock writes:

WHO WAS ANANSI?  He was a man and he was a spider.

When things went well he was a man, but when he was in great danger he                         became a spider, safe in his web high up on the ceiling. . . .

Anansi’s home was in the villages and forests of West Africa.  From there long                  years ago thousands of men and women came to the islands of the Caribbean.                      They brought with them the stories that they loved, the stories about clever Br’er                Anansi, and his friends Tiger and Crow and Moos-Moos and Kisander the cat. (1)

Sherlock’s description puts Africa (and Anansi, for that matter) in the past, and connects Anansi’s spider form with fear; but Salkey’s poem suggests otherwise.  The first stanza and the last stanza are connected by Anansi’s ability to constantly change—not out of fear, but out of preference.  “Anancy is a spider;/ Anancy is a man;/ Anancy’s West Indian/ And West African” Salkey writes in the first stanza.  In the last, he adds, “And always,/ Anancy changes/ From a spider into a man/ And from a man into a spider/ And back again/ At the drop of a sleepy eyelid” (87).  Salkey’s Anancy is present and always changing; Sherlock’s Anansi belongs to the fixed past.

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Sherlock’s poem in Nahdjla Carasco Bailey’s Time for Poetry, a collection of poems for secondary students in the Caribbean.

This distinction is not merely a prose/poetry difference.  Another topic both men wrote about was the fishing communities of Jamaica.  This time, it is Sherlock who writes in poetry and Salkey in prose.  Sherlock’s “Jamaican Fisherman” (also collected in Time for Poetry) depicts an outsider viewing a lone fisherman on the beach.  Sherlock’s frequent use of the term “black” as a descriptor and his negative adjectives (wretched, broken) puts the poet in a position of privilege with regard to the fisherman.  Sherlock’s repetition of the fisherman’s “ancient” connections puts the fisherman’s wealth and status firmly in the past.

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Cover illustration by Gerry Craig for Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Salkey, on the other hand, describes a very different fishing scene in his 1969 novel Jonah Simpson.

Jonah left the house very early Thursday morning and went down to the jetty to watch the fishing-boats coming in from the long night’s haul.  The fishermen looked tired but satisfied with their catch.  They were all younger than the men who had been in the Co-op shed the night before.  They were strong, muscular, stripped to the waist, and very confident in the way they stood and handled their small craft, bullying them into the shallow water near the jetty, and afterwards dragging them high up on to the beach.  Jonah kept out of the way, as the men began unloading the fish across a large sheet of canvas spread over the end of the jetty.  The women arrived soon afterwards with their basket and deep metal containers.  They chatted with the men and teased them about the very big fish they hadn’t had the luck to catch. (16)

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Not a lonely fisherman in poverty, but a vibrant community; Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Here is not a lonely, broken, wretched black fisherman without any fish, but a community of fisher-folk, all busy, all strong, all working and laughing together.  The community, in Salkey’s case, is more crucial than the color of their skin.  Sherlock’s Jamaica is a place fixed in the past, in poverty, in fear and loneliness; Salkey’s is communal, of the present, strong and always changing.  These are just two examples of each man’s writing, and an exhaustive study would likely show more nuance in their views of their island home.  As depicted here, however, Sherlock’s Jamaica is a repeating island, characterized by (as Antonio Benítez-Rojo writes, in The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective) “its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity” (1).  Salkey’s Jamaica, on the other hand, holds the possibility for change, and makes the island part of the future rather than the past.

A Valentine to Black Britain: British Children’s Poets Namecheck their History

My blogs lately have been very serious, so in honor of the holiday, I thought I’d do something just a little lighter—though still with a serious purpose. Because (as my daughter can tell you), there are no days off for learning. This habit of tireless education comes from my dad, who Knows Everything. If there is a quiz on a walking tour, or Final Jeopardy comes on, or you were wondering what the lyrics were to a 19th Century folk song, just ask my dad. This broad-based, encyclopedic knowledge in the person of my father is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, growing up in the days before the internet, I didn’t need to worry about the library being open to finish my homework. On the other hand, after I reached the mature age of, say, eight or so, I began to suspect that if I didn’t know everything too, there might be something wrong with me. “How do you get to know so much?” I would ask. His answer was usually, “Good liberal arts education.” I had no idea what that meant.

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My dad and Diego Rivera taught me that art IS history.

What he meant, he practiced. My dad supplemented my education by taking us to jazz concerts, black and white movies, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Kellogg Cereal Factory (okay, any factory he could get us into), and through countless houses old (describing their architectural features) and new (describing their shoddy construction and shortcuts). I learned to suck up this knowledge. In school, and with my dad, you never knew: there may be a quiz.

But through this eclectic mix of educational field trips, I also learned that subject matter was not isolated, and that you could contain more knowledge if you lived it, sang it, saw it, ate it. So part of my Civil Rights history came from listening to Motown; my knowledge about Cesar Chavez from school was reinforced when we stopped buying grapes at home. The art museum and the cereal factory did not have to be worlds apart. Paul Robeson was not just a singer.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to get these multiple levels of learning in small packages is through what Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news”: literature. Black British poets, particularly, have long been interested in conveying more than just the music and rhythm of words. Many of them have tried, through their children’s poetry, to teach a specific history, a history not taught in most history books: Black British history. They do this in many ways, but John Agard, Valerie Bloom, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah all have poems that reference a specific history: they all write about other Black British and Caribbean literary characters and authors, and they do it in a way that integrates with other cultural and literary histories.

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Bloom’s poetry starts with the familiar, and gives readers some history to wonder about.

Many Caribbean and Black British authors write about Anansi, for example. The trickster spider whose tales originally came from West African mythologies and have been changed and modified to fit first Caribbean and then Black British situations is a popular way of introducing young children to their cultural roots. But both Zephaniah and Bloom use the familiar figure of Anansi to link with other figures connected to Caribbean history. Bloom, in “Tell Me a Story” (Let me Touch the Sky Macmillan 2001) has her poem’s speaker ask for stories from her grandmother. “Tell me a story please, Granny,/ ‘Bout Anancy and Tacoma” (64) the poem begins. But it ends with another, lesser known trickster—a real-life escaped slave who went on to lead the Maroons in raids against the British, Jack Manson. “Tell me a story, please, Granny/ Tell me ‘bout t’ree finger Jack” (64). Bloom’s poem does not explain Three-Fingered Jack’s story, but instead encourages the reader to find it out.

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Zephaniah’s world links history and music, Anansi and Marley.

Zephaniah’s poem, “Everyone’s Friend” (Wicked World Puffin 2000) connects Anansi with Jamaica’s most famous singer ever, Bob Marley. The poem, a commentary on the cult of celebrity, argues that everyone now claims to have been a close personal friend of Marley, even “A smart spider known as Anansi” (32) and “Freedom fighters called Maroons” (32). Even though Zephaniah’s name-checking is ironic, since both Anansi and the Maroons existed long before Bob Marley’s rise to fame, his use of these two groups is not accidental. In using these figures in his poem, Zephaniah is linking Marley’s music to the history of resistance to oppression that both Anansi (as a trickster figure) and the Maroons represent.

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John Agard wants the name Mary Seacole to be as familiar to children as nursery rhymes.

Both John Agard and Grace Nichols introduce specific Caribbean authors to their readers through their poetry. Agard, in his popular poem, “Checking Out Me History” (Half-Caste and Other Poems Hodder 2004), highlights the deficits of a British education that teaches “bout ole King Cole” (61) but “never tell me bout Mary Seacole” (61), the Jamaican nurse who wrote her autobiography about her experiences nursing in the same war as Florence Nightingale. Like Zephaniah’s and Bloom’s poems, Agard’s encourages readers to use poetry as a starting point for learning, and reading, more.

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Grace Nichols’ valentine to Sam Selvon–and her child readers.  Illustration by Kim Harley.

The Grace Nichols poem that I want to end with is the most indirect “name-checking” of all these poems, and the child reader might take years to make the connection. “‘Summer is Hearts,’ says Sammy Selvon” (Give Yourself a Hug Puffin 1996) is a direct reference to the novelist Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and its most famous passage, the ten-page stream of consciousness about the brief joys of an English summer for West Indian immigrants. Selvon’s “summer is hearts” passage could not be read to children; it is full of sexual exploits. Nichols’ poem distills the emotions from Selvon’s novel into two-word lines, including (perhaps referencing the sexuality) “folks bolder” (23). In Nichols’ poem, Sammy Selvon is a boy, not a man, not a writer—but a boy who will one day become both. The poem plants seeds of knowledge about history (Sammy Selvon may ring a faraway bell when a child grows up and sees a book in a bookstore) and about literature (made up of words that describe the beauty of being alive). For Nichols, as for the other poets I mention here, poetry is a way to tell the history that they love and they want readers to embrace.