I have been very fortunate to have travelled to a number of countries as a result of my husband’s work. These have been, for the most part, quite lengthy stays which have given me the chance to get to know the countries and the people quite well. This travelling has also been a great boon to my storytelling.
I grew up in Lancashire in the north west of England and, even before I discovered storytelling, I had always been a talker. I liked to talk. My first report card from elementary school said “Excellent Orally” which my mother explained to me meant I had ‘the gift of the gab’. My mother also said the biggest mistake she had ever made was allowing the doctor to make that little snip to free my tongue when I was born tongue-tied! My math teacher in High School said on my report card “If Joan worked half as hard as she talked, she’d be top of this class!”
When Barry and I got married the first place we went to was north western Quebec, Canada. I spoke no French at all when we arrived in Quebec but, during the period we were there, I learned to make myself understood. My greatest progress was made when I joined the parent-teacher committee of the school my two daughters attended. At first I came out of every meeting with a raging headache from the effort it took to listen. The discussions went so fast I had no time to formulate my ideas in French – I hardly spoke a word. Even after I could speak a little I was frustrated by the desire to say what I wanted to say, not just what I could say. Little did I realise this was the best training I could possibly have had for my future career as a storyteller. I was forced for the first time to learn the art of listening.
How can a storyteller draw in her listeners if she does not know how to listen to voices, watch faces, read emotions and know the value of silence? My enforced silence in those early days in Quebec taught me all of those things and also how to choose my words carefully and think hard before speaking. It also brought me close to a culture that was rich and vibrant and I learned that the British way of doing things was not after all the best or only way – what a surprise!
Our next move was to the United States. And this was where I discovered Storytelling. Quite by accident I attended a storytelling course at Rhode Island University. The scales fell from my eyes. I thought “I have been doing this all my life! Wow, I could make a living doing this!”
It was such a good place to begin storytelling. New England has a huge, well educated population which meant there were lots of other storytellers to learn from and lots of listeners to practice on. The melting pot of American culture meant I heard stories not only from Native Americans but from cultures all over the world told by people who belonged to those cultures. It was a precious gift to realise how being steeped in a culture informs the storytelling in so many intangible ways. I joined storytelling groups, volunteered at events, travelled to conferences and festivals, performed to audiences as small as 2 and as large as 300. In short, I served my apprenticeship, discovered that a community of storytellers was where I belonged, and on top of all that, I was able to put bread on the table. I loved the exuberance of Americans and revelled in the freedom to give anything a try.
My English accent was a great bonus because so many Americans are anglophiles – which is quite surprising given the effort they went to in order to separate themselves from England. Those crucial first few seconds in a performance when you have to grab the audience’s attention was easier for me than most people. Because of my accent, they would have been happy to listen to me reading a grocery list! Now I began for the first time to look at my own English heritage. I developed and told personal stories about my childhood as a way of keeping that part of me alive and as a way to pass it on to my daughters. I revelled in the folktales of the British Isles because they resonated so deeply within me. The audiences recognised this connection and responded to it – so I enjoyed it even more. I have always loved to sing and so I began to add Music Hall songs and folksongs to my programs and these were well received also. I now know that nowhere else could I have found a better support system to help get me started in storytelling as a profession.
Then we moved back to Canada. This time we lived near Toronto. This time I knew who I was. I was a storyteller. I also knew the importance of belonging to and working for a community. I immediately contacted the Storytellers School of Toronto, joined their Board and started volunteering and later I joined the executive of the Canadian Association of Storytellers for Children (CASC). These two groups were my life support as I learned to fit in. Wherever I have travelled since, I have always searched out the local storytelling community because I know I will find there kindred spirits to welcome and support me.
That is not to say that storytellers are the same everywhere in the world. In Toronto, a busy University city, I met a lot of storytellers who loved the academic approach to telling. They researched the story and the culture it came from, finding as many variants as possible, discussing it deeply with other storytellers before starting to make it their own. People knew so much about the history of storytelling in cultures from all over the world. I found I had a great deal to learn. Isn’t that always the way? The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. What an exciting time.
Then we moved to South Africa. This time I knew I had to have a way to keep in close contact with these special friends of mine in the Toronto storytelling community. So I asked if I could be the editor of the quarterly publication that CASC produces as a benefit of membership. Who knew I could be so wise? They said yes. Thank goodness. And so, through the internet, they have continued to be a support and a very vital link with ‘home’.
And, of course, when I arrived in South Africa I got in touch with the local storytelling group, Zanendaba Storytellers, a dynamic group of black South Africans working out of Johannesburg. Jo’burg is a city plagued by violence and I was warned by many people that to go downtown was very dangerous but I decided I couldn’t limit my life by cutting myself off from the only storytellers I knew of. I found them to be an energetic group of strong women working hard and having fun in very difficult times. They are trying to keep the traditional stories alive before they are totally lost. Their society is rapidly changing from an agrarian, village culture to a modern western style of living. Families are living apart as parents go to the cities in search of work. No longer does the village gather together at night, rarely do the grandmothers tell the old stories round the fire. Zanendaba are trying to adapt storytelling to this new age. With them I learned a lot about the importance of stories in building and strengthening communities. For the first time I encountered audiences who perfectly understood that they were an integral part of the telling. What a joy it was to tell with audiences who assumed they would join in throughout the story, who would get up and dance and break into song at the least excuse.
The next move was back to Australia - this time to Brisbane. Back in the year 2000 we had briefly visited Wollongong and, through friends in the USA, I was able to connect with Sue Alvarez and the Sydney Guild. I was only there for a month but they invited me to perform with them at Centennial Park and I enjoyed a nice long lunch with Sue over looking the Sydney Harbour while we talked storytelling and ‘networked’.So when Barry and I returned to Australia, this time planning a longer stay, I was soon in touch with Sue and, through her, connected with the Queensland Guild, based in Brisbane. Once more, I found a like-minded group of people willing to share stories – not to mention good food and their hospitable homes. I have found the Australian storytelling community is very much like the Canadian one. Steeped in the old British Library Hour tradition but informed by a background of many cultures and again an academic love of the subject matter. Here, through the guild and through the brief contacts I have had with Aboriginal people, I have come to a better understanding of how the land and story are inextricably linked.
Once I left England I could never belong to a land again in the same way. Not even to England because I changed and it changed too in many different ways. But in Australia I became more deeply aware of how the landscape shapes the culture. This was something I think I had always known but now it was a conscious awareness. I will share stories from Australia with my listeners when I return to Canada. Just as I will share the stories of other places I have lived – they are now a part of me. But thanks to learning about the Aboriginal culture, I now understand as never before how that connection to my place of birth and my childhood, is a core part of my make-up that needs to find expression if I am to feel complete. For example it has been a delight to encounter a sense of humour here in Australia that is so similar to the British. I love the irreverence for authority and the fun in word play that is such a big part of Aussie life.
The parts of Canada, the USA, Africa and Australia that made me feel comfortable were the old remnants, the shadows, of British culture that still remained. The different and new aspects of those countries were what excited and challenged me - they were what helped me grow. All of these countries share a similar history of colonisation and exploration. They all have indigenous cultures with a different world view from the colonisers. Yet their stories all tell about the same basic human experience. Life is difficult, uncertain, and cyclic in nature. It takes courage and endurance but there is hope and joy and we can succeed.
Canadian Association of Storytellers for Children
Editor Barrel of Stories Quarterly magazine for CASC