By KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON
EVERYONE LOVES A good story told well, but storytelling is particularly important for children, as professional tellers of tales demonstrated at the fourth International Storytelling Festival, held this month in Bangkok.
“Peacetales”, as this edition was called, took place at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, hosted by the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.
More than 16 professional storytellers participated, from Myanmar, Singapore, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Italy, Taiwan, South Korea and the US, as well several Thais with a gift for expression, among them hilltribe children from the Jomaloluela School.
During a discussion on “Tales for Peace”, panellists Dr Margaret Read MacDonald, Sheila Wee and Giovanna Conforto offered inspiring examples of how hearing stories orally told can have a transforming effect on youngsters. If the stories present alternatives to aggression in settling differences – and explain the causes of the fear that fosters violence – the result might be a more peaceful world.
It makes no difference if the stories are thousands of years old, said MacDonald, an American who compiled “Peace Tales” and other collections of folktales and has authored many popular children’s books.
“They can still serve a purpose – even though they’re very old they’re still vital,” she said. “You can always find an old story that matches the needs of today.”
She cited one “wonderful story” included in “Peace Tales” of relevance today about the Muslim Parsis of Persia migrating to India a millennium ago.
“The maharaja couldn’t communicate in their language, so he brought out a bowl of milk as a sign that his land was full and couldn’t accept any more people. The Parsi leader poured some sugar into the milk to show that, if they were admitted, they would sweeten the land without taking up space.
“The maharaja allowed them to settle on three conditions – that they adopt the local language and mode of dress, and that they never convert to Hinduism. In other words, ‘You must keep your own religion.’ I wish that everyone today in Europe, the US, the Middle East and across the world could hear this story,” MacDonald said
Singaporean Sheila Wee has pioneered the use of storytelling to give both children and adults the tools needed in daily life. “A story is like social currency,” she said. It’s a way of relating to other people, through sharing stories.
“You’re sitting in this room today because your ancestors, way back 150,000 years ago, were good listeners. We’ve been telling and listening to stories for that long. Those who listen to other people’s stories learn from their experiences and are better equipped to survive.
“And, because we’ve been listening to stories for so long, it’s shaped the way our brains work,” Wee said. “When we sense something, it goes to the unconscious brain before it reaches our consciousness. The story is first broken down into its building blocks so that we can understand and remember it better. It’s the most natural communication tool, so obviously it’s one of the best ways to get a message across.”
Wee cautioned that stories for the telling have to be chosen wisely, with the sensibilities of the audience in mind. “There are many stories, particular in Asia, in which revenge is a big theme. We need to look for the right stories to tell children, and when we find those that are suitable, we need to immerse them when they’re young.”
Conforto, an Italian who’s been weaving yarns since 2003, when her project “The Little Lamp, a Palestinian Fairy Tale” emerged from a children’s workshops series she led in Bethlehem, is member of the Storytelling and Peace Council.
“I’ve worked for many years for the Youth International Foundation, which helps at-risk children and other young people try to solve problems through art and explore alternative possibilities,” she said.
“I profoundly think that, in very difficult situations, the beauty of a story is in the way it reflects the beauty of humanity, and in my experience that makes it the most powerful of tools for effecting change. We not only ‘think’ in stories, we also ‘dream’ in stories, and we all share the world of stories. Used in a situation of conflict, the story becomes a safe place where we can all relax and share and be human beings, because the story is about humanity.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to tell a story that has message about peace to create peace through a story,” Conforto said. “An enormous number of stories with different points of view can be told. It’s said that, if you know someone else’s personal story, it’s more difficult to kill him.”
“We’re so used to thinking that the way we feel and think has to be the only the valid way, but if we hear many stories, many different points of view, and we allow them to get inside us and change us, then hopefully we’ll make wiser choices in life.”
By way of example, Conforto told a story.
“Once upon a time there was a king in a beautiful kingdom. One day a terrible monster came to the gates, scaring the whole population. His people told the king, ‘You must do something!’ But he was scared himself.
“He sent out his knights, the warriors, the big ones, but when they saw the enormous monster, they got scared too and ran off, until there was no one left. Then the people told the king, ‘You must do something – you are in charge!’ So the king, even though he had no confidence, went to the gate – and the monster somehow looked smaller.
“‘How is this possible?’ he said to himself. He took a little step further, and the monster looked a little bit smaller, and smaller, smaller and smaller, until he could pick up the monster in his hand. He asked it, ‘Who are you?’ And the monster said, ‘I am fear.’”
Audible gasps and appreciative murmurs suggested that what Conforto said next was already understood. “A story can help us identify the base cause of any conflict – which is fear,” she pointed out.
“We’re scared of ‘the other’, of the unknown. We’re always protecting ourselves from what we don’t know. I might not fully understand the politics of a real problem, but I’ve given you a fairytale, and I think it’s much more powerful. And the story had more impact because I told it in my own words. I told you a story that’s full of hope.”