St Lucia’s French-Kwéyòl culture has seduced yet another writer into paying homage to the island’s mythological past and its people’s natural gift for storytelling handed down to them from their ancestors.
The result is Telling Tales from St Lucia, the latest book by well-known St Lucian educator Nahdjla Carasco Bailey. It’s a collection of short stories targeted at nine to thirteen-year-olds and it puts the spotlight on the island’s age-old legends, showing how they have become interwoven into many aspects of St Lucian life, even its flora and fauna and other areas of its natural environment.
A graduate of Wellington Teachers’ College, the University of the West Indies (Mona) and Stanford University, Palo Alto, Nahdjla has journeyed the globe and taught in various countries, including Jamaica, New Zealand, the Bahamas, the UK, Singapore and her homeland Saint Lucia.
She has taught students of all levels, from kindergarten to university, as well as those studying English as a second language.
Her first publication, Time for Poetry, Nelson Caribbean (1988), was used for many years in schools throughout the region, including Belize. Selected pieces of her verse for children were included in the Nelson Caribbean Key to Reading series (1989). She also co-edited the St. Lucia National Trust publication Walking Iyanola on Pious Feet (1989) and was the winner of the 1993 Minvielle & Chastanet Fine Arts Literary Award.
As a teacher who has spent a great deal of her life nurturing and moulding young minds, Nahdjla knows all too well the power of storytelling and how kids just love a good yarn. As a St Lucian and a member of the St Lucia National Trust, she has firsthand knowledge and experience of the local Kwéyòl storytelling tradition, including the popular format known as ‘Kwik Kwak,’ and it shows in her new book.
The telling of Kwik Kwak tales works this way. A conteur (storyteller) in starting his story first tries to connect with his audience by calling out “Kwik!” to which they shout “Kwak!” in response. The conteur then tests them with riddles to which they must shout out the answers. After a while he proceeds to tell his story. The ultimate effect of the conteur’s antics is that he not only gets the audience to listen, they also join in by commenting on the story, to the extent that it strengthens the connection between them and the conteur and they become one. Sometimes the conteur employs a variant knows as ‘Tim Tim,’ using the same technique.
There are variants of this form of storytelling all over the Caribbean and in some islands it is known as ‘Crick Crack.’ Virtually all of them evolved from the oral storytelling traditions of West Africa which were brought to the islands during the days of slavery.
In Telling Tales from St Lucia the narrator engages her young readers and tries to connect with them, somewhat like the conteur. The tales she spins set out to entertain, educate and amuse, and at the same time usher them into the magical world of St Lucia’s Kwéyòl folklore.
The stories with their cast of perky young heroes and heroines are, for the most part, vivid chronicles of the adventures and antics that St Lucian children typically get entangled in from day to day, and how they use their creativity and smarts to solve problems and overcome obstacles.
They include tales like A Wise Decision that tells about young Norbert who has earned a reputation as a prankster in his community. Nothing makes him happier than to pit his wits against young and old alike, by playing tricks on them. That is until he ends up going too far by pulling a stunt on one of the neighbours that causes the police to get involved and turns even his friends against him.
The stories that really stand out, however, are those in which the young protagonists end up in situations that challenge them to explore the cultural beliefs and traditions of their communities and consider their practicality in the 21st century.
I am Madame Broussard which takes a different approach is perhaps one of the more poignant pieces. Set during the period of the French Revolution, it recounts the true-life story of a local slave girl and her affection for the son of her slave master. At the height of the Revolution Republican agents descend on St Lucia which, at the time, had been a colony of France. In order to quell local resistance to the Republican regime, they decide to make an example of the island’s Royalist sympathizers and suspected supporters of the British by executing them en masse in the public square. To try and save her young slave master and his family from the guillotine, Madame Broussard takes a bold step that confounds the white settlers and slaves alike, and ultimately makes her life story a St Lucian legend.
The story is told through the voice of the slave girl who eventually acquires the title Madame Broussard. Not surprisingly, she anticipates that her readers will be puzzled as to why she should be so eager to save the lives of white slave masters in a period she describes as a “terrible time for most, if not all slaves.” Her response hints at the intended moral of the story and posits it as one that is “quite different” from other slave stories they may have heard or read. “If you heard it being said what a sad life I had, both as a slave girl and the wife of Monsieur Broussard, or if you should hear it said that a slave girl should never have saved her master from the guillotine, please tell those who declare such things, ”I think you’re wrong. I have heard her story in her own words and I know differently.””
All in all, Telling Tales from St Lucia serves as a valuable chart of St Lucia’s fabled past and it enchants its young readers with tales that have long inspired the island’s literary and artistic community, including literary icons like Derek Walcott and his late twin brother Roderick whose plays (e.g. Roddy Walcott’s Chanson Marianne and Derek’s Ti Jean and His Brothers and much of his poetry) have validated St Lucia’s Kwéyòl culture and helped to keep it’s storytelling traditions alive.
Without a doubt, the old legends are fading fast from the memories of most St Lucians as we become increasingly absorbed and bedazzled by the glitz and glamour of modernity, including US Cable TV, the internet and all forms of communications technology.
Nahdjla Bailey has put together a collage of cultural gems that are clearly designed not just to capture her readers’ lively imaginations, but also to help St Lucian children stay connected to their roots.
“I want them to acquire a little repertoire of Lucian folktales, legends and historical events,” she explained.”But more than that, I expect St Lucian children to see themselves on the pages of my book: who and what they are and who and what they can become. There are valuable lessons to be learnt from all the stories which have been recast, and whose contexts I have widened to include children in central roles. I expect the stories with their strong cultural content to assist St Lucian children in internalizing and validating their own culture in its various manifestations, as they read themselves in the pages of literature. Again, I fully expect that these young readers will be inspired to become more open to writing about the everyday things which they see and experience around them in their own environment.”
The stories potentially have strong appeal to non-St Lucian children as well. Nahdjla says it’s also meant for them.
“For non-St Lucian children, I would want them, while enjoying the stories, to consider the new ideas presented, to empathize with the unfamiliar people, settings and situations, and to gain new meaning from discovering different cultural values and traditions, as well as from those universal life experiences with which they are already familiar.”
Towards the end of the book, she invites her readers to ponder over a series of questions and discussion points pertaining to each of the stories. It is done in a manner reminiscent of the Quik Quak conteur who employs a similar interactive device, albeit before he commences and during the course of his stories, with the aim of hooking his listeners and stirring their imaginations. Aside from the fact that one medium is oral and the other is literary, the one other difference is that today Quik Quak storytelling is appreciated more as entertainment and little attention is paid to the moral and socio-cultural implications of the stories.
Not so with Telling Tales from St Lucia. While the stories set out to entertain, each one, along with the associated discussion points and questions, is designed to evoke thoughtful contemplation. The questions are not the bland type frequently employed in textbooks which all too often seem designed to tax the students’ memory skills, rather than their comprehension. Nahdjla phrases her questions in a way that gets the kids to think independently and articulate their thoughts in a manner that will indicate clearly whether they truly get the point of the story. It’s a technique that could work wonders in a classroom by engaging the students and impressing upon their subconscious the power of literature.
I couldn’t help wondering at some of the characters’ ability to accomplish some rather testing feats, notwithstanding their young age. For instance, the relative ease with which Felix and Jacob in the story Mountain in the Mist ascend and descend the mysterious La Sorciere mountain. But then, knowing children and their natural inclination to be adventurous, Nahdjla’s young readers may well find such daredevil feats quite credible and not beyond their realm of possibilities.
As a children’s book, one of the key strengths of Telling Tales from St Lucia is that it makes kids the focus of the narrative and does so effectively. By drawing the reader into the story and enabling him or her to identify with the characters, the youngsters are able to face up to their own weaknesses (reflected in the protagonists’ foibles) and they’re taught the valuable lesson that all actions have consequences. In some cases the characters feel impelled to come up with rational explanations for the mythical tales pervading their communities. Others like The Devil’s Bridge, based on an actual St Lucian landmark, teach them about the ability of good to conquer evil.
For Nahdjla Bailey, Telling Tales from St Lucia is a labour of love. It took her about three months to complete the first drafts.
“Once I had decided that I was going to make children heroes of one kind or another in all the tales, there was no difficulty in knowing where to go, and how. The challenge was in deciding which stories to feature, as I had others in my head which were equally qualified to be in the collection.”
It says a lot about her skills as a teacher and an author that she has put together a book that can be both fun and educational. Moreover, as acclaimed St Lucian educator Lilith Dalphinis noted in her review of the book, it has the potential to infuse young readers with “a sense of the weight of the cultural wealth which is part of our national heritage both as St. Lucians and, like our sister isles and our brothers and sisters everywhere, as part of an ever-widening diaspora.”
Telling Tales from St Lucia is available at bookstores in St Lucia and from Amazon.com