Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Binding Power of Stories

When I was younger, one of my favorite times was story time before bed. My father tells the story of how every night, when I was very little, I would make him recite the Three Little Pigs to me. Sometimes he would be tired and so would try to skip through, thinking I wouldn’t notice, but I always caught on and told him to go back. And sometimes he would get sick of telling it, but I would always insist on hearing that one story. As I got a bit older, I became more open to other stories, occasionally ones that my parents would make up, but most often ones from books. In our family room, there was a large bookshelf packed with books. There were Sesame Street books, Disney books, the Bernstein Bears, and many other books that we acquired over the years. I loved all of them. My parents would read me Cinderella so much that the first page ripped out. Sometimes I would “read” the books back to them, really only having memorized them since I was still too young to read. They realized this when I read the whole nonexistent first page of Cinderella one night. These stories took me to places that I loved, and I developed a fondness for the characters that has remained with me to this day.

Books and stories have always held an important role in my family. At family parties, even at a young age, I enjoyed sitting with the adults because their talk, rather than being boring adult banter, was full of lively stories of their experiences or their friends’ experiences or of their childhood, their aunts and uncles, and their growing up. Their childhood stories fascinated me, and I developed clear images of the houses they played in and the people they encountered such as the old, one-armed man on the hill named Snibbs or the rowdy Hauckenberry kids that threw apples at them. At Christmas time someone would always tell a story by the fireplace, or when we would go camping yearly stories around the bonfire were one of the best parts. Stories shaped who I am, what I love, and inevitably even my relationships with my family. Sharing stories, fictional or true, became how we related to one another, how we grew to be so close, and how my upbringing was defined.

I cannot say, however, that the stories I encountered and the amount of storytelling was quite as substantial as that of the stories in Potiki by Patricia Grace. From the beginning it seems that Toko’s entire existence is based upon stories. His name comes from his Granny’s brother, a fact he learns from the story which juxtaposes his own. He and his brother Manu develop their inseparable bond through staying at home and learning through stories with Roimata. Nearly every chapter from Toko’s perspective begins with a sentence announcing that he is about to tell a story. From this we can see how truly important they are to him, and how they shape him. His story lives on in the poupou that Mary pulls from the fire when he is ultimately carved into it.

Yet his stories all seem to come from the present. His chapters, or stories, connect those of each one of his family members. They weave together each of the tales, connecting them with a retelling of the story, or of a connection to another story. And weaving imagery becomes very important in the novel as well with the making of baskets, the carving of designs, or the rebuilding of the ancestral house. Stories created are often described as “woven.” Similarly, they are woven into every aspect of Maori life. Just as Toko stays in the present in his stories and gives them life, so are the stories a very present thing. They shift and change, which Toko reminds us constantly. Even from beyond the grave he is able to tell us a story. But it is a new story, very different from the story of his birth that he recounted at the beginning of the novel. His stories shift, and they come full circle. They begin with birth and end with death, but in that death, a new life. His stories are a living being, and they continue beyond the grave, just as he does.

In the second last chapter, each character has a chance to tell a story. They all tell the same story. It is the story of Toko and the troubles they had faced that ended with his death. They each tell it in their own way: Roimata uses the sea, Hemi the land, James his carving, Tangi her poetry, Manu his dreams, Granny her long life, and Mary her song. We see clearly here how important the stories are to this family, a family which extends well beyond blood. But we also see how a story can have life; every story is drastically different, but every story really is the same. And they can tell a lot about the storyteller. I have always felt closer to people, especially my family, through stories. It gives me a sense of connection and safety. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter if the story is true or fiction, of one’s own invention or someone else’s. The expression of the story is individual, alive, and binding. Maori culture embodies this, and Toko helps us see it.

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