Thursday, February 17, 2011

Swapping Stories: The Power of Storytelling

In reading Potiki, I was immediately awakened to the role of storytelling in our world. Of course the other books the class has read, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay also share in the use of stories in reflecting the cultures presented in them; in Potiki storytelling is depicted as an art. In Potiki, storytelling is the device in which knowledge of the culture is passed on. The beginning of the book opens with what seems to be an ancient myth, a story that would have been passed on through the ages by word of mouth. It is the tale of a Maori carpenter, one who shapes totems (ancestors) and a house which he leaves for the people when he passes on: “He has given the people himself, and he has given the people his ancestors and their own. (8) Not only does the carpenter pass down his works, but a piece of himself as well, his own essence engraved in his hard work. Even more precious than a sacred artifact, stories are passed down through generations, but unlike any physical object, the story never breaks. Sometimes the minor details are changed, sometimes they will be applied to song, but the stories we love always survive. In the book this includes the stories and traditions of the Maori, and as the plot progresses it is clear that the traditions are still handed down, like the stories. In fact it can be said it is the stories themselves, and the act of telling them serves to preserve the culture itself. Like the carpenter’s craft, the stories are told for the young so that past may live in them as well: “In this way the ancestors are known and remembered.”(8)

The prologue to the book continues with the carpenter’s apprentice, one who has inherited his skills through passed knowledge. In the story the master craftsman gives to his pupil a mallet and instructs him to continue to work. This is a perfect metaphor for the power of stories, how they are passed to the next generation who then in turn become the storytellers to the people, the next chain of descendants. Through this knowledge the young apprentice then becomes a master as well, and more to the point, the text also describes him as a storyteller: “They came especially to listen to his stories, which were of living wood, his stories of the ancestors. He told also the histories of patterns and the meanings of the patterns to life.” (10) Again the text brings forth the idea of passing on cultures through stories, but why? What stories? In truth there are endless possibilities. Sometimes they are myths, used to express human nature and the world around us. Some stories can reflect the origin of a culture, and others bring forth religion. I can remember in my earlier youth crowding around with the other kindergartners to hear our sage-like teacher recite the epic tales of King David, the life of Christ, even the saints that make up my own Catholic culture. I’ m sure most children experience this, after all it was the only way to introduce the young who can’t read the bible yet. Stories are ageless, whether written or spoken, and they are loved by all. They are personal. Stories also have the power of preserving family life as well, a cultural aspect more unique to an individual. For me it was a ghost story. As a child I listened to my aunt tell of “Devil’s Curve” in which one of my grandfathers, a doctor, was riding an infamous stretch of road and disappeared in the mist. Perhaps it is true, perhaps not, but this stretch of lore gave me a small insight into my family’s past- not to mention our own love of storytelling (which is great). In a sense it also instilled in me a rooted desire to be storyteller myself, a writer of stories.

The power of stories goes beyond just families however, they transverse cultures and are shared with other people. Even though Potiki is infused with Maori culture and story there is also the presence the outside world. In the book it is stories that are told in school, of history, of mathematics, and at the same time they still retain their own native stories: “Some of these book stories of queens and kings, monsters, charmers, murderers, ghosts, orphans, demons, and saints. And we had our own heroes and heroines, enchanters, wrongdoers, outcasts and magicians to add to these stories from the books.” (40)

The true marvel of stories and of storytelling is that they have the power to both preserve a culture and share it among the world. They can bring other peoples together, just as they can bring a community to the hearth in order to share with them their heritage. At the heart of storytelling is giving to others, sharing the story that once was once told to another. As the book said, even with the death of one storyteller, another is reborn to take the story and tell it as their mentor had taught them, maybe adding their own aspect into the mix as well: “End is always beginning. Death is life.” (58) Thus stories make man immortal, they keep the traditions alive. As long as there are those who tell stories, the culture will last an eternity for their beliefs and lessons will continually be passed to a new age.

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