Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Complaints about a story

I recently had a complaint about a story I told. This may be the third time of storytelling full time (15 years) that I've had a complaint like this.

A few days after the performance, which was open to the public and was primarily for preschoolers, the person who booked me told me there had been complaints. Plural. She herself had not come to any of the four performances, so she hadn't heard the story (do I sound a little peeved about that?). "Did you tell a story where an elephant gets cut up into pieces?" she asked.

Well, yes. I did. I told Unanana and the Elephant, a folktale from South Africa. The elephant swallows many people, including Unanana, who is there to rescue her baby. She throws hot peppers up into the elephant's trunk and he sneezes everybody out. Then he runs through the grass and trees until he runs into a tree and falls over dead. Unanana takes her machete and cuts the elephant up into big pieces. She gives the pieces of elephant meat to all the people (they were starving in his belly). They take them home, they roast them over hot fires, and you know what they eat for dinner that night. Elephant!

In the version I heard first, Unanana makes a fire in the elephant's belly and begins to cut him up and cook him until he falls over dead! Then Unanana cuts a door in his side and lets everyone out. What reaction would THAT have gotten? A friend whose husband grew up in S. Africa told me the version I now tell.

I was completely shocked at this complaint. I've been telling Unanana for 19 years. Two weeks ago, a preschool director specifically requested this story for her kids. It's not a gruesome ending, very matter-of-fact. Years ago, some kids told me they sat in the library parking lot with that story cranked way up on the car stereo, everybody joining in. It's a good story with a great heroine. It's not about cutting up animals.

I talked the situation over with other performers. One former librarian reminded me of what we did with complaints at the library: we always asked, "Have you read the book?" Ah. Later that day, I saw the woman who booked me and gave her a copy of my CD so she could listen to the story. I also asked how many complaints there had been. One e-mail, it turned out, with claims that others were upset. Sounds like hearsay to me. I've been promised a copy of the e-mail.

It's hard not to go on the defensive about this. It's also hard not to rant about extreme political correctness. I suspect the children listening had no problem with the story. I also suspect that any story I told would offend that particular adult listener.

In the end, I felt that I dealt with this as well as I could. I don't know if that CD will be listened to. I don't know if I'll get a copy of the e-mail. I continue to stand by my artistic choices.


Mary said...

Stick to your guns, girl! and remember the old story about the boy, his grandfather, and the donkey they were taking to market. You can't please everyone -- ever. It sounds to me that you did well "taming" that particular story. Does the mother want only vegatarian stories? and would that be fair to the vegetables??

Sean said...

Yeah, I am struggling with the "Other Wolf" story that is an alternate version by the Grimms for the Grimms "Little Red Cap." The wolf falls in the trough and drowns. The last two times I have told it at a school, the wolf falls into the trough and is so afraid he'll drown, that he leaps way out of the trough and vanishes never to bother LRRHood again. Sigh. Today I really played the wolf scary but still had him run away. Sigh. I don't know how I feel about this self-editing. I really don't.

PriscillaHowe said...

Mary, thanks for that reminder. I still haven't seen the actual complaint, so I don't know if there was a problem with the treatment of the hot peppers, which were tossed into the elephant's trunk!

Sean, I think the self-editing can be appropriate, as long as it doesn't turn the story to oatmeal.

I tell my version of Rapunzel to preschoolers, in which the prince and R. slide down the hair out of the tower and together tug the golden locks out of the "old woman's" hands (this is Kansas, so no witch). She's left up in the tower, and the prince and R. go off together. It's softened from the whole blinding scene, but there's still some rough justice.

I like it that you played the wolf scary, and then had him be scared. I also like it that the audience knows he'll never come back.

Dianne de Las Casas said...

Priscilla, that happened to me at a school too. Many years ago. I was performing two assembly program. I told the story of a turtle trickster. The fox tries to roast him, toast him, bake him, broil him, etc. The turtle says, "Whatever you do, please don't throw me in the river; I'll drown." Typical "Brer Rabbit" motif - don't throw me in the briar patch. Well, after the first assembly, the teacher approached me and lectured me about how inappropriate the story was. How the children are already exposed to violence on television. Then she wanted a summary of all the stories I would tell at the next assembly or she would cancel the next show. I had ten minutes till the next show. Imagine how flabbergasted I was! That school has not rehired me since. That incident scarred me so much that I have not told the story since although I do tell "Brer Rabbit" because he is so well-known in the South. Loren and Elizabeth encourage us to "tell difficult stories" but it's hard to do that when schools expect you to sanitize and "Disneyfy" all the your stories!

Dianne de Las Casas

Dianne de Las Casas said...

Priscilla, I tried to view your vids but YouTube says they're no longer available...


Dianne de Las Casas said...

K, I refreshed and they worked! Yay! I am so disappointed in your show... I WANTED MORE! Wow! You are great. I would hire you in a heartbeat!

"I'm a big mean goat
And I'll wack you in the throat..."

Fantastic work!! I love you!


Granny Sue said...

I think any storyteller who is telling a variety of stories, and who tells from the old folktales, will encounter this problem. I've run into it myself--although not i nso many words. I remember two times when a teacher would take a child out of the room and another time when the whole preschool left because the teacher perceived what I was telling as a "scary story." (It was Turtle of Koka).

Like Sean, I struggle with whether to "clean up" a story so I can tell it without worry, or to tell it in its original form. Once, I told the story about Jack and the Giants. Now in the original version, Jack beheads the giants and there are some other gruesome details. I deleted those parts of the story. After the telling, a girl raised her hand and commented, "that's not how I heard it, he was supposed to cut the giants' heads off!"

I explained that I left that out because there might be little kids listening who would get upset. She nodded, but I wondered, did I shortchange everyone by trying to make the story "safe"?