Asian Tales and Tellers

Asian Tales and Tellers by Cathy Spagnoli.
Little Rock, AR: August House, 1998. ISBN 0-87483-527-5 HC $24.95, 224 pp.

When I began to read the stories in this collection, I was prepared. Spagnoli herself had prepared me by welcoming me into the book and into the rich and fascinating world of Asian storytelling. From the preface through the introduction and opening two chapters, she guides the reader, mixing personal anecdotes and background information so ski1fu1ly that the reader is opened to the cultures and contexts of the stories.

Before introducing the reader to seven Asian tellers in chapter one, Spagnoli describes one time when she was attempting to locate storytellers in South India. The description of vague directions, endless bus rides, and surprises along the way, makes the reader glad to be in the hands of an experienced guide on this excursion into Asian telling. With her we enter the homes of seven tellers, hear how each of them came to storytelling, and learn a bit about the style of each.

The next chapter takes us deeper into Asian telling by demonstrating how the familiar storytelling tools of voice, words, gestures, music, and props, are utilized in these different cultures. I was particularly fascinated by the section on gesture. While many Asian cultures use great restraint in telling, some Indian tellers use their whole body, and are particularly eloquent in communicating with their eyes and hands. Spagnoli includes some eye and hand exercises used by students to achieve the necessary control.

When addressing gesture and meaning, she gives examples of gestures we use which might be offensive or confusing to Asian listeners, and which could be avoided when telling Asian tales.

Of course, the lion's share of the book is the collection of folktales, legends, true stories, verse and jokes which Spagnoli has collected from Asian, and Asian-American tellers. These stories are grouped into eleven dominant themes including Harmony and Friendship; Filial Piety; Hard Work and Study; Faith and Belief; National Identity and Pride; and Wit and Wisdom. A brief introduction to each theme sets the context for the stories, and many of the stories also have introductions. A glossary is included, as is a resource list of books, Internet sites, and places to find Asian toys, crafts and music. There are also notes on the stories and motifs.

A wonderful book, both entertaining and enlightening, and highly satisfying for those who are armchair travellers in the world of storytelling. I finished it feeling as if Spagnoli had whisked me away with her, and I was sorry to have our travels together end. Highly recommended.

The Second Story Review, Vol 3, No. 3, Sep 1998

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