Once upon a time, I listened as Noa Baum, an oral storyteller, told a story about her German-Jewish mother. Noa’s gestures and facial expressions, the details of culture and history, the characters she fleshed out with an accented turn of phrase–these all held my attention. Yet at some point early in the telling, Noa was describing my Cuban-Catholic mother–whom she had never met. The question of what drove the metamorphosis of one story into another fascinated me as a writer and, in addition to my friendship with Noa, has led me back repeatedly to her performances and workshops.
This past June, Noa organized a workshop in the DC-metro area, “Hidden Treasures: Your Story as a Gift,” and I was lucky to be part of a group of twenty or so oral story-tellers, writers, poets, physical therapists, psychologists, and trauma survivors. We were ready to discover a memory that could be transformed into a gift, to turn what was lost into something found. We were ready to plunge in and start speaking. So Noa insisted that we listen to a story.
In the discussion that followed her performance that morning, I rediscovered something primal in the comfort of listening. What I felt was akin to the difference between legend, (a story rooted in the specifics of time, place, and character), and myth, (a story untethered from those elements). The same legend cannot be found across continents. The same myth fragment can. In The Bond Between Women, for example, China Galland traces the myth fragment of “The Handless Maiden” across continents, part of her odyssey in search of “fierce compassion.”
“Oral narrative is not about words or context,” Noa told us. “Yes, the teller has to know the story and develop its structure. But the teller has no control over the relationship between listener and story. The listener is the co-creator of the story.”
Clearly, Noa’s skill as an oral story-teller rested on well-honed techniques: gesture, voice, breath, rhythm, facial expressions. She also invited and sustained her listeners, asking us to become the co-creators of her story. As listeners we came to trust that she would create meaning without delimiting or constraining it.
Were readers co-creators, too? [Read more…]