Monday, August 06, 2012

Process Talk: Ann Stampler on The Wooden Sword

On her web site, YA and picture book writer Ann Stampler says:
My forays into other careers notwithstanding, I have always wanted to be a writer, and have always, ever since I was first able to write, had notebooks and file folders and bankers’ boxes full of stories, and pieces of stories, and fragments of novels, and random paragraphs.  As a teenager, I saw myself as smart and socially hopeless.  Now I see myself as less smart and less hopeless, but I’m still basically the same person I’ve always been; I’m just a lot happier about it. 
I also love what she has to say about the power of story:
I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that read to me and told me stories, and my love for books and stories has stayed with me throughout my life.
Welcome, Ann Stampler.

[Uma] You're a passionate advocate for retold folklore. Tell me why you believe these old stories matter.

[Ann] Folk tales are a remarkable tool for conveying a culture's values and flavor from one generation to the next.  The best folk tales have compelling story lines that make them interesting to hear and compelling for storytellers to carry from village to village and continent to continent.   But the tales' embedded values -- the wisdom and the messages they bring us from our ancestors -- are what make them so special.

[Uma] In your picture book, The Wooden Sword, the encounter of a powerful shah with a poor shoemaker leads to a testing of faith, the triumph of hope and the forging of connections, with a little wink on the side to the reader. What was it that drew you to this story?

[Ann] In terms of story, I love the humor in this tale, the fact that both the shah and the poor shoemaker are, in some sense, tricksters who outsmart each other and ultimately enrich each other's lives.  In terms of message, the notion that an optimistic faith -- along with cleverness, resilience and hard work -- can get us past the obstacles that life throws in our paths seemed important  to share with this generation of children.  Finally, in today's political climate, a story that shows people of different faiths, who practice those different faiths, coexisting and coming together with mutual respect, was difficult to pass up.

[Uma] You have included a detailed author's note in the back about the variants of the story and the choices you made in retelling it. Why do you think such a "story behind the story" is important information for young readers and for those who introduce this book to them?

 [Ann] With all folklore, we have evolved beyond the point when the re-teller can just go, uh, this is a story from, er, Africa, and proceed to misrepresent both the bones of the original story and its cultural context.  At least I hope we have.

Folk tales are great stories, but they are also cultural artifacts that we preserve by telling them well.  I always write an author's note for the folk tales I retell to give readers a sense of where the stories come from, how they reached me, and how they might have been changed in traveling from their original countries to me in the U.S.  With my earlier books, this has been easier to accomplish, since the stories came to me via my immigrant grandmother, and I could see how her spin affected the tales by reading and hearing other versions, and by understanding her point of view.

 The Wooden Sword, however, is the first story I've done from outside my own culture.  I knew an Eastern European version of the story, but it didn't have the same resonance for me as the Afghani* one I chose to retell.  I worked very hard to get the story right, as did the illustrator.  But The Wooden Sword comes from a culture that no longer exists in situ; it comes from the Jewish community of Afghanistan, which emigrated, en masse, in the mid-twentieth century.  And I found myself relying on people, more than books, as resources, including Afghani Jews, a professor of Islam at Loyola Marymount University, and folklore and other scholars in the U.S. and abroad, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and knowledge.  It seemed to me important to share the background of the story and how I came to tell it as I did, to make it possible for readers (presumably not the five and six year-old-readers who are The Wooden Sword's primary audience, but for the parents and teachers who read it along with them, and for those children if they pick up the book again as they grow older and begin to see different layers of the tale) to understand just what they were getting.

While I think that this story has messages that are valuable for children of all (or no) faiths, in addition to being a lot of fun (which I get to say because I didn't make it up!), I've been particularly gratified to learn that both Jewish and Muslim children and families have enjoyed it.  I believe that the author's note, explaining my choices in writing the book and the origins of the story, helps to give context to the spiritual and cultural underpinnings of the tale, and makes them easier for parents to discuss with their children.

[Uma] Thanks Ann! What an interesting intersection of story, history, geography and culture.

*Note: On the choice of the adjective "Afghani" vs. "Afghan" Ann writes:
I know that Afghan versus Afghani has been debated at length; I went with the choice of the Afghani expatriates who helped me with the book, and whose perspective is closest to that of the community from which the story comes.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Uma,
    Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your blog, and for this interview! I love the story of The Wooden Sword; I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to retell it in this book, and the chance to discuss it with you.