Friday, March 26, 2010

Retelling Traditional Stories

What used to be called "the folk tale market" in American publishing seemed to putter out quietly at the end of the 1990's, so in the last decade I'd pretty much given up on being able to write retold stories again. So it's been an interesting experience to return recently to the form that was essentially my apprenticeship in story.

I don't care too much for the catch-all term "folk tale". It seems to differentiate between classic, mythic traditions (that is to say religious traditions) and tales told by "the folk" that are by implication bereft of sacred content. In my opinion that's a false distinction, seeming to privilege one kind of story over another. Many of the stories I used to work with (the ones in The Broken Tusk, for example) fall into the mythic category but unlike Greek or Norse myths are part of a religious tradition that is very much alive and thriving. Some belong in both, being part of Hindu mythological lore and therefore written in one or more of the Puranas, or part of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, yet told and retold in endless permutations in a variety of settings.

All this has become relevant again now because I was invited recently to retell four paired stories for Karadi Tales, a publisher in India with a well-known line of book and CD sets. Each pair focused on a single character but needed to be capable of being read alone as well.

To begin with, I found it exhilarating to be back in the realm of retellings. I listened to Sanskrit verses, trying to catch cadence and rhythm and express it in the English renderings. I followed the twists and turns of mythological story, instead of following characters as one does in fiction writing. I found myself delving deeper into the story with each revision, sometimes revealing flashes of the backstory of minor characters, sometimes following a single prophecy or a promise gone wrong.

Because I was writing for an Indian publisher, I could also make some assumptions about audience. I didn't have to worry about whether readers would "get it". I could give myself permission to write in the kind of voice a storyteller might employ to speak to an audience, while assuming certain commonalities in framework and context.

For years I've tried to shape my writing to be accessible to any audience. It's led me to try to write so fluidly that anyone could understand. That's taught me in turn to pull back on content that calls for too much interpretation, to say "royal dynasty" instead of "lunar dynasty" because the latter would just take too many words to clarify. Now I could pull out those stops. I could let battles play out on the page because readers would get the setup, would know who the combatants were, and might even in some instances know the outcome already. It felt as if I were speaking to a family gathering.

I was reminded that good writing needs to be true to its purpose but it also has to be mindful of its potential audience. I was also made keenly aware that I needed to be writing from within this cultural context to make sense of these stories.

I'm used to writing picture book text by attrition, arriving at story by paring the words in anticipation of pictures yet to come. Halfway through this process, I needed to be reminded by the editor that in addition to being picture books these would be in audio format. "Words," she said. "We need more words." It was quite a revelation. Ah yes, if you're going to have the story read there have to be words.

And songs. Yes, songs. There will be music. More on that when we get there.

All of which has made me nostalgic for the retold story. Back in 1996, Diantha Thorpe of Linnet Books allowed me the freedom to write the stories in The Broken Tusk the way I wanted to: from the inside, beginning with recollections of stories I'd heard as a child, choosing to include stories that conveyed the playful exuberance of their central character while excluding those related to particular sacred sites or traditions of worship. I learned the structure of story as I wrote those. I wouldn't be a published writer of children's books today if it hadn't been for this most ancient and yet surprisingly relevant form. If the retold story does make a comeback in the American market, I hope it returns in a way that goes beyond an easy shorthand label.


  1. Wow. How exciting!!
    These will be available in the US--right?

  2. They should be, although probably not at the local B & N! More likely through the publisher's and maybe some other retail web sites.

  3. Uma, it's instructive that you say you learned about the structure of a story through retold stories. Isn't it true that retold stories become almost plot perfect through so many retellings, pared down to their most efficient and essential structure? (off of which a good story teller can still elaborate) We students of writing and especially we the plot-challenged would do well to study them closely.

  4. Ann, I think you're right. I'm sure that was why I began there.

  5. Thanks Uma. We are excited about the stories as well and are looking forward to publishing them.

  6. So I'm writing the next set this week, and finding something interesting, maybe because I'm relaxed about this now and not worrying that it's beyond me--hmm, that took a while, right? Trying to untangle a single story from a whole web of them is a fabulous lesson in plot. If you start with a main character, you're bound to run into a dozen or more subplots: the story about his siblings, or the curse that was placed on her husband before she married him, the blessing given to his brother but not to him, or whatever. And then you have to decide which of those needs to stay, and which may not belong in this single story. All of which is instructive. When I write fiction I often feel as if I'm overloading the plot at first because I'm worried I won't have enough. This process of understanding a traditional storyline tells me that I need all that extra plot in the beginning or I won't get the layers of story that I need. That's also why some traditional stories, told by people who don't know the culture, feel flat. Because they may not get all those layers.

  7. Uma,
    This is such an interesting post! Lots to think about here. BTW I had many of the Karadi Tales audio-books when the kids were younger (narrated by Naseeruddin Shah and Syeed Jaffrey!)and they loved them. I know your stories will be fabulous.

    You're absolutely right about the subtext and nuance getting lost when the audience (or the author) isn't familiar with the story. Wonder why the traditional stories tended to be streams of stories instead of stand alone stories anyway ...

    I'm glad I came across this post at this time. I need to keep this stuff in mind while working on my new wip!!

  8. Yes and Girish Karnad did some of them too. I don't know who will narrate these or what the music will be like--it's a bit like trying to anticipate illustration when you write a picture book.

    Streams of stories? Interesting question. Perhaps because life in a pre-industrial society would have been all connected, sunrise to sunset and then you start over, with none of the divisions we have between work and recreation, or religious and secular life. Diane Ackerman has an essay about the dawn and what it meant to ancient people in one of her collections. She doesn't make the link to this flowing continuity of story but it seems evident to me. Especially if, as in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, you didn't think of even death as providing a finite end to life, then all story would flow into all other story.

  9. Oh, wonderful ! When will these be available? The Karadi Tales Books and CD sets are what I always buy as birthday presents for my daughters' friends. They are wonderful. And I love your answer to Nandini about the streams of stories...

  10. Maybe next year? Not sure? Watch their web site. They also have a Facebook page now.