"Who's Got My Big Fat Harry Toe?"
As told by Gerald Hausman
“Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memories. This is how people care for themselves.” Barry Lopez (Crow and Weasel)
Gerald Hausman is an award-winning storyteller and author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction inspired by Native American oral traditions, animals, mythology and West Indian culture. I read my first Gerald Hausman story, The Turquoise Horse, in 1995. Fourteen years later we met in Santa Fe. I had organized a Great Books summer institute for educators and wanted to include in the program the best literary storyteller I could find. I knew who that should be. For years I had experienced, as an educator, the captivating qualities Gerald’s stories exerted on listeners and readers of all ages. I wanted others to enjoy that experience and be able share it with their own students. When Gerald arrived wearing a cowboy hat, a poncho, and a saddle bag slung over one shoulder, I knew the participants were in for an for an unforgettable ride. Gerald is as charismatic in person as he is captivating on the page.
THIRSTY: How did you come to be a folklorist?
Gerald Hausman:I became interested in folklore as an elementary school student. My mother was involved in anthropology, had been a student of the great naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton, and believed in “the living story” – that living people tell them and pass them on to succeeding generations. By the age of eight I was listening to stories told by Native American tellers who’d witnessed the last days of nomadic life in America. It was thrilling to be present at such storytellings, in the 1950s, which was some time before the medium became more or less popular. In “the old days” storytellers passed down traditional values and they were talking rather than entertaining.
(credit: Mariah Fox)
THIRSTY: Do you regard yourself primarily as a writer or as a literary ethnographer?
GH: By strict definition, I am neither. I am a “listener” in the tradition of “one who hears things.” After hearing, I decide if this is an oral story, which shall remain so, or a written/printed story – or perhaps, but not always, both. This process takes many years of leavening. I have some that I know but have never told or written.
THIRSTY: Why does it matter to you to preserve the oral tradition of cultures that are not your own?
GH: I have always believed that “where you are is what you are”. Culture is not limited to a privileged few, though some “restricted cultures” have made us think so. I never believed that any group of people had put up a sign that said off limits. I think the sign says, Off Limits To All Who Are Disrespectful. So, I have always felt part of the story tradition from which I was a collector and gatherer. I first began collecting Navajo coyote stories in 1965 in northern New Mexico. I was told by my translators that many of the old tales were being lost and that younger members of the tribe were not that interested in them. I think, then and there, I had a purpose beyond any kind of selfish wish to be a storyteller myself: I could hear and with the help of a traditional translator make these old stories available to the younger members of the tribe. This came to pass through a series of audio books that I began to publish in 1986.
THIRSTY: What makes a great storyteller and what makes a story great?
GH: Great storytellers are average people who happen to have been around at a crucial time in human history. They saw or heard unfold – some event that the rest of us missed. But the storyteller, the witness to history, was there, personally. Someone like Joseph Medicine Crow whose grandfather was photographed by Edward S. Curtis in the last century has what we might call a tribal memory. This was passed down by storytelling in the Crow nation. Joseph’s view of some things may go back a few hundred years. This makes for a great story. There is no doubt in my mind that an understanding of history is vital to our survival. No past, no future, as Ziggy Marley once said. So, then, the storyteller becomes a fulcrum in our present and future survival as human beings.
THIRSTY: As you mention Ziggy Marley, Bob Marley’s son, would you tell us how you came to know the Marley family and how the relationship influenced your work?
GH: In Jamaica where we hosted young writers at an accredited summer writing school, we listened to Bob Marley’s music every day and night. We also listened to The Melody Makers, Bob’s children’s combo consisting of Ziggy Marley, Cedella Marley, Stephen Marley and Sharon Marley. It was our daughter Mariah who asked to go to Bob Marley’s former home and museum at 56 Hope Road in Kingston. We decided it would be a great trip for all our young writers to take and so we went as a family and as a school and it was there that Mariah met Stephen and Ziggy. Later she met Cedella and they became good friends. Mariah went on tour with The Melody Makers in 1991. Some years after this, when all of us were friends with Cedella and other Marley family members including Bob’s wife Rita, we were in Jamaica and Loretta and I visited Bob’s birthplace in the village of Nine Miles. There we met more Marleys as well as musicians and helpers who toured with Bob back in the 1970s. At Nine Miles you could hear unsual, sometimes Biblical stories about what it was like in the 1950s when Bob was a young boy planting yams with his grandfather Omeriah. One of these stories involved how he’d been removed – kidnapped is a better word -- by his own father and deposited in the Kingston ghetto at the age of 5. This fascinating twist of hard-bitten history plus the soft pastel focus of country life in the hills of St. Ann’s Parish excited my imagination. No one that I knew of had written a children’s book about Bob’s early odyssey and subsequent abandonment in Kingston, so I wrote an outline for the book and Cedella liked it and we worked together on the text for several years. Mariah illustrated the story using the folkloric style of Jamaican muralists. The Boy From Nine Miles: The Early Life of Bob Marley was published in 1999. It was received well by the Jamaican Ministry of Education and has since become a text in many American schools as well as a fun read for just about anyone.
THIRSTY: Many of your stories deal with the theme of the struggle from childhood to adulthood. Is this because you are drawn to stories that reflect your own story, or because you set out to collect stories that will resonate with young adults?
GH: Actually, I never set out to find anything. It happened. My Navajo friendships became lifelong bonds of faith and trust. I was luckily at the right place at the right time. But in answer to the first part of the question, I had a hard time as an adolescent and I was always getting into trouble. A guidance counselor once told me: “You will never make it to college, don’t even try.” So I didn’t. My brother told me years after this, that a different guidance counselor had told him the same thing. If I came out of high school a little bit scarred, all the better – because as I became a storyteller I found out that I remembered everything, and all of it was useful to me. One time I was telling stories at an all black underserved community school in Macon, Georgia, and I felt myself slipping, losing my audience. So I switched from traditional folklore to my own folklore, and I told them about how I failed my first driving test and later on, the same year, learned to drive a dump truck. The librarian who’d hired me for the event said she saw every chair in the room move 12 inches closer to me when I started talking about failing my driving test. Not long ago, another librarian told me – “All of your stories, all of your books deal with young people on the verge of failure, on the edge of survival, trying to find safe ground.” In that sense, I am always telling and writing about what happened to me, but I use other people’s stories to do that.
THIRSTY: When you tell a story of struggle and failure, what do you want your listeners or readers to take away?
GH: I am hopeful they learn something basic. Humility, for instance. When I tell the story of the boy (me) who won the Great Greased Flagpole Contest of 1957, I hope they do a little more than laugh at the ending. This is the story of the boy who plans to be the greatest flagpole climber of all time. He wins with ease where all the others his age have failed, but he has no humility when he reaches the top of the pole. Instead he leads the crowd of onlookers in a cheer of his name, whereupon he loses his balance and falls off the pole. In doing so, his bathing suit catches on a knot and rips off. I like to ask seventh and eight graders what they’ve learned from the story and they usually say – “Don’t wear a tight bathing suit to a greased flagpole contest.” But they also say – “You didn’t need a big cheer, you won!” I like to add, “That story is about a young writer and egotist, who learns the hard way that it’s not about the reception at the top, it’s about the climb up from the bottom.”
THIRSTY: Do you take creative license with a story you have been told, in the same way an oral storyteller might, or do feel obligated to be true to the particular version you were told?
GH: One of my Navajo roommates in college, artist, Jay DeGroat, once said to me, “I like to hear your versions of our stories because they sometimes show a different slant or vision. This is in our tradition, too. We appreciate the storyteller who adds a little detail here or there, because that shift may make for a better story, a better understanding of the nature of things.” I believe that is what I do; I listen, I remember, I tell. When I am typing I am actually talking, and writing down what I say. That way the writing is more real, to me and to my readers. The “obligated truth” is really the moral, the point of the story, and one mustn’t ever lose that thread or the purpose of the story is also lost. In the Navajo tradition, storytellers are watchful of the seasons, and they don’t tell a winter coyote story in the middle of summer. I learned to be respectful of that.
THIRSTY: Is there any conflict for you between the process of oral story telling, during which each teller becomes, in a sense, story’s “author”, and the process of writing it down, which establishes, or authorizes, a particular version?
GH: If we lose the truth, the kernel of wisdom in the tale, we’ve lost the whole thing. But to keep it intact, we must sometimes embellish the story. I change the story around every time I tell it. But I never lose the kernel of wisdom, which is the reason for the telling. The written tale, in my mind, should also maintain that balance – the moral must be there and along with it the attributes, or embellishments that make the audience listen. Once a well-known author of children’s books took an oral story of mine and re-told it. He thought he had done a brilliant job. But I thought that he’d missed some of the original oral magic that had made the story a great teachable lesson in personal ethics. He’d sacrificed something for the reality of his picture book audience. This can happen in rushing a book into print. Fortunately, I’ve worked with editors who were careful and the time constraints of creating picture books, for me, have usually been two to three years. That gives one the necessary time to reflect on the things mentioned here – is the moral true to the original teller? Is the story historically or mythically true? Is it fun to hear it/read it?
THIRSTY: What do you mean by “mythically true”?
GH: Mythology can be defined as the sacred history of humankind. This is different from what we call “history.” Mythical stories, when you trace them back to their origin, often have a sacredness, a holy quality that comes from the bedrock of lore from which they emerged. “Those stories you call myths are our religion,” a Navajo friend once told me. I like to stay within the guidelines he gave me long ago. For instance, Coyote is a goofball character but we have to remember, as storytellers, to show that his “goof ups” are what changed the mythical, or sacred history of Native America. Clowns and comics are necessary in our society. In all societies, I think.
THIRSTY: What are you working on at present?
GH:I am working on the re-issue of the six audio books I did in the 1980s. They will come out soon – I hope. Also gathering together all of the stories I’ve collected since 1965 and putting them into a kind of American Storybag, and separately from this, but along the same lines a collection of Navajo healing stories with turn of the last century photography and drawings from sand paintings.
THIRSTY: Do you take your cue entirely from the storyteller or do you draw on a variety of literary influences?
GH:I don’t allow literary influences to come into it. I depend on the story, the teller, the tale to take me there and hold me spellbound until I have all the cues in their proper place. In the story of Sam for instance, which was reprinted in Cats of Myth, Simon & Schuster, 2000, the audience needs to say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s like to be at the bottom of the sea.” The cues are all about allowing passage into the world of the imagination. The bottom line here is that one is responding to hearing or reading the story not living it exactly.
THIRSTY: Which authors do you most admire?
GH: Naturally, I love the ones who lean on cultural and mythical history. As a kid I was in love with Holling Clancy Holling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway and a number of others. William Saroyan, Armenian-American story master (much in the oral tradition) is one of my favorite writers. His son Aram is a poet, but also a terrific storyteller whom I’ve always admired. Bob Arnold is a contemporary poet whose narrative poems of Vermont are some of the best stories I’ve ever read. I love the stories of Sci-Fi author Roger Zelazny and his son Trent’s short stories as well. I love the tradition of father passing torch, or rather pen, to someone down the line – son, daughter, niece or grandchild. I’ve always admired the stories of Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid. She writes in the oral tradition and you can hear the almost-patois phrases ringing with poetry and plaintalk. Another woman whose writing I admire is Jamaican author Olive Senior. For the record, Barry Lopez is yet another favorite…how did you guess?
THIRSTY: If Barry Lopez is correct, that “sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive”, why has it been more difficult for writers of short stories to get their work recognized than it is for writers of longer works?
GH: I wouldn’t know for sure, but I think we’ve sort of turned our back on the printed short story. The short story is alive and well on film, radio, internet and reality TV. But it’s sadly missing in the classroom and the bookstore. Actually, I think this is perfectly OK. Because the short story is still thriving in blogs. It may have lost some of its literary glitter, but perhaps this is a good thing. It’s there, it’s real, we still love it for what it is, wherever it is.
THIRSTY: Are you suggesting that any blogger can be a great storyteller?
GH: Not every blogger but certainly “any” blogger, by which I mean, it’s possible for any of us to become a very good or even a great blogger simply by learning the art of bloggy storytelling. There’s a certain style to this and some people are very, very good at it. I have an author friend who is, I believe, a master blogger. His name is Gregory Pleshaw. I read everything he writes and publishes online.
THIRSTY: Can blogging make up for the loss of our own oral tradition?
GH: We’ve not lost the oral tradition. But maybe it’s more common in films and blogs. People are reading more online. We’re a mass market, information-driven society and we want what we want immediately. In the oldest of oral traditions you could wait years to hear the ending of a certain story. My Navajo friend Jay used to say, “You need to wait until there’s snow on the mountaintop.” I’d wait until winter and then he’d say, “Not that snow.” But one year, he told me the story all the way through. Afterwards he said his father, a medicine man, told him I was finally ready to hear the ending. To come to the traditional ending of that particular story, I’d waited more than twenty years. The oral tradition doesn’t submit to the urgency of an audience, and I like that about it. But still it seems to me that blogs may have their own kind of contemporary kinesis. They come in so many forms, too -- from poetry to outburst to oration to open letter. They’re personal and have the common touch of the street and maybe even the trail. I think this may be a new kind of oral tradition in the culture at large. Wisdom is where you find it.
Gerald Hausman, author and storyteller, calls himself a native of the world. He is the author of 70 books, some of which have been made into films, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. His latest book, The American Storybag, was released by Stay Thirsty Press in October, 2010.