‘A Story, A Story’: Thinking Through African Mythology

The Anansi stories have been handed down through generations of Ashanti culture…Born in Ghana I left at aged 3, leaving much of the Ghanaian culture behind. At aged 30 I can still remember a song about Anansi the spider, the only remnants left of my native tongue. I was given the Anansi book as a child, it captivated me, I read it over and over again, and it provided a connection to my past. At 16, I spent hours crafting a cushion embroidered an illustration from the book that was a childhood favorite. Sadly, the book was lost and I never thought I could get it again. Now, some 14 years since I last saw the book I can still visualize the pictures and hear the wonderful tale of Anansi the spider, his sons and the moon. I have just bought two copies, one for my niece and one for my two year old daughter. I absolutely cannot wait to read them again and again and pass this memorable story to a new generation.

Last week, I was particularly grateful for one library find: A Story, A Story: An African Tale by Gail E Haley perched atop of one of the stacks. I was eager to read it with my kids because (confession time) I’ve heard a lot about the African “Spider Stories” or Anansi (also spelled Ananse) tales, but I’ve never actually read them. As a devotee of the The Well Trained Mind school of homeschooling, I put a lot of stock in the great storytelling traditions of the world. I’m eager for my kids to go beyond the latest Captain Underpants or Disney princess book to sample ways of thinking and creating meaning from far away times and places.

In my experience as an editor, I have found that so often the portrayal of other cultures that kids (and adults, too) get in our literature is a white-washed, Americanized version. I read a Publishers Weekly interview once with an adult author of historical fiction who happily confessed that he had written the his story, which was set in the Orient of centuries past, without one bit of prior research. After the first draft, he did a little reading, picked a few choice factoids, and gave it some historical flavor. While this may make for entertaining reading, it doesn’t do a whole lot to foster real understanding of a foreign culture. In fact, I would argue that what he has produced is probably a lot more like the Jim Crowe minstrel shows of the Old South—a caricature based on his own stereotypes–than any real history.

The Anansi stories, however, are a little closer to the source. Granted, they have been interpreted for American audiences, and you’ll find quite a range of picture books out there on them—some with a very traditional feel, others that look and sound a lot like any other book on your library shelf. But many of them contain a story arc that is hundreds of years old, and in a few, you’ll find language and ideas that will really stretch your kids’ ears.

That’s why I was so excited to sit down and share Gale E. Haley’s 1971 Caldecott Winner with my kids last week.: to journey with them into an entire culture of storytelling I know little about. (Considering it beat out Frog and Toad are Friends by Alfred Lobel that year to grab the honor, somebody thought it was special.)

Of course, right away both my kids and I could feel how different it was. The illustrations are not cutesy or cuddly in any way; the main character is an old man, with dark brown skin, silky white whiskers and wearing what my kids would call “pretty pink panties” (which was one of the high points for them). I love the introduction, which helps put the story into context, though I suspect it is more for adults than children. The first pages begin, “Many African stories, whether or not they are about Kwaku Ananse the “spider man” are called “Spider Stories.” This book is about how that came to be. “Spider stories” tell how small, defenseless men or animals outwit others and succeed against great odds. These stories crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the cruel ships that dilivered slaves to the Americas. Their decendants still tell some of these stories today. Ananse has become Anancy in the Caribbean isles, while he survives as “Aunt Nancy” in the southern United States….”

I also really appreciate the writer’s final emphasis that this is fantasy: “The African storyteller begins: ‘We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.’”

And so we turned the page and we saw small children gathered around Ananse’s knee, listening to a story of the time when “all the stories belonged to Nyame, the Sky God. He kept them in a golden box, next to his royal stool.” From there, we follow Ananse as he spins a web to climb up to the Sky God, and then journeys on a quest to capture and pay the Sky God with three impossible gifts: “Osebo, the leopard of-the-terrible-teeth, Mmboro the hornet-who-stings-like-fire, and Mmoatia the fairy whom-men-never-see.” Ananse is a trickster, and thus he lies and cheats his way to fulfilling the Sky God’s demands. In the end, he is rewarded for his ingenuity, and “Ananse takes the golden box of stories back to earth, to the people of his village. And when he opened the box all the stories scattered to the corners of the world, including this one.”

As I closed the back cover of the book, interpreting this story for my own kids seemed a daunting task. First of all, they didn’t really get it. The old man in this foreign setting wasn’t really someone they could easily identify with. He was no Bob the Builder or Fancy Nancy. My girls were most concerned about the leopard that had been tied up, and they wanted to know 1) if he was ok and 2) when Ananse was going to help the leopard get down. They did enjoy the Gum Baby, which we recognized as similar to the tar baby from Uncle Remus stories. (I know the Uncle Remus stories have enjoyed ups and downs in their political correctness, and they have their own moral difficulties, but I have a copy from my own childhood, and I do pull it out now and again.)

On the surface, two aspects stood out to my girls as problems: 1) what is a Sky God? Isn’t he an idol? and 2) Was it really ok for Ananse to lie and cheat? Was he still a hero after all that?

These are huge questions that would require far more than one blog post to address. For today, two points will have to suffice: First, unlike many in our culture, Christian have the great relief of knowing that all people—and thus our stories—fall short of the glory of God. That means I can admit when characters do wrong, no matter how charming or clever they are. In this case, Ananse was wrong to lie and not honor his promises to the animals. In contrast to the Sky God of this story and the god of postmodernism which says all stories are equally good and true, our Lord is never honored by thievery, and I never want to damage my children’s consciences by pretending otherwise.

Second, however, is the Christian idea of grace. The reality is that most of our culture’s treasured stories aren’t free from error and sin. Consider the idolatry of Greek and Roman mythology or tricksters like Bugs Bunny or Huck Finn. Yes, it’s true that Ananse is at his core a sinner and that this book ultimately comes up short. But so do we. And while there are limits to the type of debauchery I want my kids exposed to, this particular story offers some valuable perspectives for my girls: a man who perseveres against a natural world that is at odds with him (a perspective not usually found in typical American kids’ books, which tend toward nature-worship), exposure to an ancient use of plot and storytelling, and most of all, access to an entire culture’s longing for and value of the joy and beauty of stories, which we can see as ultimately fulfilled in the story of Christ.

In summary, though it was a difficult read, it was an experience I’d recommend to thoughtful parents. In my reading about Hailey’s book, I came across the quote at the beginning of this article. As that reader put it regarding another Caldecott-winning version of the tale, Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott: “At aged 30 I can still remember a song about Anansi the spider, the only remnants left of my native tongue. I was given the Anansi book as a child, it captivated me, I read it over and over again, and it provided a connection to my past.”

And that’s the real hope that I have for this book in my kids’ lives. That when they meet someone like the commenter above, they will be able to admire in a limited way what she admires in her own culture, and in so doing, show her the love of a holy yet merciful God.

I update some of these thoughts in ‘Oh Say I Can’t See’ Anyone Else But Me.

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  1. Melinda on February 21, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Emily, you’ve hit on something the Caldecott committee prizes: original and traditional stories from other cultures illustrated in a style from that culture.

    (Like with many award winners, it is easy to look at some of the Caldecott’s and wonder, “Why did this win? Are these illustrations really the best for the whole year?”)

    These books offer a rich look into other cultures, their art, and, as you mentioned, their beliefs. They are interesting in themselves and also point to the fact that the world is very complex. It is good industry for us parents to try to explain these different stories and heroes to our children in light of gospel truth. And they get exposed to stories that are less tidy than Bob the Builder (who can always do it, yes he can!) and Fancy Nancy.

    I’ve got my list here, so here are some other Caldecott Winners set in Africa: Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, Ashanti to Zulu, Shadow, and Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse.

  2. emily on February 22, 2011 at 12:39 am

    Thanks for that Caldecott short list, Melinda. I especially love Jerry Pinkney’s art. His book Noah’s Ark is a Caldecott Honor Book and when I saw it a few years ago, I thought it was quite a gem.

  3. Janie on February 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I’m not very knowledgeable about African- heritage books, but I’m glad to know this, as my granddaughter is of African heritage. The problem of glorifying the trickster, which you also talked about in your Olivia post, is one that must be carefully handled, since all cultures seem to do this. As for the sky-god, I’m becoming very interested in the way pagan worldviews are represented today–they’re very much with us! More on this later…

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