Stars and Keys: Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean

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9780253348685: Stars and Keys: Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean
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In Stars and Keys: Folktales and Creolization in the Southwest Indian Ocean, Lee Haring introduces readers to the rich folklore traditions of the islands of the southwest Indian Ocean. The culture of Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Réunion, and the Comoros is a unique blend of traditions that have been brought from Africa, South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The folktales from these islands reflect the diversity of this culture and provide a rare opportunity to observe the fluidity of traditions and the process of creolization. Haring presents the tales in a uniquely innovative style: he interrupts the text as if he were reading aloud and directly addresses the reader. His words and those of the storytellers are clearly distinguished, making this folktale collection useful to a wide range of readers and scholars.

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About the Author:

Lee Haring is Professor Emeritus of English at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York. He is author of Verbal Arts in Madagascar: Performance in Historical Perspective; Ibonia: Epic of Madagascar; and several other books.

Review:

"Offering a rich collection of folktales—and their interpretations—from Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Réunion, and the Comoros, Haring (emer., English, Brooklyn College, CUNY) presents the reader with a tapestry that displays both the culture of these islands of the southwest Indian Ocean and a history of oppression and resistance.... Recommended." —Choice

(Choice)

Lee Haring begins the introduction to this book with a personal anecdote. He tells us about a date he once had with a beautiful Parisian banker named Agnès, who referred to his interest in the folklore of Indian Ocean islands as "très specialisé." Indeed, so it must seem even to my fellow American folklorists who, except for their familiarity with Haring’s earlier work, have had little awareness of this region’s folklore (or, for that matter, of anything else in the region; I remember once reading one of George MacDonald Fraser’s bawdy Flashman novels set in nineteenth-century Madagascar and hearing Nick Spitzer talk about showing his film Zydeco in the region; and, oh, one on my students from England married a person of Seychellois descent). But Haring’s book has a "très specialisé" quality that goes beyond its subject matter, by which I mean that the book is uniquely conceived and executed and has a certain singularity of structure. Though its title seems to suggest a study of a subject, the book is not such (though the book, through its notes, certainly argues a number of points). And though it contains mostly the annotated texts of tales, it is not really a conventional collection of folk stories either (and will not be likely to have the sort of popular appeal that even some scholarly collections of folktales sometimes have). In effect, Haring makes his arguments--about creolization and the continuity of folklore and literature, among other things--through a tale collection and the notes to the included tales. Because of this, some readers may have a hard time wrapping their minds around this mighty piece of scholarship, which should be seen as an important landmark in folklore studies, not simply as a contribution to our knowledge of a region most American folklorists at any rate have little direct interest in.

The collection does not center on stories collected from oral tradition by Haring himself (as one might expect, for the work of a particular collector often forms the basis for such books). Rather, the tales are drawn from a variety of sources--nineteenth-century travel writings, seventeenth-century accounts, one of Haring’s students, twentieth-century tale collections. Haring notes that his book translates these tales into English for the first time. So certainly one aspect of this book’s achievement is simply making available to the world of English speakers a body of material formerly less accessible. Of course we should be grateful for that, especially given the insularity of that English-speaking world. We should also admire Haring’s obviously wide-ranging search for tale texts, pulling them out not only from the more predictable places like Charles Renel’s Contes de Madagascar.

However, Haring’s intent in putting the book together goes well beyond a wish to make these texts available in one English-language volume. In his brief preface he positions his book in a context which envisions "literature" and "folklore" as coalescing, a "broadening of the literary canon" (xii), a process that ultimately requires the examination of "texts" (my term) previously less known and understood (mostly "folk" texts, one would assume). Haring quotes John Szwed to the effect that one kind of literary "convergence" is part of the larger process of creolization, that is, an aspect of the coming together of languages and cultures that "suddenly" meet because of exploration or colonialism or other historical forces and in some way amalgamate. Thus, for example, Indo-Anglian novels or Nuyorican poetry. The tale texts of the Indian Ocean come out of a process of historical amalgamation (Haring includes a "Chronology of the Southwest Indian Ocean" that lays out trends and events relevant to the process), and ultimately they are a part of the "literature" of the region, as it further emerges in its creole context.

Haring is a master of the note (a literary form appreciated by a readership that is probably small and perhaps increasingly antique), and it is in the notes to his tales that he most fully expresses his ideas. Indeed, Haring virtually tells the story of his stories through annotations. For example, in the story "Soungoula, Zako, and Mama Tig," in which the trickster Soungoula persuades Mama Tig (Tiger) to send her children to his supposed school where he actually eats them, the interspersed notes take the reader through connections to events current with the telling of the story (having to do with local developments in education), the narrator’s use of animal sounds, the use of song in part of the story, and the narrator’s providing a sort of summary at the end "to make sure his audience gets all the meaning," a technique that "entered the rhetoric of fiction long before the days of Dostoevski or Henry James" (79). The note goes on to discuss relations to African cultural patterns, cultural ideology as embedded in tales, and how narrators engage in what folklorists would call cante-fable. Haring thus practices a brand of oral literary criticism--applied quite specifically in terms of particular text--which recognizes the significance of various techniques of narration, of social context, and of the connections between oral and written literature. Hence the book provides a richness of knowledge that many major tale collections simply lack.

Stars and Keys is unusual both in terms of the quality of information it conveys and in terms of its providing a particular perspective on a body of folktales in relation to such cultural processes as the amalgamation of cultures and the development of literatures.Frank de Caro, Louisiana State University, Journal of Folklore Research, February 9, 2009

(Frank de Caro, Louisiana State University Journal of Folklore Research 2009-01-00)

"... represents a precious and irreplaceable record of the indigenous folk cultures of these islands... and as such it provides a valuable companion to literary, cultural, or political studies of the islands." —Peter Hawkins, University of Bristol, RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES, Vol. 40.3 August 2009

(Peter Hawkins, University of Bristol RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES 2009-01-00)

"Haring's ability to weave scholarship into his own and his storytellers' narratives makes this book outstanding in the realm of folktale research." —Western Folklore, Fall 2009, Vol. 68.4

(Western Folklore)

"Stars and Keys is a valuable addition to research on the five islands concerned, to folklore studies, and to theories of culture. It will be of interest to folklorists, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists." —Journal of American Folklore

(Journal of American Folklore)

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