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A Dozen Answers to the Multicultural Heckler

By Aaron Shepard

Printed in Once Upon A Time, Summer 1996


For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Storytelling Page at
www.aaronshep.com/storytelling

Copyright © 1996 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.


Question: What gives you the right to retell stories from other cultures?

Answer #1: Gee, I’m sorry.

Answer #2: I don’t really retell them. I record them from native storytellers and publish them under my own name. (Uh, just kidding.)

Answer #3: My mother is 5% East European Jewish, 7% Native American, 9% Creole, 13% East Indian, 17% Ainu, 23% Mexican-Irish Muslim, and the rest is unidentified. As for my father, he’s not saying, but the antennae kind of give him away.

Answer #4: It takes an average of five years for a talented writer to publish a first picture book. That book might bring the writer a total of $5,000. Few people from minority cultures are crazy enough to bother. Most of them want to do sane things, like make a good living. If these stories are going to be retold, it will be mostly up to lunatics like me.

Answer #5: Stories originate with individual tellers and spread through a culture. Travelers carry them from that culture to another, where storytellers adopt them, adapt them, and spread them through their own cultures. Then travelers carry them on again. Few stories belong exclusively to the culture where they are found. Most are told in different versions all over the world.

Answer #6: It’s not my right, it’s my duty. My job as a storyteller is to take good stories wherever I find them and pass them on.

Answer #7: Stories don’t really belong to cultures, but to the people who love them, care for them, and tell them. I’m one of those people.

Answer #8: This is one planet. I may have been brought up in a particular culture, but my heritage as a human being includes all the cultures of the world. Why should I limit my horizon?

Answer #9: If you know the stories, I urge you to share them. If you don’t know the stories, let me introduce them to you. [Paraphrased from Steve Sanfield.]

Answer #10: If a French novel is to be translated into English, does the publisher hire a native speaker of French, or instead a native speaker of English? The rule is that the translator’s native speech should be the language translated into. Thorough knowledge of the original language is important, but even more crucial is the ability to convey ideas to readers in the target culture.

Answer #11: There should be room for retellings both by those within a culture and those without. Each brings different knowledge, perspectives, and insights. The writer outside the culture may be too far away to understand all aspects of the story, while the writer within the culture may be too close.

Answer #12: Now, that reminds me of a story from central Uzbekistan. . . .