Monday, July 25, 2016

Fairy post #25 - Victorian Storytelling Guild History & Biography of Nell Bell

History Project - The Magic of Nell Bell

This post is longer than usual. It comprises two parts:

(i) Formation of The Storytelling Guild of Victoria (now Storytelling Australia Victoria).

(ii) Bio of the late Life Member Nell Bell, award-winning author, storyteller, mentor, mother, teacher, librarian, wise woman and first fairy tale storyteller of the world's first fairy shop, Wonderwings: a doyen of Australian storytelling.

(If printing, press "simplify" to condense layout & reduce page count.)

On your 90th birthday, Nell, we thank you with all our hearts, hair, minds, toes and tails.

By Louisa John-Krol

Nell Bell, doyen of storytelling

Formation of The Storytelling Guild:

According to one of our life members Gael Cresp, “Storytelling is an age old art, which met with a strong revival in industrialized countries earlier last century. In England and North America, libraries introduced regular storytelling sessions and this impetus was later reflected in Australia.”

On 16th October 1978 a group of people, all teachers or librarians, whose work brought them into frequent contact with children, met to discuss their concern that children were missing out on the oral tradition of storytelling, an important part of a child’s cultural heritage. They felt that children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and other cultural icons, was in decline. Erica Thomas initiated the meeting. Other attendees were Virginia Ferguson, Philip Sydenham, Jacky Talbot and Barbara Tout. Life member Nell Bell recalls Montgomery Kelly (known as Monty) being present at this meeting as well as a Literature Conference at Frankston, where he and other storytellers inspired Nell with their performances. 

Erskine House, now Mantra Erskine beach resort
At Erskine House, Lorne, the idea of the Storytelling Guild surfaced. Nell, Monty and others fell in love with that venue. It was affordable, so they conceived the idea of an international storytelling conference for Australia that occurred there a couple of years later with attendees from around the world. Inspiring discussions about storytelling ensued, not only as a written mode but also as an oral tradition. 

On 29th November 1978, a public meeting occurred at the Learning Exchange Hall, Malvern. About forty people attended (teachers, librarians, actors, parents), forming a Storytelling Guild, electing an executive Committee of five, with Philip Sydenham as President and Virginia Ferguson as Vice President. The name “Storytelling Guild” was chosen because the group liked the idea of an organization modelled on the medieval guilds in which master craftsmen taught apprentices to care for the quality of their work and maintain the reputation of their craft. Aims were to:

1. Promote storytelling in the community by bringing together people from all sectors to share      experiences and stories.
2. Encourage people to tell stories and to develop their skills in the arts.
3. Produce a newsletter (that came to be entitled The Harper).
4. Produce a directory of storytellers.
5. Organise storytelling activities.

Western Australia pipped Victoria to the post, forming its Guild on 14th June 1978, a few months before Vic followed in November. Other guilds soon formed: New South Wales in 1980, South Australia in 1982, Tasmania in 1984, then Queensland and Australian Capital Territory in 1987. Both WA and Vic will celebrate their 40th anniversaries in 2018.

Montgomery Kelly recalls that two other key instigators of the Vic Storytelling Guild were Marie and Richard Turnbull. Marie, based in the Camberwell library system, learned her stories by heart. Philip Sydenham was a librarian at Pakenham and Narre Warren. Julie Halpin and Erica Thomas were the Guild when Monty came along in 1980.

For many years, in winter, the Victorian Guild held a weekend conference at Lorne, when members and visitors would attend lectures, workshops and of course, told stories far into the night. Attendees included Nell Bell, Anne E Stewart, Gael Cresp, Monty Kelly and Gillian Di Stefano. 

Our newsletter had its first issue in Winter 1979, featuring a Letter of Encouragement from Patricia Scott in Tasmania. According to Monty, the title The Harper came from the Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, for when harpers came to entertain the people, they knew songs, stories and news from other dragon holdings.

A separate article about the Guild’s choice of logo and its symbolism is beaming here.

The symbol of the harp, or lyre, which appeared on badges, letterhead and banners, referred to the Celtic bard and to the Greek musician Orpheus. 

There was also a membership application form. Membership, as now, was open to anyone interested in storytelling. Members ranged from parents, teachers and librarians to actors, writers and balladeers. Establishment of a constitution followed in 1981. 

During the 1990s, under leadership of such storytellers as Morgan Blackrose and Gil Di Stefano, regular evenings were held entitled The Storytelling Cafe, featuring “The Odd Spot” that encouraged interdisciplinary formats, such as dance, poetry, sandbox art, music or puppetry. There were also workshops, which included visits from overseas storytellers, e.g. Anne Pellowski from the United Nations, who was gathering stories for preservation. There were also links with New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, China, USA, England and Singapore.  A 2003 edition of The Harper acknowledges Arnold Zable as patron.

Each State guild had its own name, constitution, newsletter and program of activities. Although there has never been any central coordinating body, the guilds have exchanged newsletters and visits since their formative years, also holding National Conferences.  According to a “Guilds” article by Nell (Swag of Yarns 2002), the first national guild-to-guild storytelling conference was a joint Vic /ACT effort, “Across the Waves”, at Albury on the Hume Weir, followed by “Rainbow Gathering” WA, Sovereign Hill Vic, NSW in Sydney 1997, ACT Canberra 1999 and SA Adelaide 2001.

On 24th April 2006, Victoria’s Storytelling Guild became an incorporated non-profit association, and the Register of Incorporated Associations provided certification of such on 24th July 2012. By special resolution at a meeting on 4th March 2012, members voted to change the Guild’s name to Storytelling Australia Victoria (SAV). Life Member Gael Cresp, then Public Officer, certified this with Consumer Affairs on 27th March 2012. The end of SAV’s financial year is 31st October annually, with Annual General Meetings being held prior to 31st March in the following year.

Biographical tribute to Life Member Nell Bell:

Nell Bell - pic taken of projector image at her Memorial

"And there is wonder..."

Swag of Yarns, Summer 2005

A decade later, 29th July 2016, in the week of this article’s beam, our oldest surviving Life Member turns 90. Nell Bell is a founding member and former president of The Storytelling Guild of Victoria, as it was called throughout her presidency. 

Nell Bell's bushie grandfather didn’t talk much, but when he did, he told stories. There was also a book loving aunt, a raconteur cousin, and tramps who drank billy tea under a bridge; Nell would sneak off to listen to their yarns. She later explained that they were only called “tramps” while visiting cities and towns. Whenever they went bush, they became “swaggies”. 

Nell also enjoyed lots of poetry and classic Roman tales in school Readers. One of her favourite books was Ruth Park’s “The Muddle Headed Wombat”.

Above: 1st edition of "The Muddleheaded Wombat" by Ruth Park
Below: other front covers of the Australian children's classic

During the Great Depression, cinema was expensive. So Nell’s exposure to media was mostly radio, especially comedy, American Indian tales, and the Argonauts of Greece.

Nell Bell began her contribution to children’s literature and storytelling in 1942 when, as Assistant Matron of Ashfield Foundlings Home in Sydney, she introduced story time for 3–5 year olds. This story time became a regular session, which Nell conducted. Then while raising her own children she became a kindergarten teacher in Eltham. 

During the 1950’s, well known Australian writers such as David Malouf, David Martin, Frank Dalby Davidson and others would meet at Alan Marshall’s home in Caulfield. Nell walked in one evening while they were discussing violence in children’s literature. She shocked them by insisting,
“You’ve got to have danger and fear in children’s stories. How else are they going to learn about the real world?” 
Alan’s sister, Elsie McConnell, tried to coax Nell away to help with sandwiches, as the notables sought in vain to convince Nell that Little Red Riding Hood would be best without the wolf gobbling up grandma. Nell vehemently opposed them. Yet they invited her back for many more lively evenings with her hubby George, a friend of Alan. She won a lot, though they wouldn't admit it. Alan did share Nell’s love for children. 
“Always answer any letter a child writes”, he advised her. They also shared a dislike of bullying and discrimination. Alan’s story “Out of the Way, Mug” (published in the 70’s), proved a great resource.
Above anecdotes are from an article entitled “Nell Bell and Alan Marshall - A Special Love” (Swag of Yarns, Summer 1997).

Nell Bell on the cover of Swag of Yarns
Nell's interest in stories led her to further training: in 1975, as a librarian at Preston East Technical School, she taught Introduction to History of Literature and Books. In the same year she toured schools and libraries in China as part of an education program. After that year she also visited New Zealand and America. After qualifying for her Secondary Teachers Certificate, Nell went on to start a Children's Book Club and introduced students to literature via storytelling in the class room. She published an article entitled The Importance of Oral Literature in the Education Department magazine. 

In the 1980s, Nell obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in Children's Literature at Melbourne University, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Children's Literature at Toorak Teachers' College / Victoria College - Toorak campus.

As Librarian in Charge at Templestowe Technical School, Nell was part of a program that taught Understanding Literature to Year 11 & 12 students. Nell remembers that oral storytelling was in Year 12 exams “for a few glorious years”.

Partaking of the 1988 Bicentenary, Nell joined a delegation of Artists in Education sponsored by the Australian Federal Government and JF Kennedy Cultural Centre in Washington sent to America as representatives of Australia. Nell's focus was the use of oral literature in secondary schools and universities. 

Back in Australia, Nell conducted seminars in regional universities for mothers of new-born babies on the importance of literature and stories.

Mentorship was important in the Guild. Although it broadly embraced beginners, or listeners who weren’t performing, there was a sense of responsibility for passing on knowledge or skills. Nell fondly recalls that a mentor advised her not to wave her arms “like a demented goanna”. Her mentors included Montgomery Kelly (a founding Vic Guild member) and Julie Halpin. Monty’s style of sitting quietly suited Nell best. 

A literature professor, Stephen Shaw, from Seattle, USA, also inspired her.

Nell was the first storyteller to perform at Dromkeen and has been Artist in Residence introducing students to literature via storytelling at Methodist Ladies College, Richmond Girls High School and Presbyterian Ladies College. She has been a member of the Victorian Branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia and the Victorian Committee for UNICEF.

In 1995 Nell took a major role in developing students' skills for performances at St Martins, South Melbourne as part of AEDIS (Artists and Environment Designers in Schools). Later that year Nell's storytelling skills won her an invitation to participate in the launch of Children's Week at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Nell has always been quick to volunteer her services as a storyteller for the free children's concerts at national Australian storytelling conferences and has also volunteered as a storyteller at Camp Quality and Children's Hospital in Melbourne and Radio of the Air School in the Northern Territory.   She has also been involved in the Young Australians Best Book Awards (YABBA) and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). To quote The Harper (Newsletter of The Storytelling Guild of Vic, Autumn 1997): “Nell has a great love of people and a strong belief that story can show that all aspects of life are a continuing cycle to be celebrated and shared”.

Part of Nell’s contribution as a folklorist came into print with a Melbourne journal Swag of Yarns thanks to JB Rowley, who first connected with the Storytelling Guild in 1989. JB published some 30 volumes starting 1997, then seasonally between 1998 and 2006. For two of those years, 2002-2003, editors were Peter Dargin and Pat Dargin. Swag’s old site does not evoke the enjoyment felt at sliding that smooth magazine from its sheath, opening its pages and reading those columns, enshrining a wealth of folklore from many sources and times. Indeed Nell was acquainted with swaggies, outback workers and Chinese market gardeners, all of whom provided a wealth of tales.

Swag of Yarns, Summer 2005

Nell’s articles still stand up. They include “Crooked Mick” (Swag of Yarns, Summer 2000), an Australian folktale kept alive throughout the 20th century by the likes of Alan Marshall and Bill Wannan, about life on the Speewah with a larrikin born so long ago, “the Jenolan Caves were still wombat holes”. 

Then there is Nell’s original story “Bilby Saves Easter” (Swag of Yarns, Autumn 2001), complete with a helpful wombat who tries to keep warm and gets chocolate all over his furry bottom. 

Bilby by John Gould

Another particularly memorable article by Nell is her essay “Here Be Dragons” (Swag of Yarns, Winter 1998), comparing and contrasting dragons of various cultures, noting five types of Chinese dragons and giving due respect to The Lung, who, lionlike, brings peace, prosperity and justice. Of the Western dragons she touches on the ancient Greek belief in dragons being the outward form of inner knowledge, forming a bond of destiny (Telos, the toils of Fate), with the Milky Way as a place of immortality, where a dragon dies and is reborn. She also mentions the bearded or feathered serpent whose beard symbolises wisdom, with links to Osiris from Egyptian myth, Iguana the Fire God of the Mayans, the Rainbow Serpent of Australia, and Varuna of India. All these were once part of Gondwana. As plants, fossils and terrain are similar, so are (Nell contends), their myths.

In her interview “Thanks for the Memories” with Jenni Woodroffe (Swag of Yarns, Summer 2005), Nell remembers Nell Robb, a founding NSW guild member & friend, who died 2003, and told medieval tales. There’s the anecdote of a truckie who thanks Nell for bringing a love for books to his boyhood; now he dangles a book on a hook, where most of his mates would flout a scantily clad lady. Nearby rolls a column with a Lithuanian folktale that Nell has collected. As Nell recalls, JB’s Swag of Yarns and the Guild’s newsletter The Harper both “broadened our vision” as Australians.

In 2005, Nell Bell was awarded the Leila St John by the Children's Book Council of Australia, administered through the Children’s Book Council of Australia, for services to children's literature. According to reasons outlined on the nomination form, Nell Bell is defined by her generosity of spirit and her love for children. On Sunday, 27th February 2011, Nell’s daughters Susan and Bronwyn and members of the Storytelling Guild of Victoria accompanied Nell to be presented with her Leila St John Medal at Wattle Park Chalet in Surrey Hills.

Nell receiving her Leila St John Medal from CBCA

More recently, Nell participated in a project entitled Bridging The Gap Through Art. She was pictured in a local news report about this with a boy, sharing memorabilia with him, glasses perched on her pert nose, mouth in full fletch, clearly releasing a volley of words. The caption read: “Generation gaps don’t come much bigger than the gulf between elderly citizens in primary care and primary school students”.

Anne E Stewart and Louisa John-Krol recall how Nell mentored storytelling, which for Anne began in 1977; and for Louisa 1990 at Wonderwings Fairy Shop in Richmond. This venue was the first fairy shop in the world, and Nell Bell was its first storyteller. Proprietor was Anne Atkins (“the other fairy Annie”), though Anne E Stewart preferred the title “Gypsy”. Among its other pioneer fairy storytellers were Guild members Suzanne Sandow (Moth), Matteo and Mary-Lou Keaney. 

Some of these Wonderwings storytellers, such as Matteo and Moth, went on to serve as president or other committee roles in the Vic Guild. More about Wonderwings magic (Part I) and its circle of fairies is at the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog.

Wonderwings Fairy Shop, 1990's

Some of the ways in which Nell mentored us was in building our repertoire, sharing her writing in the form of books or essays, and fostering our interest in history, especially germane to folklore. For example, she was interested in how fairies sank from the status of powerful pagan elementals to tiny winged insects, a diminution that Puck bemoans in a tribute to Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Puck of Pook’s Hill. We learned that it was the Elizabethans who first put wings on fairies, and it was during the Victorian age, as well as between the first and second World Wars, that fairies were tamed almost beyond recognition and banished to children’s nursery rhymes. 

Nell’s essay “Witch Stories in Children’s Literature”, 15th November 1982, cited such luminaries as folklorist Katherine Briggs (e.g. A Dictionary of Fairies), George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin, The Wise Woman, At the Back of the North Wind and other titles), in a Bibliography of two typed pages. Text is too faint to scan, but I've made photocopies. Nell explores three strands of witch types in fairy tales and folktales; namely, (i) wise woman / guide / healer / goddess; (ii) wicked witch whose evil comes into combat with a wise wizard; and (iii) a figure of ridicule. She contends that throughout the centuries across various cultures, witches have played a vital role in the psychological and sociological development of children (notwithstanding "children's literature" did not come into being as a literary genre until the early 19th century), delineating boundaries or conveying social mores, thus we cannot ignore messages in their portrayal.

Notably, Nell fostered cohesion in a performing arts industry that could be quite ruthless. She urged us to join the Guild, educating us on the need to gain permission to tell Aboriginal stories (unless they were already in the public domain from an appropriate indigenous source), and providing advice on ethical dealings with audience members, especially children. On this last point, a particularly memorable comment from Nell was:
“Never, ever promise a wish to a child. So many wand-waving fairies are wickedly irresponsible. What are you going to do if a kid asks for Mum and Dad to reunite? Or for their sick sibling to recover from cancer? Or a dead pet to wake up?”
In other words, Nell raised fairy storytelling out of the mire of vapid children’s entertainment and fostered our curiosity, knowledge and sensitivity.

In her final years, until her death in Spring 2016, Nell resided in Westgarth Aged Care Facility, Melbourne.

left to right: Louisa John-Krol, JB Rowley, Nell Bell, Anne E Stewart, 2014
“Seanachie, keeper of the old lore”. That’s what Anne E Stewart calls Nell Bell, her mentor of nearly four decades. For a detailed explanation of that term, please refer to my article “Lorekeeper - Seanachie / Shanachie” at the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog.

Information on Nell’s storytelling degree and storytelling in school curriculum is covered in report on the Guild blogspot re Leila St John Award here.

Thanks to the storytellers for your resources, 

June (JB) pointing at Louisa's cap, Nell in centre, & Anne top left

Update, November 2016: Nell Bell's Memorial took place at Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, on 16th Nov 2016 shortly after her death. Her siblings, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended, among many other loving relatives, friends and storytellers.

Ronda Gault & Anne E Stewart at Nell's Memorial

June Barnes-Rowley (JB), storyteller, educator and author:

Report of our visit by Anne E. Stewart:

Report of our visit by Louisa John-Krol in the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog

Nell, Louisa, Annie and JB are also mentioned in Wikipedia

By Louisa John-Krol

Public Officer of Storytelling Australia Victoria (2014 - 2017)
Vice President of The Australian Fairy Tale Society (2016 - current)
Leader of Victoria's Fairy Tale Ring
Member of Writers Victoria, Athenaeum Library 
& The Monash Fairy Tale Salon

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fairy post #24 - Lorekeeper


From the Fairy Fabulous group (via Facebook),

Small business of Jo Offe & Fable Workshop:

From Lana's promotion at Facebook

The Art of Storytelling Journal 

from storyteller-poet

Lana Wolf:

We welcome submissions to the new Art of Oral Storytelling Journal, a resource for aspiring, emerging and professional storytellers. The Art of Storytelling Journal seeks to open, consider and advance the exploration of storytelling practice. We publish articles on a wide variety of topics related to oral storytelling as a social, cultural or academic discourse, in a variety of professional and disciplinary contexts. The publication focuses on non fiction work by storytellers about storytelling. We are interested in work that reflects the diversity of our storytelling experiences and practice. We welcome experiential work. We will not publish any work that is demeaning or perpetuates negative stereotypes. We keep an open, critical dialogue on all issues to do with the practice of storytelling. 

Submission Guidelines: 

We accept non-fiction articles up to 5000 words though prefer 1000 - 2000 words. All submissions will be considered for one of our half yearly issues. Submissions that do not follow these guidelines will not be eligible. All submissions should have some connection to the theme of each publication. Simultaneous submissions and work previously published on your own blog or website are okay. We do consider work previously published. All contributors retain all rights to their own work. All submissions should include your name, contact information, as well as the title of your piece and how the piece is connected to the theme of each publication. Contributors receive one complimentary print copy of the issue in which their work appears. We are unable to pay you for your contribution at this point. Submit a maximum of two pieces at a time. Standard font 12 pt font i.e., Times Roman, Arial, Tahoma. Double spacedWe accept email submissions only to this email address 

Issue 1: 
Submission due date: October 1st 2016 
Release Date : February 1st 2017 
Theme: A storytellers tale 

Issue 2: 
Submission due date: March 1st 2017
Release Date: August 1st 2017
Theme: The many ways to tell a tale 

Lana Woolf, 
Creative Director and Editor
The Art of Storytelling Journal


by Fairy Tale Ring Leader Louisa John-Krol:


Salmon of Knowledge

Perspectives on Seanchaí 

reported by Louisa John-Krol

A seanchaí (plural: seanchaithe) is a traditional Irish storyteller/historian, also spelt shanachie (pronounced shaan-a-key), meaning bearer of old lore, seanchas. In ancient Celtic culture, bards (filí) conveyed history and laws through memorized recitals of long lyric poems.

According to Irish storyteller Jack Lynch, the term means “traditional lore and knowledge”, recently discussed in an email to Australian storyteller Jackie Kerin (quoted or paraphrased with permission of both correspondents):

“Originally this definition included “ancient Irish law-tracts, genealogical lore, myths and legends and also folklore. So the seanchaí was the custodian of ancient history, lore and story. Scéalaí is a more precise Irish term for storyteller (scéal means story). The seanchaí was a community tradition bearer.”

To paraphrase Jack: in recent centuries, local entertainment consisted of gathering in a neighbour’s house - usually in winter when farm-work was less demanding - for music, dance and storytelling, starting with a sharing of news, followed by related folktales, and imparting myths and legends, perhaps lasting several nights.

“A vital element of the seanchaí's store would be dindseanchas - the lore of place-name”, Jack explains. He evinces that some meanings faded with 18th century imperial mapping. Then in the 20th century, radio “displaced the seanchaí from the corner of the kitchen”. A few survive in country regions, upholding the Rambling Hose (or Ceidhli House, Storyhouse or Scoraíocht - depending on their locations across Ireland or Scotland).

Actor-storyteller Eamon Kelly recreated this traditional form on radio, and later TV. He became known as a seanchaí. Eamon, himself, however, pointed out that he was merely an actor playing the part of one. As such, Jack maintains, “seanachie” is a precise historical term that he wouldn’t claim for himself, maintaining that it signifies individuals “embedded in and reflecting” their communities, even “wisdom in life”.

Griots in Africa - picture from Huffington Post

Responding to Jackie Kerin’s allusion to African performers she witnessed by way of comparison, Jack replied “I've heard Toumani Diabate play and I'm not surprised at his being disgruntled at the purloining of the badge of Griot - which I gather is akin to that of seanchaí.”

On the other hand, many Australians have learned to adapt traditions of diverse cultures. Adaptation needn’t mean forgetting, losing, diluting or purloining, one another's heritage. Within respectful boundaries (e.g. for ethical guidelines in approaching Aboriginal culture, see links below*), it can herald new tributaries of collaboration, understanding, healing and imagination. Is it fair to expect Australian contemporary folklorists to harbour a single static circle of lore, if co-mingling thrives at our essence? Perhaps Australian lore-keepers are more likely to be pluralists than purists?

At our 2016 Australian Fairy Tale Society conference, we discussed how universality might be “just another form of imperialism”. As Jackie quipped, “What if I don't want to belong to your collective unconscious?” (By “your”, she did not mean anyone specifically; it was an explorative question that has been circulating for a while.) Whilst I respect such reservation, I suggest we make allowance for transitory intercultural efforts. The movement under criticism, which led to such inspiring collections as World Tales by celebrated author Idries Shah, The Masks of God by anthropologist / mythographer Joseph Campbell, and various Jungian trends, emerged in a 20th century context, in the wake of the Holocaust, Cold War, Vietnam War, Apartheid in South Africa, The Stolen Generations here in Australia, and other travesties of division. A transcontinental Civil Rights movement kicked against the pricks. Universalism, or transcendentalism, was part of its energy. Now, in the 21st century, conflicts between fanatic monotheists have resurfaced. Seeking common ground is a basic tool that teachers use with dysfunctional youths. It might be simplistic, but it's better than segregation or persecution. It's a peg to hold, as we drag this mortal coil up the cliff from ravines of prejudice. To use a French analogy: “How can you expect them to fly, when you cannot even give them a feather?” Humanity is still halfway up the precipice. Rapids churn below. Let's shift the pegs of refinement later, once on firmer turf. One person's high moral ground might be a distant peak for others.

(NB: The views expressed in the above two paragraphs are my own, and still forming - Louisa.)

A Holloway: a well worn ancient path, linking past to future

Do you have a word, adapted or invented, to describe an Australian storyteller of any cultural origin, whom you consider both wise and a keeper of lore? 

Email Louisa John-Krol

More info on this topic here 

Jack Lynch's website

Jackie Kerin’s website

*Resources for Aboriginal culture in Victoria:

This article is by Louisa John-Krol

I respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, associated with the Kulin Nation, on which this blog was created.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Fairy post #23 - Interview with storyteller & writer Jackie Kerin

Dragon head in a woodland near you


Thank you to our former President of The Australian Fairy Tale Society, Dr Belinda Calderone, new President Catherine Snell, committee, presenters and other participants for an inspiring annual conference and AGM of The Australian Fairy Tale Society on Sunday 26 June 2016 in the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival, Caulfield, Melbourne.

Lorena Carrington's photographic illustration was used, with her kind permission, to create this year's conference program, designed by Gypsy Thornton
We welcomed new members (boosted by Bel and Jackies' representation on ABC Radio) as well as voting in a new committee including Catherine Snell as President & Treasurer; me as Vice President; Penelope Clay as Secretary; and Jo Henwood and Thang Dac Luong as committee members.

From afar, we welcomed valued committee member Gypsy Thornton, an Australian fairy currently based in the United States of America. Gypsy not only designed the programme but also managed a live Twitter feed of the conference, as well as updates at Facebook and Instagram. Since our Society's foundation, she has been a constant source of inspiration, whether through social media, blogging, email, Skype or those flights of fey communication that nudge our dreams.

"The Stolen Child" by Lorena Carrington
AFTS co-founder, historian, librarian & cultural tour guide Jo Henwood, visiting from interstate, gave a brilliant impromptu storytelling, replacing a sick fairy, while Jackie Kerin and Thang Dac Luong signed copies of their respective books, Lyrebird and Refugee Wolf. Illustrator and photographic artist Lorena Carrington, AFTS fairy tale ring member, who designed our programme and social media banner, sold her prints in the Auditorium, e.g. pictured right.

Zeinab Yazdanfar (AFTS fairy ring member) and her fellow representatives of The Yarra Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children to obtain books, sold original Persian glassware, painted tiles, jewellery, textiles and other crafts, with 100% proceeds to charity, while presenting, as a poster, a fairy tale co-written with me entitled "Passage Under Rood Khan", set to appear in a future posting at this fairy tale ring blog.

Our accomplished keynote Jackie Kerin, President of Storytelling Australia Victoria, demonstrated links between historical research, intercultural respect and dramatic performance skills, in purveying the oral tradition, which many see as the folk-blood of fairy tales. So it's appropriate that we now present an interview with Jackie.

Jackie Kerin at Australian Fairy Tale Society conference 2016

Jackie holding a candle for storytelling
Storytelling Australia Vic banner

Interview with storyteller & writer Jackie Kerin


Jackie is storyteller and author with a deeply cosmopolitan outlook, steeped in the oral tradition, using such cumulative patterns as rhyme, rhythm and repetition to convey stories. Currently President of Storytelling Victoria Australia, Jackie has won many awards for her books and performances. She believes that oral storytelling is connected to the book like blossom to fruit.

Jackie Kerin, storyteller and writer

L: How, when and why did you become a storyteller? It was through the storytelling community that we first met, nearly 20 years ago.

J: I think I’ve always been a storyteller but I only labeled myself as such about 15 years ago. I first attended a gathering of storytellers in 1997 – 98 (hosted by the Storytelling Guild) and slowly, from that time, my commitment to learning about the art grew. Coming from an acting background, I had much to learn. I came to storytelling with a bag of skills to get me started but I lacked knowledge and the ability to work without a script. In the early 90s I was drawn to the work of American humorist, Garrison Keillor and later, when I had my daughter I discovered the joy of telling her stories. I’d also spent a few years prior to this in the western desert and listened to Aboriginal storytellers. I was excited by the idea that I could use my performance skills in a new and independent way. Unlike acting, I was free to choose the stories I wanted to tell. 

L: Congratulations on winning The Spirit of Woodford Original Stories and Yarns Performance Award 2007, 2012 and the Pat Glover Memorial Port Fairy Festival Award 2002, 2007, 2009. What are some festivals you’ve particularly enjoyed as a performer? 

J: Awards are fun and let’s face it – its nice to tag your website with a gong. But they come with the stress of competing and being judged. The incentive to enter Woodford is a free ticket to the festival (which you receive if you are short listed) and if you win, then the prize money covers all the travel and accommodation costs. But the best part is getting there and being inspired by musicians, storytellers and poets from around Australia and overseas. I couldn’t have afforded to go to this festival if it wasn’t for the award. 

The Pat Glover at Port Fairy is a quieter event. Often the entrants are farmers with tales of irrigation ditches, fishing trips, snakes and spiders – tall tales mixed in with yarns of rural adventures and mishaps. I love hearing stories from people whose lives are different to mine. This year I travelled to Port Fairy with my collaborator Sarah Depasquale. As well as working for the Pat Glover Award, I was asked to give a workshop and sit in a ‘round robin with other storytellers on the subject of Celtic Tales. Sarah and I also performed two shows of Tales from the Flyway, our piece inspired by migratory shore birds. 

The Newstead Shorty Story Tattoo has a wonderful event at the Newstead racecourse around big bonfires. 

Probably my favourite festival event is the one I organise for Storytelling Australia Victoria for the Newport Folk Festival every year – ‘Stories by the Fire’. SAV tellers take on the MCing for me (Matteo, Niki na Meadhra, Kate Lawrence, Ian Mcnally and Teena Hartnett have all helped). Claudette D’Cruz donates the chai and I cook up a pot of soup. The evening is an invitation to people to gather, eat and share a story. 

This July, I’m off to the Huon Valley Mid-winter Festival where I’ve assisted in putting together a collection of wonderful local Tasmanian storytellers for family sessions. But as well as this we are launching the inaugural Huon Valley Storyteller’s Cup. This is a slam and there will be cash prizes as well as a beautiful hand crafted Huon Pine cup. Every festival has its own value and unique feel.

L: As president of Storytelling Australia Victoria, how do you see the organisation’s evolution since its origin as The Storytelling Guild of Victoria?

J: This is a hard question for me to answer, as I am not really up to speed with the history of the organisation. I joined after the big conferences and events at Lorne. One of the tasks of the new committee has been to gather some of the stories from the past. This is not easy; memories have faded. It’s a work in progress. Hopefully we will soon have more information to post on our website and maybe this will prompt more memories. As they say ‘story begets story’. We’ve been though the long process of reviewing our values and purpose and recalibrating the organization in response to the influx of new members who come with broad interests and from all around Victoria. 

L: What is your longterm vision, or passionate hope, for the storytelling community in Victoria? 

J: Oh I have a grand vision! Firstly to pass on all the contacts I have made over the years, knowledge gained and lessons learned. And eventually, when I hang up my hat, I’ll pass on my props. I’m growing old and need to think about pulling back. I imagine SAV as a network where people can connect, form creative collaborations, share resources, and experience. I want us to make safe and supportive places; where people can be brave and try things out, make mistakes. I want to encourage storytellers to be curious about global, oral storytelling traditions – keep learning, set up study groups. We currently have several Facebook Groups exploring The Mahabharata and Japanese Kamishibai. In the past we have dabbled in the Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights and The Mabinogion. We have members with a strong interest in personal storytelling and running workshops and slams. I want to support them. We need to learn more about recording and broadcasting. I’d like to see more storytellers filming their work so we can share what they do. I’d like to offer workshops for tellers wishing to work in early childhood, with the elderly and special needs. We need to provide regular forums, open and inclusive where we can learn from storytellers who may feel marginalised. I see a building, with computers, staff, an urn, mugs and a fridge!!!

L: Yes, wouldn't that be great? I believe it might be possible, if enough of our associations work together, not only toward grants but also in sharing physical space for meetings and resources.

J: Most of all, I have a vision a community of committed, kind, curious, and creative storytellers and listeners who will support each other in crafting stories and events with heart.

L: Indeed, you've proven that this is possible, at countless conferences, festivals and other gatherings. How does our storytelling circuit already interweave with Australia’s fairy tale revival, and how could this evolve further? (Notwithstanding only some storytellers are into fairy tales, and not all fairy tale enthusiasts are storytellers, perhaps there are some overlaps emerging?) 

Port Fairy Folk Festival: Jackie Kerin & Sarah Depasquale
J: There is more work to be done in strengthening the relationship between SAV and the Australian Fairy Tale Society, Monash Fairy Tale Salon and Victorian Fairy Tale Ring. This is something I would like to focus on. Ask me again in 12 months time. Personally, my interest in stories is without boundaries and the inaugural AFTS conference and the Monash Fairy Tale Salon events have provided the most enriching, thought provoking and enjoyable times for me. I particularly like the blend of the academic with performance.

L: Recently the Australian Fairy Tale Society, of which you and I are members, called for resources on Beauty and the Beast. You made the fascinating recommendation of Bhima and Hidimbi in the Mahabharata. Tell us more?

J: Hidimbi is a flesh eating forest dwelling ogre-like creature who falls in love with the handsome strong Bhima, so she changes her shape into a beautiful woman. They spend a year together an she bears a son. More here.  

L: Would you please tell us more about The Mahabharata Project? How do people join, and what events do you have coming up that fairy tale enthusiasts might enjoy? Any fees?

J: You can find the Mahabharata Group on the Storytelling Vic website under Groups. It’s a Facebook Group, so any one can join and there are no fees. I know some people don’t like Facebook as a way of meeting but when I set it up with my friends Gerry and Kala, we wanted to reach people in Asia who have grown up with the stories. We currently have 112 members. It’s a very informal conversation. People will post a story and a discussion will start. We worked towards a presentation for the Newport Folk Festival and we’ve done a house concert. I’ve incorporated some of what I’ve learned into my repertoire and it’s certainly enriched my relationships. I’m not sure if Fairy Tale enthusiasts would enjoy the stories; I can’t predict that. If people are interested in dipping a toe in the water of the longest story in the world, I suggest they read on a kindle where they can access Wikipedia as the names and allusions are hard at first. Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik is good starting point. One of the unexpected outcomes from the project for me has been the connection to storytellers in Bali, India, Singapore and Malaysia. We have become friends, above and beyond the project.

Scene from The Mahabharata showing Arjuna kidnapping Subhadra and fury of the Yadavs - from cravebits

L: You are also a talented writer, Jackie. Who are your literary mentors? Which stories (or other modes) have you particularly enjoyed reading over the past year or two?

J: I wouldn’t say I have a mentor. I’m indebted to my publisher and editor who opened the door to the publishing world and processes. I’m a great collaborator and love working robustly, with ‘gloves off’ and with strong creative minds. I like to work with people who will challenge me. I like collaborating with people who are direct and understand that it’s not personal. It’s about getting to the ‘good oil’. Perhaps it’s from my acting background. I learned (eventually) to leave my ego in a bag when I’m working, so I can be brave and really challenge myself and allow others to challenge. My reading is all over the shop. I’ve just read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio by Pu Songling and The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage by Maya Ward. I’m a painfully slow reader and with the exception of children’s books, have all but abandoned paper books. I have moved so much in the past and taken truck-loads of books to op shops and traders. And now many op shops won’t take them. I keep the books I know I’ll revisit but they are mostly reference books and anthologies.

L: Your email signature lists CBCA Honour Book 2013 and Whitley Awards Certificate of Commendation 2013 for Lyrebird! a true story and Eve Pownall CBCA Noteable 2009 for Phar Lap the wonderhorse. Is CBCA an acronym for Children’s Book Council of Australia? Please direct us to some retailers or websites for these books here...

Lyrebird - A True Story - by Jackie Kerin
J: My books are available in ‘all good book stores’ as they say. Museum Victoria published them, so they are always available in the MV shop. Coles bought 500 copies of Phar Lap for the 2015 racing season. So I guess for a while I was there in the aisles! The books are easy to find on line and Lyrebird! A true story is available as an ebook as well.

L: Which museums, libraries, clubs, or other groups have nourished your writing, from conceptualization and research, to editing, printing and marketing? 

J: Both books, and fingers crossed for a third, have been published by Museum Victoria. Both books were nourished by meeting people connected to the stories and visiting locations. In the case of Phar Lap, I met an old strapper who had seen Tommy Woodcock working with horses. Both stories are set in the late 1920s 30s so listening to people talking who grew up in that time, noting colloquial expressions and slang; visiting locations like old stables or in the case of Lyrebird, I made countless trips to Mt Dandenong to the forests and gardens. The State Library, Museum Victoria and Trove were also invaluable. Testing the stories on countless children, talking to bird lovers, horse lovers and more testing the stories on children. The best marketing of a children’s book is recognition from the CBCA. And I think that the best way to learn if story has legs is to try it out on the people you are writing for … so… more testing on children. 
Pages from Jackie Kerin's book Lyrebird - A True Story

L: Your books and oral storytelling show a strong focus on Australian fauna and history, most notably Phar Lap the wonderhorse (illustrated by Patricia Mullins) and Lyrebird! a true story (illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe), both published by Museum Victoria. How did you become impassioned by environmental and historical themes?

J: In the case of Phar Lap, I saw a gap. There was no children’s book about the legend and every year around November when I was telling stories in schools, there was an interest in the story. So I wrote one. I stumbled across the story of Edith and her Lyrebird and thought ‘this is a great tale – the first Lyrebird filmed and recorded in display, a smart, strong old women and a bird. Magic!’
Regarding environmental themes. To me connection to land and the environment is critical: always and ever. Connection to nature and taking some responsibility for my local environment is a moral imperative. Stories are one way to lend support to the councilors, rangers, various authorities etc. So that’s one of the things I try to do. Being creative for the pleasure alone, feels like shallow pond. I like to think that my contribution is useful, beyond entertaining.

L: You have adopted the Japanese Kamishibai tradition (which involves carrying a flat wooden box that opens out like a puppet theatre, containing picture cards that the storyteller draws out to illustrate narrative). It was the origin of Anime and Manga, right? Here are some photos of you on your story-bicycle with your own handmade kamishibai...
Jackie Kerin on her Kamishibai bicycle
Jackie Kerin, storyteller, in Bunnings hardware store
J: Always exploring. I like drawing and painting and visual storytelling. I’m passionate about comic books and graphic novels. I think stories have a place on the street and in all kinds of settings and Kamishibai is a great way to deliver them. The pictures work to focus minds in distracting environments. That photo with the Kamishibai (above), was taken in a Bunnings hardware store. I was working for Eastern Regional Libraries. It’s one of my favourite photos. I worked for about five hours telling stories to many children who never go to libraries and have limited access to books and storytelling. We were in the outdoor furniture department.

Mariam Issa at RAW Garden
In Shakespeare’s day people performed fine entertaining works in the street. It’s a skill many still practice but more often with a circus twist. Hats of to those who every summer take plays into parks, hay sheds and gardens. (E.g. storytelling sessions hosted by Mariam Issa, for Resilient Aspiring Women - RAW Garden, pictured left - L.)

L: In an October 2015 post for Storytelling Australia Vic, you outlined a pertinent resource for storytellers wishing to incorporate Aboriginal words into stories: the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages. Would you please share some of that learning here?

J: The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) has brilliant website that is constantly adding resources. You can also follow them on Facebook. It’s up to the storytellers to check it out. There is also a wonderful Vic language map in Bunjilaka in Museum Victoria. VACL gives public lectures and if you follow their Facebook you can track these. The work being done on the first languages in Victoria is very exciting.

L: Anything else?

I invite people to visit the Storytelling Australia Victoria website, subscribe to the blog, hop onto Facebook and join in the fun. There is something for everyone in this network of people who love listening to and telling stories: true stories, tall stories, yarns, funny and sad stories and yes… fairy stories. Vic storytellers can be found in humble halls, grand museums, around log fires, in gardens and propped up at the bar. When you become a member of Storytelling Australia Vic, you become part of a community of passionate wordsmiths with capacious hearts. We pride ourselves on our hospitality and openness to new tellers and their projects.

Visit Jackie’s website

Many thanks for your time, Jackie.

Article by Louisa John-Krol, incoming Vice President of The Australian Fairy Tale Society.