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.

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