A good tale lives on

Ambika Shaligram
Monday, 29 January 2018

Chatting up storytellers Mabel Lee and Lillian Rodrigues-Pang, who will be in Pune, to narrate stories as part of the Sakal International Story Telling Festival 2018

The storytellers are here with their bag full of tales, long and short, fun and moving. Eight storytellers from Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Kenya, Korea and India will be a part of the fourth edition of the Sakal International Story Telling Festival 2018 to be held on February 3 and 4.

Singaporean storyteller Mabel Lee and Lillian Rodrigues-Pang from Australia tell us what they have planned for their young and old audience in the city.

Quest stories are a universal hit
Lillian Rodrigues-Pang’s mother was born in El Salvador and came to Australia. She speaks Spanish, some Arabic (her father was Palestinian) and the indigenous language of the region, Nahuat. Pang’s father, who is from a Portuguese background, spoke English. So she grew up with a range of languages, negotiating various identities. “I was continuously negotiating or translating one version of myself to another — public, private, migrant, Australian born, English and Spanish speaking. I did lose my Spanish while growing up in Australia and had to work hard to gain it back as a teenager and adult. I studied Spanish while in Australia and I went to live in El Salvador at various times of my life,” says Pang, who is a bilingual storyteller.

She married her beloved from Chinese background and has three children. “This motivated me to study formal Spanish and teach the language to my children. Eventually, I began teaching Spanish to children in primary schools. By this stage, I was already working as a storyteller in various settings — performance, mental health, youth at risk and refugee or new immigrants. I decided it was time to ‘qualify’ my experience and I gained a masters in Teaching English as a second language,” explains Pang.

“From that point onwards, I tended to integrate two or more languages in every performance. So now I am a bilingual storyteller who tries to incorporate as much of a range of languages (including music) as possible,” she adds.

When asked which language does she think in, Pang responds with, “This is a tricky one to answer. When I travel to El Salvador or work in any Spanish-speaking country, I think, dream, sing and work in Spanish. English is also a dominant language. One way to work against its dominance is to carefully choose the music I listen to while I work on a story. Listening to the music of the chosen country, for example Japan, India, Thailand etc, helps me with characterisation and rhythm of the story.”

Talking about her preparation for the session, the storyteller says, “I rehearse a lot so that I can deliver stories line by line. That means I find it hard to shift what character speaks which language. To come to India and deliver mainly English stories, I have to rehearse for a few weeks to ‘undo my training of telling that story in Spanish and English.”

Pang, who has performed in hospitals, schools, prisons and aged care homes, loves the genre of a quest story. Says she, “Quest stories are the ones where we break from the norm and push ourselves, seek magic, love, fortune, wisdom or the like. I feel there comes a time in our lives when we all relate to pushing past what we know, to grow and take on new challenges. Perhaps that’s why this genre is a universal hit.”

She believes that a good tale or story lives for years and years through the mouths, ears and hearts of ordinary people.

Stories help connect
As a primary school teacher, Mabel Lee makes use of storytelling in her work. She uses it to encourage literacy, to simplify mathematics and science and to change social and emotional behaviour. “I have used stories to teach historical or cultural information about Singapore, which is a multi-racial society. They help in understanding culture, religion and celebration,” says Lee.

She adds that different stories and styles must be adapted as per the needs of various groups. Little children enjoy participation stories whereas adults prefer more performance style. “Children in Singapore were not brought up with a strong diet  of stories so we had to start with shorter stories. However, in the past few years, happily this is changing,” explains Lee.

The Storytelling Association Singapore has been actively promoting storytelling amongst adult audiences and children. The members of the association have gone to libraries to tell as well as train librarians to narrate. Besides, they have conducted workshops for school teachers and stage performances for adult audiences and children in public and private spaces.

Coming back to the storytelling format, Lee likes listening to epics, stories on heroism and good over evil. She likes to draw her stories from different East Asian countries as Singapore is a young country and does not have as many of her own stories as her neighbours. “When I find one that really reaches out to me, I work on it depending on the theme, angle I want, the story understood or genre as well as the audience,” she says and concludes.

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