Diane Wolkstein, The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales
Modern Euro-American scholars like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan unabashedly regard written and visual communications as normal in modern society, and oral communications as “vestigial,” in Ong’s terminology. Storytelling, once the chief means of conveying history and public morals (see Maria Tatar), is regarded as a lingering remnant, like your tailbone or your appendix. But what about societies where literacy remains rare? Do such societies not count?
Acclaimed folklorist, storyteller, and one-woman Broadway performer Diane Wolkstein took her tape recorder to rural Haiti in the late 1970s, hoping to catch the sounds of the countryside’s legendary storytellers. Even back then these modern bards were endangered, squeezed by American television and radio. But while electricity remained (and remains) a scarce resource in upland Haiti, these oral storytellers remain an integral part of Haitian community life.
Wolkstein recounts, not just the stories themselves, but how she came to collect them. Being usually the only white face among the ebon-hued Haitian crowd, she witnessed not only the energetic, theatrical raconteurs themselves, but the ecstatic audience that surrounded them. Brought together by markets, pot-luck dinners, and street dances, the crowds shared a true communal experience. Here the old pre-Gutenberg community ethic doesn’t just survive, it thrives.
Some stories she collected, Wolkstein writes, have clear precedents in printed literature. She notes how some stories are clearly retold from the Brothers Grimm, African folktales, and elsewhere. However, other stories are clearly original to Haiti’s impoverished, war-torn, pre-literate social structure. Our society has grown accustomed to fairy tales as either ancient artifacts, or products of single authors; Wolkstein presents new-to-us stories written by an entire culture.
And Americans probably couldn’t write stories as transcendent as “Bye-Bye.” An allegory of emigration, it reflects a society whose highest aspiration is to leave everything behind and start over. Yet in many ways, this story feels remarkably familiar to modern Americans. Like apocalyptic End Times superstitions, it contrasts the virtuous few able to leave Earth and fly to Heaven (depicted here as New York), with the struggling many Left Behind.
These stories have definite religious components. “Papa God” is a recurrent, and humanly fallible, character. Spirits, ancestors, and magic permeate these tales. But beyond personal faith, the religion arises from the stories themselves. By bringing people together in mass gatherings, speaking aloud their moral values, and bonding them together against oppressive regimes, these stories embody the bond-building goals Émile Durkheim identified as rudimentary to the human religious experience.
By the author's own admission, these stories weren't necessarily the best-told she encountered while researching folk tales in Haiti. Haitian storytelling relies on voice, gesture, stage presence. The flat page lacks the beauty of the oral tale, and some of these stories may have been a little weak in the telling; but on the page they reveal a great deal about Haiti, and are a fascinating read besides.
Folk tales reveal a great deal about a culture-what it values, how members of the society relate, what their beliefs are. These tales do exactly that. While they aren't as clear-cut, with a defined beginning, middle, and end, as American readers have become accustomed to, they do give away a great detail about Haiti. Life is unfinished; hardship is to be embraced and studied; the spirit world is right here at hand, not a million miles away above the clouds.
I had the privilege of corresponding briefly with Diane Wolkstein briefly, before her sudden passing in 2013. Though an inveterate world traveler and seasoned folklorist, Wolkstein admitted Haiti and its stories had remarkable staying power with her. Stories like “The Magic Orange Tree” and “Mother of the Waters” remained staples of her live performance for thirty years. This book remains her best-selling work, for reasons eminently clear in her text.
Even on their own, these stories stand as a monument to the creative act and the power of the human intellect. These stories will infect your head like a virus, spreading and replicating, until you have to pass them on. Read them casually, and you will be enlightened. Study them seriously, and you may be transformed.