Crick, Crack: Fantasy, Folklore and Black Storytelling Traditions, a guest post by Lisa Stringfellow
Human beings love stories and use them to process and interpret the world around us. They teach, entertain, and help connect us through shared identity. In cultures around the world, storytelling has been passed down through oral rather than written traditions. In A Comb of Wishes, storytelling is central to the lives of the characters and part of the culture of the fictional island of St. Rita, much like it still is in the Caribbean and other parts of the world.
Oral Storytelling in the Black Tradition
In her article “Show Don’t Tell: a Universal Truth or a Colonial Relic?” writer Namrata Poddar questions how Western storytelling traditions differ from those of many immigrants of color and wonders, “[A]re we, in 21st-century America, overvaluing a sight-based approach to storytelling? And could this be another case of cultural particularity masquerading itself as universal taste?”
As a first generation child of an immigrant from Barbados, this question resonates with me. Western culture privileges print over spoken words, but my experience from both my West Indian and Southern heritage is rooted in storytelling and spoken traditions that don’t always conform to traditional Western formats. Interestingly, a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that our brains do not distinguish between stories read in print or heard orally, both stimulate the same cognitive and emotional areas regardless of their medium.
I wanted to reclaim and celebrate the oral tradition in my middle grade novel A Comb of Wishes. The importance of dialect, cadence, and rhythm, and in particular the interaction between the audience and storyteller, is central to oral storytelling.
In the African and the Black diaspora, storytelling is a participatory event and one that requires interaction from both the teller and the hearer of the tale. This can be seen in many aspects of Black culture, such as the call and response structure of sermons within the Black church, as well as storytelling for entertainment, and it harks back to the tradition of griots in many parts of West Africa. In the Caribbean, many islands have traditional ways of beginning and ending a story, story frames, that serve as cues for listeners. “Crick, Crack” (sometimes written as “Krik Krak”) is one such frame that I use throughout my book.
As part of my research for A Comb of Wishes, I interviewed storyteller Diane Ferlatte who shared her experience and knowledge. In her words, “Storytelling comes from the African tradition and is not a spectator sport. We participate and sing the songs together. Some [audience members] are reluctant but others help to tell it together.” Storytellers use language that is full of imagery and symbolism, but which also places them in the role of performer, and they often act out the roles of various characters in the stories.
Ferlatte highlighted the work of renowned author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who captured many stories told in Black communities in the South and in the Caribbean. Sometimes stories were coded, through jokes and riddles, and shared information that was for those inside the community. This was a way to say things that couldn’t be said outright, especially when told in white or mixed groups. Story was a way to keep history and culture alive.
This tradition of oral storytelling is continued in the United States by storytellers like Donna Washington and Beverly Burnette, who share traditional and original oral stories and keep the tradition flourishing within the Black community.
Oral Storytelling in A Comb of Wishes
In A Comb of Wishes, I wanted to create the feeling of a story-within-a-story. The novel is told in dual points of view, from the mermaid Ophidia and the protagonist Kela.
Each of the chapters in Ophidia’s voice start with the word, “Crick, Crack. This is a story.” Those opening words set up an expectation in the reader and automatically invoke a fairy or folktale quality to what comes next, usually something magical and mysterious.
Each of Ophidia’s chapters also end with the words, “The story is put on you.” According to Jamaican storyteller Amina Blackwood Meeks, a similar phrase, “I put it on you,” is often a traditional closing in Yoruban folktales. I liked the circular ending of these chapters and the added idea that the story was open for interpretation by the listener once it had been told. As storytellers, written or oral, once our stories leave us, they are out of our power and in the hands of our audience.
The other chapters in the novel are told from Kela’s point of view and the counterpoint between the real and fantastical adds to the tension of the story. When Kela and Ophidia finally meet in person, it is a literal collision of worlds. The chapter “The Other Side of the Mirror” makes Kela feel like she is in one of her mother’s stories and brings the reader along for the ride.
The final chapter of the book is in Kela’s point of view, but it ends with the familiar ending readers have seen throughout the book in Ophidia’s sections, “Crick, Crack. The story is put on you.”
What is the meaning of this story for readers of A Comb of Wishes? As the storyteller, I can’t wait to find out!
Meet the author
Lisa Stringfellow writes middle grade fiction and has a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. Her debut fantasy A Comb of Wishes will be published on February 8, 2022 by HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books. It was selected as an ABA Indies Introduce title for Winter/Spring 2022 and Lisa received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for the novel manuscript. Her work often reflects her West Indian and Black southern heritage. Lisa is a middle school teacher and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with her children and two bossy cats.
About A Comb of Wishes
Set against the backdrop of Caribbean folklore, Lisa Stringfellow’s spellbinding middle grade debut tells of a grieving girl and a vengeful mermaid and will enchant readers who loved Kacen Callender’s Hurricane Child or Christian McKay Heidicker’s Scary Stories for Young Foxes.
Ever since her mother’s death, Kela feels every bit as broken as the shards of glass, known as “mermaid’s tears,” that sparkle on the Caribbean beaches of St. Rita. So when Kela and her friend Lissy stumble across an ancient-looking comb in a coral cave, with all she’s already lost, Kela can’t help but bring home her very own found treasure.
Far away, deep in the cold ocean, the mermaid Ophidia can feel that her comb has been taken. And despite her hatred of all humans, her magic requires that she make a bargain: the comb in exchange for a wish.
But what Kela wants most is for her mother to be alive. And a wish that big will exact an even bigger price…
Don’t miss the novel that Newbery-winning author Kelly Barnhill calls “one of the most promising works of fiction in a long time”!
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/08/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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