Custom Stories from Choiseul

Custom Stories from Choiseul, various authors, 1995

It’s probably not fair to rate this book on the strength of the fourteen pages available on Google Books (half of which are in a language I don’t speak), but I have to say what I did read didn’t make me want to race out and find a physical copy so I could read the rest. This collection of folklore, which may or may not be authored by children (it’s illustrated by children, but I wasn’t able to find much of a description of the book, let alone an introduction), consists of a series of stories, each written (or possibly dictated) by a different person and presented in English alongside their original language. I don’t even know what language that is; Solomon Islands has 60-70 native languages, at least five of which are spoken in the province of Choiseul. The stories are fairly nonsequitur, as if key sentences are missing, though of course it may be simply my own lack of context that makes them seem so. Perhaps if the situation were reversed, a Solomon Islander would find American folklore as baffling and nonsensical as these stories were to me. We take it for granted, for instance, that the Big Bad Wolf wants to eat the Three Little Pigs, because that’s what wolves do, and the most obvious and literal moral of the story (build your domicile out of something sturdy enough that it can’t be destroyed by dog breath) can be tweaked to serve a variety of intentions. Perhaps to Solomon Islanders it is equally logical that when you tell a Zikuku bird that you don’t have any small fish for it, only big fish that your husband caught yesterday, you’re going to get turned into a black stone for your selfishness; and by the same token, there may be a whole range of lessons that can be drawn from the misfortune of this story’s fisherwomen.

Los Angeles, 2005

I mentioned in a recent post that I’m not an enthusiastic consumer of folklore collections. At least part of the problem, to my mind, is that folk tales works best when they are alive and breathing. We know the stories of our culture; even the non-Disneyfied ones are embedded in our collective consciousness. I think most Americans could tell you the bones of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood. We are told these stories in countless forms, innumerable times, throughout our lives–by parents and teachers, in children’s books and cartoons, as references and touchstones in literature and film. And yet if a cultural anthropologist came to us and asked us to relate these stories for posterity, most of us would be reluctant to put our own personal spin on the tale. Instead we would probably come up with some sort of proto-story, the essential narrative devoid of embellishment and individual variation. A collection of these stories would be terribly boring to read.

All this is by way of saying, I didn’t much care for the book, but that’s probably not a reflection on the inherent entertainment value of Solomon Islands folklore so much as an inevitable reaction to a genre that strives to present basic narrative in its barest, least artful form.

Los Angeles, 2005

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