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April 02, 2020

The Art of Storytelling

By Maung Hlaing

The Global New Light of Myanmar of 18-2-2020 carried a news item entitled “Third Story Project organizes storytelling workshop in YGN”. Such a news story is rare one we hardly see in the dailies or other reading materials.
According to the news, Third Story Project, in cooperation with the Asia Foundation, organized a storytelling workshop called ‘Let’s Read’ at the News and Periodicals Enterprise building on Theinbyu Road on 17 February. And according to the lady organizer, I come to know that Myanmar Storytellers and Youth Volunteers (Yangon), both philanthropic organizations, have been collaborating for children’s education since 2012. I say “Sadhu, or well done” three times.
The storytelling indeed is a source of children’s literature. Some time about four decades ago, I came across two books on storytelling written by famous scholars at that time. I got them from a famous Cartoonist (U) Than Nwe, Younger brother of Cartoonist (U) Than Kywe. Although I returned the books to them, some quotable quotes are still in my note book.
One book I have read was “How to Tell Stories to Children” written by Miss Bryant. In this charming book, the writer says, “ Perhaps never, sinee the really old days, has story-telling so nearly reached a recognized level of dignity as a legitimate and general art of entertainment as now.”
According to “The Book of stories for the storyteller,” by fanny E.Coe, Mr. Herbert L.Willett of the University of Chicago has said, “ It is not through formal instruction that a child receives his impulses toward virtue, honour and courtesy. It is rather from such appeal to the emotions as can be made most effectually through the telling of a story. The inculcation of a duty leaves him passionless and unmoved. The narrative of an experience in which that same virtue finds concrete embodiment fires him with the desire to try the same conduct for himself. Few children fail to make the immediate connection between the hero or heroine of the story and themselves.”
As for ordinary readers, they may not easily appreciate the remarks made by the scholars. However, as for those who have knowledge of children’s literature, they may easily detect the essence of storytelling which is the source of childern’s literature.
To be frank, during the 1970s and 1980s, We could see so many storytelling contests at schools conducted by authorities concerned of education field. Sadly, we seldom hear the news on storytelling contests nowadays.
The ability to tell a story well, indeed, plays an important part of parents and teachers of little children.
When we were toddlers, before we had even learned to read, we loved to listen to the tales or stories our Grandpa or Grandma told us. Hundreds of times we were transported to the Benares and saw King Bramahdat who is well acquainted with children. Although we had not read the Zinat-hta-pakar-thani, we were quite familiar with life stories of the would-be-Buddha. It was simply because our grandparents instilled happiness of listening to stories or tales in their children.
Together with the brave prince, we broke the spell the witch had cast over Sleeping Beauty. And we were all ear to the story of “Mae Htway Lay and the Serpent”, an original Myanmar folktale. We had pity on Mae Htway Lay who was simple and honest. At the same time, we had an antipathy on her cruel elders.
However, although we grew older, we did not lose contact with the fearless characters from our favourite tales. We still met them in books, on the stage and the screen.
No one can deny that storytelling has great influence over the children and it has become the source of children’s literature. In the guise of entertainment, the story is often the vehicle conveying the wholesome moral lessons or the habit of desirable knowledge to the child. Very often, the tellers are at a loss for fresh materials. In such a circumstance, they are compelled to make up a story, with poor satisfaction to themselves or their children. However, these made-up stories are what we call creative stories. The quality of the creative ones solely depends on the tellers.

Storytelling workshop organized by Third Story Project held in downtown Yangon on 17 February. Photo: Ommar Thant
Storytelling workshop organized by Third Story Project held in downtown Yangon on 17 February. Photo: Ommar Thant

However, no nations or societies are out of tales. Every nation has its own fairy tales. While the tales of different nations resemble each other, they are at the same time widely different. It is not difficult to distinguish between Myanmar, Chinese, English, French, German, Indian, Japanese and Russian tales because each describes the life and natural surrounding of the land to which it belongs and where it has been handed
down from generation to generation.
Almost all the tales were first told, long long ago. As they were retold, the tellers added new details and changed the old ones according to individual views and tastes. The older the stories grew, the more interesting and artistic they became. The reason was that people polished and perfected them in the course of the centuries.
Most of the scholars in this field consider that fairy tales are a poetic invention, but at the same time, they reflect the real environment. Such tales tell of the people’s hopes and aspirations, their desire to improve life and lighten their mood. They also make the people believe in their own strength and rely on themselves.
One of the most interesting things is the life-story of some great men or women.
Children love to listen to a story with a hero who accomplishes something in the face of difficulties. Whether it be Napoleon of Florence Nightingale, Tabin-shwe-htee or Bayint Naung of Myanmar history, Jawaharlal Nehru of India of Bogyoke Aung San of Myanmar, the biography is inspiring.
There are also countless tales about animals that attract almost every child. We can call them bedtime stories that we frequently listened to when we were toddlers.
Whenever we were told, we usually saw the characters of a sly fox, stupid wolf, clumsy bear and so on. Animal tales, like fables, have symbolic significance exposing human vices and shortcomings, such as greed, cunning and stupidity.
Children also like wonder-tales which mostly are poetic and amusing. Such tales usually transport them to the world of fantasy. Because these tales are based on imagination and invention, most of the characters in the tales never end in tragedy.
They are always fearless, courageous and noble heroes who become the apple of the children’s eyes. As a matter of fact, not only the children but also the grown-ups enjoy the tales.
It is quite impossible to resist the charm of their heroes, the beauty of their language, and the force of their message. They give us the valuable lessons on love of one’s coutry, faith in the strength of the simple folk, confidence in a better future and triumph of good over evil. They all become the high ideals of the children.
Today, these stories and tales are transformed into picture books, pictorials, comic journals, modern short stories, fables and creative stories, drama scripts, humour and translation of literary works. When we were young, we were never fed up with listening to the tales or stories even they were made up of hackneyed themes.
Likewise, when we grow older and find them in book form, we never turn a blind eye to them. They, indeed, have a beneficial influence on the literary world.
In our country today, the government itself, is dedicated to achieving headway in children’s literature. Thus, magazines, journals and other periodicals designed and illustrated for children are gaining momentum. At the same time, private publishers are now taking a role in the publishing arena. However, we find that some of the books they publish are far from children’s comprehension. We still need books of tales for children.
Children love to listen to tales or stories told by their parents. When they grow up, they surely will tell their children the tales they themselves heard from their parents.
In this way, children of generation by generation will take part in this relay of storytelling practice. According to the Third Story Project, we know that the project not only helps children receive storybooks, they also aim to instil good manners in young minds.
As long as we nurture the stroy telling practice for children, we will see the brighter the future of Myanmar. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing storytelling contests at schools of Myanmar in future.
I take my hat off to those who conducted such a storytelling workshop.
Let’s make the storytelling practice alive!

Ref. The Guardian Magazine, August, 1985.

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