- From a Bhutanese Farm to Small-Town America:A Folktale Journeys with Its Tellers
A book was created in an ESOL classroom of adult Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan newly settled in a small New Hampshire town in the U.S. The book was a tale told by one of the students about a magic pumpkin who married the king’s daughter, and when the pumpkin fell from a mango tree his shell cracked and out stepped a handsome prince. Students roared with laughter when they heard it. The story built community and delight in the classroom and served as a bridge to the wider community that was the new home for hundreds of families from Bhutan. The creators were an ESOL teacher and many storytellers and illustrators: her students. A folklorist, a book designer and I, a writer and literacy program director, supported the work of the class
Even though we laughed and painted and danced and sang and drank sweet chai tea, we also could simply call this project to create a bilingual folktale, a practice of listening. And stories did indeed unfold in class sessions devoted to storytelling. We thought it would take time to cultivate a distant memory of a story heard in childhood, but it did not. Given the floor, student after student told us long elaborate stories heard on the farms where they were born. One teller explained that stories lasted as long as the work at hand, or as long as the walk on the road to get home. If work in the cardamom fields was not done, he said, the teller kept telling, thickening the plot, or weaving in a whole new story line.
All the students in the class were parents and many were grandparents. Many grew up on the farms in Bhutan where they were [End Page 134] born, herding livestock and working in cardamom or rice fields. Many had not had a chance to go to school. A grandmother of four told us that as a child she tended cows and goats, and although she didn’t have books, her father told her many stories, which she remembered in detail. She told us her favorite story her father had told her, The Story of a Pumpkin which became the project’s first book. She had told the story to her elders in Beldangi 2, the refugee camp where she lived in Nepal for 18 years, and now in her English classroom in the U.S.
Early on we chose to cultivate the telling of folktales as opposed to stories of leaving home, or stories of remembered loss. These Nepali-speaking Hindu families were exiled from their homes in Bhutan and lost their farms, land, and animals. Our goals in inviting students to remember folktales were many. We wanted to create a bilingual text to honor the story told in Nepali and to offer it in English to support English language learners. Supporting family literacy was a second major goal, and we wanted to create a rollicking tale for children to enjoy and to learn about the culture of the home their elders cherish. And third, we wanted to make a link, through story, among long-term residents and the families who are newcomers from Bhutan in order to build understanding and lessen the newcomer’s isolation.
We found that benefits of the project came not just from the final book but also from the process of creating it. The following is a sketch of our journey:
Vision for the book
We wanted to make a book we could give to libraries and schools in the area and other organizations working especially with Nepali speaking refugees, the largest group of refugees in the state. We decided to work with a local printer to create a single folk tale in a trade book format.
Funding a folktale project
The New Hampshire Humanities Council, working in collaboration with ESOL teachers and consultants, directed the project. We wrote grants to individual funders, businesses, and organizations interested in supporting literacy projects. We were able to raise funds to pay honorariums to Hari Tiwari, the grandmother who told the selected story, Dal...