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 Rai, the illustrator, and other contributors as well as for the book’s printing. Upon publication of the book, we hosted a public event to which we invited people from many cultures and communities and where funders were honored.
We created an editorial committee that oversaw the steps of our work. The committee was made up of Bhutanese educators and artists, a book designer, a writer/ project director, a folklorist, and ESOL teachers. We wrote job descriptions for committee members. We learned in this committee’s first meeting that the cultural expectation of stories in Bhutan is that they teach a lesson, and, indeed, all the stories we heard met this expectation.
Finding a common language for stories
The Bhutanese people in the class did not speak English and neither the teacher nor other English-speaking contributors spoke Nepali. We told stories in our story-telling sessions with the support of a Nepali-English interpreter. Tellers paused [End Page 135] in the storytelling so that the interpreter could retell in English, or if the story was in English, to interpret in Nepali. The folklorist, Dr. Jo Radner, instructed the interpreter to present a word-for-word interpretation. We made audio recordings of each session including all stories in both Nepali and English.
A lesson is generating folktales
Radner invited people to remember stories about their grandparents, but few people responded. We found that the prompt to remember grandparents caused people to remember the death of a grandparent and they spoke of an unhappy memory. The next time, she invited people to remember something fun they did as a child. This prompted stories of games, songs, and dances. Women in the class gathered during break, remembering a song they used to sing when they went to collect firewood. Students began to remember riddles, and they offered riddles one after the other, which the interpreter told us in English, but they made no sense. The interpreter laughed. “You see,” he said, “the joke is in our culture. It does not translate.” The students loved stumping us. Radner told a story she remembered from her childhood. She asked if anyone wanted to tell a story they heard as a child. Everyone had a story to tell, pausing only briefly as the story came back to them from over the years. We heard stories of daily life, relationships between men and woman, greed, revenge, tricksters, and sorrow. The interpreter became invisible. It was as if the storytellers were speaking directly to us English speakers. The students’ individual lives opened through their stories and we were their students as we listened.
Selection of story
The editorial committee selected the tale “The Story of a Pumpkin” to publish from about a dozen recorded stories. Our plan was that at the culminating event, many of the class members who told stories in class would come together once more and tells their stories to the wider community that would include their own children and grandchildren.
Bhutanese community members recognized one young man as the artist among them. The Committee and designer suggested illustrations for the book, and we also contracted with other Bhutanese illustrators to contribute images we needed. The book designer, Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, described another layer of the value of our process in creating an illustrated tale. She said, “The illustrator brought us a watercolor painting and several drawings. Many of the refugees have only memories of their homeland and his pictures gave them visual reminders of the life they left behind. A picture of an ox in a field with a basket muzzling its mouth sparked a lively discussion of farming and basket weaving.” Later, the designer scanned the wedding sari of an editorial committee member, as well as other fabric that families had brought from Nepal. The designer used the fabric scans as well as scans of handmade paper from Bhutan in the design of the book. [End Page 136]
Writing the text of an oral story
The word-for-word interpretation in English of the tale was extremely important to us. I adapted those words for the English version of the text. In the class we sorted out cultural questions. Hari Tiwari gave us clarifications: “Where did the 100 elephants come from? What did the young wife wear under her sari? Was that a lullaby the wife spoke to the animals when she returned in the night? What exactly was the punishment the king ordered?” The recording of Tiwari’s first telling of the story in Nepali was the source for the transcriber of the story for the published text. Nepali comes in many fonts and in consultation with the editorial committee and several classes of Bhutanese students, we settled on Preeti font, one that students said they were familiar with in books from India.
One of the last great tasks was to assure the accuracy of the Nepali text in the book. One of our proofreaders, who was in a high level ESOL class, kept shaking his head, laughing, almost crying when he read the story in Nepali. He said the printed story in Nepali was in the simple language of a country tale. This was an endorsement of the work. This was our goal. We knew this was the way the storyteller as a child heard it from her father, a farmer and herdsman, and the transcriber had written the tale with this authenticity.
The book is now published. In public libraries in the state, librarians share the tale of new arrivals from Bhutan in library story programs. And the book has been added to immigration units in elementary and middle schools. One middle school class made up of new arrival refugees themselves read The Story of a Pumpkin and wrote their own adaptations of the tale. They also listened to stories from their parents and grandparents in the language they spoke at home, and then retold the tales in English for their classmates.
A reviewer in the Concord Monitor wrote these words about the book. They spoke to our goals of sharing the story of a culture:
“The Story of a Pumpkin is most definitely not just the story of a pumpkin. It’s a story of national heritage, rooted deep in the farmlands of Bhutan and passed down from generation to generation. It’s a story of growth and change, written in both the native language of Bhutanese refugees and the language they are struggling daily to learn. And it’s a story of honoring tradition, designed to link these refugees’ children to the quickly fading memories of their homeland.”
One afternoon when I was in the home of the family of Narad Adhikari, the transcriber, I asked his children about the stories their grandparents told them. They explained to me that they don’t listen to stories. In the U.S., no one tells stories, they said. They had never heard The [End Page 137] Story of a Pumpkin. But their elders had. When one grandfather heard the story in the printed book, he scratched his head, pondered, and then a smile lit his face. “Oh, yes, I know this story.” Then he told it with his own twist as his four-year old grandson listened in wonder: the story of a pumpkin who wins a princess for his bride and magically is transformed into a handsome man. Now the grandson knows the story and tells it to all who will listen.
Terry Farish is a writer for children and young adults. She wrote The Good Braider, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, after years of collecting oral histories among southern Sudanese families in Portland, Maine. Her picture book The Alleyway about a Dominican-American boy will be published in 2015.
Photos used with permission.