Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Diane Wokltein's Stories Touch Us All

Diane Wolkstein was a teacher, mentor and close friend. I miss her greatly.

One of my favorite stories is ‘I’m Tipingee’ from her collection, The Magic Orange Tree.( You can hear this story on the SAI YouTube Channel ) It is a story of community, among other things, and it has brought community to me through the telling of it.
‘Tipingee’ became a favorite of an elementary school in Glen Rock, New Jersey. For 12 years I told stories in this K-5 school. I taught students and teachers how to tell stories. The school year of stories culminated with a school wide storytelling festival. Everyone, students and teachers, told stories for an afternoon. Before splitting up into small mixed age groups, the school population would gather to start the afternoon with an annual telling of Tipingee. Everyone knew the story; everyone chanted and sang as one. Imagine 350 kids and teachers listening so quietly and then bursting into “I’m Tipingee. She’s Tipingee. We’re Tipingee, too.” We all delighted in the experience together. Diane writes of this extraordinary community in the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of The Magic Orange Tree.

Professionally Tipingee has broadened my community as well. I tell ‘Tipingee’ in tandem with other tellers. With Elizabeth Nordell (SAI) I tell an English/Creole version. With Julie Pasqual (SAI) I tell an English/Sign Language version. In this way we spread the story to others.

‘I’m Tipingee’ will always have a special place in my heart. I thank Diane for bringing it to our storytelling community that we may pass it on.
--Julie Della Torre


Diane Wolkstein grew up one town over from where I live, so when I first started appearing in local storytelling events, audience members often asked if I knew her.  I didn't at first, but when the opportunity availed itself to take a series of workshops with her I signed up.  I trekked in and out of a bitterly cold New York City to her apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village.  There I was warmed by the stories shared and by her welcoming smile.  Her collection of Haitian stories, The Magic Orange Tree, is a legacy Diane Wolkstein gifted not only to the storytelling community, but story lovers everywhere.

--Ellen Musikant
          There is a photo somewhere in my parents’ house of me, as a little girl, climbing on the statue of Hans Christian Anderson in Central Park.  One of the many advantages of growing up in NYC is that Central Park, and all of its marvels, were available to me anytime I wanted.  I did not attend any of Diane's storytelling there, but years later, when I heard about it, I could imagine my younger self, sitting listening to her, with the background of that beloved statue.  And, the year she asked if I - me, Julie Pasqual - would actually tell a story there, well, my heart about burst in pride.  It was an "I made it moment," just the fact that she knew my name floored me, but that she also thought that I was good enough to stand before that statue and tell to audiences that had cut their storytelling teeth on her, and Laura Simms, and other great and wondrous tellers, well - I was stunned.  It was another couple of years before I felt like Diane and I really talked, and that was about one of her passions - the people of Haiti, I had recently returned from working with a community there, and I could see the love she bore the brilliant, joyful residents of that troubled region.  We sat on a subway one day - I literally almost running into her, and swapped stories of the many smiles, and bright eyes we had seen on our visits.  Though she hadn't been in years, Haiti - as Haiti does - had not left her soul.  Some people just tell stories, some just write them, some just collect them.  But, Diane did this and more - she lived them with a full-hearted passion that set the bar high for all of us that have come after her, because of her.  If I ever get to stand before that statue and tell stories again, I hope her light will feel my soul, and guide my telling.
--Julie Pasqual
When I was first starting out as a storyteller, I found in the library a copy of Diane’s The Red Lion. The tale is from Persia, and recounts a prince’s journey to face his greatest fear, which he must do to succeed his father on the kingdom’s throne. The prince runs away several times before summoning the courage to meet the red lion. And, of course, he is triumphant – but in a surprising way. I always enjoy telling this hero’s journey tale, especially to those on the cusp of adolescence preparing to face their own red lions. It has helped me face red lions of my own. I never had the pleasure of hearing Diane tell this story and I wish I had. The times I did hear her tell I could sense the passion she felt for storytelling and her intense desire to share it. She will be missed.
--Maria LoBiondo
 I was in Diane’s physical presence only 5 or 6 times, yet her work has had a deep influence on me as a storyteller.   She was a model of grace and power in her telling and a model of dedication and scholarship.   As have other SAI tellers, I’ve found stories from The Magic Orange Tree especially compelling.  My favorites are “The Name” and  “One, My Darling, Come to Mama.”   The first for its sauciness and the second for much more.
  “One, My Darling” has sparked profound conversations among students.   How is it, many wonder,  that Philamandre, despised and neglected by her mother as a child, does not hesitate to lovingly care for her mother when the woman appears years later.    
  Although I rarely tell this powerful story to young children, I did tell it for a second grade class I had grown to know well.   At the close of the story, a hand shot up.  
  “Why,” demanded the boy, “is she so kind to her mother when her mother was mean to her?”  
     Before I could respond, another hand flew up.  It was Allora.  “I know.”
    “Tell us,” I said.  Allora stood to explain.
    “Philamandre was kind to her mother because she did not want to be like her mother.”   
    Students have also responded deeply to “White Wave,” a Chinese folktale that Diane published with beautiful illustrations by Ed Young.  I tell the story in my own words, but frame it by telling the children how Diane found the story and include, as well, the way she ends the story:
    Many years pass.  Finally nothing remains of the young man, the shrine he built for a goddess and the moon shell in which she once lived.  
   Nothing remains except the story.  That is how it is with all of us; eventually what remains of our lives are our stories. 
--Luray Gross
   My story has something in common with the experience Julie Della Torre recalls. It includes a tale from Diana’s The Magic Orange Tree and there is community singing, too. However, the community in my story is one that feels far away from a Glen Rock elementary school.
 Almost fifteen years ago, I began telling stories in the Morris County Youth Detention Center. When I introduced myself to my first audience of about twenty teenage boys, they scoffed at the idea that I had anything to offer them, but as any storyteller would expect, most of them changed their minds somewhere during the first five minutes of the first story. After that, I taught storytelling workshops at the detention center every week and, although residents came and went, there remained a consensus that Storytelling was, ‘okay.’ That is, it was okay to listen to, discuss and, sometimes, retell stories, but most kids drew the line at active participation as tellers or listeners.
   One day, maybe five months into the program, I invited my friend and colleague, Mary Rachel Platt, to be a guest artist at the facility. The boys who were in residence that day had been there for a long time and most of them were frustrated and worried. They walked into the classroom and slumped into their seats, each one wearing the sullen expression that only teenagers can achieve. Mary began her telling with “Cric, Crac,” the ritual we all learned from Diana to introduce a Haitian story. Her friendly ‘cric’ was greeting with a rolling of eyes, so she just started the tale of Tayzanne, a magical fish.
   There is a song that recurs throughout this story. Its words are simple, but the melody is haunting. By the first time Mary sang it, the boys were engaged in the story. When the song was repeated for a second time, I thought I heard it softly echoed by someone else in the room. I truly didn’t believe my ears, but at the third repetition, the echoing voice was stronger. More voices joined in until, when Mary finished the story by singing the refrain one last time, she was just one voice in a choir made up of every boy in the room.
   Tayzanne is not a happy story, but it was the story those boys needed that day, a tale to take them away from their own worries, if only for the time it took Mary to tell it. There is a lot of Diana in this memory. She truly understood the power of story to describe and mold cultures, preserve rituals, and change lives. From her I learned to forget myself, the teller, and trust the story to catch and hold its listeners.
--Paula Davidoff

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