Friday, September 18, 2009

Anancy; Anancyism; ways of discovering and passing on stories

This post grew like Topsy out of a response to a comment of Geoffrey Philp's. Thanks to Geoff, my friend, Ruth Minott Egglestone, FSJL, Martin, Nalo and all the folks who listen in to our conversations...


In general: I don't think we are ever 'just writers', in all the ways that signifies! Our interests and operations can never be just as writers because it's impossible for any of us to be just that. I also worry now, in my old age, about the dangers of arrogance, my own especially.

As for the case in point: I am now, as a result of our conversation, concerned not merely with the Anancy phenomenon itself, but with the procedural example it offers, the opportunity for finding out HOW TO FIND OUT about cultural tings, especially in an oral society. So for me, there IS a problem of being right, in the sense of accurate. My particular concerns are inevitably also as an old teacher, an editor, a compiler of textbooks, one who seeks to understand the culture, and especially one who is worried by those with power and access to the means of overhauling things and serving them up differently – whether on purpose or by mistake.

Those powerful people include us, you and me, and we need to care enough about our stories, our his/tories and her/stories, our myths, our conundrums, our ring games, etc., etc., to try to pass them on intact – for there will always be changes, willy-nilly, no matter how hard we try. Ruth Egglestone, for example, was correct, meticulous, scholarly, when she told us her source for that particular understanding of Anancyism, and gave us, therefore, the opportunity of asking, “Well, who is this person? What does he know?”

The stories and understandings will come in many forms, and that multiplicity, that variety, is also precious. Some of the stories will have changed over time, and we want to know about those changes and, if possible, when and why they occurred. And contemporary writers and storytellers will themselves make changes (as you, Geoff, have done in respect of Anancy, say) and that's good, too.

But I'd like to know when and who and why changes occurred, whether by accident, and, in that case, what was the nature of the accident, or whether on purpose, and in that case, what was the nature of the purpose. That's all part of the story, the history, belonging to it in the way an etymology (Cicero calls etymology the veriloquium) enriches the significance of a word. It pleases me, for example, that we can know how the word ‘chortle’ came about, that it was a conflation of chuckle and snort, coined by Lewis Carroll in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1871). Knowing dat likl tory is part of my pleasure in the word.

For now, that's how I'm seeing our stories, including this Anancy one.

I do know that Anancy, before the Atlantic crossing, was Creator God, and that he survives in our Anancy Stories in a diminished state, as the Trickster-Spiderman, a version of, inter alia, the Signifying Monkey, and of the orisha variously known as Exú, Esu Eleggua, Esu Elegbara, Eshu Elegbara, Elegba, Legba, Legba-Petro, Maitre Carrefour and Eleda. (For one thing, he figures prominently in my PhD dissertation!) But I’d venture to say that Legba is NOT diminished, certainly not as Anancy is, and thereby hangs a tale in which I’m interested.

Nor have I ever thought of Anancy as weak, even in his diminished state on this side... But that’s perhaps best kept for another post, for hopefully did likl chat don't done yet. Selah!

13 comments: said...

Pam, this seems to be going in two directions.

1. There is the work of the literary scholar
2. Work of the writer.

Both are complicated by as Jung suggests a symbol stands for something that will never be known.

Interesting as it is,in my old age, I have given up being a full time literary scholar.


clarabella said...

Geoff: That's an odd thing for you to say, as your comments are always, or so it seems to me, very scholarly. I am now very far from the 'academy', and so the internet and conversations like these are of great interest and benefit to me, for I am still curious, and concerned about many things, our literature and culture especially. I am also anxious that we try to be true to ourselves. These are goals I know that you share, for they are part of the great work and achievement that is
If you say that this seems to be going in two directions, I must accept that. I think of it as being more all-over-the-place than that! But I forgive myself the haphazardness, because I have to, and I also hark back to that old thesis again, and its contention that Caribbean people operate a prismatic consciousness, that is, they can hold together in their heads many disparate things, at the same time, without feeling the need to resolve them. Thanks, as ever, and blessings. Pam said...

Pam, in order to write a story, I still do research--not the kind of hardcore research from grad school--though the habits persist. I think what I was trying to say is that as a writer I am not bound to "evidence" the way a scholar would be. Instead, I now trust my intuition more than my head--a reversal of my younger years, and try to arrive at the emotional truth of a character.

In other words, for my stories I am not bound by the rules of a literary scholar because I am a writer first. Not to put down the blog, but the material in the blog are the result of research that I have done as a writer. Story always comes first.

Dennis once said to me, "You pick up your insights like a magpie" and I guess that is something You and I share--throwing our passion into a subject until we think we have exhausted it and move on...

FSJL said...

I am not a literary scholar, nor am I much of a writer, so take these insights, if that's what they are, with a peck of salt.

Anansi started out as a trickster god (the Akan pantheon has its own sky father and earth mother, and the Wednesday Spider is neither of these). His importance, along with other Tricksters, on this side of the water, it seems to me, comes with the fact that being tricky (or perhaps tricksy) is absolutely necessary to survival when you are not merely subordinate, but seriously oppressed.

Anansi, as a character in folk tales, is one of the few survivals of actual African religion that slipped through the efforts of European rulers to suppress any element of African culture that black slaves could use to resist their enslavement. He turns up in several Caribbean societies, always as a trickster who gets the better of the powerful. Our folktales have him pitted against Tacuma (the bull), or against Tiger, or even River Mamma, all of them figures of great power.

Even our quondam masters acknowledged that Jamaican and other West Indian slaves had sharp wits (when they weren't calling them lazy, dishonest, criminal and vindictive -- Edward Long uses such adjectives in his History to describe, or more accurately, to besmirch, the African character). In Sixty Years of Change H.P. Jacobs recounts an anecdote in which a slave valet tells his master, who is dressing in militia uniform for a parish ball, that he looks "brave like a lion," and when taxed with the fact that he's a Creole and has never seen an actual lion replies "mi see dem all bout; pun di estate, dung a di wharf; dem have lang ears, an' lang tail an' dem go 'hee-haw.'"
(Quoted from memory, so the spelling's mine, not Jacobs's.)

It isn't surprising that West Indians prize the Anansi-figure who challenges authority with witty words and posing -- look at leaders like Bustamante, Gairy, Vere Bird, Robert Bradshaw, Ebenezer Joshua, T.U. Butler, who energized the working class in the 1930s and 1940s with Anansi tactics and the power of words that pricked the bubble of power. Norman Manley and Eric Williams are a very different kind of political actor, and a little bird tells me there's a little book coming out some time next year called Only West Indians, which deals with them.

My problem with this is that some spiders have a poisonous bite, and the same skills, if you will, that are cheered by the masses when turned on the oppressor, can end up being used against the masses.

There's a flip side to this too: Anansiism is just one strategy for survival among many. There are others, some more subtle, some more obvious that have been employed. Anansi survives because he hides in the open.

clarabella said...

FSJL: Cho! You is a Anancy yourself! You're not much of a writer, nor a literary scholar. Nevertheless you have written over a thousand poems and you deliver yourself of seven pertinent paragraphs upon the topic under discussion. Cho man.

Yes, I know about Nyame, the Sky God and Asase Ya, his wife. I know Anansi, who is their pikni, and a creator (of sun, stars, moon, day and night, rain, etc.) as well as mediator between humans and his sky-god father and originator of 'word' in the sense of stories, which he managed to get from Nyame by fulfilling some conditions laid down by him.

I don't know if I'd describe the complex shape-shifting, double-being, hiding in language and lifestyle that the enslaved (new PC term!) had to do in order to survive, as 'tricky' or 'tricksy', but I agree that being devious, ingenious, operating a good con, all were important ways of surviving and getting the better of the imperial oppressors, and Anansi did indeed offer an excellent example in this by means of his stories.

I'm not a scholar of African survivals, but I think it's safe to say that more of African culture and religion has survived on this side than is generally thought, so, where African religion is concerned, it isn't just Anansi that slipped through the imperial net. Still, the Spider is perhaps the most widely known character, never mind that many people may not know his godly West African origins.

Thanks for the H. P. Jacobs story, which is hilarious in all its many layers of trickery. Gates says (I hope I'm not misquoting him) each word in black people's mouths is a 'rhetorical act', and this is a good example of that, for sure. The master is a lion, of the kind that has a long tail, long ears and goes hee-haw. "Kye-kye!" Anansi laugh.

I take your point too about our early leaders and their words and their posing. If Michelle Obama put her arm around the Queen and so made her human, Busta had gone before by asking Princess Margaret,on the occasion of Independence, as he whirled her around the dance floor, "How is yu sista?" Norman Manley would not have done that, true, nor Eric Williams, but I wouldn't put trickiness past the "When I talk no damn dog does bark" man.

I'll look for ONLY WEST INDIANS. Thanks for the heads up.

As for the other strategies for survival, I remind you of my sex, and of that seminal observation by Patrick Bryan: there were two sets of oppressed groups in slavery times, one of them doubly oppressed: first, the enslaved, and then women. There is an enormous story, just beginning to be told, about how women made life in those times, and of the ingenuity they must have employed to do that. Nor have women ceased to use it. "Kye-kye!" Anansi laugh again.

That the poison in the bite of the spider can be turned against whomever he wills, not just the oppressor, we all, I think, well know, some of us, these days, to our considerable cost. And as for hiding in the open, dese days me nat so sure bout de hidin part!

Jack Mandora...

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff: I like Dennis's magpie comment. You are right, I am a bit of a magpie myself, though the things that attract me aren't necessarily bright and shiny.

I like your category of "hardcore research". You know how I'm going on all the time about sloppiness, carelessness, playing fast and loose with the facts. Perhaps that could be described as 'softcore' research?

And I admire the resonance with which you assert that you are a writer first of all, and that when you do research it is for the sake of your writerly purposes. When I think of how best to describe myself (other than human and female), I am still a child of the prism, shape-shifting, according to my mood, from Grandma to grim prophet to Grim Reaper's fodder – any day now! It's probably a function of age, or the intensity of my engagement with my granddaughter, which has, among other things, turned me into a singer-songwriter: "Zoey and me/ Zoey and me Zoey and me/ across the sea" and so on!

Also, I increasingly dislike categorization, especially when I see how it sets people against each other/one another. Like I keep saying, It's easy to call a man a communist and kill him, as Gabriel Marcel (whom I KNOW I'm not quoting exactly) warns.

As I wrote in something for your blog a while back, I have come to think of all writing as being the same, and so of the literary scholar as just another writer, with another set of concerns. In my mind, it's all about 'finding out', and doing it accurately. I was writing a story about the Sahel recently, set in the seventies. In the first half of that decade, the Sahel was in the grip of a devastating drought. What a ting if I nebba happen to find out, not just about weather and topography, etc., etc. – the usual things one researches – but about what was happening there AT THAT PARTICULAR TIME!

I guess what I am saying is that I think these pursuits are similar, perhaps more than you do. A poem can come out of a bit of historical research, a song can pop up out of a piece of lit. crit., easy as pie – mag-pie, Dennis would say.

And grin his inscrutable grin.

FSJL said...

You're accusing me of being a nancy boy? Oh dear me...

(If Neil Gaiman were Jamaican, he wouldn't have slipped that pun into the title of his worthy novel.)

I wouldn't think of Williams as an ordinary Anansi figure (though your point is well taken). The word I'd use for him is Machiavellian, he specialised in political intrigue rather than simple trickery (and left everybody who worked with him confused, and many with a metaphorical knife in their back), and his objectives were those of Machiavelli: "A ognuno puzzo questa barbaro dominio."

Anansi does not seek to liberate his people, merely to gain a personal advantage.

clarabella said...

FSJL: Didn't know that being a 'nancy boy' is something of which I would 'accuse' you, nancy boys being homosexuals, as far as I know. And I wouldn't underestimate Neil Gaiman, if I were you! Sure, Eric Williams was a Machiavelli, and, in that role, capable of employing Anancy strategies if it suited him. Agreed. I think you do Anancy wrong. In the beginning, he mediated between the gods and humankind. He put out dangerous forest fires. He gave us sun, moon, stars, day and night. He gave us stories. He taught us how to conquer the oppressor by means of 'doubleness'. And so on. Give the guy a break!

FSJL said...

Pam: How do you make an Alpha girl happy in her old age? Tell her a joke when she's young.

I know what a nancy boy is (that being a term from one of my native dialects of English, after all, I have more than one native dialect). I was making a joke -- and riffing off Neil Gaiman's title Anansi Boys.

I think you are right when you say that I'm being unfair to Anansi. I'm really trying to critique an attitude, and I ended up critiquing the mythical figure behind the attitude. The Spider is not responsible for the people who seek to weave deceits in their own names.

clarabella said...

FSJL: Forgive me for not being too jokify on the matter of nancy boys: I know some Jamaican gay men who have lived in terror of their lives. I confess I still have to read Neil Gaiman's book, but I stand by my statement about his knowing just what he was doing. And thanks for seeing it my way about the Spider. Like Jesus (another son of god whom he resembles in not a few ways) far too many evil things have been done by wicked people in his name! Hope you and yours are having a good week!

FSJL said...

All of us with gay (or bisexual) male Jamaican friends have some idea of the terrors they've experienced. That 'fiah fi bun' thing is well dread, and we all have friends who've died violently at the hands of morons who believe that they are acting in the name of the invisible chap you believe in. Our Victorian forebears/masters did their work very well.

To better things. I urge you to go to and order Gaiman's American Gods, if you have not already read it. It's available as a mass-market paperback, or you can find it cheaply via Amazon's second-hand sale facility. It is one of the best fantasy novels ever written, and the character of Compé Anansi is superbly delineated, from the moment he appears, appropriately, onstage.

clarabella said...

FSJL: No please. People may kill homosexuals in the name of God, but that is only excuse. Tne homophobia in Jamaica is a function of hardwiring, again, an attitude, a prejudice that is cut into the psyche and probably can be removed only by a debriefing process that is the equivalent of exorcism. One suspects that it may well be driven by the terror of being the thing one fears... Yes, I shall read Neil Gaiman soon. I am behind on so many books!

FSJL said...

Hardwiring? I think that is an excuse. None of us discussing here is a homophobe, and all of us have our roots in that vexing and perplexing rock.

Hardwiring is programming that is built into the hardware rather than written in the software (and thus alterable by rewriting the software). If homophobia were hardwired in, it would be a matter of our genes, something heritable. I don't believe it is. I don't believe that friends of mine (or ours) who live anywhere but in Jamaica do so because they hate the country, but because their lives would be in perpetual danger should they live there.

What we have is a culture that fears and hates homosexuality, and justifies that hatred on the basis of a set of religious and legal norms standardised in the Victorian era. There may be something more going on as well (the equally Protestant Caribbean culture of Barbados deals with homosexuality very differently after all). One study done in the United States has found that there is a relationship between homophobia and homophilia: But one swallow, as they say, does not make a summer.