Dear Mythic Reader…
In a July 2021 Scroll.In article, Janice Pariat tackles relics of colonialist thinking in the teaching of creative writing. This interested me both as a writer and as someone with a fascination about how cultures intersect and overlap across history.
Pariat is an educator in India, on the front line of efforts to distinguish “culturally-specific writing advice” from “universal writing advice.”
Pariat’s article briefly describes the oral storytelling traditions in South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Native America in which the visual cues of the “show don’t tell” mantra may actually get in the way of that particular narrative style. She also describes the dominant creative writing curriculum as being derived from an MFA program that emerged in 1930s Iowa. When this curriculum is exported from America into formerly colonized territories, students are taught that their traditional storytelling is “bad” or “experimental,” and they must instead conform to the “universal” firmament of the Western Canon, as defined by a white male professor in Des Moines in 1936.
The main take-away from Pariat’s article is that even the most universal-seeming advice need to be examined closely to determine its intent, its effects, and whether some preferable alternative might exist for a particular writer, work, or readership.
As Pariat described the oral storytelling traditions popular around the world, I couldn’t help thinking of the Homeric rhapsodes of Ancient Greece.
Live performances of the Iliad and Odyssey were different every time. They often conformed to a ring structure that’s not seen in modern literature. They took advantage of the mnemonic tools necessary to tell an epic metered poem from memory. They most definitely did not keep “show don’t tell” in mind.
These works exist in modern times as codified manuscripts, which are considered to be definitive texts. The performative elements have been trapped between book covers like insects caught in amber. The direct connection between tale-teller and audience has been broken.
These works have been colonized in order to conform with the rest of the canon.
There are brilliant storytellers in modern times who can still relate these stories from a stage or in a podcast, put their own spin on them, and surf the energy of their audience. It’s a skill I admire but not one that I possess. For me, the solution is to remix the characters and settings of classical mythology on the page in new and unexpected ways.
That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the serial format of Becoming Hercules and the possibility of reader interaction as the story unfolds. Homeric rhapsodes were free to compress and expand sections of the story in response to audience feedback, or to go off on tangents, or to invent story variants on the spot. Because I’m presenting my story in weekly installments, I will have some of that freedom as well.
To decolonize my little section of the Theban Cycle, I’m going to need reader engagement and feedback. Go to the story, read it, and let me know what you like, what you don’t, and what you’d want to see more of.
Together, we can decolonize mythology.
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