New book from Small, PhD for Blackwood Meeks
This is a big week for two top-class storytellers, Dr Jean Small and Amina Blackwood Meeks. On Sunday Small launched a book of her short stories at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts (PSCCA), University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, and tomorrow Blackwood Meeks will formally receive her doctoral degree from that university at its graduation ceremony.
Small's poetry collection, Send Me No Flowers, initially launched in April, was re-launched. Main speaker, Dr Brian Heap, Head of the PSCCA, spoke glowingly of Small's many talents and professions. Apart from being a storyteller, author and poet, she is also a playwright, director, producer, actress, puppeteer and educator.
Small explained the title of the short collection, Revelations (published by AuthorHouse) to me. "In each of the stories something is revealed to the protagonist about him or herself. The main character learns something about life or makes a life-changing decision," Small said.
In 'Up Against the Odds' a young man who had lived in the shadow of his parents all his life decides to leave school, get a job and make life for himself. The woman at the centre of 'Life is a Beach', Small's favourite story and the first in the book, is a Seventh-Day Adventist torn between adhering to the church's teachings and pleasing both her boss and husband, who want her to break the Sabbath.
Small said the stories were all based on real-life events or situations, which she had experienced or been told about. They take place in Guyana (where she was born), Jamaica (where she has lived most of her life), or Nigeria (where she taught for a while).
Small's next writing projects are publishing her one-woman plays and write material on the use of theatre in education, the subject of her PhD thesis. "I think theatre is the best teaching tool," she declared.
Valuing oral culture
Education is also a major theme in Blackwood Meeks' PhD thesis, The Oral Tradition, Displacement, Adjustment, Replacement: Storytellling as a Holistic Tool for Development. But it's about the holistic education of a nation, rather than students in school. A recent email to me from Blackwood Meeks reads:
"I dream, I dream that one day in this Jamdown that we love to call 'the Mecca of culture,' we will mek a space in which the oral tradition is respected and treated as a legitimate part of our intellectual heritage and forms part of the discussions about development."
We'd had a sit-down interview, in which Blackwood Meeks said: "We need to have an expanded view of development and we need to look at the ways the values in stories facilitate that." Jamaica, like so many other countries, she contended, has come to value development only in materialistic terms.
"You're valued on how much money yu have," she said. "Or the size of your car, the size of your house, where it is located ... . What is not computed are the internal values - who you are at the core of your being. Sometimes we forget we are human beings and not human doings not doing the work of a teacher or a nurse, but asking, 'Am I being compassionate, considerate, am I spiritually grounded?'"
Explaining the mechanics of storytelling, Blackwood Meeks said "When you tell a story, the listener becomes part of the story and inserts something, and the good storyteller uses immediately what is inserted. Or you (the storyteller) take it away and add value to it the next time you tell it, which is far different from the other ways of learning. In the telling and sharing of stories, there is a facilitation of human beings relating to one another on the level of their humanity - so children and teachers (in a storytelling situation) are not going to fight in the classroom."
She spoke of Ananse stories with a variety of morals - respect for the elderly, care for the natural environment, the sharing of food and dressing for an occasion. "Those are the elements which led me to the conclusion that storytelling is holistic," she said. "It affects every aspect of your being."