I did read a lot of fairy tales and stories about enchantment;I liked the Uncle Remus stories, and I loved the Mouse Woman stories (anyone else in the Mouse Woman fan club?), but Ananse didn’t do it for me.
That may have been partly because the collections that I remember my mother bringing to me were not illustrated in colour, but with occasional line drawings.
(Now there are gorgeously illustrated volumes like Adwoa Badoe’s, with artwork by Baba Wagué Diakité.)
And it may have been because I felt a natural affinity with rabbits and mice that I did not feel toward spiders.
(I got over that: spiders are now treated with something-akin-to-reverence in our household, allowed to spin where they will.)
But it was also because the stories didn’t make sense to me as a child.
They didn’t fit with my understanding of magic, and they didn’t fit with the kind of storytelling arc that I expected.
First, Ananse was a spider, but he seemed to do all the things that humans did; that I could have understood if all the other characters in the stories were also spiders (I did have a natural affinity with creatures smaller than I), but they were not spiders.
Ananse seemed to be the only spider, but he interacted with humans who either didn’t seem to notice that he was a spider or didn’t seem to think that was strange (his being a spider).
In the tales I enjoyed, there were often other creatures who were different because they were magical, like, say, dragons. But they did not exhibit human qualities or, even if they did, they were not accorded the same privileges that the human characters had available to them.
If the characters were not cut-of-the-same-cloth, then those differences played a major role in the way the story unfolded. And, most often, the humans came out “on top”.
And, next, the stories often didn’t end the way that I thought they “should”.
Maybe there was a sequence of events that I did find interesting, but after that went on for a spell, and I was engaged in the story, things would suddenly go badly for Ananse and the story would just stop.
In the tales that I was used to, things didn’t always go well for the characters. Sometimes young men and women in fairy tales made choices that were clearly “wrong”, but there was usually a good opportunity for moralizing as part of the story. The conclusion would reset the balance.
And, for the most part, good intentions were rewarded (because I was reading modern versions, often those with Disney-movie covers, not the original stories, which offered something else entirely to their readers).
In short, Ananse didn’t work for me because my childhood reading was pretty narrow and same-y.
If it had a blonde-haired, fine-featured little white girl dressed in flower petals and leaves, I was there. And despite my mother’s efforts, Ananse’s charms did not overcome that conditioning.
But, ironically, the very qualities that I did not enjoy in the Ananse stories as a girl, hold some of the greatest appeal for me as an adult reader.
Well, at least as I have been (re-) introduced to them by Ghanaian storyteller, Adwoa Badoe (who now lives in Canada).
I read these tales for days (one in the morning and one in the evening) and I was sorry to finish the collection.
It includes the following tales: Why Ananse Lives on the Ceiling, Ananse and the Feeding Pot, Ananse Becomes the Owner of Stories, Ananse the Even-handed Judge, Ananse the Forgetful Guest, The Mat Confidences, Ananse and the Pot of Wisdom, Ananse and the Singing Cloak, Why Pig Has a Short Snout, and, finally, Ananse and the Birds.
And it begins with a verse: “Ananse stories are unbelievable, / Tell them well, tell them believably!”
I can imagine that reading “Ananse the Even-handed Judge” would have been just the kind of story that would have frustrated me no end as a child (for the very reasons I’ve described above), but it’s one of my favourites now.
The ending doesn’t need to be neat and tidy for me now. But I did get a good chuckle out of this one: “And so Ananse preserved his life and his marriage, as people preserve their marriages to this day by keeping [sleeping] mat confidences private.”
Stories that explain the shapes and natures of animals are stories that I have always enjoyed (and I do like pigs, long- or short-nosed, and chameleons), and the image which accompany those tales are just perfect.
These stories really are brilliantly accented with Baba Wagué Diakité’s illustrations. They not only capture a central scene in the tale, but frequently include other everyday elements (say, foliage visible through a window, or neighbourhood inhabitants). They truly gave a sense of these tales playing out on a wider stage beyond a few pages in a book.
The author includes a note which explains that she grew up hearing these stories in Ghana and wrote them as she recollected them, adding some of her own elements as well, and also turned to other sources for additional detail and clarification.
It’s a short note, but that seems appropriate, as for many readers, this is just one volume of Ananse tales: no grand introduction is required.
Perhaps the idea of my truly discovering Ananse for the first time when I am in the middle of my life — and not at the beginning of it — will seem laughable to readers who have always known and appreciated his tales.
When I was learning to write Japanese kanji a few years ago, my friend — who had inspired me to learn — giggled long and hard at my early attempts, because I was writing like she would have written as a 4-year-old. (When I saw her characters, I laughed at mine too!)
I never got much better with kanji, but I will definitely be reading more Ananse tales, and be on the lookout for tricksters of all sorts.