This is the classic version of the Ants and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper mocks the ants and plays and has a good time while they work. When the winter comes, the grasshopper is cold. He goes to the ants and asks for help.
They say, "You spent all summer playing and singing. You should have worked. Go find somewhere else if anyone will let you in!"
The grasshopper is left to die in the winter.
The moral: If you do not work, you will not eat.
That is not quite the story I grew up with. I had a version on a record. It was a long story about a single ant and a grasshopper who become friends despite the grasshopper's negligent ways. At the end of the story, Andy, our rogue ant, convinces the ant colony to allow the grasshopper to enter, and the queen gives up her throne and lets Andy run the colony.
I have no idea what the moral of that story was, but it always rubbed me the wrong way.
I'm not a fan of changing the point of a story. When it comes to this tale, however, I have no trouble changing the nature of what it means to "work".
In the version I tell, the grasshopper spends the summer perfecting his music skills. He shares that music with everyone and they enjoy it - all except the ants. They berate him for being lazy. The grasshopper shrugs it off and says, "I'll work later."
It gets cold. All of the animals the grasshopper has played for are either gone or hibernating. He goes to the ants. They bring him into the anthill.
The queen is amused. She reminds him that he has always said he will work "later". She announces that later has come and sets him to work while the ants enjoy a leisurely winter
In the evenings, the grasshopper plays for everyone. They soon discover a love of the grasshopper's work.
In the spring he leaves. The ants request that he return in the winter. His music was the delight of their colony.
Why did I change it like this? Easy. Anyone who has ever mastered an instrument will tell you that is VERY hard work. Aside from that, art is an important part of life. We need to remember that.
I have a vested interest in looking at the arts as work. It is a totally selfish reworking of that story and I don't apologize for it!
Is this cultural appropriation?
I don't think so. The heart of the story remains the same. If you don't work, you don't eat. The Grasshopper works hard during the winter, and he also sings for his supper. That is work, as any artist will tell you.
We know a great deal about Aesop's Fables. They are African tales that were brought to the western world through an enslaved man named Aesop via Ancient Greece.
We understand the background for these stories, and we get what these fables are for and what they are meant to do. We know their origin, and we can discuss them as well as the changes we make and why.
I tell stories from cultures from all over the world. That doesn't mean I tell all the stories I've heard or all the ones I know.
If I don't know enough, I stay away from a tale.
There is this one story I heard years ago. It is called Pambe Delish. I have no idea if that is the best way to spell it.
I love it. It is hysterical. It has an "oh my gosh!" at the end of it, and it is participatory. It is everything I love in a great folktale.
I don't perform it. In fact, the only place I do tell it is in workshops as an example of a story that I don't tell.
1) I have no idea where this story came from - somewhere in Africa doesn't tell me near enough!
2) I have no idea if this story has been altered in some way before I heard it such that it doesn't accurately reflect some original story
3) I have no idea if this story is exemplary of its place, or if it is a tale retold by someone else
4) I don't know exactly what this story means in the culture out of which it came
5) I think I would have to give way too much background about the tale and put the audience in a particular mood or place in order to receive the story.
6) I have no idea why the main character would do this thing that she does. I don't quite get how the relationships are supposed to work.
7) The images, ideas, moral judgements, and choices an audience would have to make in order to digest this story are framed not by the people in the story, but by our own eyes, ears and experiences. I cannot offer a different way to look at it because I don't know what that would be.
There are a number of stories like this in my repertoire.
Sometimes I never learn enough to tell a story.
How did I come up with the list of why I will or won't tell a story? It is a combination of feeling uncomfortable with some tales combined with an encounter I had with the fabulous Anne Shimojima.
Anne was in a workshop I was conducting about crafting. I gave everyone a copy of a story and I had them read it. Afterward, I did some inappropriate editing.
"She has a beloved pig, but this animal isn't a pet in the way we understand it, so let's change it to a dog."
I went through the story taking it apart and swapping out different images and ideas. Finally, Anne couldn't take it anymore.
"You can't do that!" She was outraged. "You can't just change this story! That was her beloved pig! How can you decide to just yank the heart out of this tale?"
It was her emotion that struck me. It wasn't just that what I was doing was wrong, it struck at the very heart of WHY it was wrong.
Up to that point in my new career, I always looked at this process as an intellectual exercise. My rule of thumb at that point was simply - If you have to rearrange a story drastically in order to convey it to your audience, pick a different tale or just write one of your own.
This rule of thumb came about because I encountered a piece of theatre where someone rewrote the Little Red Hen to be something that was completely antithetical to the point of the tale. I was uncomfortable, but couldn't pinpoint why. After seeing the play, I made sure that as I crafted, I always kept the point of the story front and center.
Anne's response to my rework revealed what I couldn't quite articulate about the process. It wasn't just about misusing the story, It was committing a kind of cultural sin against the tale.
It made me think: Where is the line? When does the story get so skewed it is no longer true to the spirit of the tale? How do you know if you have reached that line? Crossed it?
Rule Of Thumb: If you have to alter a story drastically in order to share it with an audience...find something else to tell. You are on shaky ground and most likely engaging in appropriation. What may seem like an unimportant detail in a story may very well mean something to the people who created it. Removing signposts is a huge problem.
but, but, but stories are supposed to be able to grow and change! Right?
Many folktales are universal. In other words, they could happen anywhere to anyone in any place. That's why you can slip characters in and out of the tales and nobody has any idea where they originated. Some tales, however, have universal themes, but they are very indicative of the culture out of which they come.
If you are not a part of that culture, don't get some elements of the tale, or you don't really understand some of the things in the tale...You probably shouldn't be telling it.
So, how do you know?
1) How many versions of this tale can you find?
2) How are they similar?
3) What elements carry over from tale to tale?
4) What elements are different?
5) What do the differences tell you about the fluid parts of the tale?
6) Do all of the versions have the same ultimate point? Why or why not?
One last thing to consider.
There is a difference between stories outsiders tell about a people as opposed to the stories people tell about themselves.
Make sure that the tale you are telling is actually a story of those people as opposed to about them.
If it is about them, you should be careful. It means that someone else filtered that story through their own eyes and biases. The only way to know this is to do the work.
Part 1 - Cultural Misapproriationis A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?