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Tall Tales

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The Main Line is home to storytellers skilled in the art of spinning an enthralling yarn—if only more of us would listen. 

THIS BEGINS AS most stories, in a place long ago and far enough away—specifically, Southeast Asia.

“The Chinese decided they wanted the land of the Hmong. They drove the Hmong into the mountains. They made it against the law to write our language. They tried to destroy our life, our language, our culture. They did not succeed.”

The woman telling the story is 62-year-old Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk—but she’s happy if you just call her Pang. She was born into a Hmong tribe in the Laotian mountains. During the Vietnam War, the Hmongs in Laos sided with the Americans and South Vietnamese in the fight against the Chinese and Viet Cong. Like many in her war-torn region, Pang came to America in 1979, settling first in West Philadelphia and later Upper Darby.

“It was a very difficult time for us,” Pang says. “We did not know the American ways. We had to learn a new language, a new culture. We did not fit in. There was much anger.”

As a way to alleviate the culture shock, Pang learned American folktales, fairytales, myths, jokes and parables, telling them to her extended family who moved to West Philadelphia, Upper Darby and Drexel Hill. She also told the Hmong stories she’d learned as a child to a new generation that felt like strangers in a strange land.

Pang began to make Hmong weavings (called paj ntaub), teaching others as well. She even co-wrote a book, a small 31-page vermillion-colored paperback published in 1993 by the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition and the Hmong United Association of Pennsylvania. This is not a book you can buy at Barnes & Noble or Borders. It’s title, Kwv Txhiag Hmoob, Phau B, Hmong Kwv Txhiaj, is a transliteration of the Hmong spoken language and roughly means, “Hmong Traditions, Book One, New Year’s Holiday Courting Songs.”

They are sung stories, Pang says—part of an oral tradition that has survived despite Chinese attempts to ban the language. Pang has sung her tales at the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Pennsylvania. A Christian married to a Buddhist, she has six sons who “are all healthy and know how to cook and tell stories.” My people told stories to keep alive who we are, what we have,” she says.

Indeed, Pang speaks for other immigrants when she advocates the power of storytelling as a means of assimilation and, ultimately, survival for endangered cultures. “The stories keep us together, but they also break down barriers,” she says. “If I say a name, you don’t know who I am or where I’m from. If I tell you a story about me, you know who I am and where I’m from. You tell me a story about who you are and where you’re from—and, sometimes, we are not so different.”

“Her story sounds familiar in more ways than one,” says Tom Slattery. “You talk to anyone whose parents or great-grandparents came over on the boat from Ireland, you’ll hear something similar.”

Slattery grew up in Bala Cynwyd. For 30 years, he worked as a training manager for IBM. “I decided to retire and I was looking around for something to do,” he says. “I had written some articles for some local Irish newspapers, and somebody asked me if I knew how to tell a few Irish stories. I didn’t know the first thing about telling stories—Irish or otherwise. But I learned.”

First Slattery pored over books of traditional Irish tales. He could remember the stories easily enough, but found that it was the telling he had to master. “As a teacher, I could get up in front of people,” says Slattery. “But there’s a great deal more to storytelling than that.”

In traditional Irish villages, the storyteller—or shanachie—has a revered place. “He knows the village history. He knows the genealogies. He knows the traditional stories. He knows the stories you tell on holidays,” says Slattery. “He also knows all the personal stories and he knows the tales that make you laugh and cry. He’ll tell you a story that can go on and on and on until he’s given you the whole world in a tale. The first thing I learned about telling stories in America is that I can’t do that. I can’t go on and on. I’d love to try it sometime, but we have shorter attention spans on this side of the Atlantic.”

Slattery became obsessed with his Irish past. He began to lead tour groups to Ireland. He began to research his family origins. He edited a book of Irish tales for Barnes & Noble that sold out quickly.

JIM MURPHY ISN’T surprised. “The traditional Irish stories are so powerful because they are part of an oral tradition that basically defined and preserved what it meant to be Irish for 700 years when the English made it illegal to write the language,” says the director of the Irish Studies Department at Villanova University. “But the reason you keep hearing those stories told today is not just because they’re Irish. It’s because they’re great stories—better than anything you’re going to find anywhere. Better, but not stronger.”

To illustrate the point, Murphy tells a story about a shanachie “living in one of the older villages. The people in the village wanted to make him happy on his 80th birthday, so they brought him a television set. He started watching television, and stopped telling stories.”

The Dewey Decimal number for story collections is 398.2. “Go to any library and you’ll find them,” says Vickie Town. “Books and books filled with stories. That’s where I started.”

Born and raised in Drexel Hill, Town started out as a dancer, then became an actress, earning a fine arts degree from Adelphi University. It was while looking for texts to turn into performance pieces that she began reading. She’s now a professional storyteller.

Professional storytellers apportion their craft into three categories. There are “story readers,” who pull one of those books in the “398.2” section off a shelf and read stories, usually to children in schools, libraries and bookstores.

Then there are “platform tellers,” who combine stories into a performance—some specializing in specific ethnic, cultural or religious traditions, others telling folktales, myths and urban legends. Finally, there are “monologists” like the late Spalding Gray, whose stories become one-person shows.

Town has done all three—and over the last 20 years, she’s noticed a trend toward “personal narrative.”

“That means understanding who you are through the stories you tell yourself, as well as other people,” she says. “I have nothing against television—it tells stories, too. But there’s a special excitement that happens when someone reveals a part of their lives.”

I ask her to try, and she tells me about going to a hospital ward full of severely ill children. “Sometimes they have cancer, and they are in incredible pain and they are screaming or vomiting constantly from chemotherapy,’ she says. “Or they’re asthmatic; they can’t breathe and they are gasping for every breath.”

Of the 100 stories she knows, Town will pick one and begin. “And after a minute or so, they calm down a little. They stop vomiting so much. They begin to take deeper breaths,” she says. “I’m not taking credit for doing any of this; I don’t know how this is happening. I don’t know how I would be able to listen if I was suffering like these kids are. But these kids do listen. And when the story is finished, the symptoms come back. But for those few minutes, something really wonderful happens.”

We don’t tell stories because we like them—we tell them because “on some very deep level, we really need them in our lives,” says Town. “We’ve got to turn off the television set, step away from the computer, take some time off and start telling stories again.”

WILLIAM GUY IS not quite preaching to the converted. The retired director of West Chester University’s Ethnic Studies Department, Guy is addressing about 50 people at the Penn Wynne Library in Wynnewood, urging them to do a very risky thing.

“I’m not talking about the stories you get from books,” he says. “I’m referring to the stories you used to tell your children. We have to start telling those stories again because those stories are all we can really and truly give to our children and our children’s children.”

Guy, an African-American born in Philadelphia and now living in Rydal, mentions the significance of the African village griots, who were like Irish shanachies in that they were like “living libraries.”

“You went to these people to get answers to the most important questions in life,” he says.

Someone in the class asks a question: “What do you do when you want to tell a story but nobody is listening?”

“You tell it because it’s important to you,” says Guy. “You start, and even if they’re not listening, something will get through.”

Another question: “What if you have all these stories you want to tell and you have no one to tell them to?” “Tape them, write them down, preserve them any way you can,” Guy urges. “You have a lifetime of wisdom and experiences; you have lived. Think of how far you’ve come. What you have to give the next generation is important; the fact that you can still offer it makes all the difference in the world.”

The 71-year-old launches into what has become the newest trend in senior adult care: life review. The idea is to provide as many opportunities as possible for senior adults to tell the stories of their lives “just because it’s a good thing to do, a vital thing to do, a necessity,” says Guy.

Pocopson’s Jan Michener has another name for life review: “How about fabulous. It really is the most incredible experience—not for them, but for me. I get to hear these amazing people tell me things about themselves that, to me, are better than anything I could find anywhere.”

Like Vickie Town, Michener has a theatrical background. About a year ago, she learned about life review workshop at a regional conference on aging in Philadelphia. “With senior adults, the act of remembering and shaping those memories into a story actually has a healthy effect on the mind and the body,” says Michener. “There is also the social aspect. Most senior adults feel marginalized, isolated and lonely—especially if their spouse has died. They feel cut off from their roots. This reminds them they’re still in a community.”

For about a year now, Michener has been meeting once a week with seniors at the Kennett Square Life Center, encouraging them to exchange memories—no matter how fragmentary—and shape them into some kind of narrative. “They’re given choices,” she says. “Whatever is the strongest thing that pops into their head—something memorable, something embarrassing—if you position it the right way, the details come. I have one man who tends to remember the time he met his wife; he’s shared that story several times. That’s OK. It’s a funny story—and it’s worth hearing again.”

Michener tapes all the stories and keeps track of them on index cards. “I love hearing stories about the war,” she says. “One woman was telling a funny story. She was getting married by a justice of the peace when, all of a sudden, the air raid sirens went off. The justice of the peace was an air warden, so he had to go out with his flashlight to make sure the lights were out. When that story came out, another person in the same group remembered the same incident—he was in the very same neighborhood when that happened. Right there, they made a connection.” For Michener, 51, the real pleasure comes in hearing stories “from people who really are older and wiser.”

“They’ve become my mentors,” she admits. “And the inspiration goes both ways. One man who didn’t think he had anything to say is now writing down his stories and collecting them in a book. His family is reading these stories and learning things about him they never knew.”

When Michener began her work at the center, she had four participants. Now she has 16. “There’s no obligation for anyone to join us,” she says. “We just start telling stories, and people stop and listen.”

“STORIES MAKE ALL the difference,” says Tommy Moore. “I became a comedian because I fell in love with the stories my father and uncles would tell. We lived in an old Italian neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else—and we all lived close together. My father would come home from the shipyard in Chester, and before he could even sit down at the kitchen table, one of my uncles would show up with pound cake and ice cream and they’d tell stories all night about what happened to them that day, and they were funny. They were so funny.”

Moore looks around his Lansdowne home, with its thousands of comedy books, tapes and DVDs. “What I got from my uncles you could never get from those books. My Uncle Shnazz—he had a big nose like Jimmy Durante. He was so funny he was banned from funerals.”

Really?

“Really. My Uncle Jimmy was a gambler. He’d bet on two raindrops coming down a windowpane. So he dies and at the viewing, my Uncle Shnazz comes down the aisle past all these Italian ladies crying their eyes out. He comes up to the coffin, takes one look at my Uncle Jimmy, and tells everybody to be quiet.”

The way Moore tells it, you can almost see yourself in that parlor. The old ladies in veils and black dresses holding hankies to their faces. An old Italian man with a nose so big people stared.

“So my Uncle Shnazz bends over, puts his nose right next to Uncle Jimmy’s ear and says loud enough so everybody can hear him, ‘Hey Jimmy, there’s a craps game in the alley.’ He waits two seconds. Then he looks up and says, ‘Yeah, he’s dead.’ And boom! He broke up the room.

“What Uncle Shnazz did was better than any eulogy. Humor—to him, to my family—was about survival. It was taking the saddest things and turning them around so they weren’t so sad. If we could laugh, the worst thing became a gift.” But if it was such a gift, how come Uncle Shnazz got banned from funerals?

Moore shrugs. “Not everybody gets the joke.”

Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz has been telling stories all her life. “I was born telling stories,” says Kravitz, who is the education director of Congregation Kesher Israel in West Chester.

All the great Jewish storytellers—Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bachevis Singer, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Philip Roth—owe their craft to a tradition in which these tales are used to teach “ethical, moral and cultural values,” she says.

But for “the people of the book,” the most enduring and important is the story of Moses leading a group of Jewish slaves out of Egypt. As part of the Passover feast, the tale is retold, and the youngest person present recites four questions that ask why it the story is so important.

“It’s important in the way that all stories are important,” Kravitz says. “It makes a story of incredible suffering and the redemption that follows immediate, personal and real. It reminds us that what happened then is still happening.”

By such grace, we go.

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