Tue, 29 Jul 2003

MacDonald's stories break barriers

Tantri Yuliandini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

"Miaow, miaow, miaow, miaow, miaow," Margaret Read MacDonald mimicked, followed by hundreds of children who sat rapt listening to her story of The Spoiled Little Cat during the recent Storytelling Festival at Bentara Budaya Jakarta.

MacDonald's storytelling in English, coupled with Soejadi's expert rendition in Bahasa Indonesia created an experience that was beyond the limitations of language. He was doing the voiceover for Pak Raden, a popular character of the old Si Unyil (puppet show).

MacDonald had initially wanted to become an anthropological librarian when a professor at the University of Washington library school discovered her talent and persuaded her to become a children's librarian instead.

"I became a children's librarian because of the storytelling," the 63-year-old woman told The Jakarta Post in an interview. And, for the last 38 years, that is exactly what she has been.

The professor, Bernard Polishuk, was the coordinator of children's services at the King County Library System; he immediately hired MacDonald after hearing her tell a story in one of his classes.

She later took a Master of Library Science from the University of Washington, Master of Educational Communications from the University of Hawaii, and a PhD in Folklore from Indiana University, to support her storytelling and librarianship.

"I think storytelling is really a wonderful way to connect people -- to connect adults and children," MacDonald, who was born in Indiana, said, explaining that in storytelling it was important for the storyteller to encourage the audience to share their experiences.

"It's sort of a moment of joy when you're playing together with the story, I think that's the most important thing," she said.

Stories are also a great way to teach children about morals without seeming too patronizing, MacDonald said, adding that through stories, too, children learn about the culture of other people on this earth.

"Stories are very important to learn to understand other cultures. We tell stories from all around the world to children, to connect them with other cultures. I tell Indonesian stories to children all over the U.S.," she explained.

MacDonald not only believed that sharing different cultures through stories could ultimately lead to the understanding of humankind; she also followed this up by publishing various books about the different cultures around the world, and using them for her own storytelling material.

Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk About (1992) came out during the Gulf War, when everyone was "seemingly buying into the old 'hooray, we are winning a war' notion," she wrote for an interview with Ravenstone Press.

Learning about the devastation of the forests in Borneo brought about Earth Care: World Folktales to Talk About (1999), and a collaboration with a Thai reference librarian resulted in Thai Tales: Folktales of Thailand (1995).

Because of Thai Tales, MacDonald was invited to spend two years in Mahasarakham, Thailand, as a Fulbright Scholar in 1995 to 1997.

One published book followed another, and MacDonald discovered that each contact with a person of a different culture could produce a wonderful book of folktales.

A meeting with Indonesia's Murti Bunanta, chairwoman of the Association of Children's Books Lovers (KPBA), through a mutual friend in 1997 led MacDonald to help edit Indonesian Folktales, which was scheduled for release in the United States between October and November this year.

"We're very excited about that, because there aren't many collections for children of Indonesian folktales in English," MacDonald said, explaining that she had helped find the book's U.S. publisher, Libraries Unlimited.

When she was in Cuba, MacDonald got together with a lady who wanted to do a book on Cuban folk stories, "so she's doing a collection of Cuban stories just like Dr Bunanta's Indonesian stories, and this time it had to be translated, so a friend in Argentina is translating from Spanish into English, and then I'm editing it."

Her next project, a book on Saudi Arabian folktales, was the product of a meeting with a Saudi woman who was studying in Seattle.

Apart from the storytelling and writing, what MacDonald loves most is to raise the awareness of others about the wealth of folktales from their own culture.

"I think (what) I do best is teach other people how to tell (stories). I love to travel and do workshops all around the world, teaching people how to tell stories and getting them started," she said, explaining that through her contacts with Murti, MacDonald had been in Indonesia three times before, doing tours, telling stories, doing workshops.

MacDonald recalled that she had met a librarian in Sabah, Malaysia, who has now begun to tell her own stories after translating for MacDonald in her storytelling sessions there.

"That night, going home in a van she said, 'my grandmother told me stories like that: I forgot,' and she began to tell me the stories her grandmother had told her, and they were wonderful."

"Now she's going to tell them (stories) because a 'whack' on the side of the head made her realize that she had stories in her own head that she never told."

"I love it when people begin to find their own stories and share them: That's why I travel -- to get people excited about storytelling," MacDonald said.