The Anansi tales which travelled with the Ashanti to the Caribbean remind us that it’s not always about who’s biggest but can be about who’s wiliest. I remember a grandmother chastising me for reading Anansi to kids at the reading club with which I volunteered. He was a bad influence, she said. I’d never thought of it that way. Sure, Anansi was a trickster who danced around hard work, played his friends, and always looked out for number one, but what had registered with me since childhood was how creative his thinking was, how he used his wits to best those stronger than him. Besides, his comeuppance every now and again were reminders that while craftiness could be rewarded, badness nuh play. Plus, beyond his indisputable entertainment appeal, I could see why my people with the system – from slavery to colonialism to post colonialism – on their necks responded to the idea that small axe could cut down big tree (or little Anansi could best Snake and Tiger).
Anansi had become my go-to for presentations to classrooms too young for my other books. Children were always entertained by him and there were always new variations of the old stories. I most recently used him in a workshop with teachers as an example of a way to engage young readers.
Fairytales, among which Anansi can be counted, are how young readers first engage with the world of Imagination. And they come from all over. Disney’s Bambi is based on a German tale by Felix Salten. Other famous German fairytales – Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White – come to us via the Brothers Grimm. Alice went on her Adventures in Wonderland by way of Lewis Carroll and England; Goldilocks and the Three Bears by way of Robert Southy. Frenchman Charles Perrault brought us Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping beauty. From Aesop (Greek), we have the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs and the Boy who Cried Wolf. I remember using Perrault’s Cinderella when conducting a story telling workshop at a local high school and, as I expected, it provided a short hand because it was one of those tales most if not all knew. Fairytales travel – The Little Mermaid swam in to our imaginations by way of Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson who also brought us The Princess and the Pea.
There are a lot of Princesses and Princess-like characters in fairytales aren’t there; fair maidens often in need of saving.
When I wrote my fairytale I was drawn to the universal appeal of this genre – the way fairytales travel not only from one culture to the next but also through time. They are, in their way, timeless. Your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother read or told these tales to her grandchild.
Coming from the Caribbean, Anansi, who remains part of our oral folk tradition, aside, so many of these tales of childhood and magic and the imagination are from other places.
I’ve long felt that this can be harmful to our self of our own worth in the world. That’s one of the reasons that when I launched Wadadli Pen, a writing programme to encourage would-be-writers in Antigua, I insisted that submissions to our annual Challenge have a Caribbean aesthetic. I wanted to encourage our young writers to centre themselves in their stories, realize that they too are worthy of great literary adventures, know that they matter.
When I wrote With Grace, my very own Caribbean fairytale, I wanted to acknowledge the tropes of the genre but buck some of them at the same time. From the main character, a dark-skinned black girl, joyful in her #blackgirlmagic and natural single plaits, to the plot in which she is effectively her own rescuer by use of her own wits and grace.
A teacher commented about With Grace on social media, “we neglect to realize that validation and realization are steeped in the subliminal of what we allow our children to read and watch…and I continue to celebrate books and images that look like me and my own.”
Why With Grace? Because for girls and boys of colour everywhere, not just in the Caribbean, the opportunity to see self is still too rare.