About Anansi and
How do you escape
a hungry tiger? Why do ram-goats smell? What happens if you get too greedy? In
this collection of ten retold Jamaican stories, Anansi the spider tricks,
sings, and dances his way into and out of trouble.
But who is Anansi? It was the Ashanti of West
Africa who brought the spider into the Caribbean. He clung tight to the web he
wove in the minds of those who had been captured, surviving not only the
harrowing passage across the Atlantic Ocean, but hundreds of years of slavery.
As a trickster, Anansi has both good and bad
traits, which makes him very human. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. When
he wins he dances and sings for joy. When he loses, he shakes it off and keeps
on living, a lesson for us all.
Congratulations to Bish on her debut! She kindly agreed to answer questions I had about writing, researching and publishing her delightful book of retold Anansi tales. Take it away Bish.
Thanks for having me, Vijaya. I appreciate the time
you’re giving Anansi and me. Now, on to your thought provoking questions!
When did you first conceive of
this project and what were the major steps towards publication? It began a long time ago, sometime
before Hurricane Marilyn which hit the Virgin Islands in 1995 and ripped the
roof off our family home. My sister gave me – for safe keeping – our old volume
of Jamaican stories compiled by Martha Warren Beckwith. It seemed rather
serendipitous that that particular the book was saved when the storm destroyed
most of the others in the house. There must have been a reason I had it. That
led to my seriously thinking about reading them and maybe retelling some of
Being a process junkie, I’d like to know how you
managed to choose the stories. There is such a nice variety, yet, I know it
must just be the beginning. Martha Warren Beckwith went to
Jamaica in the early 1920s and recorded storytellers telling Anansi stories.
When she returned to the states she faithfully transcribed them in the Jamaican
dialect/patois. I was surprised at how difficult they were to read and make
sense of. It took me a long time just to learn how to read the stories. Figuring out which ones to pick and then
how to retell them in a way that would be understandable took even more time.
Most of them are more like fragments than real stories. As for how I chose
them, I don’t really know. They just seemed to evolve organically. I would say
this whole project from first reading to publication has taken about twelve
What was the journey into self-publishing like? I’ve been blogging for a long time and I kept seeing fellow
bloggers self-publish and being happy about it. My own efforts going the
tradition route was going nowhere. And, the older I got, the more I realized I
just didn’t want to play the waiting game any more. I knew in my bones my
stories were just as good and, in some cases better, than what’s being
published by the big guys and I thought, “What the heck, what do I have to
lose?” The answer came back, “Nothing.” So, I took the plunge.
That takes a great deal of courage. What did you have to learn to do? I think the one thing I’ve had to learn was to trust my writing.
You, Vijaya, and several other people whom I consider “real” writers, [Everyone who writes is a real writer! Those who publish are authors] have
consistently encouraged me and told me my writing is good. But I’ve had to
convince myself of that. The other thing I’d had to learn was to not be afraid
to ask for help. The blogging community has been phenomenal with its wealth of
information and willingness to help when asked. I wouldn’t have even thought
about self-publishing were it not for all my blogging friends.
Would you do it again? Yes, absolutely I
will continue to self-publish.
I’ve always been worried about copyright issues. I
even worry about plagiarizing myself since I sell all rights. Can you explain
what makes a retold folktale uniquely yours? I suppose there’s
always a possibility of encroaching on copyright issues. Anything published
before January of 1923 in the United States is in the public domain. According
Copyright has expired for all works
published in the United States before 1923. In other words, if the work was
published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, you are free to use it in the
U.S. without permission. As an example, the graphic illustration of the man
with mustache (above) was published sometime in the 19th century and is in the
public domain, so no permission was required to include it within this book.
These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an
individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire)
.See more at: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/#sthash.RWD22Qp0.dpuf
But Martha’s book was published in 1924. How do I
Thousands of works published in
the United States before 1964 fell into the public domain because the copyright
was not renewed in time under the law in effect then. If a work was first
published before 1964, the owner had to file a renewal with the Copyright
Office during the 28th year after publication. No renewal meant a loss of
If you plan on using a work that
was published after 1922, but before 1964, you should research the records of
the Copyright Office to determine if a renewal was filed. Chapter 13 describes
methods of researching copyright status.
- See more at: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/#sthash.9T40bfLz.dpuf
From everything I was able to determine, the copyright
had expired. I also significantly changed the stories making them uniquely
mine. I gave them a beginning, middle and end that few of them have. In many
cases I gave them a moral or lesson that is only implied or I made one up to
suit the story. That’s why I say they are retold. They have also been
translated making them more understandable to a broader readership. AND, to
give myself an extra layer of protection – I hope – I cited Martha’s book as my
source. I’m not claiming those seeds as my own, they aren’t. Those seeds belong
to the storytellers and to Martha’s foresight in preserving them.
Can you share with your readers what they must do if
they want to publish a story that their grandmother told them, and not get into
trouble? If your grandmother told you a story I can’t think of
any possible reason why you would get in trouble for writing it down. That’s
not plagiarism. That’s preserving family or cultural history. However, if your
grandmother wrote a book that was copyrighted and that copyright was still in
effect, it would be plagiarism if you took those stories, copied them, put your
name on them and said they were your own.
Thanks. You’re welcome.
The riddles are great fun. Did you make them up or
are these specific to the Caribbean culture? The riddles also
came from Martha’s book. Even though they were collected in Jamaica, I heard
similar ones while growing up in the Virgin Islands, so I’m going to say
they’re traditional to the Caribbean. But some of them have a distinctly
You used very little dialect, which makes it easier
to read, of course. But the few times you did, it was very flavorful. How did
you choose the balance? Well I’ve heard/read from more
experienced writers/editors, to keep dialect to a minimum. The dialect of the
Caribbean is musical and has a quality that is difficult to write. When I first
started working on them the characters spoke completely in dialect. But I soon
realized how difficult it might be for a child or even adult to read. My
purpose was to make the stories accessible, so toning down the colloquial way
of speech wasn’t a hard decision.
Did the stories become increasingly Anglicized? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think I stayed true to the
Speaking of evolution of stories (I told you I was a
process junkie), you mentioned that the original stories were extremely
violent. The folktales I grew up with were filled with murder and mayhem. I am
curious that children nowadays are exposed to more violence from movies and
games than ever before, and even some of the literature is more graphic, yet we
worry about folktales that might be too violent. Something doesn’t compute. I’d
like your thoughts on this. It’s because kids, particularly younger ones, are so exposed to violence
that I chose to remove as much of it as I could. When you and I were children,
violence wasn’t coming at us from all directions like it is for today’s kids.
Yes it was on TV, but for me, what little I got to see, was in black and white.
When the good guys shot the bad guys often there wasn’t even any blood.
Nowadays it seems the more graphic and realistic the better. I think this can
lead to a desensitizing to real pain and suffering. I want, if only for a
little while, for there to be a small space that is calm and peaceful, that is
filled with the magic and wonder that should be the natural state of childhood.
Thus, I took out the violence.
What are your hopes for Anansi? I hope that he brings a smile to someone’s face and that the
lessons his stories teach will not be forgotten. I hope Anansi gets the credit
he deserves for being the grandfather of the Uncle Remus stories.
Hey, what are you working on right now? Lizard? A couple of other people
have asked me about my next project, but only you could have guessed right, as
YOU were the very first person to read the story. Once I get Anansi into a
print version I'm going to work on getting A LIZARD'S TAIL
published. Here's a little bit about Marvin's story.
From the moment he hatches, Marvin P. Tinkleberry knows he is
destined for greatness. For one, he has a marvelous, well-groomed tail. For
another he can puff out his throat pouch in the most spectacular way. Maybe the
other lizards in his colony don’t take him seriously, but he knows the truth.
It lives in the marrow of his bones; he’s going to be a hero.
When a feral cat
threatens the lives of all who live at Stone Wall in the Garden by the Sea,
Marvin knows it’s HIS destiny to get rid of the fearsome beast. Travelling Over
the Hill to find help should be as easy as snapping up a sleeping moth. But it
doesn’t take long for Marvin to see that the world beyond Stone Wall is not the
same as his pampered life back at the garden. From the deadly Sucker Cactus
Forest to deadly mongooses, danger lurks around every corner and Marvin will
have to decide if he’s willing to be the hero he’s long bragged about being.
I'm so happy to hear this Bish! As a great fan of animal stories, it was a great delight to go on an adventure with Marvin. I couldn't believe it was a first draft, how well plotted it was! But it was Marvin himself who drew me in. I won't spill the beans on the other animal ... but just so you know, I do have a fondness for tropical fruits, chocolate, and good books!
Folks that's it. I hope you are excited about all the stories Bish is putting out into this world!!! She is a great inspiration to me and I am very thankful she chose to share her stories. I have ICL to thank for my connection to Bish. That's where me *met* many years ago.
Bish Denham, whose mother's side of the family has been in the Caribbean for over hundred years, was raised in the U. S. Virgin Islands. She still has lots of family living there and visits them regularly. She says, "Growing up in the islands was like living inside a history book. Columbus named them, Sir Francis Drake sailed through the area, and Alexander Hamilton was raised on St. Croix. Pirates plied the waters and hundreds of years of slavery left its indelible mark. It was within this atmosphere of magic and wonder that I grew up. My hope is to pass some of that magic and wonder on to my readers."