Introduced by Wole Soyinka
Illustrated by Keith Hau
With a preface by the Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, this anthology collects folktales from across the African continent – including classic trickster tales like ‘Spider Outwits the Rich Woman’, and stories about navigating the complexities of life such as ‘Never Ask Me About My Family’.
African folktales are born from performance. They are not static stories frozen on a page with neat ‘happily-ever-after’ endings. Instead each storyteller brings their own perspective and personality to a tale – deliberately inviting discussion, argument and debate from their audience. Selected by Folio by acclaimed folklorist Roger D. Abrahams, the 90 stories in this collection feature tales from across the African continent. In his retellings, Abrahams has sought to preserve the individual voice of each storyteller; the result is an essential collection that showcases the remarkable vitality and diversity of African folktales.
The 90 stories featured in this selection are drawn from across the African continent – from deep forests, broad savannahs, campsites, kraals and villages – to reveal both the diversity and interconnectedness of the people who live there. Divided into four parts, the book brings together creation myths and tales of ghosts, as well as ribald stories of mischief and magical adventures in the animal and human realms. Sources for the stories include the notes of early missionaries and the more recent works of anthropologists.
Western audiences, familiar with tales that provide a distinct beginning, middle and end, may find that African folktales are not so easily measured. Rather than read in isolation on the page, these stories are meant to be performed to an audience, and an interactive one at that. The storyteller may be interrupted with a better version of the story, or even ousted from his or her position, while endings are often left open. The purpose of these lively tales is to invite discussion, argument and debate, while strengthening a sense of community with a shared knowledge and heritage. In his revised introduction to this edition, Abrahams compares this method of storytelling to jazz, likening the voices of the storytellers to the instruments in a piece of music: ‘Each instrument remains separate, even at the point at which all of them play together.’ In his retellings, Abrahams has sought to preserve the unique voices of the performers – in the process creating an essential collection that showcases the immense creativity and fluidity of African folklore.
Wole Soyinka, celebrated Nigerian poet, playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has contributed a powerful new preface examining the relevance of these stories in the modern world, and the power of folktales to ‘unleash the imagination and carry the listener/reader to distant lands’. Keith Hau’s dynamic illustrations, with their colourful, multi-layered depictions of people and animals, have captured the frenetic energy of a remarkable tradition.
‘Earthy, comedic, and covering a wide spectrum, [these] tales of sultans, of animals who act like people, and of lovers’ struggles [also] teach moral lessons. The result is a rousing good read’
Roger D. Abrahams is a former professor of folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned a BA from Swarthmore College, an MA from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He carried out fieldwork in a range of African–American communities, and has also studied Anglo–American folk songs and children’s lore. A former president of the American Folklore Society, Abrahams now lives in Sunnyvale, California.
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright and poet. Educated in Nigeria and England, where he earned a doctorate at Leeds University, he went on to work with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He has published hundreds of works, including drama, novels, essays and poetry. In 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African to be honoured in that category.
Keith Hau is a recent graduate of the Cambridge School of Art, where he achieved a BA in Illustration. Now based in London, he is working on a portfolio of new illustrations inspired by his fascination with folklore and nature. Hau was shortlisted for the V&A Illustration Awards in 2014.
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