Risking Life at Folklife
The Folklife Festival was finally back after two years of the forced pandemic hiatus. An email from Fresh Ground Stories Storytelling Group mentioned a “Liars Contest” on the Armory stage. I’ve never been in a story telling contest but since the Seattle Center is only a twenty minute walk away, I thought, Why not? Here’s a chance to test out one of my short stories. My Japanese American story.
Despite the cool drizzle, I was happy to get out of my isolation. The unfamiliar number of people walking around the Seattle Center made me nervous and I kept a hand on my mask. Exposing my face as an Asian American woman had certain implications during the pandemic. Recent events in Texas and Buffalo made every place feel dangerous. The Armory’s huge main room has a food court and a stage in the corner. Maybe a hundred folding chairs had been set up in front of the stage. The contest had started by the time I got there. I ended up in one of the few empty seats near the edge of the crowd.
The moderator knew most of the story tellers he introduced on stage. Were they all from the same group? It only occurred to me later that a “Liars Contest” might be a tradition familiar to a certain ethnic group – white, Mid-west, rural? From the meetup group I joined last year, I knew Fresh Ground Stories was the Seattle version of the Moth. I joined their Zoom meeting hoping to learn tips which might help in my writing. But I didn’t volunteer to speak. I only observed a few story tellers through the distant lens of my computer. Being in the Armory with lots of people was a completely different experience. Then when the moderator sat down in a chair very close to me, I saw my chance and asked him to add my name “Nana” to his paper list. No last name. No incriminating evidence.
Because I didn’t know anyone here, there was nothing to lose. If I made a fool of myself, no one would know. I listened carefully to the dozen or so storytellers as they went up on the stage one by one. My favorite was the My First Fish tale told by an older woman. The woman looked like she could have been the school librarian at my elementary school in Boulder. She starts off with a sympathetic hero – herself as a young girl left behind by the men who go fishing. The irritated grandmother then takes the girl fishing. When the girl catches a big fish, the storyteller added drama and delight by having the fish leap out of reach. The grandmother’s fantastic skills, a lopsided mountain goat, and a bear all played parts in the chase for the fish. Her story reminded me of my childhood growing up in Colorado. The elements of surprise and suspense kept me hooked.
Finally, the moderator looks at his list and calls out, “Nana?” and I stand up. Everyone looked at me with curiosity as I walk to the stage and stand in front of the mike which the moderator adjusted down to my short height. What’s this older Japanese American woman going to say?
I looked down on the men, women and kids still wet from the rain, and confessed this was my first time at a story telling contest. I knew my fear would be small compared to everything else. The events of the past two years tired us all out. Shootings, homelessness, and of course, our old friend Corona forced us to struggle between the need to and the fear of connecting with others. Getting together with friends isn’t to be taken for granted anymore. I reached back to the Before Time and said, “I miss going to the Maneki for a drink. You know, that tiny bar in the old restaurant in the ID.” A few nodded their heads in recognition. The Maneki is an old Japanese American restaurant that survived the internment of the Japanese Americans during WWII.
I chose a folktale as the base for my story because I believe there’s a reason folktales survive. But I added details to the story to ground it in Seattle. The hero in my story is a young man, Lee, who regularly gets drunk, chats, then falls asleep in the Maneki bar before he goes off to work the night shift at the Uwajimaya supermarket. As if I were one of the regulars at the Maneki bar and witnessed all the fantastic things that happened, I told the story. In my story, one of the other regulars gets annoyed by the young drunk and spits a Rainier cherry pit that lands on top of the sleeping man’s head. A week later a tree sprouts on Lee’s head. The tree grows fruit. The tree is chopped off. Then mushrooms grow on the tree stump.
The moderator’s whistle blew cutting my story short right when the lumberjack chops the tree stump out of the hero’s head. Had the audience heard enough of the story to give me feedback? I couldn’t tell. I’m not good at reading audience reactions. But as I walked back to my seat, one young man said to me, “I want to hear the rest of your story.” I was taken aback. I didn’t want to interrupt the rest of the story telling contest so I just smiled my thanks at him and sat down. I felt grateful for that young man’s interest. At least one person liked the story. Then one more story teller followed and the moderator gave prizes, including one to the woman with the fish story, but nothing for me. Everyone clapped and the event was over. Time to go home.
Then I got a big surprise. A woman came up to me and said, “Tell the rest of your story.”
More people came and stood around me, “Yes, tell us the rest of the story.”
So around ten people waited for me to tell the rest of the story. I should have stood up so they could hear me better, but I was so busy collecting my thoughts I remained seated in my folding chair. I told the rest of the story to this small group crowded around me. When I finished, they commented. “That was a good story. I liked it being set in Seattle.”
“I liked the tree growing on top of the kid’s head.”
“I liked how the pandemic played a part.”
I was stunned. These strangers went to the trouble of coming up to me after the event was over and asked me to tell the rest of my story. Then they patiently stood around me and listened. Someone asked me for a card but I had none. Someone else told me about another story telling group. I felt overwhelmed by this social contact that had been absent for so long. Walking through the rain back home, my heart was full. My idea worked. I heard a Japanese folktale that resonated, then rewrote it in English, then told the story as if I was a witness to this fantastic string of events happening in the here and now.
That experience was a wonderful reward for all those lonely hours of writing during the pandemic. Not having any idea if what I was thinking and doing would be of any interest to other people. Writing stories is like talking to yourself. Background noise of doubt, insecurities, and self-criticism fill my head as I write. Writers groups, especially the ones on Zoom, only give feedback that’s focused on writerly stuff like POV, tension, and plot. Or maybe it’s the Zoom experience itself that I found off putting. Zoom meetings were better than nothing but I felt so distant from the others. Even before the pandemic, I was not a very outgoing person. I don’t think I would have dared stand in front of a crowd back then. Did the social starvation make me into a performer?
Those people at the Folklife festival gave me a gift. It wasn’t just the speaking from the stage part. It was after the contest. By coming up to me and asking me to tell the rest of my story, they validated all my efforts of the past two years. I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and so I tried translating and rewriting them in English for American readers. Even when I myself didn’t understand all the elements of a story, I hoped people would get something out of it. I chose this particular story about the tree that grows on a drunk’s head for Folklife because I set it in Seattle. What could possibly be the moral of this story? For whatever reason, the story survived hundreds of years of retelling, translation from Japanese to English and my Seattle spin on it. The energy I got from those people gathered around my folding chair at the Armory was palatable. Sharing stories is a necessity, as crucial as food and water, to our survival.