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‘If we don’t have our stories, we don’t know who we are’

Multicultural storyteller Michael D. McCarty.
Multicultural storyteller Michael D. McCarty.
Multicultural storyteller Michael D. McCarty.
By Veronica Stewart
For the Herald

Los Angeles’ famous multicultural storyteller and special guest at the Buenos Aires Book Fair, Michael D. McCarty, on why we need to tell ourselves tales

Michael D. McCarty prides himself on being crazy. After all, according to him, insanity is the number one requirement to tell stories for a living.

After learning, at a fairly young age, that storytelling was an actual profession, McCarty dove head first into the uncharted waters of travelling the world and sharing tales for a living.

An expert on one of humankind’s oldest literary activities, McCarty, a special guest with the Los Angeles delegation, spoke to the Herald at the Buenos Aires Book Fair to discuss the nature of his profession and his career.

You’ve said that your mum used to read and tell you stories as a child. What impact did that have on you?

I can remember being only two or three years old, and having my mother tell me or read me stories. Through the stories, she’d share anecdotes, wisdom, and knowledge. She always talked about the power of reading, and how if you can read, you can do anything. She bought me books. She is the reason I’m a reader. So listening and reading to stories was like breathing to me.

What do you think is the impact of telling a story over reading one?

When you go to author signings at book fairs and festivals, writers tend to read their work in a detached way. But when you’re telling a story and you’re making eye contact with the audience, a direct connection takes place. People feel the story.

I work in prisons in California, teaching storytelling workshops to inmates, and once they get what I’m teaching them, they lock in on it. There’s a power in being in front of a group of people, looking them in the face and sharing a part of you.

You get the whole picture when you see someone tell their story.

Exactly. When I began working at the prison, there were these lifers in my class. There was this one guy who basically said that he and the other lifers came to my classes to feel normal, to feel human. He also shared some of his stories. Afterwards, one of the other lifers said to me, “We’ve never been friends or even spoken, but this guy and I have a lot in common. I need to get to know him.”

That’s what happens with stories. You get insights into people, and it makes you want to expand that insight.

What makes for a good story?

First, you have to tell a story that means something to you, that is, a story that you love and care for. Number two: tell a story from your heart. It can be funny, silly or touching, but it has to be from the heart. And most importantly, have fun from the telling.

What kind of stories do you tell?

I specialise in African and African-American history and culture. I tell tales of my travels and adventures, of all the brilliant and absolutely stupid stuff I’ve done in my life.

I also do multicultural stories. I’ve been to over 45 countries, so wherever I go, I find tales. For instance, I’ve been hired to do storytelling of Japanese, East Indian and Indonesian tales. There’s a story I like called The Monkey and the Crocodile. I first came across it in India as a Jataka tale. Then, when I became a professional storyteller, I came across a version of this story in East Africa. Then there are Japanese and Chinese versions where the crocodile becomes a dragon, and you get to see how stories travel and how each culture has to adapt them to make them their own.

Stories travel just like people, who have been travelling for eons. People arrive bringing their stories, and then they take stories from that culture to share them elsewhere.

What countries have been the most influential to you?

I’ve been to India the most times and I have a reputation for telling tales from there because they have this rich tradition of stories: the Mahabharata, the Ramayana the Jataka tales. South Africa was also exciting.

You’ve mentioned African and African-American tales. Do you think it’s particularly important for minorities to tell their stories?

Yes, because we are our stories. If we don’t have our stories, we don’t know who we are. When I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in Chicago, the only stories about black history were related to slavery, Booker T. Washington and maybe a couple of other people.

Also in the ’60s, I discovered all this history from Africa, about its many kingdoms and the diaspora all over the world. There were all these people from history that were in no history books. February is Black History Month in the United States, so I do a lot of work that month. For years, I’d ask this question until I got tired of getting an answer: “Name me a famous person in black history.” The number one answer was Martin Luther King. When I asked why he was famous, a look of puzzlement would come over faces, and the answer I got for years was “He freed the slaves.” I even got that answer from a parent once.

The way people look at you depends, in part, of what they read about you. Which is why they don’t see all these accomplishments and inventions. They see you as slaves. Period. And we have to break that.

You do a lot of work in schools. What tools do kids get from learning to tell stories?

Let me tell you a story. I had a kid in one of my workshops. Every week he’d get up, take something from the story bag and get in front of the group. Every week he’d get up, get in front of the group, he’d cry and then he’d go sit down. He did this every week. The following year, he got up and he spoke. And it didn’t matter how long he spoke; he spoke, and he didn’t cry. So there’s an empowerment that comes with storytelling.

Besides, especially if you’re sharing something, you realise the value of your story. When you share it and somebody says “I got to know something about you” or “I had something like that happen to me”; these are the things that make storytelling important.

@verostewart

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