This is the second part of our interview with Zarah Gagatiga, literacy advocate extraordinaire. In this portion of the interview, she talks about blogging, storytelling, and her upcoming book, Tales From the 7,000 Isles: Filipino Folk Stories, which she is writing with Dianne de Las Casas.
I was bored. I wanted to try something new. I want to express myself. I want to improve my writing and grammar, especially because I’m so poor at it. Very selfish reasons, actually. Hahaha!
How has your blog evolved since then?
Wow. I change layouts and designs every year. But I love the current design so it’s going to stay in a while. In terms of content, it has become more focused and it’s veering away, slowly, from content only relevant to my ego. My earlier posts were all about me. ME. ME. ME.
I guess my writing style has changed too… Oh, I don’t know! Maybe someone should evaluate my blog objectively.
Let’s talk a bit about stories and storytelling in general. You’ve said before that you consider stories to make up the fabric of our existence, and that “[t]hrough storytelling magic happens; our wounds heal; our wings grow and we take flight.” Why are stories and storytelling so important to you?
I grew up listening to stories. I told stories at an early age. I even had an audio recording of a story I made up, about a fish and a crocodile. I was three at the time, and the English language was a new discovery to me. So, I warbled on, to the delight of my parents and grandparents.
In grade school I joined declamation contests. I love to stand up and deliver. In high school I did poetry readings and read aloud in class and during big assemblies. And yes, my mom encouraged me, and my dad’s a pretty good storyteller himself. He tells personal and family stories even to this day whenever we bring the kids for visits. My kids love his jokes and stories. Now that I think about it, I married a man who is quite a storyteller himself, but I’m the one who enjoys performing
I have a cousin who told me stories too, scary and funny stories about kapre, dwende, diwata, engkanto, Juan Tamad. She would spend vacations in Manila and I’d await her every visit. I’m using some of her stories in the book I’m writing.
Storytelling involves an aspect of creation, something which is divine, if not spiritual. What does a storyteller create? Meaning. Constructs. Experiences. That’s why there is an aspect in storytelling that should always be spontaneous and natural. There’s also the facet of healing and therapy in storytelling. Sometimes, you just need to talk and other times all that matters is that someone listens to you.
When listening to stories you suspend disbelief. You put in a little faith that what you hear is true. You hold on to that idea that yes, what I am hearing could happen to me and to anybody. In the end, any exploits I hear are things I can do myself. Communication happens, and a basic need of man is fulfilled. Whatever is the result of the communication process there is a connection between beings. So really, storytelling is about building relationships. If that’s not mystical, tell me what is?
Kuya Bodjie, Father of Pinoy Storytelling, says that storytelling is a significant sensorial experience. Simply put, you become human when you tell stories.
Do you find that some types of storytelling are more effective than others? Or does that depend on the audience?
Some types are more effective than others, yes, but it depends on the audience too. I try to put my “self” away when performing. I tune in to the audience, my listeners and their unspoken language. Who are they? What are their needs? I observe and tap into my intuition, then I match techniques and stories that the audience will enjoy.
To me, the important thing is establishing a connection and a relationship through stories and storytelling. If my audience leaves the room awed but empty, then I have failed as a storyteller. As a storyteller, I am not there to impress them with theatrics or a flair for the dramatic. While theatrics can aid storytelling, what is more important are the content and the meaning that the audience derives from the encounter. (Props also help, but I use them in moderation.) It’s perfection when performance art and substance merge together, although that’s rare; I can only think of two or three times when that happened to me.
Storytelling has a universal appeal; it chooses no age or creed. Last week I had a workshop with the high school kids of St. Theresa’s College. The storytelling techniques I employed with them were the same I would use with preschool and grade school students, yet, surprisingly, they enjoyed it.
I prepare for every telling, I have a plan, but I change and switch if necessary. My personal mantra is this: The story is always the star. So, choice of story is essential. I allow the story to guide me with regard to how it should be delivered. I remain sensitive to the language the author used or the way oral tradition has established the story deep in the psyche of our culture. I also examine the illustrations, for book-based storytelling. I pay close attention to the story’s elements and see where its strength lies. Plot? Character? Confilct-resolution? Is there enough local color? Any repetitive themes? Are there songs and chants to enrich it? Can variations be allowed? I also choose stories that speak to me.
Here is my storytelling totem pole: audience and their context; story; technique and delivery.
We’re still writing it – I’m cramming already as the deadline is next month! The book is a collection of folk stories, songs, games, recipes and crafts. Dianne and I went to Sagada and down to Bohol for research and mood-setting. I’ve done a lot of research and interviews. It is the interview process that’s most frustrating since Filipinos are reticent to share stories. People we encountered seem to have forgotten the tales of old as well… or they might need people to establish a closer relationship with them before they open up. For them to trust a writer or collector of tales, he or she must live among them, bu sadly, this is something Dianne and I can not do.
You’ve also done few articles for print magazines. Where can people find your work? Does your writing appear with regularity anywhere aside from your blog?
No. I do not have a regular column in a commercial magazine. I contribute as I please since I’m working on Tales. I just could not do a regular print column, although I would love to. Maybe after Tales For now, people can come and read the blog (“School Librarian in Action“).
[Image source: Zarah Gagatiga. Copyright holder/s maintain appropriate rights.]