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A River of Stories: Water-Themed Stories for Multicultural Readers
by Alice Curry

After completing her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where she also received the Vice Chancellor's commendation for outstanding achievement and the higher degree research prize for raising the profile of the Arts internationally, Alice Curry has become a regular speaker at international conferences with her special area of interest in children's literature and the environment. She is currently the Children's Literature Advisor to the Commonwealth Education Trust, for whom she recently compiled an acclaimed anthology A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from Across the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Education Trust is an independent charity founded in 1886 that works with accredited educational experts to invest in primary and secondary education. It published A River of Stories as a commemorative collection – the first of a series – in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Trust. It is currently working to produce educational materials to accompany the anthology in audio, digital and paper format for use as teaching resources.

A River of Stories compiled by Alice Curry, illustrated by Jan PienowskiOn the southern-most tip of Africa, the lonely Zulu goddess of rain, Mbaba Mwana Waresa, searches for love amongst mortal men, rainbows glistening in her wake.  On the northern-most tip of Canada, the solitary Ice King guards his wintry lair yet dreams, secretly, of warmer climes.  On the tropical shores of Australia, old man Mookari, god of the storm, rattles into town before stealing, quietly, away.  In Nigeria, the impetuous water god, Olokun, paces the shining floors of his underwater palace, whilst in Ghana, the goddess Mawu transforms herself into a waterfall to nourish the parched and thirsty earth.

Water gods and goddesses, spirits and deities have fuelled our imaginations and nourished our beliefs since the beginning of time.  Not only is water a vital physical presence in our lives, but also a powerfully imaginative and symbolic source of inspiration for writers and storytellers everywhere.  In our increasingly threatened world, in which climate-related natural disasters are a daily reality for much of the world’s population, water-themed stories are an important and relevant way of encouraging sustainable, respectful and empathic attitudes towards the environment.  It is currently estimated that half of the world’s population will be living under severe water stress by 2030; for today’s children, the conservation of a healthy natural environment has become a development issue of the highest priority.

When I was asked by the Commonwealth Education Trust to compile A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from across the Commonwealth,I was honoured and thrilled by the prospect.  Such a diverse range of stories could achieve a global perspective whilst nurturing the vibrant storytelling traditions of local cultures.  I imagined the flow of stories between children as a river, buoying the dreams of generations of storytellers across the borders that separate cultures and countries, languages and religions.  Water – such a vivid and versatile theme – came to symbolise not only the fragility of the earth at this crucial moment in history but also the flow of thoughts and ideas between people and places. 

As I travelled across the Commonwealth to collect stories and poems, I became painfully aware of the difficulties much of the developing world faces when it comes to reading, writing and publishing stories for children.  Whilst textbooks – where available – greatly improve literacy, creative fiction is far better suited to enhance a child’s enjoyment of, and imaginative engagement with, literature.  Traditional teaching methods, long discarded in much of the Western world, unfortunately take little account of the need to develop a child's imagination and the available materials are often few, of questionable quality and culturally disconnected from the child who reads them.  A River of Stories was born of the desire to spark the imaginations of children growing up in any one of the fifty-four Commonwealth countries through tales to which they could all – to some degree – relate personally. 

Our lives pivot around water – its abundance and its lack – yet each one of us experiences water differently.  For children growing up in desert-swathed Africa and monsoon-lashed Asia, the words ‘drought’ and ‘flood’ have very different implications.  Those living in farming communities, fishing villages or towns that skirt the shore adapt their needs to nature’s seasons in a way that children growing up in cities may never need to.  The dusty heat of the dry season and the refreshing downpour of the wet, the warm rains of the tropics and the sparkling snow of the north, are seasonal markers that direct the flow of countless lives.  I hoped to reflect this diversity in the stories and poems of the collection, and to illuminate the structural role played by rain, sea and storm in communities worldwide.

Since the geographic scope of the Commonwealth is so vast, I undertook the intricate task of uniting the disparate voices within a clear and aquatic frame, held together in bold and dramatic silhouette by Jan Pieńkowski’s beautiful illustrations.  I began the collection with the intimate, domestic and everyday ways we use and think about water – whether we draw water from a well or simply turn on the taps in our kitchen. The poem ‘Woman’s World’ by the Botswanian poet Barolong Seboni – the first poem of the collection – wonderfully exemplifies this intimacy, charting the lives of women as they carry water from the well in a zigzag path that is spectacularly evoked in the narrative layout of the poem. 

Next I looked for tales and poems set beside the fabled water holes of animal folklore, traditional tales that use animal behaviour – in dynamic and often highly irreverent ways – to examine human strengths and weaknesses.  Tales from the seashore followed after these, capturing the sense of magic inherent in that liminal space between the sea and the land, a space where – in the words of New Zealand’s Maori poet, Roma Potiki – ‘earth and sky almost meet’.  From there it was an easy plunge from the shore to the ocean swells, with exciting tales of sea voyages and the oceanic adventures of pirates and fishermen, tales full of delightful ambiguity.  Jan Knappert’s retelling of a traditional folktale from Mozambique entitled ‘The Three Brothers,’ for instance, tells of a sea voyage to the far-flung shores of India where three brothers must compete for the love of one princess; which brother will readers think deserves the princess’s love? 

Next came tales exemplifying the mythic roles played by the sun, moon and stars in our relationships with water, directing the flow of the tides and colouring our portrayals of humanity’s place on earth.  The changing elements followed on from these, in tales whose characters are forced to negotiate tempestuous elements and stormy skies.  From a Tuvaluan rain dance to a Cameroonian tribal invocation to the rainbow, these tales demonstrate the ways in which nature’s meteorological cycles underpin our yearly habits, customs and work patterns, and how powerful an effect these cycles can have on our lives. 

Tales of ghosts, mermaids and sea devils followed on from these – spooky tales that encapsulate those intangible collective fears and desires that have fired our imaginations for centuries.  I brought the collection to a close with tales of water gods and goddesses: beings of myth and legend who attempt (and sometimes fail!) to control the capricious elements and who are inspiring as much for their inevitably ‘human’ flaws as they are for their supernatural strengths and abilities.  From the mundane to the mythical, as I note in the introduction to the book, the collection charts a course from the land to the open seas through the multiple ways in which water is essential both to our continued survival and to our imaginative engagement with the planet we call home.  

It has been humbling to note the passion with which those who mourn the dying customs of generational storytelling wish to see their countries’ stories flow ever outwards to reach children on farther shores.  I hope readers will enjoy tales of bickering crabs, greedy pirates, vengeful mermaids and magic shells, and feel inspired to continue the collection’s flow by engaging creatively with our water-washed world.  ‘It is in a green and peaceful land, along the banks of a great river that our story takes place…’: so begins the folktale from Zambia, with words that call forth a vision of a greener and better world for all of us.  Such a vision is a collective hope made vivid through storytelling and rendered vital at this propitious moment in our own, and the earth’s history.

Posted March 2012

Some aspects of this article have previously been published in A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from across the Commonwealth (London: Commonwealth Education Trust Books, 2011) and its accompanying website.

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