Examining The Acts Of Storytelling Traditions English Literature Essay

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The act of storytelling exists as an ancient tradition among people around the world to entertain, educate, and communicate with one another. This tradition remains important in cultures today, even though it is considered subordinate to the written word in western societies where advanced technology generates the possibility to communicate more quickly between large geographical locations concurrently. Yet, the importance of stories remain: they 'are there to help us make sense of the world and our place in it, and to share it with those who, by necessity or invitation, are in our circle' (Leibowitz). Moreover, in literature these topics can be exercised as an identity marker and to underscore the complexity of marginalized cultures. For instance, in both Patricia Grace's novel Potiki and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner storytelling and the written word serve as important themes; nevertheless, where Hosseini employs these themes to create a story containing several western influences and a clear western ideology, Grace uses these themes to portray the Māori culture in all its complexity and exhibits clear differences compared to westernized cultures.

Both novels contain apparent western and Christian elements. However, where Hosseini employs these elements to convey a clear western ideology, Grace stresses the complexity and traditions of the Māori culture. In The Kite Runner, Hosseini portrays some characters from a clear westernized point of view. Assef, for example, is portrayed as the embodiment of evil by associating him with Hitler, for whom Assef shows tremendous fascination and respect:

About Hitler. Now, there was a leader. A great leader. A man with vision. I'll tell Daoud Khan to remember that if they had let Hitler finish what he had started, the world be a better place now. (37)

A western audience immediately considers Assef as the epitome of evil, because for them the symbol of Hitler evokes a powerful negative image engrained in their memory for his views and actions during the second World War. Assef's adoration for Hitler is displayed further when Assef visits Amir's thirteenth birthday party and offers Amir a biographical book on the life of Hitler, proudly boosting how he picked this present for Amir himself. Hosseini ascribes no good and humane qualities to Assef's personality, and finally describes him as being a 'sociopath' (36). Additionally, Hosseini portrays the entire Taliban as a united group of pure evil. He connects the Taliban with concepts considered negative and immoral in western society: paedophilia, violence, drugs, sadism, Nazism, suppression, and execution without proof. As a result, there is no 'possible chance…of understanding the [characters]…with such stigmatising by the West' (Sengupta). Western symbols and ideology are employed so strongly that it is impossible to view this book as representing the local Afghan community accurately. Moreover, Hassan is positioned at the other end of the moral spectrum. He represents the good and virtuous in a fashion that is, similar to the description of Assef, very stereotypical and one-sided. Hassan is presented as an angelic figure to balance the evil nature of Assef (Visser, week 3). He is the perfect friend to Amir and remains loyal to him throughout the narrative even though Amir does not always treat him likewise. When Hassan, for instance, returns the last conquered kite, he has done so at a prize: rape. Nevertheless, Hassan sacrifices himself to fulfil his promise to Amir and returns with the fallen kite no matter the consequences. Consequently, Hassan can be perceived as a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for the good of others. In addition, the novel conveys a strong notion of the West as superior and good, for it is presented as a possible escape from the evils and troubles that pervade Afghanistan. It is after Amir and his father travel to America that their relationship starts to improve significantly, where Amir's dream of becoming a successful author is realized, and where Amir meets his future wife. Grace's Potiki starts with the western fairytale convention of once upon a time: 'There was once a carver who spent a lifetime with wood'(Grace, 7). However, Grace applies this western convention to express significant cultural traditions of the Māori in a way 'that is quite alien to that which we find in most European novels' (Williams). 'In carving, the many stories "told" in wood are held together by a structure of integration and unity' (Knutsen, 196). The Māori, then, perceive the carver 'not [as] an individual so much an expression of the communal voice…[that] reconstitutes the community's knowledges' (Williams). It is the carver who gives shape to the stories held within this structure. So, even though the beginning starts with a western fairytale convention, the Māori elements overshadow the western convention considerably. Additionally, in contrast to The Kite Runner, Grace's novel demotes negatively to western civilization. For example, Dollarman -as a representation of the west- has several discussions with the native population about buying their land, but he exhibits a complete inability to understand and accept the Māori's cultural heritage:

It was then that we all realised that the man had not, had never, understood anything we had ever said, and never would…..[and] I saw what the man saw as he turned and looked at the three of us…what he saw was brokenness, a broken race. He saw in my Granny, my Mary, and me, a whole people, decrepit, deranged, deformed.' (Grace, 100-102)

Furthermore, several biblical allusions can be found in Potiki with relation to the character of Toko. First, his coming was foretold by the carver of the prologue. Second, he has a mythical status being 'born to a mother named Mary and perhaps to an old man named Joseph' (Knudsen, 207). Yet, most important is the moving 'sight of "the tipped wheelchair and Toko sprawled across Mary's lap" which evokes the Pietà image of Mary and Christ after the crucifixion'(Knudsen, 207). Nevertheless, these Christian allusions are all subordinate to the Māori symbols connected to Toko which show the Māori's complex view on the world. Being related to a God in Māori mythology, Toko recounts this story after his death. He continues to narrate his stories from the spiritual world, for in Māori culture the spiritual world and the earthly world are inextricably intertwined, and past, present, and future are all interconnected: 'It was a new discovery …that there was no past or future, that all time is a now-time, centered in the being…these are the things I came to realise as we told and retold our own-centre stories'(Grace, 39).

Additional elements of local folklore and mythology are employed in both narratives to focus on the indigenous cultures of the Afghan and Māori communities respectively, and the act of storytelling and oral communication serve as major elements within these communities in relation to their identity. The Kite Runner frequently refers to a book entitled Shahnamah (The Epic of Kings), a famous literary work containing many Persian legends and myths on the history of Iran. In his novel, Hosseini especially refers to the tale of "Rostam and Sohrab". It is not merely the favourite story of Hassan and his son Sohrab, it forms the basis of the friendship between Amir and Hassan for Amir frequently reads this story to Hassan. Hosseini establishes a significant thematic parallel between his novel and the Persian hero stories in the Shahnamah. "Rostam and Sohrab" is a tale of a hero named Rostam who sacrifices his son Sohrab in the end. In Hosseini's narrative, Babba is 'the very image of a Persian hero' (Bird, 8) as presented in the Shahnamah, for he is courageous, generous, kind, charismatic, competitive, and strong. Babba, moreover, can equally be perceived as a character that sacrifices his son for his own glory. He denies Amir affection, for Amir does not resemble him whatsoever: 'If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I'd never believe he's my son.'(Hosseini, 22). Moreover, when Amir wins the kite runner competition Amir explicitly associates himself to Sohrab and Babba to Rostam. He fantasizes how Babba will finally be proud of him when he enters the room with the last fallen kite clutched in his hands:

I'd make a grand entrance, a hero, prized trophy in my bloodied hands. Heads would turn and eyes would lock. Rostam and Sohrab sizing each other up. A dramatic moment of silence. Then the old warrior would walk to the young one, embrace him, acknowledge his worthiness.(64)

Moreover, conversations and gossip are important elements in the Afghan community for they can strengthen or weaken a reputation, which is important to their sense of identity. For example, Babba has an excellent reputation and is considered to be a great man among the local population. This reputation is based on gossip of how he singlehandedly built an orphanage and how he once fought a bear with his bare hands and won. When Amir celebrates his thirteenth birthday party, Babba makes the importance of oral communication explicit when he orders Amir to greet all the quests personally, for 'no one was going to gossip the next day about how he'd raised a son with no manners'(88). Similarly, when Amir and Babba take up position at the San José flea market where Amir wants to court his future wife Soraya, General Sahib mentions that Amir should adhere to Afghan protocol in such matters, for 'you are among peers in this flea market…[and] everyone here is a storyteller'(141). In Potiki, Grace uses Māori folklore and mythology to focus on the indigenous Māori culture. According to Margret Orbel in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Māori Myth and Legend '[t]he myths of the Māori attribute the origins of the world and its inhabitants mostly to the achievements of powerful early ancestors, whose stories were carefully memorized and passed from one generation to the next'(10). Toko, the youngest child (the Potiki) of the family, functions as the 'symbol of the Māori god' Maui-Potiki (Fuchs, 171), and Grace draws a parallel between the myth of Maui-Potiki's death and Toko's death in her novel. In Potiki, Toko dies when passing through a doorway especially made for him. A figure of a woman is carved on this door referring to Hine-nui-te-Po (the goddess of death), whom in myth is described as having sharp teeth like a barracuda. In this myth, Maui dies after trying to enter the goddess through her vagina 'reversing the birth process' (Mead, 146). In Potiki, Toko tries to enter through the door with the carving of Hine-nui-te-Po, and dies after noticing that the doorway has changed: 'But the doorway, suddenly, had become the toothed aperture. It was suddenly the toothed aperture through which all must pass'(Grace, 183). Moreover, all houses exhibit wooden carvings that represent the spiritual ancestors of the Māori. Through these carvings their ancestors communicate their ancient stories to the indigenous people. These carvings provide a communal feeling for the Māori people and strengthen their sense of identity. When their meetinghouse (wharenui) is destroyed the whole community helps to rebuild it again with the wooden carvings, for the people need these ancestors and the stories they communicate:

They sleep at their feet, listen to their stories, call them by name, put them

in songs and dances, joke with them, become their children, their slaves,

their enemies, their friends. In this way the ancestors are known and

remembered. (8)

The wharenui does not merely provide a meeting place for people to gather, but should be regarded as the embodiment of the spirits of both the land and its ancestors. It is 'the "story book" of an oral culture, a "text" that both produces and is produced by storytellers who express themselves, according to tradition, in song and oratory, carving or weaving.' (Knudsen, 193): 'But our main book was the wharenui which is itself a story, a history, a gallery, a study, a design structure and a taonga. And we are part of that book along with family past and family yet to come' (Grace, 104). Consequently, to enter the wharenui means to enter 'into the myths of the ancestors or into the body of the people…[where] texts are inscribed upon this body…to tell their stories.' (Knudsen, 23). The wharenui represents the heart and centre of Māori life and culture, illustrating the vital place stories occupy in their way of life. Furthermore, Grace's novel is comprised of stories told from different perspectives. All characters have their own stories and these are all equally significant. Even when people retell a story told before, it is different because it is perceived from a different angle, adding new details and opinions. 'In relearning their old stories and combining them with new stories the characters in the novel recreate a world in which story telling exists at the centre of cultural life.' (Williams). This illustrates the popular belief among the Māori that people require stories to give meaning, structure and value to their lives.

Just as the oral tradition is important in both novels, so is the theme of writing significant throughout both narratives. Nonetheless, whereas Hosseini employs this theme as an uniting force between characters and events with roots in western ideology, Potiki utilizes this theme as a force of division between two different cultures. According to Knudsen '[t]he opposition between orality and literacy epitomizes a clash of world-views' (41), for indigenous cultures believe that words uttered orally 'have the power…to embody…reality' (42) while the west, oriented on the importance of the written word, believe that 'words are…merely referential and descriptive' (42). As a consequence, indigenous cultures consider the spoken word as being more important than the written word, while the west is 'keenly prepared to embalm orality as a specimen of cultures 'frozen' in history' (43). In accordance with the western mindset, writing has the power to turn 'the past into "history" …[to make] it available as a separate linear category'.(43) In The Kite Runner, Hosseini assigns the written word much value, for it unites Amir and Hassan together and deepens their friendship. Moreover, Amir's dream is to become a successful writer. Also, when Amir reads a letter written by a deceased Hassan many years later the written word proves valuable in another sense, for even after death it can have a significant impact (Hoseinni, Study Guide 39). This letter urges Amir to travels to Kabul to find Sohrab and sets in motion his attempt to redeem himself for his past sins and find 'a way to be good again.'(Hosseini, 284) Also, according to Hosseini Hassan's letter is remarkable because 'it puts him on an equal level with Hassan; now that he is literate, written words are no longer a barrier between them' (Hosseini, Study Guide 40). Moreover, Rahim Khan's last letter contains 'the ultimate message about forgiveness' (40):

I know that in the end, God will forgive. He will forgive your father, me, and you too. I hope you can do the same. Forgive your father if you can. Forgive me if you wish. But, more important, forgive yourself. (277)

By putting one of the most vital themes of this novel in written form, Hosseini stresses the significance of the written word. Potiki, on the other hand, clearly stresses the importance of the oral tradition against that of the written one. Dollarman represents the western world and its capitalistic views in relation to the Māori land. He has written countless letters to persuade the Māori population to sell their land in order for him to build a theme park for tourists and gain large profits. The Māori people, however, feel the need to meet with him in person to discuss their ideas and views of the land:

It is good that you have come here to meet us….much of this is outlined in your letters…now you are here, which is a good thing. We can meet face to face on it, eyeball one another, and we can give our thoughts and feelings and explanations. (Grace, 89)

This need for oral transmission is important for the Māori people to avoid any misunderstanding. Dollarman, however, repeats everything he has written to them in letters before, and stresses the fact that he has written it all down repeatedly:

'so that's what it is, development, opportunity, just as I've outlined to you, by letter.'(88)

'endless possibilities….as I've outlined in writing'.(88-89) (emphasis added by me)

All in all, in Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner and Patricia Grace's Potiki, storytelling and the written word are presented as major themes in relation to the Afghan and Māori cultures. Both authors also employ local legends and mythology in their works to show the indigenous cultural heritage. However, where Hosseini's novel shows clear preferences for Western society and a clear western ideology, Grace tries to portray the complexity of the Māori culture and combat western views. Where in Potiki writing represents the west and their notions of progress and development that threatens to destroy the Māori's way of life, The Kite Runner displays writing as a important and positive feature in society, and portrays the west as a place where dreams come true.