I have been listening to a book on CD of stories by Laurence Yep, who is of Chinese-American heritage. The book, The Rainbow People, is completely entertaining, with monsters, magic, common sense, humor and pathos--not to mention very good writing. Yep worked with a WPA collection of stories collected from immigrant Chinese to produce this collection, and brought new life to tales that might otherwise have been forgotten.
I remember when this book was published, and I even checked it out once but never read it. I didn't think I'd be interested in Chinese stories, to tell the truth. How wrong I was. A few years ago I found Fred Lobb's blog of Chinese stories that he is translating into English and I was completely hooked. The stories, unlike many fairy tales, do not necessarily have a happy ending; indeed by our western standards many might not seem to have an ending at all. But the tales are so rich in imagery and in their keen insight into a culture that they are fascinating and memorable.
Yep's commentary at the beginning of each section of his book helps understand the philosophy behind the stories, and because some also traveled to the US to be told by the Chinese immigrants, he also explores the relevance of these old tales to the Chinese men who told these stories after work at their American jobs, while their families were still back in China. It's heartbreaking to think of, really--these men, separated for years from their loved ones, growing old as they live like bachelors in a land that is not their home.
At the beginning of a chapter titled Virtue and Vice, Lep's first line caught my attention: The virtues and vices of a culture, he said are captured in the culture's folktales. In our American culture, how often do we even hear the word virtue? or vice, for that matter? In our country, what are the virtues that might inform our folktales? What are the vices that define us? Do we even have folktales that can be called American?
Brer Rabbit came from Africa. Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink and other tall tale legends might be uniquely American but are they all we have to call "our" stories?
If this is true, then what are our American virtues and vices as defined in the tall tales? Cleverness, hard work, positive outlook, generosity, and survival jump out at me as the most likely virtues. Vices--Bravado, one-upmanship, act-first-think-later?
In Appalachia there are many stories with supernatural elements; some are immigrants from other places, but most, I think, are unique to our region. The Appalachian ghost stories often have common themes of justice being served or spirits not resting, spirits seeking justice, or of warnings (don't go there or X will get you), or to explain some phenomena ("and that is why the mist always rises..."), or odd markings, formations, buildings, etc. From these, perhaps we can find the virtues of right always prevails or should prevail, children should listen to the elders, foolishness gets its reward, listen to good advice, or history marks its place for future generations? As for vices, well, so many ghost stories are based on acts of violence, that it is not too difficult to define violence as one of our vices.
I am interested in hearing what you think: what would you say are our American virtues, and our worst vices? What stories do you consider "American" stories--and what virtues and vices do you derive from them?