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Interview with Ana Cristina Herreros

Ana Cristina Herreros: The Little Rat Was Never Vain

Ana Herreros

 

Interview with Ana Cristina Herreros held on 26th May 2012 at the Dámaso Alonso Library of the Instituto Cervantes in Dublin in connection with her participation in a workshop on the “Techniques of Storytelling”.

Ana Cristina Herreros (Ana Griott is her stage name when telling stories) was born in León. She completed a thesis on folk literature in Madrid.. It was there, while researching the oral tradition of storytelling, that she discovered the many folk tales, which she started to speak and write about: Cuentos populares del MediterráneoLibro de monstruos españolesLibro de brujas españolasLa asombrosa y verdadera historia de un ratón llamado Pérez, and Geografía Mágica are some of her books published by Siruela. Her most recent book, Cuentos populares de la Madre Muerte, was published in 2011.

Sergio Angulo: —Ana, what’s the difference between a story and a tale?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —Usually a story has a different structure, whereas a tale always follows the same pattern. There’s a formula for  characters and situations. There´s always a conflict and a character who embarks on a journey, and somebody who helps them, the “donor”, as Vladimir Propp would call it. In the end the conflict is always resolved. And when the protagonist manages to resolve the conflict, he earns the dignity of king, which means he is the master of his own life. Stories don’t necessarily have this structure. Their structure can be a little different.

Sergio Angulo: —What’s the difference between a monster and a villain?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —It’s important to pay attention to etymology, which is the origin of our words. The word “monster” comes from the Latin word “monstare”, which means “to show”. The word “master” also comes from this.

The monster you are faced with almost always embodies a negative quality that you have within yourself, and shows you that’s the way you are sometimes. That’s a monster. A villain, as the name suggests, is someone who does evil things, villainies, in a town or a city.

Sergio Angulo: —Speaking of the etymology of words. When we say “contra” (to tell/ to count), does this have anything to do with “counting” numbers?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —Yes, because when you are recounting something, you establish a central theme in the story and figure out a sequence of events, as if they are rosary beads that you’re counting, one after the other.

Sergio Angulo: —What’s the difference between a storyteller and an actor?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —There are many differences. A very important one is that an actor gives a performance with using a technique called “the fourth wall” in technical theatre language. The audience doesn’t interact and so they represent a wall. A narrator looks into the eyes of his audience and takes the reaction to his performance into account. In theatre, you look into space, because the spectator doesn’t exist. When you are storytelling, you look into the eyes of each and every person in the room, even if there are four hundred people.

Sergio Angulo: —Is there any interaction?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —Of course, because that is the oral tradition. As opposed to the written, you have the present, that present moment, the instant when I´m telling a story. If I came here to tell the story “The Living Forest” and there were young children, well I would have to include stories that took them into account, because otherwise there wouldn’t be the interaction I’m aiming for. That’s one of the differences. Another one is that actors have set lines, whereas a narrator doesn´t have any. The narrator has a chain of events and images he describes, as his tale advances. In fact, through the interaction with the audience things can change. If something suddenly happens in the audience, you can incorporate it into your tale. This doesn’t happen in a theatre. The lines are what they are. Nothing that happens can be included. The actor and the narrator are two completely different figures.

Sergio Angulo: —Lastly, what’s the difference between Cristina Herreros and Ana Griott?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —They are one and the same, like Don Quixote, who had a different name every time he went out. But with all due respect to Don Quixote and without pretending to be him either.

I usually sign my name Ana Cristina Herreros. As an editor I’m Cristina Herreros but as a narrator I’m Ana Griott, because when I started telling stories I was writing my doctoral thesis and the title was Neopopulismo en la lírica culta del siglo XX (Neopopulism in the Sophisicated Poetry of the 20th Century) . These are the kind of high-flown titles you have to give your thesis, so your research appears to be about something serious. As my thesis was about the oral tradition, I went to the Autumn Theatre Festival in ´92, because I noticed in the small print of the program, it read “Spectacle of Storytelling”. I was absolutely amazed, because there were two narrators in a theatre, telling stories to adults, not children, and peopled were applauding them. It was an amazing interactive experience and I decided I wanted to do that, but my background was academic and I had no experience on stage. So I started learning things about bodily expression and voice, and about being a clown as well. All of that helped me to be the narrator that I became. Ana Cristina Herreros became Ana Griott.

Soon I started telling stories. We managed a local bar called El Café de la Palma in Madrid, where there was storytelling every Tuesday. So every Tuesday, for eleven years, we told stories to the same audience, and we couldn´t tell the same stories twice. As there was no time to prepare new stories from one week to the next, we formed a group called Griott. Then people started saying “Ana from the Griott” and so I involuntarily adopted the name Ana Griott. By the way, the “Griots” are narrators from Central-East Africa. It’s the generic name that they´ve been given.

Sergio Angulo: —When studying cultures, and especially primeval cultures, you always look at what is narrated, and sometimes it’s related to rituals. Stories are told around the fire, or at night, to put a child to sleep. What’s the connection between narration and rituals?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —There is a big connection. The Griots accompany dying children. They accompany people who are dying in general, but also children. They play a stringed instrument that is only played on such an occasion. And what they sing to the children is “be calm child, your mother is here, be calm child, your mother is there”. The Griot’s goal is for the child to die in peace, to die calmly.

They are people, as I was telling you, who accompany life and death, because stories are for living. In fact, there is a study in Africa that states that in communities where the mothers work and the children stay at home with their grandmothers, children have a higher life expectancy. This is because although grandmothers don’t feed them, as they don’t have breast milk, they can still give them nourishment –  the nourishment of trust, of hope, which are in these stories. The children who listen to their grandmother´s stories have a greater chance of survival.

Sergio Angulo: —Do all stories need to have a moral ending?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —No, moral endings are an invention of French Rationalism in the 18th Century. Stories have a message, not a moral, which is very different. The moral ending becomes explicit, the message doesn’t. The message is there and everyone can interpret it whichever way they want. Because the story is also a literary text, even if it’s not written down, it’s ambiguous. From the same story, one person can understand one thing and another something else. They don’t have a moral but they do have a message. They have a very profound message and proof of that is that they have been passed on from generation to generation, because they have a profoundly human connection.

If you take a look, folk tales from different places are essentially the same. Folklore motifs are universal, what changes are the details. The magical element in the Mediterranean is the almond or the orange, but in Siberia there is none. Yet the stories are essentially the same, because stories have their roots, according to Vladimir Propp and Russian formalism, in ancient times, in the Neolithic period, the moment where men and women started to cultivate the land and changed from nomads to sedentary people. All folk tales have their origin in this era, in the Caucasus zone. After the last glacial period, stories spread throughout the world with the migration of people. That’s why all stories are the same.

Sergio Angulo: —Vladimir Propp also said the structure is universal, not only the themes.

Ana Cristina Herreros: —Yes, the structure I described earlier, when differntiating between a story and a tale, is Propp’s structure. The structure stays the same because it´s perfect. There’s nothing either superfluous or lacking. That’s why they it´s passed on from generation to generation.

Sergio Angulo: —After Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell also established a total universality with regard to religions and myths, in his study on the topic.

Ana Cristina Herreros: —Mircea Eliade has also written essays on universal myths. The ideas that are passed on are profoundly human, which we can all relate to. There’s no difference between North and South, East and West. My last book is about death, and even though it may seem that death in the West and East is different, in folk tales it’s exactly the same. In Japan there are accounts of folk tales, of fables and myths, that are related to the Greek. The cultures may seem different, but they´re not.

Sergio Angulo: —There’s one thing that really interests me about the message in stories. How could storytelling be used in the current educational system to pass on a message?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —It’s happening, but mostly with stories that are created specifically with that in mind. In fact, folk tales don’t have good press in the school system because some people argued that folk tales transmit sexist values, and they´ve been banned from schools. This comes from not having a deep knowledge about folk tales, because folk tales are perfectly co-educational, as they teach things like coexistence.

There’s a lovely tale, I have a version from Murcia, but there are versions everywhere – the one about the girl with the three husbands. It’s a girl who ends up marrying three boys. In the story it’s completely normal, even though what’s normal in societies with multiple marriages is polygamy, not polyandry. That is to say, there are multiple wives and not multiple husbands. In folk tales that is remarkably treated as  normal.

I also tell a story about the little rat. The rat was never vain in the oral version. They made her vain because in the 19th Century, education spread with the Moyano law and the religious orders came here, mostly French, to teach young Spanish ladies. At the time, being a lady meant being modest. They had to be modest. To teach them not be vain, they turned the story around and made the rat vain, so she buys a ribbon. In the tradition I know, and that’s the version I tell, the rat buys a huge cabbage and digs in with her teeth, making a ridge. In the end, the rat gets eaten for the same reason we all get eaten – she makes a terrible choice and marries a cat.

Sergio Angulo: —She marries the wrong person.

Ana Cristina Herreros: —Exactly.

Sergio Angulo: —Just to finish, I’d like to ask you for advice. We have already talked about where stories come from but, when it comes to telling them, how can we do it better?

Ana Cristina Herreros: —I think it’s important not to tell stories with a purpose, not to tell stories because we want to teach something, but to tell them because they move us. Because that’s how you can pass on the passion.

Passion and warmth is passed on if you feel it, but also fear. So I think it’s very important to choose stories that move us profoundly and to tell those stories. Because those are the ones that will reach others more effectively, that will be shared. If you speak from your own passion, from inside yourself, with your own emotion, it’s very difficult not to affect those around you.

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