STORYTELLING. Why now? I recently decided to use the pandemic to share my stories. I had been lamenting to my love that local writers here in Guanajuato could no longer get together and read to each other and their friends. So I am going to “read” by posting stories in the style of 14th Century Boccaccio with his collection of short stories contained in Decameron when the context and setting was the Black Death. The advantage is that I resuscitate and share what might entertain. It forces me to continue to perfect my craft, honors earlier efforts and encourages new ones and accepts the challenge of drawing eyes away from Netflix, maybe by suggesting that we all have stories that need telling. So maybe get out your quill and ink and pull together that yarn that you keep seeing and hearing at different moments, from different angles, through the years, so that a daughter, granddaughter, or great-granddaughter will have some bearing on where she came from or may be heading, thanks to you. So she has something to peg her stories to, so she can be connected to a history of storytelling.
Sometimes I lie in bed between dark and dawn wondering about my own assertions about the way the world is. That is to say—about my own writing.
I describe images, my characters act out a story.
Saying what a story is about is very different from the original storytelling. The latter is about invention, sculpting, spinning the tale—with the hope that the way I tell it will lead to the reader’s suspension of disbelief—to the reader’s willingness to believe what I am saying.
Another part of it has to do with my own need to believe—easier, if the book, on some deeper level, is telling me something about myself. Of course, it is, but how is far from clear. What is the invented Frank Holloway telling me, in my novel Playing for Pancho Villa? In what way are his adventures also therefore mine? Why would I even think or need to tell such a story? To what extent am I re-inventing myself?
The images and sequences I paint (laying down the brush strokes), how do I decide which color and where to lay the stroke? I have few answers for these questions—unless it has to do with all the fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and beyond, that stretch all the way back to the beginning of my line. The mothers and aunts were not silent, and I learned from them. But the fathers were quiet. I want to know about them. Being me may depend on it. But since they were so mute, through disposition or death, whom am I to ask?
Unless it is myself. Telling a story about a father—my grandfather, in this case—is, I suppose, my way of talking with the silent ones. First, re-inventing them—since to my knowledge my grandfather Frank never crossed the Mexican border on his father’s mare.
My brother recently sent me some genealogy records. A customs entry shows that Frank Bennett re-entered the U.S. on a ship from Honduras. Was it my grandfather? My brother assures me it wasn’t. But there is no proof either way.
I read a recent article in the New York Times about soldiers missing in action in WWII, whose remains are never found, and how it haunts family members, some of whom never even knew the missing relative.
Is that who these fathers are? Missing in action? And I am simply one more relative looking for them, lifting the spade—digging where I think they lie? Is this what my storytelling is about?
I received great compliment (not quite the right word) today when a friend told me she was reading my novel Playing for Pancho Villa aloud to a person who is struggling against a cluster of merciless winning debilities. The person could follow the story, see the images and listen for the next step in the unfolding. And found satisfaction, even distraction, as he listened. What better use of a story can there be? What could be more important to the storyteller?
A friend heard I wrote stories for children. I told her I had only written one—for my granddaughter when she was five years old. My friend asked if the story was in English. I said it was in English, Spanish, French, and Dutch. She asked me whether I would read the Spanish version at a Catholic shelter here in Guanajuato for children who were victims of various kinds of violence and lived temporarily under the protection of the Church. The reading hour was called the Beatrix Potter Sala de la Lectura, Hogar del Buen Pastor, Guanajuato.
The appointed day arrived. I printed out the Spanish translation of “Biff and the Sinking Coal Freighter.” Its title in Spanish is “Biff y el barco carbonero que se hundía,” translated by Lirio Garduño, a fine local poet.
With barely enough time, I practiced reading it through, repeating the technical words so I would say them correctly. I had never read the Spanish translation very closely—only to see if it had reached a good equivalency. My friend wanted my biography, too. I estimated the age level might be about eight. This is what I wrote:
Sterling Bennett, con apodo “Plata,” vive en Guanajuato capital desde hace 9 años.
Sterling Bennett, nickname Plata, has been living in Guanajuato for nine years.
Tiene una gatita negra que se llama Lilus Kikus que sabe más que él.
He has a female cat named Lilus Kikus, who knows more than he does.
Vivió por muchos años en California, en Los Estados Unidos, con su esposa D, que también sabe más que él.
He lived for many years in California, in the United States, with his wife D, who also knows more than he does.
Tiene una nieta de siete años que se llama L. Escribió este cuento para ella. L. también sabe más que él.
He has a seven-year old granddaughter named E, who also knows more than he does.
Tiene dos hijos, M y D, quienes siempre le ganan en ajedrez. Ellos también saben más que él.
He has two son, M and D, who always beat him at chess. They also know more than he does.
Ha estudiado en la más famosa universidad en Los Estados Unidos, que se llama Harvard, donde los estudiantes también sabían más que él.
He studied at the most famous university in the United States, called Harvard—where the students also know more than him.
Le encanta mucho tener esta oportunidad de leer este cuento a ustedes—quienes probablemente saben más que él.
He is delighted to have this opportunity to read this story to (all of) you, who probably know more than he does.
El cuento se trata de dos osos capitanes marineros….que probablemente……(???)
The story has to do with two bear tugboat captains…that probably…..(??)
Then I read the story to them, stopping frequently while my friend made sure they understood what I was describing.
There were four large round tables, at which were seated about thirty girls between the ages of four and thirteen. Most of them were on the younger end of the scale. One whole table of eight very young children almost immediately lay their heads on their table and appeared to be sound asleep—so quickly and so uniformly that it seemed to me that their action was about something else—an invoked escape stupor, a largely psychological exhaustion because of family crisis, an agreed upon behavior in unison to deal with overwhelming anxiety—a block against information they did not know or understand: a man, a gringo, too old to being doing anything, who was doing something they did not understand—storytelling, talking a little funny in their language, using words they had never heard and didn’t understand. What did these things mean: tugboat, captain, cable, sinking ship, Great Lakes, Erie Canal, locks, steam whistles, with each great wave pushing the coal freighter up onto the beach so it would not sink?
Even the fact that the two heroes were bear tugboat captains seemed unable stir them from their curious slumber. Nor the dramatic moment that all seemed lost in the story—until the second tugboat captain came out into the storm at night and helped push the sinking coal freighter up onto the beach. And he was a she—and a second courageous tugboat captain.
We got through it. The story ended. I tried to say something about the elephant in the room (bears?) and mentioned how almost half my listeners were like my black cat Lilus Kikus, who slept ninety-five percent of the time…and knew more than I did.
They wrote me letters—the little ones were roused for that exercise by the two attending women, impressive professionals and volunteers from the outside—drawing flowers and bears, inquiring now and then who I was and even how to write my name—Plata, as in silver, as in Sterling.
Pictures were taken and sent me. I will not show you their faces, because some of the children are in deep protection from various kinds of targeted abuse. I was going to show one child whose face was hidden, propped on her arms—but I have decided not to.
When I got home, I told my love that it was the least successful public reading I had ever done—and the most meaningful one. Since I, in the end, was another audience—overwhelmed by a story told by sunken children.