I had wanted to get this post up in February for Black History Month, but it didn’t happen. Of course, we should also consider that I shouldn’t be ignoring stories from black cultures for 11 months out of the year either, so hopefully this will all be a wash in the long run.
Now, when it comes to folk tales from the African Diaspora, it’s easy to remember the various African countries and it’s easy to remember the United States, at least for us white folks who are on the outside of it. But when I started getting into folk tales and storytelling more seriously in college, some of the first tales I learned about were from another very important place predominantly populated by black folks that might slip the minds of us pasty people: the Caribbean. I especially encountered a lot from Haiti.
Haiti is an interesting country even beyond its folk tales. It is located on the island of Hispaniola, to the west of the Dominican Republic. Like many countries in the Caribbean, it was created by colonial powers because of the desire for sugar plantations. The country of Haiti, for various reasons, is regarded as a developing nation (what we used to call “third world”). However, beyond its economic status, Haiti is rich in culture. Including an often misunderstood spiritual heritage (Haiti is home to the religion called Vodou, or as Hollywood likes to say it “Voodoo”).
Haitian culture is something that could take up a whole post (or book) on its own. This story is entitled “Tayzanne” and is taken from the book The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales collected by Diane Wolkstein. According to Wolkstein, it is in fact one of the more popular tales in Haiti.
But first, another thing. Haitian storytelling starts with a signature call and response. The storyteller asks “Cric?”, which basically means “Do you want to hear a story?”. Then the audience responds “Crac!”, which roughly translates to “Yes, please!”
Every day, either Velina or her younger brother would be sent to get water. One day, as Velina is getting the water, her ring slips off. Now, what should surface but a big silver-golden fish.
Velina asks if the fish has seen her ring? The fish dives under the surface and returns with the ring on his nose.
Now, my readers who are fans of European tales will probably notice some similarity to the Grimms’ “The Frog King”. Not to get all Joseph Campbell-y (Campbell being a scholar who sometimes overemphasizes the commonality between old stories) but there are some story elements that do exist between cultures.
Anyway, Velina introduces herself and the fish introduces himself as Tayzanne (note: in Creole, this name is actually a pun on the word for “hooked”). Tayzanne then tells Velina that he lives in the deepest part of the spring where the water is clear and sweet and offers to dive down and get her some. Velina obliges and Tayzanne is given the bucket and swims down to retrieve the clear, sweet water and brings it back.
Now, Velina and Tayzanne become friends and it becomes a regular thing that Velina would bring back the clear, sweet water from deep in the spring. But Velina’s mother starts to notice that the water Velina’s brother brings back is not as clear or sweet and she gets mad. She orders her son to do better. So, Velina’s brother decides to follow Velina and see where she gets her water.
Now, before going forward any further, a quick “time out”. You may be wondering what the big deal is with finding the best water. Well, in many cases with folk tales I make a note about how certain commonplace things now weren’t so easy to get in times past. Stuff like getting fruit out of season or finding clean water. Here’s the thing, though. In some parts of the world, finding clean water is still hard to do. In many third world countries (and I’d bet Haiti is among them) access to clean, drinkable water is still challenging, as is using that water for things like proper sanitation. There are foundations that are entirely devoted to that cause. So, keep that in mind as we continue.
So, Velina’s brother follows Velina and sees her walk up to the spring. When she gets there, she sings
“Tayzanne, fish of the clear spring,Tayzanne, fish of the deep. Tayzanne, my friend, My friend, Tayzanne, Tayzanne, Tayzanne, my friend, O come to me”
Velina’s brother then goes home and tells his mother that he can now bring home water as clear as Velina’s. And he tells her all about Velina and Tayzanne and how he will just sing the “Tayzanne” song. His mother does not like this one bit. She is now convinced that Tayzanne is an evil spirit that lives in the water.
Now, that’s where I’m going to stop. I’ve given you a little taste of this story, but you’ll have to find the rest yourself. I will tell you that the end of this story is a bit . . . bittersweet.
One thing that I hope is not going to stop though, is my attempt at branching out the tales on Fairy Tale Fandom beyond the usual cultures I spotlight. Will I be able to keep it going or fall back into old habits? Only time will tell. And if anyone’s still thinking about that whole clean water thing, you might want to check out THESE ORGANIZATIONS.
Until next time.