By Danielle Schapaugh, Public Relations Coordinator
Watching the Olympics always makes me curious about other cultures. What are their values? What bedtime stories do they tell? For answers, I turn to literature, because I find storytelling more interesting than nonfiction, and because I think it’s possible to learn a lot about other cultures by exploring their folklore.
To begin, I selected a book from one of the masters of modern folklore (often referred to as magical realism), Isabel Allende, who is an award-winning author from Peru.
Allende’s books are steeped in magic and passion. Her most recent work, Island beneath the Sea is a visceral and shocking tale of endurance and triumph. Not only does this book explore other cultures, but it also takes a look at history.
Island beneath the Sea tells the story of Tété, a slave in Saint Dominique, who has been raised with the ways of the voodoo loa (deities). The story chronicles Tété’s life as a beloved child, a concubine, a slave, a servant, a revolutionary, and a voodoo priestess. Throughout her life, the loa guide, frustrate, play tricks, and provide Tété with the power to overcome.
“I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky, carrying with it my sorrows so that Papa Bondye can chew them, swallow them, and leave me clean and happy.” – Tété
If you like this book, and I think you will, then I suggest exploring other titles by Allende, such as The House of the Spirits or Eva Luna, both set in the recent past and full of cultural identity.
Laura Esquivel is another fantastic author from Latin America. Like Water for Chocolate is probably her most famous work and would make an excellent choice for a book club! There are so many recipes, themes, and striking characters that you will want to discuss with friends.
At its core, Like Water for Chocolate is a story of unrequited love and family dynamics. It is full of longing and sorrow, magic, and triumph. Tita is the youngest daughter of a respected Mexican family. She will never be allowed to marry or have her own life. Instead, it is her duty to devote herself to the care of her aging mother. Sounds a bit like Cinderella, doesn’t she? The themes are similar and both tales include magic, but Like Water for Chocolate is not a Disney version of the story.
Tita begins her lifetime of work in the kitchen where she learns to express all of her emotions through food. Since she pours herself into her recipes, the food she makes is imbued with the magic of her feelings and has the power to affect those who eat it. Imagine what happens to the wedding cake when her sister marries the man Tita loves! This beautiful tale of Mexican folklore has also been made into a movie which is available at the library.
I also read Esquivel’s The Law of Love, which is set in the future. The book includes a CD of music to be played at certain points in the text. You will enjoy every “interlude for dancing!” As you read, you’ll learn about the relationships and achievements valued in Esquivel’s culture.
Finally, a book that really surprised me was Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, a fascinating author from Indonesia. The “rich and astonishing strangeness” of this story makes it very difficult to put down and even more difficult to forget. Visions of fireflies who rob the site of a man with a guilty conscience, a tornado of a mother who makes the house shake and drives out a cheating husband, and bees who drown out rational thinking will stay with you long after you finish this story.
It was interesting to me how the lines between “good” and “evil” characters are blurred in Of Bees and Mist. I’m used to clear distinctions in moralistic tales. Characters suffer because of bad decisions and bad influences, but at times it is difficult to figure out who the “bad guy” is. Every character is complicated, and I found myself slightly frustrated because this style is out of step with my native culture. It was a pretty cool discovery!
Of Bees and Mist has received mixed reviews, and the plot certainly doesn’t take a direct path to the finish line. Before you dive in, I suggest reading a few pages from the middle to see if you enjoy the tone and style. I certainly hope you decide to give it a try.
Literature and folklore provide powerful lenses for seeing into cultures around the world. I encourage you to explore new cultures by traveling as many places as you can and by finding new ideas in books.
If you need any more recommendations, please visit us at the Manhattan Public Library.