Honouring she who goes before – ten female storytellers

Those storytellers who go before us are an everlasting well of inspiration that we must not forget. Each carrying the tradition of stories in their own way, keeping it alive, so that we may follow behind. It is our responsibility to drink from this well, to feel connected to it, and most of all to honour it.

laura simms

Laura Simms

I will be creating a night of stories with storyteller Laura Simms – her work, and our storytelling friendship has been an inspiration and a guide to me for more than 25 years. Laura started telling stories in the mid 1970’s, drawing on her Jewish childhood in New York and the vivid characters and stories that surrounded her. She has been visiting the UK since 1987 when she performed at The Crick Crack Club’s second storytelling festival at Watermans Arts Centre. She combines true life stories with myth and fairytale in a radical and unique way. She has written several books about storytelling, and contributed to many journals including ‘Parabola’. Her most recent book is ‘Our secret territory: The essence of storytelling’ (Sentient Publications, June 2011).  Laura has had a very significant and lasting influence on the storytelling revival in the US and across Europe. However her impact is often forgotten or unrecognized. I do think that this is because Laura is a woman, and this makes her work and her art more easily dismissable. Despite feminism, it still takes huge guts to stand up on your own, and speak out for what you believe in.

I don’t want to forget those female storytellers who ploughed the ground for me. I am on this path because of them. So here are ten female storytellers whose work has been a profound inspiration. Each women representing their own traditions, with their own voice, and distinct storytelling style. I have added links for you to find out more about their work – although for some of them, little is online.

Betsy Whyte (1919 – 1988)  Scots traveller. Storytelling was living for her,
as necessary as making bread. She wrote ‘The Yellow on the Broom’ about her life growing-up in traveller culture. She was the first female storyteller I met who came from a tradition and embodied it through stories. You can hear her gentle voice talking about her life, stories and song.

Vi Hilbert (1918 – 2008) Storyteller and elder of the Upper Skagit tribe, Washington State. Vi preserved her tribes’ language Lushootseed and culture through storytelling. She would often tell her stories line by line alternately in Lushootseed and English. Her stories were funny, and contained hidden mysteries and commentaries on life. She was a good friend of Laura Simms, and you can see an amazing interview with Laura, where Vi tells stories and  sings. Vi Hilbert says how important it is that stories are kept alive: “So the future might have them – not the interpretation, but the story itself .”

Diane Wolkstein (1942 – 2013) storyteller and folklorist who travelled the globe to meet the cultures and tellers who carried the stories she was interested in. She often translated stories from their source – from folktales in Haiti, to Monkey King in China, to Sumerian Epic Inanna. Her beautiful articles, books and performances continue to be a source for tellers all over the world.

Sheila Stewart (1937 – 2014). Scots Traveller and bearer of songs and stories that she shared across the globe. She was a passionate storyteller who fought for the rights and acknowledgement of traveller culture. Her version of the ‘The milk-white Doo’ was dark and powerful. You can hear her in The British Library Sound Archive.

Grace Hallworth – Trinidadian storyteller and author. Grace was at the forefront of developing storytelling in Britain from the late 1970’s. She embodies her Caribbean heritage through songs, stories, folklore and traditions, passed on through her musical voice, her love of language and her wise presence. Many of her stories are collected into books. She still occasionally tells stories – try to see her.

Beulah Candappa  – grew up listening to stories in Burma, and has a wealth of knowledge about myths, fairytales and folktales from Asia. She transfixes the listener with her playful telling, using many tiny toys and folk objects to bring her stories to life. She uses the objects to involve her audience and give them a direct contact with her culture. She has also written several collections of her stories.

Ulzhan Baibussynova – Kazakh zhyrau (bard or epic singer). Ulzahn is incredible. She sings and tells epics, poems, myths, accompanying herself with the dombra—a strummed lute. Female zhyraus were once very rare. Being a zhyrau was something only men could do. Ulzhan sacrificed a huge amount to become a bard, challenging traditional gender boundaries in Kazakh culture. Now she performs internationally. In her performances she embodies the characters, the narrative, and its emotional journey, creating a living link to her ancestors through her stories. Try to see her!

Muriel Bloch – French storyteller and writer. Muriel is an inventive, daring teller. She is able to draw on many traditions and make them her own.  She is extremely creative with her choice of material and what she does with it, playful with structure and clever with words, she knows how to take the listener inside a world and help them get lost inside it!

Ritu VermaPandavani singer from Chhattisgarh, Northern India. As a small child Ritu was inspired by the great Teejan Bai, who was one of the first women to become a professional in what had been a male performance form. From a young age Ritu dedicated herself to performing the epic Mahabharata, with her ragi and her band, combining music, songs, prayers, narrative, and powerful stylized gestures and movement. Pandavani is unique in the World, narrator responds in a dialogue with her ragi, and to the audience who join her in many of the songs.

Laura Simms

And one for luck –

Sheherazade – the mythical ancestor of all female storytellers. She told stories for a thousand and one nights to save her life, and the life of all the women in her city. Her sister sat beside her listening. And so did the violent King Shahryar, but through listening to her stories he was transformed and healed.

Without the listener – the teller and the tales do not exist. Come and join Laura and I as we take it in turns to be teller and listener, telling myths and fairytales with powerful female figures, sharing ideas about why stories are so important today. This is a rare opportunity to catch Laura in the UK and hear her create a world of magic through words.  Adults only!

Sheherazade and her sister
 a night of stories and talk with Laura Simms and Sally-Pomme Clayton 

Sheherazade and her sister - painting by Sophie Herxheimer

Sheherazade and her sister – painting by Sophie Herxheimer

14 August 2016 7.45pm – 10.15pm
The Cavendish Arms,
128 Hartington Road, Stockwell, SW82HJ.
Nearest tube: Stockwell

Tickets: 10.00 plus booking fee


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