Story Kin and Cousin Convo #2

This is the second Story Kin and Cousin Conversation. We continue the vision of the Story NOW! interviews by exploring the power of storytelling to transcend divisions and create change. We interview an oral storyteller and a cousin storyteller from a kindred art form. For this conversation we join Anabelle Castaño and Jim Liebich.

Vel: Who was the first person you remember telling you a story that taught you something?

Jim: I’ve always enjoyed reading after my initial exposure to it. My parents forced me to read so  I could watch TV, after that I just preferred to read. I was always interested in fantasy and science fiction stories. I suppose the first person would be an author. Not someone sitting down and telling me a story, but the books I was reading.

Anabelle: In my case, I think my grandmother. My mom also told me stories, but usually when she was arriving home from work, and it was very late in the evening. Those are the first memories: interrupted stories, because my mom was falling asleep, and my grandmother told me stories about when she was a child, and came as an immigrant to Argentina. What it was like, the second of eight brothers and sisters in the country with nothing around them. She had many stories of those times in the 1920’s. Then, as with Jim, books. Fairy tales, other books as well.

Vel: Is there a certain story that brought you to the work you’re doing? 

Anabelle: I can think of three stories in particular. One was an anecdote related to the city of Buenos Aires in which I live. When I was studying archaeology, we were doing heritage programs with schools and people in the streets. I would tell this story of a lady who defeated  twelve soldiers at the moment the British invaded the city, and how she kept one for her daughter, because her daughter had fallen in love with him. The second one, I’m not going to tell all three, also opened up a lot. I had been in New Zealand and brought a book of folktales from there. At the museum we have two wooden carvings from New Zealand. They were pulling their tongues out, an old ceremonial gesture the All Blacks in Rugby also do. I remembered a story from that book. I asked my boss if I could tell a story during the tour, and she said yes. 

Jim: One of the earliest was Lord of The Rings. I loved those. One of my brothers, we used to entertain ourselves by basically acting out and telling each other stories. We’d be running all over the fields near the house, and we’d make bows and arrows out of plants and rubberband chains, and the whole time we’d be telling the story we started. Later on Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games, that’s all about story and cooperative storytelling. I went to this jock high school absolutely hated by everyone in the state, because our football team would not just beat them– they would crush them. I was so bored by it I didn’t want anything to do with it. Being a fencing coach now is a weird reversal. 

Vel: Is there a certain story of swordplay that comes to mind for either of you? 

Jim: There was one woman in France who became a privateer, because the French government killed her husband. She said: “I’m going to kill the French now.” She became a pirate, a privateer, and was terrifying to everyone along the French coast. There was another woman, Jaguariúna, in the United States. She was one of the best sword fighters in history. They’d have expositions, and she would go to a city and challenge all the fencing masters, anyone: “You can fight me, and if you win you get five thousand dollars.” In the 1800’s right?  Nobody ever beat her. She was amazing. I had the kids create a poster board about a martial arts hero. We have them on the walls. I wanted them there so the kids could get into that history. One wrote a story about a woman in Italy. She started out when she was a young teenager in fencing. She had to have her arms and legs amputated. She became a fencer with a prosthetic on her arm. She is one of the most amazing fencers in wheelchair fencing you have ever seen. 

Anabelle: Martina Céspedes, the lady, she used her wiles, not a sword. Here in Buenos Aires there is a club that’s historical,  more than one hundred years old, in their name they have “fencing”, because it was so important at the time. I think of books by Alexander Dumas: The Three Musketeers. I think of pirates and buccaneers, corsairs. The Black Corsair by the Italian author, Emilio Salgari. He’s very popular here in adventure stories. What you say about women that fence, we have similar stories. Juana Azurduy, when her husband died in the independence wars here, she took the weapons, she kept on fighting. She and Manuela Pedraza are only two examples. For a long time they were not mentioned. We have old records of them, but the people who rewrote history for the books and schools?  Yeah, they forgot about them. I tell stories from other cultures. Sometimes you have swordmasters, people who know their craft, and are extraordinary in that. Those are stories that inspire me.

Vel: Share an experience that showed you stories could be a powerful way to teach? 

Jim: You hear stories of people saying: “I loved this sport, I wanted to do it, and then the coach said I sucked or did something to me, and I never did a sport again.” It changed the course of their life. They could have been a completely different person in some ways, but that whole thing was closed. It hit home how important it is to be conscious of what you’re telling people. Casual statements can be casually cruel if you’re not thinking about what you’re saying. People are telling a story about themselves as they’re living their lives. At some point someone changes that narrative for them, where they say: “I’m not athletic. This person said I’m not good at this thing, so I’m not going to do it.”  It can take years for them to come back from that, or they may never get back. Storytelling can be incredibly impactful, especially when you don’t know you’re doing it. You’re affecting someone else’s narrative of their life. 

Anabelle: What you say is important. The weight of words, the words we carry. That’s one of the effects I found through storytelling. How people live and experience their emotions through the characters and symbols the stories hold, but at the same time the effect on my side while telling. I remember once, there was a kid. He was grieving, and we didn’t know. I told a story, and at one point he started crying. I was paying attention, and trying to go quietly, because I was not sure what was going on. When the story ended, his aunt came to me and said: “No, this is good. He needs this.” They sent an email after, because I  worried I hurt him. I have gone to see Nicolás Buenaventura Vidal, a great Columbian storyteller, nowadays he lives in France. The last time I saw him here in Buenos Aires, my best friend and I were crying, because he moved us so much. We felt transformed even if we could not say why. But a few months later those stories were resonating. The power of words and how they shape us, it’s fundamental. 

Vel: How do you distinguish helpful stories from more harmful stories? 

Anabelle: All stories have both sides. If you tell to hurt, no matter what you’re telling, no matter if it’s The Three Little Pigs, I think anyone would feel hurt. I have a preference for fairytales. In Spanish we call them cuentos maravillosos, wonder tales. If you’re working with people who have been discriminated against, I choose not to tell stories that discriminate. Or if I tell those stories I make it open, I specify why. We know this is happening to you or to us: let’s tell this story, let’s use it to enrich ourselves. In a museum you’re always speaking about otherness, always putting someone on the spot. You have to step carefully with attention and, I’m going to use the word, love. Even telling the blandest story might be an issue of hurt for someone. All stories have that potential. It’s mostly how we transmit,  how we connect, in how these stories change. But if I have to tell a story of something that happened I will tell it. It’s in the absence of words in which hate arises, or hurt arises. Even if you choose a story that’s harsher or not well received, I think it is best to speak about it. 

Jim: I agree intent is important. I feel an important part of teaching is introducing as much play as possible, but I’m also trying to teach a concept. I emphasize life skills that go along with fencing. Being able to think under pressure and handle a stressful situation without falling apart is a skill. The way you act is the way you practice. In terms of storytelling, if I get people to laugh a little, I think they’ll learn the lesson better. Kids have favorite stories I tell: “The Flaming Bagel” or the time an olympic fencer fenced me and did his special move. The newest thing I’m doing is interactive storytelling, turning fencing into a role-playing game. Last week, part of the story was they fight me and my minions. I was the Bandit King Shoelace. I was pretty ridiculous and that made it more fun. I wasn’t easy to kill, actually they captured me. Doing that physically, they were living a story. For me living is storytelling. They’re practicing being heroes. I think that will pay off for them and their community. 

Vel: Do you find it’s possible to transform stories that can be problematic at times?

Anabelle: I’m not sure I have done it, but as Jim said, words are very powerful. Here when we speak about First Nations most people speak in the past. We have First Nations, we have living people. Every time we speak about them in the past and use words like “extinction” or “language death”, we are killing one part of the perception of people listening. That change of words, I’m not sure how effective it is, but it opens up a question instead of having a closed answer. At the same time I think in the practice of the verbal word, in the verbal art of speaking up and telling, we are also changing the world. In this contemporary world, especially in cities, listening and the space and time for that, that’s needed. No matter what you’re telling, having space and time, I think that’s how we transform perception. Not only the stories, but also the act of storytelling  

Jim: A colleague of mine runs her own fencing school in Los Angeles. When the pandemic hit it was all Zoom. She started to do Dungeons & Dragons stuff for her students to get them to exercise. I thought, hey I could do something like that. A lot of the stories I tell, I’m trying to teach a lesson directly, and bring it to one of the concepts. Adversity and challenge are important, you should challenge yourself. There is some adversity no one should have to go through, and we have to recognize that. When I’m teaching I’m constantly trying to gauge how people react, and realize people have different cognitive abilities.There are kids that cannot look you in the eye. That doesn’t mean they’re not listening. I can tell from their actions whether they heard anything I said. Realize it’s not a measure of your self worth if someone’s better than you. That’s my thought: help them tell their story in a positive way. 

Anabelle: Jim, I’m wondering what inspired you to bring storytelling to fencing?

Jim: I think storytelling is inherent in living. If you’re living you’re telling a story. It wasn’t until the past several years I’ve been intentional about my skill as a coach, and the impact I have on people’s lives. I tell my students: mistakes are for learning, you’re supposed to make mistakes. I have to live by that too, there’s room for me to learn from my mistakes and grow. When I started out, it wasn’t about storytelling. Over time I became less interested in competition for competition’s sake. Competition is part of creating a better person, because it can push you in a certain direction and help you learn, but it’s not the end, it‘s the means. There is no end. There are times someone hits you, and you can go,“I didn’t see that.” But if you say, “nope you got me”:  you’re being honest in your training, honest with other people, and honest with yourself. That’s valuable as a life skill. Being able to see what’s happening, and be honest with yourself about what’s happening. I didn’t start out trying to tell stories intentionally. I was doing it unconsciously. I started doing it intentionally, because that can be valuable for students. You tell stories that are historical in nature. Do you relate it to anything in the present? 

Anabelle: Mostly I trust in people connecting clues I leave. I try to appeal to common sense, but in the sense to deconstruct it. At least sixty percent of my work has been in an anthropology museum. Here in Argentina a few days ago, the president said,“we Argentians come from ships.” That’s a common sense kind of thing that’s taught in schools. And actually that’s a huge lie. We have some people who came from ships, but lots of people came from this land more than a thousand years ago. It’s hard, when even the president has this narrative, to turn around stories. When I began the tours I was very secure, I was not storytelling yet. I gave information and it was attractive, but everything was closed. Nowadays I have opened up a bit. There are things I have not opened up, but there is this poking at common sense, turning around narratives. That is an intention I have inside the museum. If you are telling stories do you anchor them in the objects you have behind you? 

Jim: I favor a kinetic kind of storytelling. I’ll often have a sword in my hand. For instance: “They flicked the sword like this!” And I’m bending the sword. These weapons behind me are mostly historical, as well as the shields. Then we have more modern olympic fencing we teach. You can see we have archery stuff. I like to use the equipment. When we’re doing role-play fencing, they have a literal battle with someone else. They are a duelist and duel with someone. And they duel as a team. They’re waiting and trying to help each other out. All this stuff here is very valuable in terms of telling stories. Behind me is what we are calling HEMA, Historical European Martial Arts. What’s cool about HEMA is: because the living tradition of it died, we have to go through books and manuscripts, lithographs, woodcuts and piece every little thing together. Find out how things were made and how people moved, just by looking at pictures. There’s this historical archeology of recreating this art. It’s rich with opportunities to explore. Do you use physical movement in storytelling? How do you do it with younger kids?

Anabelle: I usually tell sitting down, but I’m very physical. My grandfather was deaf, and we had our own sign language, so I was always expressive. For me the body and face are muscles. But it’s not kinetic, I’m not moving all over the space. There was a great storyteller here called Juan Moreno. People would say: “but he was climbing from the curtain in the theater.” And you’d say, “no, he never lifted his backside from the seat.”  He was so intense: his faces and voice and body. That was one of my inspirations. When I tell with kids I’m usually sitting on the floor. They pay attention and ask questions and interrupt. Some people, when they tell to kids, want them to be quiet. And they are–for a while. They might be moving but paying attention, and asking questions and paying attention. That’s one of the things I miss most with the pandemic, telling for kids. Telling in English, even though I’m comfortable, in Spanish I’m faster and freer in my movements. I’ve spoken with English speakers who tell in Spanish like Clare Murphy who say it is difficult, conversation opposed to writing in another language. Telling with kids I’m more free using objects. I’m usually telling inside the museum, surrounded by eye-catching things. I have been used to competing against my surroundings. 

Jim: Yeah, I feel I can be much more freely expressive with the kids, the way I tell a story physically. They respond to and love that. You can do that with adults, but it tends to come off as comical, and your intent is not necessarily comical. 

Anabelle: I think kids always pull out our playful nature. Is it different now you are the Dungeon Master or storyteller behind everything for your practice as a storyteller?

Jim: In high school I started playing role-playing games with my friends.After a while I was used to telling stories with this game system. There’s lots of game systems. Dungeons & Dragons is one of many. There’s a local convention I go to here,  it’s called Big Bad Con; I can try out all this different stuff. At the beginning of the pandemic I felt comfortable role-playing a game for students, because I’d run different game systems. I had the ability to create something, and got feedback from people and improved it. We had a couple kids last week, one was a dragon and her friend was a baby dragon. They made up all these details. I have very few rules other than you can’t be evil. When you’re evil it’s only fun for you. And  rules about how they can use their powers so it’s fair. I was not in any kind of good shape when I started fencing at twenty-five. It changed my life. I want them to get that early, and carry it with them their whole life. I like the interactive aspect of storytelling. They say something, and I play off what they say and do. I’m trying to write different modules. Every week it will be something different for the camp.

Anabelle: You brought to mind a project I did for the museum of modern art. The museum had this exhibition of this contemporary artist. She was one hundred years old, and had very colorful abstract art. They invited me to do an activity for kids. Very small kids came. I started telling the story of the artist when she was a little girl: how she got lost inside the tent and entered this Alice in Wonderland space that was the paintings. Suddenly we were having an adventure with a small sad monster that had gotten lost, and how the main character helps him. The kids saw an ice cream flying away in space, and that was the way the monster jumped into a craft made of ice cream and flew away, and entered a castle with french fry soldiers. Because they saw these little sticks and said: “those are french fries, but they are soldiers.” They told you everything about it. I thought how wonderful it is, this kind of collaborative narrative telling. It was a game we finished in thirty minutes. I was thinking how great it is to develop things kids want into this world, because with you they’re working for a period of time with one arc of narrative. 

Jim: That’s the kind of creativity they bring to it. I like having that player-run world in which they come up with aspects that become part of the world. In improv one of the rules is “yes and”. I try to “yes and” as much as I can. I avoid “no we can’t do that”. My no rule is you can’t be evil. So it’s: “that’s hurtful and evil so we’re not going to do that, but how about this?” I try and play off whatever they’re trying to do. Help them own what they’re doing and be invested and want to keep doing it. I’ll take every opportunity I can to use what the kids are using and struggling with that day to spark a story idea and related discussion. You’re talking about historical events, does that spark new related stories or discussion?

Anabelle: Inside the museum most stories are linked to what they learned, or someone told them in their family. When we have migrant kids among children who visit, many come from countries very close to our borders. Some things linked to our mother culture are linked to their mother culture. They see objects they use in their families. Things like recipes, and we show ingredients they use in their cooking. Sometimes when I’m storytelling this happens. You tell something that is part of their heritage, or linked to what their granny or grandfather told them, and they light up. It’s something they might have hidden away, or they are trying to blend in with the rest of the kids, but we are valuing. Suddenly they are the main characters in the guided tour or the storytelling session, because they know the things we are telling about. This also happens when I do things outside the museum. I was doing a Japanese storytelling session, and telling a folktale called Momotarō. There were Japanese kids with their father, they lit up when I said the name Momotarō. I told them, “you know this story.”  And they said, ”yes.” “So you tell it with me…There was this old man and old lady, and they saw this peach floating on the water and what happened?” Or they were correcting me: “No! It was not that thing, it was this thing!” They were joining the story. It’s also showing how alive storytelling traditions are. 

Vel: Share something that excites you about a storytelling project you’re undertaking now?

Anabelle: Here we’re still in lockdown so most things we are doing are online. I have since last year been doing online storytelling for the museum and also myself. For my YouTube channel and other places. I’m very excited, because I’m working on two workshops. One is focused on exploring the relationship between objects and tales, all these things I have been doing for fifteen years in the museum. I’m working on my first workshop in English on storytelling and folktales here from South America. These will be happening around August. I’m finishing translating, because most of my sources are in Spanish. I will be letting people know on my webpage. These are my two babies coming to life very soon. 

Jim: That’s great. I’m working on developing this roleplaying fencing game: they can play a character while training and fencing, so they’re gaining experience points through their character. 

They’re living in this world while doing their fencing training. The fencing itself is not just a thing they do, but part of their own personal game. You can have a baseball game or a football game or fencing competition which is a game, and there is story within that: the personal trials and tribulations of each player within the game, and the events of the game. But I’m trying to approach it from a different angle, because these kids are playing video games and love those kinds of stories. I’m in the process of writing modules for each of the camps so I have something different every week, a different kind of adventure, and hopefully tighten the stories up and make it more playable. I’m sort of playtesting it right now.

Vel: What are you hoping readers will take away from this?

Jim: I hope it sparks ideas and learning. That’s what I’m about: learning a lesson from everything that happens to you, and being willing to learn from your mistakes. Even if you’re repeating what you did, do it better. 

Anabelle: There’s something interesting in we didn’t start as professional storytellers. People are fascinated by storytelling or stories, but are in other professions, or working on other things. It’s not far away from what you do. You can find ways stories appear. You can find the way imagination can feed any information you want to work with. You have the importance of story by itself, but also the importance of this practice in everyday life. I make the joke misquoting, perhaps, Jurassic Park. They say, “life finds a way.” I think stories find a way, no matter what you’re doing. Especially if you’re looking for them.

Anabelle Castaño is a  bilingual storyteller, archaeologist and museum educator from Buenos Aires, Argentina who interweaves her three professions and works on building bridges between material and immaterial culture through traditional stories from all continents. In mid-August of 2021 she will be teaching a new workshop in English: “From Puna to Patagonia ” on folktales and history from the South of South America. For more from Anabelle contact her at:  anabelle.cas@gmail.com or  www.anacas.com.ar
Jim Liebich  has been teaching fencing for over twenty years in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the owner of En Garde Fencing, and feels storytelling can be an important part of an instructor’s method of teaching. He is currently working on integrating a role-playing adventure game into the process of teaching fencing, with an emphasis on learning important life skills. For more from Jim contact him at: egfencing@gmail.com or www.egfencing.com

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