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Storytellers, Ghosts, and Butterflies.

Added: Sunday, April 1st 2012 at 5:24pm by heatherwinthrop



            As a child I grew up reading books like John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in It’s Walls, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. These were so much more than ordinary books, they were portals to alternate realities containing dark magic, ghouls, ghosts, giant arachnids, ogre’s, time travel, quests, secret meetings, clandestine societies, and the ultimate adventures. The books were also a way to distance myself from things in my life that were less than fantastic in nature; my parent’s divorce, my Dad’s screaming, my mother’s apathy, my sister’s birth and thus my newfound invisibility.



I needed to read like most people need air to breathe; so, I read in the bathtub, while walking, during recess, after dinner. In moments of isolation when I was without friends, those stories were the best companions I could’ve ever hoped for; they never criticized, told me that my clothes were too shabby, never excluded me because I was “weird”. The stories embraced me, and I embraced them in return. Rather than reading and learning being a task that I was forced to engage in, it took on a new component of joyfulness and escapism. Reading liberated me from my prison.



                The stories that I read however, were not without a darker side; sometimes the “good guys” died, and sometimes the lesson was sacrifice. While I always enjoyed Disney movies growing up, I began to realize that the stories they portrayed often stood in stark contrast to the realities of life; good does not always, if often, triumph over evil, sometimes you identify with the “bad guy”, or maybe it is difficult to distinguish the hero from the sea of faces, perhaps he/she isn’t very heroic. I don’t mean to sound like a jaded cynic, but don’t these stories have embedded in them a false set of hopes which are completely out of synch with reality?



Beauty and the Beast: beauty is on the inside; please tell that to the multi-billion dollar industry built on telling the public to be dissatisfied with themselves, and subsequently purchase products to “fix” their “problems”. Aladdin: you can be poor, but if you continue to do the right thing (while starving to death, and attempting to avoid having your hand cut off), someday, someone will reward you for it (monetarily), and all of your problems will be solved. Cinderella: continue to put up with abusive treatment, and work as a slave, and eventually someone (a rich nobleman) will come to rescue you from your troubles, because after all, your foot is the right size. I realize that many of these stories have been derived from old folktales and fables only to be Disney-ized, but, the list goes on and on. There must be a reason that Disney made so many of these movies with themes that, while charming, are also so incongruent with reality.The stories that Disney based his films on were often much darker tales, sometimes with gruesome details, and usually not with happy endings. Andrew Lam described just such tales, as told by his grandmother, in the essay Tragedy and the New American Childhood.



Mr. Lam says, “In Grandma’s stories, noble deeds are rarely rewarded happily ever after, broken love is the norm, and those who do good can be, and often are, punished.”(p.111) I think it is perhaps the Western idea that history is disposable, that makes it so easy for us to slap a happy ending on a tale and forget about it. In other parts of the world, history which is hundreds of years old is easily recalled by any individual you question on the street; what was this conflict about? Who were the players? What was the resolution? You only have to watch Jaywalking with Jay Leno, to observe that Americans know very little about current events, let alone the history of their country or its foreign affairs.


           Perhaps America is haunted by ghosts of the past, the physical, spiritual embodiment of a history we would prefer to forget, but which it nevertheless, is essential for us to remember and learn from. “America looks to the future, and not the past; it is moved by the ideas of progress and opportunity,” Lam says in regards to our rampant cultural/historical case of American amnesia, but, what is lost in that process? As America, and the immigrants who’ve come to make up America forget their traditions, forget their homelands, and slowly cede their identities for modern conveniences, we seem to be a culture which will be bound to the restless spirits of the past, longing to tell their stories to a new audience, a new generation, who will, perhaps listen.



As I read the story about Andrew Lam’s Grandmother being wrapped in a “golden blanket” of butterflies, I began to imagine them forming lustrous, jeweled wings, and carrying her up to the heavens, and the afterlife.



I think most people, like myself feel truncated, or cut off from their ancestors. Maybe that is a bias based on my upbringing, but I was raised in relatively non-religious household, where the dead were simply presumed to be gone, out of reach; a collection of rapidly fading memories and photographs. This story gave me comfort, and reminded me that life is about transformation; indeed I felt that the entire collection of stories in East Eats West was based around the theme of transformative realization, reinvention of oneself, and in a metaphorical sense, reincarnation.



This is a process, which I believe is universal, however it is definitely one that becomes catalyzed by the addition of going to a country where you are unable to speak the language, being forced to abandon everything you know in favor of the unknown; being a tree, uprooted from its native soil and climate.



I think what Andrew Lam has endeavored to do with his collection of essays (and been very successful at doing) is to, like the Manga that he describes in Tragedy and the New American Childhood, reshape the stories which will influence the new American narrative. His stories will give hope to those who don’t or can’t identify with the Disney fantasy/farce, the life of privilege and happy endings. He has crafted an honest collection of stories to guide those of us who have become disenchanted with a life removed from nature and spirituality, and consumed by greed and materialism. Maybe I identified with the stories in this collection more than I should; after all, I look like your typical white, suburban, 30 something female. I’m not Asian. I’ve never been transplanted from my homeland to a foreign country. I grew up listening to classic rock, going to public school, having a surly attitude towards authority, and atypical American disinterest in politics as well as ignorance of our foreign affairs. However, when I looked inside this book, I found, mirrored within its pages, the image of a book-worm, a lover of stories, an outcast who fought desperately to obtain his place and his footing while balancing between simultaneously converging and clashing hemispheres. I saw a frightened kid, who had to pick up the pieces of his shattered, transplanted life, reconstruct those pieces, and craft them into stories to help himself, and others like him deal with the traumas that war, death, poverty, and displacement inflict on innocent children.



As a child you are not expected to learn, but, rather to regurgitate; to be a parrot. As you get older, that expectation thankfully dissipates and if you are a storyteller, you are finally free to create magic, slay beasts, right wrongs, or show that the “good” guys don’t always finish on top. Being a storyteller is the opportunity to recreate the world, to inspire people, to expose injustices; it is a powerful role that should not be taken on flippantly. I think the art of storytelling is something Andrew Lam learned from his Grandmother, and subsequently, his Father. It was a gift in their family which was passed on through three generations, and perhaps someday, a gift that Lam will leave to his children. As I finished reading the stories within East Eats West I could not help imagining two butterflies, the spirits of Andrew’s Grandmother and Grandfather, landing on his shoulders, as if to say hello andshow him their approval.



User Comments

What an excellent and interesting post!!  I hope many butterflies light on your shoulders.

Such a sweet comment! I miss my grandparents, and hopefully their little butterflies will flutter around my way one of these days!

Once again beautiful post Heather, you have not only the most beautiful vocabulary of anyone I have ever met, but also the most amazing talent for choosing the correct pictures and words to best represent the situation and story’s you tell.


I have to agree that Disney movies, like most western commercial art, tends to glorify the rich and powerful, painting them as benevolent overlords who if respected and beloved will come and sweep you off your feet to a life filled with happiness and prosperity. The sad fact is this almost never happens, this is because there are two very distinct social classes which survived in western society they are the rich social elite and then everyone else. Rarely do the two meet, except when a member of the lower social caste is hired as a servant. I think the reason you often see these kind of story’s being depicted in the west and specifically Disney movies is because we have been spoon-fed that anyone can become rich in America. This simply is not true, you must either be born into an already successful family or be an extremely intelligent, cutthroat, and resourceful individual and you made succeed. Those of us with a conscious rarely make it very far in the world of business.


Disney was a man who believed in corporation’s ability to affect positive change in people's lives. His mistake was in assuming (like many have) that profit motives and generosity could go hand in hand. A simple look at what a corporate interest's motivation is tells you all you need to know. They are required to accumulate wealth regardless of their feelings on a matter, as long as it does not break the laws in the country in which they are operating (which can often be changed through monetary persuasion). They must increase the investor’s stock value.


This kind of system is inherently against the public good as it ignores the concerns even of those who run the corporation. Time and time again I have watched interviews with corporate CEO's and board members who admit if they could they would have stopped certain events from transpiring, and I believe them. Capitalism is not the real enemy we face, but corporatism and Disney being one of the largest media conglomerate in the world as far as revenues are concerned has a very important steak in maintaining the status quo.

Wally, you have a wonderful heart, and that makes your kind words resonate even more loudly. Corporatism is definitely depriving our people, not just of the chance to have an equal share of what they need to survive, but also of the opportunity to live lives of richness and authenticity. We remain so distracted by greed, objects, and superficial "needs" that we rarely have time to consider the deeper aspects of life, let alone think about eachother in a manner that is devoid of competitiveness. It's a shame, that given the richness of this world, our lives have been reduced to such pettiness.

you, really are, an incredible writer yourself. rarely do we have someone here on Blogster than can captivate as you do, thank you!

Thank you Charlie! I enjoy writing, and it is an honor that you guys take the time to read it.

honestly, it's OUR honor to get the chance to read it.


Excellent writing that beautifully connected the book report with your own opinions of your personal experiences reading story tales as a child. Like you my Mother had a life long love of reading that amazed me as she would get 15 books every 2 weeks from the Mobile Library that came thru their neighborhood. Once I asked her how& why she developed such a love for reading to find that she was a "latch key" child who was not permitted to leave home once she was dismissed from elementary school. Her Father had died when she was very young & my Grandmother was working to support them. She read to immerse herself in a world that was unlike her own that offered the means to escape to a place that helped her dream of a better life. 

I've read that ppl who read are better writers then those who don't. Heather, you are proof of that as you display your wonderful story telling ability here to weave a masterful blog that captures my attention. 

Hershey, I was also a latch key kid. My Mom would leave for work (when I was 9/10) before I got up in the morning. I would make myself breakfast, get myself to the bus, go to school, home, dinner, and put myself to bed. Sometimes she would leave a note on the bathroom mirror to tell me something important, and I wouldn't see her until the weekend. We had a similar thing to the "mobile library", and I remember when it came to our school I would spend days and hours choosing in the little paper catalogue which books I wanted (often, every book would have a check next to it, lol). It really was a wonderful way to go anywhere that my imagination could take me. Thank you for always being so kind! Hopefully, there will always be new adventures to go on, new places for my brain to escape to in the future.

All bow down and pray at the Temple of Heather, Goddess of Storytelling....{#basic-smile.gif}

Another excellent post, as usual.   You do know you're spoiling us blogsters, don't you?  The next chico crop will be back to normal with no shining star.  A story with a potentially unhappy ending..........I think I read a blog about that.....{#basic-smile.gif}

I loved reading when I was growing up.  Knew the library well, and as I got older, hit the used booksales.  I loved sitting down with a good book, and you're absolutely right - it does transport you to another world, another life, letting you forget for awhile the problems in your own. 


I do have to say, that I have a great feeling about where my current story is taking me! I'm sure that I'm not the best Chico student to blog here, maybe they just need more encouraging comments from readers like you guys. Writing this post really did make me want to hide in the used book store, like Sebastian from The Neverending Story, and get lost in some childhood fairytales. I think I am going to plan that as a major component of my summer; get lost at the bookstore!

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