Reports from the XIIth Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Göttingen 1998

The Twelfth ISFNR Congress program bears witness to the continuing broad interest in gender topics in folk narrative research. The scope or the program and the number of panels on offer ensure that any single participant’s impressions of the meeting will be partial. What follows is thus not a complete representation of the scope of the meeting, even for the intersected topics of gender relations and ethnography, the focus of this report. As is still too frequently the case, however, those papers which identified gender identity or gender relations as a primary topic more often focused on women, while papers discussing what appeared to be primarily men’s narratives or narrative roles did not in general take into account gender as such, as a differential identity feature. Thus for the most part in this ISFNR program, “female” remained a marked category while “male” remained unmarked. One major research area remains undeveloped, perhaps because it is too often taken for granted. That is the exploration of the relationship between discourses of male heroism or other male character formation in different narrative genres and the construction of masculine identities in specific cultural settings. Properly done, such comparative study could (as is done in a few papers in this program) entail discussion of how cultural understanding of the feminine conditions cultural understanding of the masculine, and vice versa, thus contributing to a balanced study of gender as a phenomenon of reciprocal definition and also, perhaps more interestingly, to the study of the discourse processes by which identity categories receive marked or unmarked status in narrative. While most of the papers here reviewed address at least some data derived from ethnographic field research, this review does not cover all the freshly ethnographically derived data represented on the program.

Identities and the feminine voice

One of the most exciting and challenging papers heard by this author was Renata Jambresic Kirin’s “Women’s Narratives Challenging Feminist Critique and Gendered Ethnography in Croatia.” In the study of women’s wartime personal experience narratives she distinguished between those narratives of widows and mothers of dead soldiers which further a nationalist project and thus receive institutional exposure, and the more troubling, often fragmentary reports gathered by feminist scholars of a more postmodern, critical-ethnographic persuasion. Narratives of rape and other violence against the women narrators themselves in particular present challenges both in developing ethical research methods and in presentational modes and goals, thus destabilizing any simple positioning of the researcher to promote either a nationalist agenda, a constructivist or critical feminist one.

Elka Agoston-Nikolova’s paper, “Ethnic Identity and Gender: The Bulgarian ‘Pomak’ Oral Traditions” while revisiting the core issues of ethnic and cultural identity, gender and performance, gave a new perspective on identity issues in border areas, and especially issues of crypto-identity, in this case, crypto-Christianity and Islam. Agoston-Nikolova’s particular interest in the utility of oral tradition to mediate and reduce ethnic and other border tensions gave this paper an applied focus as well.

Tamar Alexander’s paper, “The Dybbuk, Spirit Possession as a Feminine Voice”, contributes to the extensive world literature on gender and possession experiences, pointing out how social/spiritual authority of victims, or the lack thereof, affects the pattern of victimization. Possessing spirits pay greater attention to women, especially young women, in Jewish contexts as is also clearly the pattern for possession states in other traditions. Haya Bar-Itzhak, in “Women in Times of Persecution in Jewish Legends from Poland”, explored a mixed selection of legends from oral tradition, archival collections and publications. By focusing on female characters, the analysis uncovered discursive features common across three sets of legends about distinct topics (the Chmielnitski Pogroms of 1648-1649, Blood Libel legends, and legends of women who saved synagogues).

Seeking partner in Africa

Sabine Dinslage and Anne Storch in “Gender and Magic in Jukun Folktales” presented narrative and social contextual analysis derived from recent field research in Northern Nigeria. Where men dominate a ritual world threatened by women’s magical power, narrative themes were identified in which the destruction of dangerous women’s sexual organs, even when treated facetiously, becomes a key to their control. Magic as a narrative theme also becomes a key marker in tracing implicit gender tensions. Lee Haring issues an invitation to detailed ethnographic investigation in “The Multilingual Subaltern”, in which he outlined the role of Southwest Indian Ocean women as active agents of creolization, as interethnic and interlingual brokers generally and specifically in the realm of narrative transmission. Conceptually, this role extends to women characters in folktale and legend who “marry out” into the dangerous world of the supernatural, and thus negotiate life with authoritarian and alien males.

Rüdiger Schott’s “The Rebellious Girl Desiring the Perfect Man: Role Assignments in Folktales of the Bulsa in Northern Ghana” analyzed narratives of the mixed fate of assertive girl heroines in a patrilineal social context. The patriarchal moral world of Bulsa tales urges young women to compromise their idealized desires in order to survive and prosper, while on another level recognizing female aspirations to agency. Uta Reuster-Jahn’s “Die Partnersuche von Frauen und Männern in Erzählungen der Mwera in Südost-Tansania” by contrast, compares male and female-centered courtship tales in a matrilineal, matrilocal, cross-cousin-marrying society. Women’s relative power, matriliny and uxorilocality set up tensions between a woman’s spouse and her brother, tensions often represented by supernatural encounters in tales. The analysis compared men’s and women’s distinctive narrative constructions of the search for a mate, reflecting differential imagination as well as real social tensions.

Gendered narration

Kathrin Pöge-Alder’s “The Present Situation of Active Oral Folktale Tellers in Germany” offers an example of how a careful analysis of performers’ social experience and identities incorporates gender as a pervasive but integrated element in performance and repertoire profiles. The effort to contact and systematically interview the largest possible number of active performers yielded the opportunity for statistical analysis of some of the data, an unusual event in contemporary ethnographic narrative research. Gabriela Kiliánová’s “Women’s and Men’s Storytelling – Where Is the Difference?” contributes to the differential study of the repertoires and performance styles of male and female storytellers in social context, with new data from Slovakia. Teller-audience relationships and the expressed opinions of local audience members figured in the analysis.

Gender of the narrator also was a main focus of Ljupco Risteki’s “Narrating Erotic Tales and Gender: Theoretical and Methodological Aspects”, specifically in juxtaposition to the gender of the researcher. Macedonian erotic tale tellers’ relationships with their audience, including the researcher, are visibly inflected by gender. The effects of teller-audience gender relations on performances thus must be taken into account in research methodology and data analysis.

Kirsti Salmi-Niklander’s “Stories of Walking, Stories of Driving: Modernization, Gender and Popular Irony in the Oral-literary Local Tradition of a Finnish Industrial Community” points to the effect of gender of teller and protagonist in local personal experience narrative and legend material from a 20th-century industrial site, incorporating gender in a discussion of issues of oral history with regard to oral and written transmission, class, political allegiance, and occupational lore.

Gender and history

Luigina Rubini’s “‘Vom klugen Mädchen’: Laura Gonzenbach und ihre sizilianische Märchensammlung” explores related issues of researcher identity and purpose in an historical frame, presenting excerpts from her dissertation monograph study of this 19th century European feminist as a contributor to regional folk narrative documentation, raising questions about the relative historical contributions of male and female researchers to the conceptualization and documentation of European folk narrative. Another historical perspective on ethnographic presence and gender was provided by Patricia Lysaght’s “Perspectives on Narrative Communication and Gender in Lady Augusta Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920)”. Her profile of Lady Gregory’s importance as a leader in Irish folklore studies and her rereading of Lady Gregory’s monumental work revealed its rich contribution to an understanding of gender roles in 19th century Irish country life.

Somewhat unusual for this meeting was the focus on material culture in Åsa Ljungström’s “The Bid to Please – the Right to Be in Charge: Life and Work in Narrative Communication Inspired by Homemade Utensils”. While exploring the personal historical narratives which informants attached to household objects, the analysis uncovered differences in gendered value codes (male code of individual rights and integrity, female code of responsibility for others’ well-being) within an overall discourse of justice and positive work ethic.

Several other papers also utilized personal experience narratives as focal data. Lena Marander-Eklund’s “Expectations of Childbirth: The Narration of a First-time Birth-giver” outlines how personal experience narratives shape expectations, specifically in organizing a woman’s approach to first-time childbearing and her memory of it. Kristin McAndrews’ “Perspectives on Cowgirls, Humor and Images of the American West” addresses narratives by women who work with horses for a living in Washington State, USA. The women’s narratives confront gender, tourism and predominant notions of the American West as a male-centered imaginary, using humour to throw listeners off-balance and prepare them for a repositioning of expectations for gender roles. Birgitta Meurling’s “Gender Troubles? How Clergymen’s Wives Constitute Gender” distinguishes two fields of reference, social culture and clerical culture, in Swedish women’s narratives. Within a life history, these women’s narratives construct various, sometimes shifting femininities, “traditional” and “modern”, with the clerical calling as the organizational hub of the gender contract. “Gender troubles” are discussed as contradictory gender phenomena within individuals’ expressed life experience.

On textual reinterpretation

Other papers, relying more exclusively on written texts, nonetheless also addressed issues of gender in social history and in the contexts of textual production and preservation. Daniel Boyarin’s “Narrative and the Construction of Rabbinic Authority” is an exercise in the recovery of authoritative female voices from male-managed traditions, in this case, the Babylonian Talmud. The paper illustrated the benefits of such reinterpretive activities in producing a more fine-grained understanding of texts which might otherwise be inappropriately assumed to be univocally patriarchal, and thus contributing to an enriched social history of the community of producers and users of such texts.

Another example of papers undertaking reinterpretation of texts with implications for gendered social history was Véronique Campion-Vincent and Christine Shojaei Kawan’s “Marie-Antoinette and Her Famous Saying: Three Levels of Communication, Three Modes of Accusation and Two Troubled Centuries”, examined how the legendary remark, “Let them eat cake”, was ascribed to various European male and female sources from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and traces how interpretations of the contexts and message of the legend (AT 1446) varied in tone and import, depending on the associated event and the gender of the alleged speaker.

Micheline Galley and Guzè Cassar-Pullicino in “Some Remarks about the Sibyl(s) in Maltese Folk Legends” examined published legend texts from this century as well as contemporary reports of beliefs, stories, songs and liturgical practices, which illustrate the ongoing presence of the idea of the Sybil in Maltese society, and her various permutations incorporating diffuse Mediterranean influences including a relationship with the Virgin Mary. Natalia Puškareva’s “The Image of the ‘Good/Bad Spouse’ in Russian Church Literature, Folktales and Proverbs: Gender Roles and Stereotypes” undertakes an historical comparison of texts from the late 16th to the pre-industrial 18th century, tracing the development and maintenance of ideas about the ideal spouse in folk mentality which appeared to differ from the ecclesiastical ideal. The texts cited focus mainly on “good wives” and “evil women”, as constructed by men.

As with Boyarin’s Talmud project, this research seeks in part to recover a more complex social reality from a male-dominated discourse form. Gerald Thomas’ “Recognizing Female Sexuality: AT 313: The Maid as Mentor in the Young Man’s Maturation”, focuses on a tale type widely popular in Newfoundland, where it is mostly performed by men, suggesting men’s views on the role of women in the male maturation process in real social terms.

On the more exclusively textual side, Isabel Cardigos’ paper, “The Wearing and Shedding of Enchanted Shoes” examined intra-textually the differences in effect (mobility vs. immobility) when men and women in folktale don enchanted shoes. While men’s enchanted shoes get them to their quest destinations, women’s enchanted shoes among other things mark a disjunction of marital life, and must be worn out and cast off before the heroine can reassume a positive (and non-mobile) social role.

Rose Lovell-Smith’s “Shaving: Feminism and Bluebeard”, while noting that women have long undertaken the recomposition of folktales in performance and transmission, focused her analysis on the pattern of very successful, highly self-conscious literary feminist rewritings from the Victorian Anne Thackeray Ritchic to current authors including Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Suniti Namjoshi. The analysis discussed the place of such works in folk literature research and their relations to oral performance in matters of self-consciousness, intertextuality, political consciousness and wit.

Wives, saints and miracles

While most of the papers reviewed here were explicitly concerned with gender as a theme, others of interest incorporated gender issues in analyses which firmly entailed, but did not foreground, that topic. Dan Ben-Amos’ “The King Who Buried His Wife Alive” explores the enigmatic sacrificial act of Oba Ewuakpe, a King of the Edo empire in West Africa, who in order to regain his throne after being deposed by rebellious chiefs, followed the recommendation of a diviner to, among other things, bury his only loyal wife alive. The analysis combined reassessed historical evidence, structural and psychological interpretations to offer an explanation of this act, both anomalous in the tradition and tragic in its tone. Gillian Bennett and Anne Rowbottom in “Born a Lady, Died a Saint” examined popular interpretations of the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales. One of the aspects of her death and national mourning which seemed to surprise both these authors and other commentators was the intensity of public grief. This analysis noted parallels between popular constructions of Diana’s life and death and themes from folktale and popular legend, the latter in relation to the deaths of other icons of popular culture. Textual evidence for this analysis was largely limited to constructions and reports offered by the British press, with some material from brief interviews with mourners at the public funeral.

Stuart Blackburn’s “Speech and Silence: Indian Versions of AT 1351: The Silence Wager” subtly incorporated local (South Indian Tamil) and more international dimensions of gender politics implicit in this tale type into a new perspective on the meanings of the tale for a Tamil audience. The primary irony is that while appetite, whether sexual and gastronomic, is ideally subject of firm restraint, in this tale, a Brahmin man and wife engage in grotesque restraints on speech, in order to win an extra portion of food. Thus restraint itself becomes the avenue to fulfill greedy appetites. Various comic ironies ensue, incorporating issues of silence and speech, caste, religious difference, and more implicitly, gender and sexuality.

Barbro Klein’s ongoing analysis of the historical developments around a miracle recently reported from the Syrian Orthodox community in Södertälje, Sweden, while taking in many matters of emergent folklore not directly concerned with gender roles, addressed the ways in which narratives about the young woman who experienced miraculous effects on her own body came to resemble the legends of virgin saints. The aftermath of this event, however, included the eventual resumption by the young woman of a private life as wife and mother.

Leonardas Sauka’s “Entstehungsgeschichte einer Legende im 20. Jahrhundert” similarly takes into account the gender and social status of a legend protagonist without focusing on gender as such. He examines another example of emergent belief lore, in a recent sacred apparition event involving a young Lithuanian girl, and links her reported experience and personal circumstances to the legends of other apparitions of the Virgin Mary appearing to young girls elsewhere in Europe.

Margaret A. Mills
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

(FFN 16, October 1998: 12-13, 16-17)

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