T. Obinkaram Echewa:
Telling stories in three dimensions

An interview by Jen Kopf,
January 1995

T. Obinkaram Echewa says the tradition of telling folk tales has been lost.

"Now, when we try to explain things to children they involve sociological, psychological, political explanations," the author says. "The idea of investing a moral principle in a folk tale has been lost."

Echewa, a professor of English at West Chester University, likes to read his new children's book, The Ancestor Tree, aloud. It's a chance for the native of Nigeria to tell a story the way the oral tradition demands.

"In fact, the African storytelling tradition is very participative," says Echewa, in an interview from his Philadelphia home. "The oral tradition in Africa is very strong, and storytelling for children, especially, is a performance.

"A real, interactive performance is not just a thing where children sit passively and listen and, at the end, clap politely or whatever. When I read to children I pause, ask them what they think may happen next, ask them what they think a character should do."

That's reflected in The Ancestor Tree, which is Echewa's first book for children. In his contemporary folk tale, children in the African village of Amapu run every day to hear stories told by Nna-nna, the oldest man in the village.

"He was old, yes, but full of life," Echewa writes. "Often sick, yes, and sometimes unable to walk because of his painful joints, but always full of jokes and laughter. Often tired, yes, but never too tired to tell a story."

When Nna-nna falls ill and dies, the village children realize he will never be honored in the Forest of the Ancestors because he has no living children.

How they question the practice of tradition for tradition's sake, and how the village elders decide to change that tradition, forms the crux of another of Echewa's goals.

"The book is dedicated to children everywhere who sometimes may find themselves confronted with tradition they want to better," Echewa says. "Africans revere tradition very much, but every tradition isn't necessarily worth keeping. We tend to sanctify all traditions simply because they were passed down."

Echewa, who holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania, has published several works for adults. His most recent, I Saw the Sky Catch Fire, was called "an exquisite novel" by the New York Times.

It is also, he says, an example of how he immerses himself in his writing.

He says creating a book for a young audience was no more difficult than writing for adults. "It takes a certain type of, I guess, stepping into the shoes of the reader, so to speak.

"In my last novel, for instance, many people thought I was a woman because of the way it was written. Similarly, to write a children's book I stepped into the shoes of children."

The inspiration for The Ancestor Tree came from one of his earlier, grown-up books, The Crippled Dancer.

Said a character in that book, "Everyone, in time, becomes an ancestor, even thieves and murderers."

Echewa wrote that the statement so surprised him, "that I carried it around for years." His book builds on that thought.

At public reading, Echewa asks that children bring along mementos of their early years -- and be ready to tell their own stories.

"(Nna-nna) at one point refers to what the children looked like when they were born. Birth and childhood mementos ... make children aware of their own traditions," Echewa says. "Everyone has a story, everyone has a tradition remembered in different ways. In different cultures, people memorialize birth and death in many ways."

The mementos they choose to keep, he says, reflect the cultural, family and individual traditions people hold close.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

Buy Echewa's new book The Magic Tree from Amazon.com.