I received an email from Regina Kuan sometime ago telling me about the upcoming Singapore International Story Tellers Festival. She asked me to list the people I’d like to interview and frankly, I’d like to interview everyone! One of the people I chose is Rosemarie Somaiah and as you read her story, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s very inspiring. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, Rosemarie Somaiah …
Aneeta: Rosemarie, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Rosemarie: It’s a pleasure to be here, Aneeta. I have read some really interesting interviews on this website discussing storytelling in a variety of forms, including oral storytelling and storytelling in text.
Aneeta: Please give me some information about you – where were you born, where did you grow up? What do you do for a living and where do you live now?
Rosemarie: I was born in India and grew up there. India is a land of such incredible diversity, that anything you say about India could possibly be true of about a million people and possibly completely untrue of about 9 million people. So, though my childhood was unique in some ways, it was considered fairly standard for the people that I grew up with, in that particular time and place.
I now live in Singapore. My partners and I run Asian Storytelling Network (‘ASN’), Singapore’s first professional storytelling company. We perform and run courses in storytelling for anyone from three to a hundred and three! These courses relate to storytelling as an art form for performance, as well as a tool for a variety of applications ranging from reading, writing and literacy, community issues, presentation skills and leadership. In addition, I write and am always open to collaboration with other artists in new and exciting ways.
Aneeta: When did you first venture into storytelling and why?
Rosemarie: For some reason, people have often assumed I was a teacher of some sort, even before I went into teaching or training. When I first arrived in Singapore over 25 years ago there was a break in my professional life and, while I revelled in the time with family and children – in fact, my present career developed out of that experience – I tried to keep involved in voluntary work within the community. One organisation that I have been involved with for a long time is the Society forReading and Literacy (‘SRL’), a voluntary society. In 1999, Kiran Shah and Sheila Wee had begun The Storyteller’s Circle (‘STC’) to promote the traditional art of oral storytelling and brought it under the wing of the SRL. I was working with Sheila in another educational enrichment centre at the time and, she seemed to think I was a storyteller and urged me to attend the monthly meetings. When other commitments made it difficult for Kiran and Sheila to continue to lead the Storytellers’ Circle, I took over the responsibility. The STC continues to meet regularly and is the nurturing ground for many who are new to oral storytelling. Members of the SRL come from all walks of life and there are some who turn up just to listen.
Later, Sheila and Kiran invited me to join them as a partner in Asian Storytelling Network, the business they had started. We are very happy to have a pool of friends and storytellers that we can draw on to tell the stories. Check out www.asianstorytellingnetwork.com
In Feb 2006, together with many of these friends, we started the Storytelling Association (Singapore), another voluntary organisation, to cater to the growing number of professional storytellers in Singapore.
The annual Asian Congress of Storytellers organised by the National Book Development Council of Singapore, at which I have been a regular volunteer and participant has, over the years been a major factor in the growth of storytelling inSingapore. The Congress has brought wonderful storytellers from around the world to the region. Apart from Sheila and Kiran, those that have been an inspiration to me are Cathy Spagnoli, Margaret Read Macdonald, Anne Pellowski, Jeeva Raghunath, Gerald Fierst, Richard Martin, Diane Ferlatte, Cassandra Wye, Fran Stallings, Diane de la Casas and others. Later, this festival grew into the Singapore International Storytelling Festival and we are looking forward to an exciting line-up this year as well.
Aneeta: Now, your repertoire as a storyteller is pretty impressive from performing in schools, over the radio and even in the MRT. Of all these experiences, which one has been the most memorable and why?
Rosemarie: It is difficult to choose just one day or event as the most memorable as the life of a storyteller in Singapore can be very varied. We work with all ages and the audiences that we perform to can range from small groups of adults, in intimate settings, to over 1,200 students at assembly shows in schools. Our workshops and training sessions can range from short ‘taster’ sessions to term-based in-curriculum training. Each situation has its unique challenges. While generally we prefer smaller, more cohesive groups, there can be occasions when things go well and you have a large audience responding with complete engagement to a story simply told with no fanfare.
My work started out of my experiences with my own family and children, so I am quite comfortable with toddlers, children, teenagers and adults. I need them all in equal measure to keep me grounded. There is, of course, a particular delight when a child, racing down a corridor in a housing estate or school, wheels around suddenly to throw you a bright smile and wave in greeting, “Aunty Rose!”
However, I remember leading one very participative public session with kids early in my storytelling career, when I was retelling the traditional story ‘We’re Going on A Bear Hunt’. We were just coming to the climax of the story, entering the bear’s cave, when a little 4-year-old, very slender and small-made, came up to me and piped up loudly, “Don’t worry, Aunty Rose. I’ve shot the bear!” I looked at him in surprise – (there was to be no killing in the story!) – and whispered in an aside, “No, you haven’t!” But he reassured me one more time, loud and clear, “Don’t worry, I’ve shot the bear! You’re safe now.” Well, there was nothing to be done about it, so I picked him up, put him on my shoulders and the second half of the story had to morph very quickly into a victory parade for our little hero. However, from that time on, I learned to prepare ahead for these kinds of surprises.
Another truly memorable event was my trip to Karjat – a small village near Mumbai, inIndiain March this year. I was to train teachers and social workers, and perform to children of the village. There were concerns about language. I speak very little Hindi and absolutely no Marathi. It was also a time when there was a resurgence of local pride and some resistance to foreigners. But I was willing to try to break these barriers to communication. In vary halting Hindi, which I have never had to use before, I explained to the children that had I been fortunate enough to be with them longer I would certainly have tried to tell at least one story in Hindi, but for this event, my stories would be in English. I requested their help and understanding. Then I began to tell the stories. The response was deeply moving. Not only did they listen, the children retold the same stories I had told, in Hindi and Marathi. The teachers and social workers explained to me that with so many varied interpretations, there could be no doubt that the children had understood the stories and were more than ready to start telling their own stories.
Aneeta: I understand that you’re also a published writer. Please give me a description of the books that you’ve had published.
Rosemarie: My initial writing was triggered off by oral storytelling projects that I had been involved in and it was commissioned work. There has been both fiction and non-fiction, traditional stories and newly created ones. For example, while I was conducting regular sessions at the Children’s Discovery Gallery at the Singapore History Museum, I was asked to write a short script for children based an episode in the Ramayana. That was followed by a set of stories based on every-day objects in the handling collection of the museum. I told these stories that I had created regularly to groups of school children. A few other scripts for the museum and schools followed, together with one that resulted in a commemorative comic book with a short history of the museum. Then, since ASN was telling folktales from the region to promote racial harmony, Asiapac Books approached me for ‘Gateway to Singapore Culture.’
Another set of books that I have been involved with are ‘Colours of Harmony’ (2005) and ‘Colours of Love’ (2006) and ‘A Giving Heart’ (2007) published by the Inter-Religious Harmony Circle, supported by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (‘MYCS’), to promote racial and religious harmony.
When Tuttle Publishing was looking for writers for their popular series of folk tales from Asia, I had a ready collection for ‘Indian Children’s Favourite Stories,’ which came out in 2006. I continue to write regularly and generally have one story or another on the back burner!
Aneeta: What do you think is the importance of storytelling today?
Rosemarie: I believe that good storytelling nurtures the human spirit and will remain important despite all the technological marvels that we can create. In fact, I believe that traditional folktales were the original ‘freeware’, long before the Internet. We take great joy in seeing our students bloom. So, it is an affirmation of our efforts when our students, queried on their confidence in telling stories to their peers say, “Oh! The trainers are very good. They allow us to tell in our ways, and that makes us very confident.”
Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling?
Rosemarie: I am always hesitant to offer advice. However I believe that like any art form, storytelling is about passion, dedication and commitment. All artists are works in progress and we might be on different places on the same path, so our perspectives from where we stand might be different. In the oral tradition, we respect our sources, because the stories are often shared so generously with the intention that the wisdom is passed down through the generations. The stories speak of those who followed the rules as well as those who didn’t and the reasons why. I think it is important to take the time to learn the traditions of storytelling. I consider myself fortunate to be able to make a living out of my passion, as storytelling, to me, is really about being true to yourself. Respect, refine and rejoice in the art, the heart and the craft.
Aneeta: Rosemarie, how can my readers reach you if they so wish?
In Singapore, some of my books, including ‘Indian Children’s Favourite Stories’, are available in Borders. The latter is also available online on www.amazon.com
Aneeta: Rosemarie, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Rosemarie: We have several festivals and conferences in Singapore that deal with storytelling. It would be wonderful to meet your readers at any one of these. Do come up and say Hi!
Aneeta: Rosemarie, thank you.
Rosemarie: You’re welcome, Aneeta.
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