The Aswang

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Grace Hallworth and the Oral Traditions of Trinidadian Ghost Stories and Tall Tales

Published February 22, 2017 by rmpixie

Last year, I gained a new co-worker that turned out to be my sister from another mister. We share a lot of similar experiences, good and bad, and also a Trinidadian heritage. When computer glitches made us scream out in frustration, my lovely co-worker would stage whisper “Obeah!”, eliciting uncontrollable giggles from both of us. Obeah is a West Indian term for witchcraft and general supernatural trickery, often thrown into conversation in a West Indian household with a casual knowing, as if every little thing was explained by that one word.

When she brought me a book on folklore from Trinidad, I squealed! Entitled “Mouth Open Story Jump Out” (which basically means you feel free to gossip or tell tales), this book contains all the stories my mother and grandmother used to tell my sisters and I, either to scare us into good behaviour or just freak us out in general. I could once again read about “La Diablesse” or “The Suocouyant”; remembering how frightened I was when the women in my family would recount the “true” stories from the Trinidadian backwoods, otherwise known as “the bush”. This book inspired me to dedicate a post for Black History Month and Women in Horror Month to Grace Hallworth, a Trinidadian storyteller who carries on the tradition of the island’s folktale and ghost stories in both the written and spoken word.

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Hallworth, retired librarian, has a number of children’s books under her belt. Born in Trinidad and moving to England in 1956, her storytelling and writing would honour the tradition of Trinidadian folktales for decades. There isn’t a lot of information on her since she is senior and now resides in a retirement home northwest of London, but she is still active and celebrated within the storytelling community and a great reference for those in the children’s literature and academia world.

Storytelling is ingrained in our human DNA; from the beginning of civilization it has brought us together, connecting us and keeping our traditions and cultures alive through the spoken word, song, dance and pantomime.  It is an exercise in remembering ancestry, entertainment and community in one fell swoop.  In island culture, a simple gathering can result in stories about aunts, uncles, cousins and all the weird and wonderful things they encounter in ” Nancy” stories, a word spawned from the original tall tale figure Anansi, the trickster spider from West African tales.

The stories I remember most were the aforementioned “La Diablesse”, a hoofed woman who leads men astray and “The Suocouyant” an old woman who becomes a ball of light and sucks the blood of humans and animals. I thought about these ominous figures in an abstract way, in the same way a kid thinks about the devil or the boogeyman. These were our boogeymen, or women as the story goes. They were ours and everyone else’s it seems, as these phantoms went by other names across the world, like the Phillipines blood sucker The Aswang and the Succubus who keeps company with The Soucouyant, who in turn shares similarities with the Spook Lights featured in Eden Royce’s collections of Southern gothic horror. Even the Loup Garou, or werewolf, stays the same in France and the West Indies. It never occurred to me then how connected these tales were until I started to write about horror themes critically.

Before each set of stories, Hallworth writes a paragraph or two describing the traits of these entities in the chapter, giving a context to the oral tale. You can see a common thread with the spirits and demons that only makes sense since Trinidad and Tobago are like many Caribbean islands that have a long history of colonization. On top of the indigenous people of the islands, settlers from Europe, Africa, The United Kingdom, South Asia and China came in as well, so there is no wonder that some phantoms share the same traits as their originators back on their home shores.  It’s actually comforting to know that Hallworth worked to validate and document these folktales so that they could stand with their global counterparts in unity as they scare children worldwide.

Hallworth preserves regional dialect or patois, traditions and nostalgia as well as the tales themselves.  Some of the stories provide a moral like be careful what you wish for or living in harmony with the natural world, and some were just meant to scare the bejesus out of you.  It is a feat the can’t be done without some effort, but she takes these oral traditions and commits them to the page with an ease that makes me hear my mother and grandmother’s voices as I read the words. At the very least, it would be a treat to hear Hallworth herself recite these tales, as she will still do from time to time in the English libraries and schools even though she is reportedly in her late 80’s.

As kids become more sophisticated with electronics and adult life readily at their fingertips, it’s comforting to know this little book of Nancy stories persists on library shelves so the original monsters under the bed or at our windows don’t fade away.  I am grateful for Grace Hallworth because it is through her book that I remember my mother (my original woman in horror) and my heritage.  She is a storyteller, writer, children’s author and an honorary woman in horror for preserving these tales.

Grace Hallworth is a patron for The Society of Storytelling in the U.K. and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2016 and 2017.

For a list of all her books, check here.

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