Diane Wolkstein, USA — Storyteller

Interview in Sydney – by Helen McKay.
Published in Feb-March’2000 issue of Telling Tales.

A conversation following the Evening of Bible Stories in Sydney, December 1999, when Jenni Cargill read Song of Songs, Donna Sife told the story of Judith, and US storyteller Diane Wolkstein, told the story of Ruth and Hannah and following the storytelling, Diane discussed the stories, linking them to each other.

H: Diane, you’ve been to Australia a number of times as a storyteller, this time you’re telling us Bible stories. What was it that first drew you into storytelling?

D: I first told stories in 1966 when I was studying pantomime in Paris. I needed to find work to pay for my pantomime lessons, my rent and food. I had several different jobs. One of my jobs was teaching Sunday School at Temple Copernic. I wasn’t a very pedantic teacher, so what I did was tell stories from the Bible. I liked that so much that when I returned to the United States, I realised that what I really wanted to do was tell stories.

So I got a job telling stories at a Unitarian Church. After that, I went to the New York Parks Dept and applied for a job telling stories in the different parks in New York. So the basis of my storytelling was really sacred stories which has continued throughout all my telling.

I’ve done all kinds of telling in the meantime; folktales, fairytales, epics, but the Bible stories have been there throughout my career.

H: What is it about the Bible stories that draws you so closely to them?

D: Well they’re my heritage; I grew up with them. They’re about my ancesters, so when I wanted to know who I am part of, they helped me to know where I came from. The people in the Bible, whether they were real or legendary, help form my image of myself. When I first learned about them, it was more about the men in the Bible – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon. Over the years, I became more interested in finding out about the women as well.

H: There were a lot of people here last night, who had known those Bible stories as children. Because of the way in which you told them last night, they saw them in a totally different light. Would you care to comment about that?

That’s what I was hoping for, so that comment makes me very pleased. As I said last night, you can’t read the Bible without help; without commentary, without discussion, without questioning. So if you’ve read the Bible and you’ve just read the words, you don’t know all the different legends that have existed all through the times of those Bible stories.

From the time they were actually written, other stories about same subjects were being told, but it was those particular stories that were selected. We think they are about three thousand years old. There are still many different legends and, what I am trying to do in my work, is to bring in some of the other legends and to in ter weave them, so there is a fuller sense of the feminine and of some of the wisdom within those stories.

H: I know there are a great number of Bible stories you’ve written and I loved your book, Esther’s Story. How many years have you actually put into researching those stories.

D: I’ve been working on this book called `Stories for the Jewish Festivals’ for five years now, but I’ve been actively going to classes and studying the Bible for thirty years. I’ve been expressly focussing on specific stories for the past five years, in addition to which, I’ve learned Hebrew and immersed myself in this endeavour.

H: One of the things I noticed last night, was that the entire room responded so well to the power of the stories of the women. I think they empowered them to go out and attempt things they might have not been inclined to do.

D: Well, as you said, Helen, these are empowering stories because the circumstances are so extreme, they are so challenging and each of the women rises to the challenge in front of them.

H: It was quite fascinating to see the male reaction in the room. A lot of men had not really thought of women in the light that you showed them. I think many men went away with a new perception of the special qualities women possess.

D: I think they saw the four women as individuals who made extraordinary decisions and stuck with them.

H: There were people last night, who came to me and said they’d gone to Sunday School and heard those stories and never really thought about them again. Now they see the Bible through different eyes, with an understanding they had not gained from their Sunday School days. Many went away quite inspired by the stories you told and I’m sure last night has made a difference to a number of lives.

D: The Bible stories differ from other stories, in that the folktales, fairytales and even some epics, go in a straight line; they start in one place and go forward, whereas the Bible stories have a different medium from which they are operating. They are operating as much from the process as where you get to. They’re really circling and spiralling around until they get to where they are coming from and there are references to all the other stories – that’s what’s so interesting.

It’s a different harmony. It’s like you’re listening to one melody, but the melodies have harmonies which go to all the other songs. The song becomes deeper, because there are so many harmonies that are taking place at the same time, because of the inner references from the stories.

H: I think some people picked up on the connections because I saw some nodding as you were telling the stories. Diane, you are going off tomorrow to Adelaide, where you are researching an Aboriginal story which you are currently working on. Where to, after that?

D: The Aboriginal story is one that I have also been working on for five years. It’s a short story called `Sunmother Wakes the World’. I found it in a book of Ramsay Smith’s called `Myths and Legends of the Aborigines’ and I’ve been trying, over the past visits to Australia, to find the tribe from which it originated. Last night, I had the good fortune to speak with Francis Firebrace, who knew part of the story and he helped me change a little bit of it. That was quite wonderful.

After Adelaide, I return to New York and, hopefully, I’ll finish this book of `Stories for the Jewish Festivals’. Then I have a few more children’s books coming out, but I would really like to work on doing some plays, possibly some film scripts and just writing some more personal stories, than the folk tales and epics, I have been doing in recent years.