Focus Jan Blake recounts how she became a storyteller
J an Blake can talk non-stop and never run out of stories, for she is a storyteller. One of Britain's top storytellers, you can tell that she loves what she does from the way she talks about her art form. Excerpts from an interview with Jan who was in Thiruvananthapuram for The Hay Festival.
Once upon a time…
It all began when I failed my A Levels and decided to join a community theatre group called Moving Past. I was 18 then. Two years later, I had to decide on whether I wanted to enter mainstream theatre or join some other form of self-expression. That is when someone suggested I take up story-telling. I did and there was no looking back. I have been a storyteller for 25 years now.
Weaving a tale
Financially, it's tough. In fact, my son, Jordan, who is now 18, refuses to be a storyteller even though he is good at story-telling. He has seen me struggle for a living and doesn't want to go down that path. He wants to be an economist. But I love telling stories, even if it is for one person.
Tales well told
I specialise in folktales from West Africa, North Africa, the Arab world and the Caribbean. My tales are mostly on human nature. Humans in all their colours – faults, joys, strengths, weaknesses…Stories are powerful tools and they can spread a message. I usually stay clear from stories with didactic tones. I tell tales which have something for everyone; something which has each person identifying with some part of the tale. Like a splinter, it stays with them until they realise why it stayed with them. Most of my stories, I feel, are on how we take life and its gifts for granted.
I have no target audience. My stories are for those who want to hear a story. In primary school, kids want to hear stories, but teenagers in high school… they are usually forced to attend the session. So, when performing for teenagers, I ask them what they would like to hear and then tell a tale based on their chosen theme. The tale should not be instructive; it should capture their imagination and connect with them heart-to-heart. I remember how in one session, a teenage boy asked me to tell a Jamaican vampire story. I did. He was surprised.
I know I should be transferring my tales into a book but somehow I have never gotten around to doing it. I have written a book for preschoolers – “Give Me My Yam”. It is about a boy called Jordan, who loves yam. His mother gives him a yam but he loses it. After a string of adventures, in the end, he gets another.
I'm a film buff. I like Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa… the list is endless. I love World Cinema; anything which has a tale. I'm currently doing a screenplay for an animation film. I can't tell you the name due to a confidentiality agreement.
The Indian connection
My great-grandmother was an Indian. She was one of the Indian labourers who went to Jamaica to work in the plantations. Unfortunately I don't know which part of India she's from. So, you see I'm one quarter Indian. I love Indian food.
The ‘K' word
This is my second time with the Hay Festival. The first time I was part of the Hay festival, it was in Kenya. Now it's Kerala. ‘K,' as you can see is a very important letter for me. Kerala is a lot like Jamaica, which I often visit as I do have relatives back there. While getting out of the Thiruvananthapuram airport last night, I couldn't help notice people pressing their noses against the window panes in the hope of spotting their loved ones coming out. This is a familiar scene in Jamaica too. The humidity is also familiar.