The hunt for words: Author Zillah Bethell on the magic of storytelling

Published on: 09 March 2021 Author: Zillah Bethell

Growing up in Papua New Guinea, The Shark Caller author Zillah Bethell fell in love with stories passed down through the generations - and after moving to the UK, she discovered even more tales to bask in.

Here, she tells us about the magic of storytelling and hunting for words...

The front cover of The Shark Caller and author Zillah Bethell

Photo: Sian Trenberth

I grew up in a culture of oral storytelling. We'd sit around the embers of the cooking fire at night, singing, dancing, telling stories. Stories about ancestors fighting mighty battles with merpeople; skirmishes with other villages over sea territories...

Some stories were instructional, containing important information on how to align a fishing net with the current or how to carve a paddle with or against the grain of the wood. These ones are probably like a grandmother in the west country passing down a secret recipe for rowanberry jelly or marigold soap. Folklore, I guess.

There were mythical stories, too, of origin and extinction. In Papua New Guinea, myths of origin often centred around stories involving the sun. One such story goes that before the god Maui, the sun moved so quickly that there wasn't enough time to make tapa or build a canoe in daylight, so Maui took some magical rope and lassoed the sun to slow it down.

Myth and oral storytelling go hand in hand of course. I guess when something's written down, it's harder to keep changing it.

I love orally transmitted stories because they are so fluid, capable of assimilating unexpected social events or imaginary embellishments.

The stories we heard around the cooking fires changed all the time, depending on the personality of the speaker; and the version that received the most claps and cheers was the one that endured. You might call it the survival of the fictional fittest! As a writer I create everything in my head, and I think this may be a result of growing up in a culture of oral storytelling.

The beautiful mystery of words left unspoken

So, where I grew up, there were no books, but there was time and space in which to imagine and an extraordinary terrain to explore. It was a fierce landscape and you had to be physically and mentally very strong.

You also had to be quiet. When you were on the water, you were listening to the wind, the waves and the fish. There was no place for idle chat. From this, I think I discovered that the unspoken words are as beautiful as the spoken ones, sometimes more so. That the gaps between words, like rests in a musical score, are where meaning passes and is felt and understood.

This links to something I have found very interesting in the UK. People here hold so tightly to their property, guarding their gardens with fences and bricks, designating space for their cars, yet they give away the property in their heads so freely to virtual strangers.

They divulge the minutiae of their lives – their medical appointments, their passing whims and moods, what they ate for dinner! In Papua New Guinea, the workings of another person's mind are seen as beautiful and mysterious, planets unto themselves. To be invited onto that land is a privilege. We do not trespass. Perhaps it is because we had so few material possessions that we guarded the contents of our mind so carefully.

Falling in love with the written word

The first teacher I had in the UK referred to himself in the third person. For example, he would say, 'Mr Smith likes apples.' Or, 'Mr Smith goes to bed at ten.' Or, 'Mr Smith enjoys watching TV.' It took me quite a long time to realise that the Mr Smith who liked apples was the very person before my eyes!

Perhaps I have him to thank for seeing people as characters in their own stories. I went through a stage of keeping a running commentary myself - 'Zillah and Helen are walking to the sweet shop to buy liquorice shoelaces!'

The first books I owned were the ones people left in my grandmother's thrift shop. People would clear out their attics and houses and leave bags on her doorstep. I rifled past broken dolls, ashtrays and unwanted bric-a-brac until I came across a book - I remember an old Schoolgirls' Annual from the 1950s, with ethical stories set against a backdrop of boarding schools, midnight feasts and lacrosse sticks.

I loved them though I realised they represented a particular time and class structure; but the 'stiff upper lip' reminded me of the stoical reserve of the people I'd grown up with. Then I found some ancient horse stories - I think they were by the Pullein-Thompsons. The horse was a magical creature for me as I'd never seen one before. I learned about 'posting' and 'flying changes' and they inspired me to write a poem about pets that went something like this:

Were your parents rich?
Did they buy you a pony?
Did you feed him on oats and win rosettes?
I bet you had a dog. A spaniel called Spot,
Who liked liver and lambs' heart and chocolate drops.
Or a hamster you teased through the bars of his cage
On berries and apricots and dandelion leaves.

('Mr Smith likes this one,'Mr Smith said!)

The physical hunt for words and books ended up in the library, of course. Every Saturday I would take an old string bag from Papua New Guinea and borrow as many books as I could on as many tickets as I could.

There was no guided reading or children's section then, so I read everything from Jane Eyre to The Faraway Tree to War and Peace, How to Look After a Persian Cat to Stamp Collecting for Beginners.

And time turns a circle to the Aberkenfig library, where I took my two children to a Bounce and Rhyme session. This time, it was the gritty, grainy rain of Wales, but the magic of words was the same.

Words to be sung, spoken, danced to, mimed, played with. Words leading you down a path you never took before. Then another. Then another...

The hunt goes on.

Read our review of The Shark Caller

Download Zillah Bethell's scrapbook about her childhood in Papua New Guinea

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