Rita and Brer Anancie

When I was a little girl in Trinidad, ‘telling nancie stories’, meant lying, making stuff up, usually with intention of getting out of trouble for some misdemeanor. I had not yet noticed the link between ‘nancie stories’ and the tales of Anancie the spider. Anancie - sometimes man, sometimes spider - would always come up with fantastic, barely plausible schemes that benefited him and made fun of someone else. 

Rita Cox, master storyteller explains it otherwise. “Anancie was a character, brought to the Caribbean from Africa when enslaved people were brought over in the middle passage. In Africa, he was sacred. In the Caribbean, he became an ordinary man. The storyteller is not just reciting to you. You share the journey of the characters in the story and we journey together. The community listening could share in Anancie’s intelligence, cleverness and laughter. Laughter helps to survive oppression.” All in the spirit of the mercurial trickster’s antics, the spelling of his name changes from Anancie (in Trinidad) to Anancy (in Jamaica and the UK). At times, he is Anansie. 

Keeper of Stories

Rita Cox is a keeper of stories in the largest sense. An author, story teller and librarian in Toronto, Canada, Cox established the Black Heritage and Caribbean Collection. She initiated the Cumbayah Black Heritage and Storytelling Festival and has performed around the world.“Stories provide history, continuity and understanding. It is important to know who you are and where things come from. Rap is a form of storytelling. It comes out of the African traditions of call and response,” says Cox. “It combines music and language, and has a participatory aspect. In the 80’s ‘a young videographer came to interview me and disputed this. I found myself on MTV’s ‘Rap City’ program chanting and rhyming to prove my point.” This African tradition is alive and well and deeply embedded in North American culture.

‘The Gently Echoed Music’

“I once performed in a high school full of disaffected, tough youth. Everybody who came in had a hood on and attitude of, ‘what’s this old woman going to tell me?’ You have to choose the right material, of course. Soon I could see the hoods going off, and the shoulders dropping and real engagement in the story. The process of storytelling breaks down barriers. Both storyteller and listener must be engaged as both bring something to the experience. I don’t care how digital the world becomes, person to person contact will always trump it. We love contact. It is a human need.” 

Honouring the storytellers

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Cox also saw it as important to provide a venue for other voices in the city. Under her guidance, the Parkdale library became a centre for the literati of Caribbean community. “Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph, Austin Clarke all had launches and celebrations there.”In 1997, Rita Cox was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada, for her work in literature and storytelling. She became a citizen courts judge and has received honorary doctorates. The City of Toronto has named a park after her. “It’s rare during your lifetime to be honoured in this way”, says Cox. The library collection has grown significantly since its inception. Now, it has additional books at the Maria A. Shchuka, York Woods and Malvern branches of the Toronto Public Library system. The collection itself been renamed the ‘Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Collection’. “I insisted on keeping the full name, as not all Caribbean writers are Black and that is important to remember.”

Storytelling and literature 

Rita Cox is modest, yet aware of her considerable influence. “I believe that a child who has been read to and told stories at an early age, is a child who would love words, books, reading. Such a child would have less problems with the reading process, would know how to use words in context, how to fashion language. This is where our writers and poets come from.” Cox is the author of the children’s book ‘How Trouble Make Monkey Eat Pepper’. She continues to perform and teach, mentoring new generations of writers, readers, and storytellers.

                 Rita Cox appears next at:

                 Toronto Storytelling Festival (www.torontostorytelling.ca)

                 March 24 - April 2, 2017

© Gloria Blizzard is a Toronto-based writer