Every semester, I include a few texts on my syllabus that I have never read, so I get to encounter the texts for the first time alongside my students. For my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” class, someone (I apologize but I forgot who) suggested that check out Greg Anderson Elysée’s Is’Nana The Were-Spider. I read a description of the series and added it to my syllabus. IsNana has captivated me for a few reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is the way that the narrative comments specifically on the act of storytelling.
In one respect, Is’Nana is, as Julian Chambliss talked about with my class one session, an act of recovery and reclamation. When I use the term “recovery” here, I do not mean, completely, that Anansi tales have been lost and Elysée resurrects them for the masses. No, what Chambliss gets at is that Is’Nana focuses on Anansi and other West African Gods, bringing them to the forefront instead of say Norse Gods such as Thor or Loki or other Western cosmologies. In this manner, Elysée recovers these stories, these oral traditions, for a new audience. Elysée highlights, in Is’Nana the ways that Anasi’s tales moved and morphed through the Middle Passage and enslavement. There are references to Brer Rabbit, La Diablesse, and more. He, like Toni Morrison and others before him, reclaims these stories from the history of white writers such as Joel Chandler Harris.
Harris’ Uncle Remus stories relate African American folktales with characters such as Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox, each of which is a descendent, in part from West African and Akan cosmology. Harris mediates these stories, which he heard from formerly enslaved individuals, through his own perceptions and whiteness, and as a result, they reinforce stereotypes. Alice Walker commented, “As far as I’m concerned, [Harris] stole a good part of my heritage. . . . By making me feel ashamed of it. In creating Uncle Remus, he placed an effective barrier between me and the stories that meant so much to me, the stories that meant so much to all the children, the stories they would have heard from their own people and not from Walt Disney.”
Walker’s comments point to the rupturing of communal ties during the Middle Passage and enslavement through her use of the “stole” in relation to Harris. When enslaved individuals arrived in the United States, the Caribbean, or elsewhere, they may not be enslaved with members of their own tribes, thus they may have different cosmologies and oral traditions. To survive, though, they had to ban together and create, from their traditions, new ones, ones that fit with their surroundings. Thus, we get Brer Rabbit, La Diablesse, and others. This melding creates stories to help individuals survive and join together in the face of enslavement.
Anansi is the god of stories. He asked the Sky-God Nyama for his stories and wisdom. Nyama didn’t want to give Anansi the stories, but Anansi persisted and Nyama relented, telling Anansi he would grant teh tsories if Anansi brought him Onini the Python, the Mmoboro Hornets, Osebo the Leopard, and the Fairy Mmoatia. Anansi agreed, and he captured each of the Gods by tricking them. Upon returning with the final God, Nyama granted Anansi his stories. Thus, Anansi is the God of stories and a trickster.
In Elysée’s narrative, Is’Nana is one of Anansi’s sons and he travels from the Mother Kingdom to the physical realm. Here, he protects people from other Gods such as Osebo the Leopard. In the first story, Osebo takes control of Robert, a man who lives alone and feels lonely, disconnected from his family and friends. Is’Nana battles Osebo and defeats him, and then he stays, for a while with Robert. As they stay together, Robert and Is’Nana create a story. They collaborate on a narrative that will continue on long past Robert’s passing.
Is’Nana, early in the narrative, tells us about the importance of stories. As he watches individuals go about their daily lives, he sees lonely individuals, couples in love, and families. At one point, he sees a couple of street musicians, and he narrates, “Or when friends get together to express themselves through song and people gather to hear their stories.” Stories exist as a collaborative and communal act of transmission of knowledge and history, and when people create and listen, that transmission continues. Is’Nana points this out because he says, “Stories, that is all that is, stories, it is what we are and will become, some known, many forgotten. Will I be forgotten? I wonder.” Stories live within us, and stories live, morph, and change, after we die. They remain.
Stories, as well, provide the communal expression of existence. At the end of the story, Robert tells Is’Nana “stories of his past, and stories that excited him” and Robert asked Is’Nana about his stories. In this panel, we see Robert playing his saxophone, composing music. Is’Nana stands in the background cheering him on. When done, Robert falls asleep and Is’Nana tucks him in on the couch. Is’Nana lies on the floor, smiling, with sheets of music composition paper beside him, and he asks, “Am I to be one of many forgotten stories? Or a legend like my father.” Is’Nana asks, essentially, about his legacy. Will individuals remember him? In order for them to remember, there must be stories that carry him across generations and planes.
Is’Nana yawns and relishes the peace of the moment, and as he falls asleep on the floor, he thinks, “For I’ll cherish this story we created tonight.” Beside Is’Nana, we see the musical composition, and its title, “Is’Nana.” Robert created a story about Is’Nana, a story that will live on into the future, telling others about Is’Nana’s existence and acts. The world will remember him. They may shift the narrative some, adding parts of themselves to the story, but he will remain. The story becomes collective, collaborative, and generational, informing the future about the past. The creation of “Is’Nana” serves merely as the beginning because the story will become more as more individuals encounter it, interact with it, learn from it, and pass it on to future generations.
There is more I could say, but I will leave it there for now. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.