Caribbean FolktalesWriting stories

Meeting Grace Hallworth

Grace Hallworth - Storyteller and AuthorWhen I began researching and writing stories for my new book of Caribbean Folktales, one of the first things I did was to speak with my fellow Storytellers about their favourite stories from these islands. Pippa Reid who is the London representative for the Society of Storytelling offered to put me in touch with Trinidadian Storyteller and author Grace Hallworth, who is also the Patron of the SfS. I was thrilled to hear that she still lives in the UK. Aged 92 years old, Grace is a renowned Storyteller, a living legend who has also published 18 books of Caribbean stories and songs.

Storyteller and musician Winston Nzinga advised me “you must read Grace Hallworth’s Oracle of Stories.” Whilst searching for this book, Paul Jackson, Chair of the Society for Storytelling shared with me that the Society has as an immense library of over 2,000 books housed in Shrewsbury and so he set me on the path for finding Grace’s ‘Oracle of Stories’.  Unfortunately, the pandemic took hold and neither a visit to the library nor a face to face meeting with Grace could happen.

Instead, I wrote to Grace and explained that I was hoping to meet with her to discuss stories and ideas for my new book and to see if she would like to write the Forward. I also wanted to find out about Grace’s storytelling journey and her tale of migration from Trinidad.

Once lockdown had finally lifted and life began to open up a little, Grace’s Editor arranged for me to visit.  It was a beautifully hot day and I drove less than an hour outside of London to meet with her for the first time.  She welcomed me into her home and reminded me of my Grandmother who instantly puts you at ease.

Grace’s home is a treasure trove of stories. We sat, sipping ginger and apple juice, surrounded by her vast library of books and international dolls. She has collected most of them on her various storytelling travels around the world and received many as gifts. Her walls are adorned with vibrant paintings including portraits of her, done by friends such as the artist and printmaker Dorothea Patterson.

How Grace began Storytelling

Grace explained that her storytelling journey began when she got a scholarship to study in Canada aged 21. Although she’d always been telling stories in Trinidad as a young girl, it was not seen as very important. Eileen Colwell, a pioneer children’s librarian from Yorkshire, also studied there in Canada and Grace began storytelling for children in the libraries.

It was in Canada that I discovered the power of storytelling and stories. I realised that storytelling is a powerful medium of communication. – Grace Hallworth

Grace’s new book

We spoke about what inspires us and Grace shared that her latest story is inspired by one of David Attenborough’s documentaries about the ocean.  The seas of life, water people, and their love affair with humans.  I was hoping to hear more about her stories but she was keen to hear me tell her some of mine first.  I had come prepared with my new stories and yet found myself feeling nervous.  Here I was about to tell a story I’d never told before, to a masterful storyteller.  Grace’s sharp eyes watched me intently and she leaned in to capture every single word as I told her the chilling story of ‘La Diablesse’ and a folktale from Haiti called ‘The Singing Bones’.  She loved my tellings and said, “there is so much more power in your words when you can see the images in your mind’s eye.”

Authenticity in stories

We discussed my concerns about writing Caribbean Folktales even though I was born in the UK.  These stories are my versions of tales and thanks to my upbringing and time spent on long holidays in Guyana (which is where my parents are from) and many Caribbean islands since I was 4 years old,  I do feel a strong connection with my culture and ancestry. I wondered how the stories will come across without me writing any patois or creole.

As a child, I was read published stories by Jamaican Storyteller and Poet Louise Bennett who wrote in her dialect.  Her tales are highly dramatized with her voice leaping off the page as they were meant to be told. I was concerned that some of the energy and messages in my stories would be lost without this dialect. Grace dismissed my concerns and quoted American novelist and playwright James Baldwin.  “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience.”  We agreed that I am writing for a new audience and my authentic voice will be the bridge between the past and the present. We spoke about having writer’s block which all writers experience at some point.  Her advice to me was:

It’s important to speak the story. From there you will learn where to go, which turns to take and which images to see.” – Grace Hallworth

It was wonderful being able to meet and spend time with Grace.  Mostly we both loved sharing stories.  I hope to visit again soon and find out a little more about her life and storytelling journey.