When Diane Wolkstein’s book, The Magic Orange Tree and other Haitian Folktales was published in 1978, it became a favorite among American storytellers in the early years of a storytelling renaissance in which I have been privileged to participate. Sitting with Diane at a story event in Appalachia in 1981, she insisted I learn the song the way she’d heard it in Haiti, and gave me permission to tell and record the title story.
Diane, folklorist and mythologist and one of the foremost scholars of the contemporary storytelling movement in America, died Jan. 31 while in Taiwan doing research trip for a book on Chinese folklore. She was 70.
She authored two dozen books including Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, a collaboration with Assyrian scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer in 1983. Taking Inanna from cuneiform to the world stage, Diane’s embodiment of the 4,000-year-old story of the Sumerian goddess of love, war, and fertility mesmerized her audiences, establishing her as a master of the long story form long ago.
In 1967, Diane became the official storyteller of New York city, telling at the statue of Hans Christian Anderson and, for 45 years, not only told stories from America and faraway lands, but brought to us the strength and beauty of those diligently-researched stories in written form.
The Magic Orange Tree is about a neglected little girl who flourishes in spite of a cruel stepmother — or at least that’s an adult synopsis. What we hear when we listen to stories at different ages is fluid, as stories have many layers. Diane Wolkstein, with her perceptive ear, knew that deeply and this particular story carries a special potency.
I told it and many other stories to my students in the Oak Bluffs School before I left to become a full-time professional teller for 30 years. Yet when I chance to meet — in the grocery store or post office, at the coffee shop or bank — those former kindergarteners and first graders, now nearing the age of 40, the single most frequent question they ask, endearingly calling me by my formal name, is: “Miss Klein! You still telling The Magic Orange Tree”?
Well, of course I am.
Diane Wolkstein’s legacy will reverberate for many years to come — her scholarly works and written collections will be honored worldwide. But here on the Vineyard, she’s known for the story of a little girl most triumphant. Because of Diane’s dedication to preserving and celebrating the intrinsic worth of story and its tenacity to the heart and mind, some of those early listeners are now telling The Magic Orange Tree to their own children.
Vineyard storyteller Susan Klein will be telling love stories on the evening of Feb. 15 at Grace Church on William street in Vineyard Haven and promises to tell a love story from Diane Wolkstein’s book.