I’ve loved Anansi stories since I first heard and read them. Disenfranchised, disinherited people have used these and other “trickster” fables to write themselves into a world where they aren’t the pawns of the powerful, where Tiger isn’t the only power in the animal kingdom, and where wit and vision make them a way of escape.
So much of the story of Black people in the West is the tale of people hustling up ways to be free, spinning the tricky webs of Anansi to carve out alternatives to the dominant storyline, and using wit, cunning, persistence, and pluck so our descendants can have a more whole, less harmful experience on Earth than we’ve had.” —Me, in July
These fables and the genre of satire are one in this sense: Fable and satire both allow us to describe a thing by holding it in peripheral view.
We aren’t creating a technical report when we explain that Cat and Dog are enemies because Cat once stole Dog’s avocados. We’re not giving deposition evidence when we say Crab has a hard shell because he helped Anansi to outwit Old Woman Crim. An account of Cricket schooling Lion on what greatness means isn’t about the facts any more than Swift’s “modest proposal” was about dinner. We’re taking glimpses of a system from the corner of our eyes.
“Did it happen?” is the wrong question to ask of a fable or an instance of satire. It’s the wrong question because facts aren’t the point. Glimpsing the system is the point, and as an elder recently told me, we can grasp more of this system obliquely than we can by staring directly into its abyss.
How we read texts and how we read circumstances; how we frame problems and how we frame people—these are all issues of definition and interpretation that cut across faith, labor, life, and relationships. To get answers that work, we first have to establish which genres of experience we’re dealing with. And then we have to ask questions that actually fit them.