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One Tricky Spider – Anansi

Readers will have figured out by now that I have soft spot for anthropomorphic animals. (And if this news comes as a surprise, you’ve come to the wrong blog site!)

One of the first such characters I came across in my childhood was Anansi the spider. I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first read these stories, nor can I remember where I first found them since I don’t have any of those books in my personal collection. It was clearly the public library, which I’ve visited regularly throughout my life (and still do, although now more online).

The book in question was a collection of stories, with lots of excellent illustrations, so I assume I was still in grade school. The main character, Anansi, was amusing, clever and always appealing, fighting (and winning) against his larger, more powerful foe. I do recall taking the book(s) out several times. Although the name of the compiler who pulled the collection together is also lost to me, the stories and the pictures remain with me to this day.

Later in life I came to learn more about the origins of the Anansi character, its cultural significance and the rich variety of the tales. Although the origin lies with the Ashanti people of West Africa (Ghana and Ivory Coast), they’ve travelled along with the African diaspora (due to the transatlantic slave trade) into the Caribbean islands (e.g. Jamaica; Aruba) and South America (e.g. Suriname), where they’ve been incorporated into local culture. Naturally, they come from an oral tradition, and naturally, as a trickster who must defeat – or at least cut down to size – a figure of authority and esteem, the stories take on larger meaning.

I did not realize back then that the name came from the Akan people of southern Ghana, that the name Anansi means spider in that language, that he was also a god figure and that Caribbean variations of these stories also exist. Many of the Anansi stories serve as explanations for the spider’s appearance (e.g. how Anansi’s hind became big, and how his head became small; why he runs on water) or why the world is as it is (e.g. how diseases were brought to the tribe; how knowledge/wisdom became dispersed; how jealousy was brought to the tribe), and as the story above relates, Anansi is more often than not the intervenor or intermediary between society and the Supreme Being. Wikipedia (as usual) provides a wealth of information on the subject.

To my mind the best western rendition of the stories comes from the wonderful author/illustrator/filmmaker Gerald McDermott (1941-2012), who was a runner-up for the 1972 Caldecott prize (awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States) for his version of one of the Anansi tales (available on Amazon of course) and won the top prize for his 1975 work, Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale.

McDermott’s brilliant, colorful illustrations were “dominated by bright, stylized forms, which often draw from indigenous art and highlight his fascination with the origins of stories”. (Publisher’s Weekly obituary, Jan. 10, 2013)

McDermott specialized in adapting folktales for children (by my count, he wrote and illustrated 20 such books). Since I have a soft spot for anything related to ravens and from this part of the world, one of these books I have to mention is Raven: a trickster tale from the Pacific Northwest (1973). It, too, won Caldecott honors.

By the way, I should note that there’s a publishing company in Toronto called the House of Anansi Press. According to Wikipedia, the company, founded in 1967, “specializes in finding and developing new Canadian writers” both fiction and nonfiction. According to an Anansi Podcast (see the website), the independent company was founded by poet Dennis Lee and writer David Godfrey in the latter’s basement on Spadina Avenue near Bloor Street (could this be the center of Canada’s literary world?).

The House of Anansi started out as a one-person operation run by the prolific (of many genres) Canadian writer, George Fetherling. It ended up publishing the works of many of Canada’s most famous authors (the list is too long to mention here). I’m not sure why the name was chosen since the company didn’t have a particular focus on African or multicultural writers. At least it didn’t back then; today it seems to be upping its game, seeking to “amplify Black voices” and support them financially.

I could not find a more detailed history of the company, on its website or elsewhere. Perhaps some of my readers will know.

Publishing in the last few decades presents many challenges (not just in Canada), and what happened to Anansi is typical. Anansi was purchased in 1989 by General Publishing, the parent of Stoddart Publishing. General Publishing eventually filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002; the company and all its subsidiaries ceased operations. The whole operation was saved by the Canadian industrialist/ philanthropist/author, Scott Griffin, whose individual generosity to Canadian literature may be without parallel.

It occurs to me that a fitting role for a modern-day trickster hero figure might be saving the world of independent publishing. Probably too much to hope for.

In the meantime, for those interested in the Anansi tales, the following video (Anansi and the Stories of the Sky God from an African Tale retold by Gerald McDermott) in the following website is quite delightful:

Cover Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash