many stories,

Many stories inhabit us. We carry them faithfully, sometimes silently. There are some we can’t wait to share, or that spurt right out of us uncontrollably. Some are more difficult to tell. We let these grow inside of us until we are ready. Some of them we take to our graves.

Many stories have become universal. Folk tales, fairytales, nursery rhymes, epic poems are carried across cultures, told or sung from one generation to the next. As Angela Carter writes: “For most of human history, ‘literature,’ both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written — heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world.” Adapted and readapted continuously.


“Little Red Riding Hood is perhaps one of the best known fairy tales. Like most European fairy tales, its origins lie within a sprawling folk tradition of oral storytelling. It was first published in the late 17th century by Charles Perrault – a French author who is considered to be the father of the fairy tale genre due to his work collecting these tales together for the first time in print. This later version, contained within a small, hand-coloured chapbook, dates from 1810 and was published in Moorfields, London. It is told in the form of a verse poem with alternating unrhymed and rhymed couplets. The clear text and simple language, coupled with the large colourful illustrations, suggests that this chapbook was aimed at young readers.” Source: British Library

Many stories transform and transcend through the years, preserving their meaning while taking upon new forms and formats.


Little Red Riding Hood by artist Warja Lavater, whose series of classic fairytales consists of accordion books that tell the stories through the use of symbols rather than words, with a small legend to guide the reader on the first pages. Published by: Maeght Editions
Details from Little Red Riding Hood by artist Warja Lavater

Many stories live in books, in works of art, on walls, in the theatre. These also inhabit us as we inhabit them. In the words of John Berger from Keeping a Rendezvous: “When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own.” In A Way of Being Free, Ben Okri continues upon this train of thought: “Reading, therefore, is a co-production between writer and reader. The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn’t care to sit next to in a train, people that don’t exist, places you’ve never visited, enigmatic fates, all come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader’s creative powers. In this way the creativity of the writer calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive.” By appropriating stories, one not only makes them their own, but enters the story more completely. This is demonstrated time and again, when working with children with classic tales.

Shadow puppet theatre of Little Red Riding Hood for one of my L’École de Papier workshops. Photos by Daniela Martagón
Acting out the story during the workshop at L’Institut Français Madrid . Photos by Éric Mangin

Bringing stories “to life” through enacting is one way of appropriating them. Shadow play, also known as shadow puppetry, is an ancient form of storytelling which uses flat articulated shadow puppets which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen. This idea of the shadow reflecting truth is  reflected in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: “On the walls of the cave, only the shadows are the truth”. Though shadow play originated from Central Asia in the 1st century BCE, it has been constantly revived and reinvented. Lotte Reiniger, a German artist from the 1950s translated this tradition onto the silver screen, making the first animation films of fairytales using elaborate silhouette figures cut out from black paper.


This documentary by the British Film Institute explains Lotte Reiniger’s creative process, demonstrating how the flat figure is transformed to a motion picture.


The above images include original frames and puppets by Lotte Reiniger, as well as her tools. Source: Tübingen Universitätsstadt

Many stories follow traditional storytelling narratives and formats, or adapt them to create new forms.

This short documentary explores some of the storytelling traditions in India, retold by the authors of the Jaipur literature festival in 2011.


The above images explain the Bunraku tradition. Source: Fact & Details.


Modern adaptations of puppet play provide us with new forms of story telling, that mix ancient traditions with contemporary narratives. In The Table, the British production company Blind Summit, uses Bunraku puppetry to invent new styles of theatre.


Extract from a performance of The Table, by Blind Summit Theatre.


Many stories inhabit the spaces in which we move, from people or things who have lived in them before us. Walter Benjamin describes this idea in Berlin Childhood around 1900: “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.” Galia Levy-Grad pays homage to the city of Warsaw and tells her story as she describes: “which takes place in the Jewish diaspora” but doesn’t have “a strong diaspora feeling”. Indeed, her mix of the pop-up book, traditional music and shadow play creates a celebratory interpretation of a repeatedly heart-breaking story.



Many stories, in fact, recount the loss of homelands and the encounter of new ones. In the documentary The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh remembers his childhood in Cambodia when the country had been taken over by the Khmer Rouge. He recreates unbearably painful scenes using clay figures. A review on Film Comment describes that: “Rithy Panh, who is at the forefront of efforts to reckon with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, employs an unusual mix of clay figurines with pensive voiceover and worn-out vintage propaganda footage to revisit his country’s traumatic past. Rather than adopting the accusatory tone of an investigation, The Missing Picture is marked by a certain stillness and emotional containment, like a hushed visit to a memorial.

Stills from The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh.

A brief extract of the documentary The Missing Picture.

In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Walter Benjamin develops this idea of stillness and containment: “Every morning brings us news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event comes to us without being already shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. . . . The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the event is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.”

This stillness can be found in many great stories. In his his self-reflective work, La grande boule de beige, Juan Carlos Bracho ponders upon the creative process, the act of telling a story slowly, a revindication of fast accesible information, and a personal inner-journey.


Many stories are constructed through the act of creating them. South African artist William Kentridge talks about the need for looking for meaning through his work. He talks about the process of “reverse engineering” where the desire and act of making something is the very construction of the story, that the story is born from the intention of making and not the other way around.  The “physical activities of cutting, tearing and collaging generate ideas and infuse his work with meaning. Rather than starting with an idea that is then executed, Kentridge relies on these freeform processes and the resulting juxtapositions to find connections and raise questions.” Source: art21


Original work from the Kentridge retrospective at Museo Reina Sofía.

Many stories are told through poetry. Paul Éluard ‘s Liberté is a an ode to freedom written during the German occupation of France. He initially wrote it for the women he loved and realised that the only word really had in mind was liberty.“Je pensais révéler pour conclure le nom de la femme que j’aimais, à qui ce poème était destiné. Mais je me suis vite aperçu que le seul mot que j’avais en tête était le mot Liberté. Ainsi, la femme que j’aimais incarnait un désir plus grand qu’elle. Je la confondais avec mon aspiration la plus sublime, et ce mot Liberté n’était lui-même dans tout mon poème que pour éterniser une très simple volonté, très quotidienne, très appliquée, celle de se libérer de l’Occupant.”  The poem ends with these final verses:

“Sur l’absence sans désir
Sur la solitude nue
Sur les marches de la mort
J’écris ton nom

Sur la santé revenue
Sur le risque disparu
Sur l’espoir sans souvenir
J’écris ton nom

Et par le pouvoir d’un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer



An edition of the poem illustrated by Anouck Boisrobet & Louis Rigaud, published by Flammarion.

Kate Tempest uses poetry and performs it in spoken work. Her work draws upon the themes of storytelling, mythology and ancestry. In her poem Brand New Ancients she writes:

“We are still mythical;
we are still
permanently trapped
somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful”

Kate Tempest’s reading of Brand New Ancients at Letters Live.

In my theatre-book To Night and Back · Mece la noche, I drew upon the mythology that was transmitted to me as a child to tell the story of our community’s exile from Sind during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I found great reconciliation in being able to tell this story that was so hard for “my elders” to share with me.

Photo of  To Night and Back · Mece la noche theatre book.

The project began as a small sketchbook, grew into a crowd funding campaign, which resulted in a small self-published edition of the book, paper-toy rewards and artist boxes. I was surprised to see it’s evolution, and  will write more about it in my next post.




Three animations made inspired by the theatre-book To Night and Back. The animations were designed by myself, Raquel Martinez Uña and Pluviam.
Song of the day

Nitin Sawhney – Homelands