Storytelling in Northern Zambia: Theory, Method, Practice and Other Necessary Fictions

By Robert Cancel. 2013. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-909254-59-6 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler, Western Michigan University

[Review length: 967 words • Review posted on March 12, 2014]


Robert Cancel’s book, Storytelling in Northern Zambia: Theory, Method, Practice and Other Necessary Fictions, examines the context of storytelling performances among the Bemba-speaking communities in Zambia’s northern province. The book is concerned primarily with “the vagaries of fieldwork” (16), performance context, and the field experience in historical moment. For Cancel, it is important to take into account the power dynamics between researchers and their subjects in the field. Cancel cogently captures and underscores the diversity and intensity of the power relationship between the storytellers and the researchers.

The author carefully integrates the digitized audio and video recordings into the text, enabling the reader to hear the voices of the storytellers themselves and listen to their narratives. Cancel’s critical interpretation of the stories, combined with these audio and video materials, makes this book an important addition to studies of folklore in Africa. With his narrative modes and critical reflections on his ethnographic encounters in various contexts, Cancel succeeds in bringing to the reader vivid and varied descriptions and examinations of storytellers’ performances and their wide-ranging narratives. The book contains complex investigation of a rich oral tradition, which the author collected from storytellers from every strata of the community in question, highlighting the performers’ diverse social status and complex local identities. Cancel's study, with its innovative format, explores new directions in the field of folklore.

Drawing on his long-term fieldwork experiences, Cancel offers probing analyses of storytelling performances, exploring notions of power and human agency. In doing so he integrates with great intelligence multifaceted arguments in folklore and anthropology to glean the social processes of performance context. For example, Cancel tries to answer the following questions: How do we balance our “objective distance” from the people we work with? How do we collect, represent, and interpret stories? How do we explain to our subjects about our research intentions? How do we address the question of intellectual property rights in our writings, and whether we share the profits that we may gain with the artists who produced the oral narratives? As researchers, how can we avoid the temptations to become the “star player” in the research and writing process?

With critical reflections on his original research from the 1980s and his return visits in the 1990s, Cancel shows how the unequal power relationships between the collector of the stories and the tellers of the stories articulate a moral ground. In each chapter of the book, he engages the reader with powerful debates on the collection and presentation of the oral materials, pushing the field in new directions to focus on the complexity of the power relations between the interlocutors and their subjects. In doing so, Cancel employs several different methods to answer these questions in each chapter. In his remarkable examination of the dynamics of the performances, he reveals vital truths about the traditional contexts of oral storytelling, the storytellers’ techniques, the use of their voices, and miming.

For Cancel, ethnography is not a literary genre; rather, it is a text where subjects and their interlocutors are located in a flexible frame, reflecting ideas and realities of power imbalance. Ethnographic frame, Cancel argues, necessitates the ethnographer to order cultural themes for his readers. This, for him, somewhat diminishes the richness and complexity of the ethnographer’s experience and interactions with people in the field.

Cancel critically unveils how stories are produced in a particular place and context and how the production processes create and organize multifaceted power relations in the field. Based on his critical reflections about the instances of his fieldwork experiences, Cancel examines how his identity as a foreign researcher, a white male from America, impacted his research, and how his subjects remained key actors, shaping the context of performance and thus the research project.

Cancel engages the reader with a powerful textual representation of audio- and video-taped stories. In each chapter, he provides transcriptions of carefully translated oral materials always with their attendant contexts, giving the readers appropriate reference for access to video-taped performances of the storytellers. For Cancel, these videos are essential in enabling him to give ownership of the stories to their tellers.

At some level, Cancel extends his discussions into the academic institutions and their roles in the hegemonic power relations between the researchers and their subjects. One of the major themes in Cancel’s work is the importance for scholars to engage in a critical self-reflection about their ethnographic fieldwork and uncover the multiple layers of unbalanced power relationships in which they engage in the field, in the name of academic research. For Cancel, it seems, recognition of the unbalanced power relationships between the researchers and their subjects, is an act of evoking moral restorative justice that can be empowering both for researchers and their subjects.

While Cancel makes concerted efforts not to be a key player in his research, the conversations with the storytellers and the video-taped materials clearly indicate his efforts to control the performance setting, particularly when he is sometimes faced with the “grudging willingness” of the interlocutors to provide “depth or interpretation of their stories” (253).

Overall, Cancel’s book is both theoretically and ethnographically rich and dense. However, what lessons can we draw from this discussion of power relationships in ethnographic encounters? Cancel succeeds in making formidable the contextual aspects of storytelling and the reality of writing cultures and the representation of experiences in the field. For me, Cancel deeply exposes the power and privilege of doing ethnography—the interpretation of cultures. Through his self-reflective mode, Cancel powerfully revisits his experiences among the Bemba-speaking storytellers of Zambia. Although this book is clearly about the contextual analysis of storytelling performances, it is equally rich in its translation of the stories. Unfortunately, this well researched book is not well written and is poorly organized, and hence it is often tiresome to sift through its paragraphs.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.