Storytelling: Remembering Diane Wolkstein

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Storyteller and author Diane Wolkstein, associated with the American Museum of Natural History, among other venues, died last week at the age of 70. I learned about her through a TV series and Web site I worked on for Annenberg Media, Invitation to World Literature, which featured, among its 13 works, “Monkey King,” a book new to me at the time that has since become a touchstone. It’s a massive, shaggy story about the journey of four unlikely characters including a mischievous Monkey King with mad magic powers and no-self discipline, a priest with self-discipline to the point of wimpiness, and Pigsy and Sandy, whose attributes can be guessed by their names.

They set off together to retrieve Buddhist scriptures in India and bring them back to China (the story has some vague basis in fact: a priest did make such a journey) but they run into every kind of obstacle and impediment, bureaucratic, natural and supernatural. And as religious and “life’s journey” parables go, it’s unique in being both profound and laugh-out-loud-on-the-subway funny.

When we did a video of it for the Annenberg series, the production team found Diane who had been living with the text of Monkey and performing it for years. Her site has something she wrote about the experience for “Storytelling Magazine:”

I set out to comprehend this 2,200 page novel by telling parts of it in Chinatown to Chinese immigrants to increase their knowledge of English. Six months later in March 2008, I produced a three-day marathon with 26 storytellers telling the entire epic. I then selected 20 of the 100 episodes and told them in every venue imaginable: in libraries in the Bronx to Afro-American teenagers, in universities in Taiwan to Buddhist nuns and students, in theatres and museums in New York, Canada, and Australia; alone and with musicians. A bit like a chameleon, the story stretched to become raucous, philosophical, adventurous, and spiritual, depending on the venue.

By the end of two years, by adding one episode to another and discussing the episodes with the audiences, I began to grasp the character of Monkey King and could tell a 45-minute version, spanning Monkey King’s birth to his imprisonment in the mountain.

In 2010, my trip to Taiwan to study Mandarin and work with qigong masters, brought unexpected insights. In their temples and in their homes, I experienced the great love the Chinese people have for Gwan Yin, the guiding Spirit who “supervises” the journey. Meeting with Zen Master Cheng Yeng, the founder of Tzu Chi Foundation, which is dedicated to the relief of suffering worldwide, actualized my understanding of both Gwan Yin and Xuanzang’s dedication to others.

The joy of working on a big story is the wisdom we discover both outside and within. We set out with the story’s protagonists in one place and then travel to a deeper interior territory. We experience and understand new and different emotions and feelings. It takes a long time, because transformation is slow and repetitive. (“Fall down seven, get up eight.”) Inviting others to share this opportunity with us enriches the process and links us to the wisdom of those who have already made the journey. I am still en route.

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Diane Wolkstein in the “Journey to the West/Monkey King” episode of Invitation to World Literature.

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