"Fire of her own desire": Xanthe Gresham on storytelling

by Josh McTaggart

The art of storytelling is one of the oldest traditions in civilization, and almost all contemporary art forms grew out of the need to tell stories. British-based storyteller Xanthe Gresham, who performed stories on March 5 from her adaptation of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh in conjunction with In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, talks here about storytelling in the modern world. Gresham will offered a free storytelling workshop Wednesday, March 6 at 29 Garden Street in Cambridge.

How did you start as a storyteller?

I had done literature and theater, and I’d got into teaching and I wasn’t happy. Then I heard a storyteller, and it was just like fire. It blew me away, and I thought, "I could do that." It was at an ordinary primary school -- a guy called Ben Haggarty, who told a story called The Red King and I’d never heard anything like it, and I found I could repeat it afterwards. I was transported. It was so poetic.

What are the important skills of a storyteller?

It’s always changing. At the moment I’ve been thinking it’s fire, fire is important. I know it’s because I’m doing Shahnameh, which is essentially Zoroastrian, where fire is sacred. You’re communicating your need to tell a story and that passion should light the same passion in the audience. Fire is about many things, and one of those things is truth and connection. When it blazes, everything comes into it, and people say, "Oh, I get that."

Could you tell me a bit more about Shahnameh?

I feel very lucky to be doing Shahnameh. The British Museum commissioned me. I fell in love with Ferdowsi’s poetry. His images were so beautiful. He says things like: "She was ice before the fire of her own desire." I had a spare month, so I did nothing but translate two of his stories into blank verse and iambic pentameter, and then I memorized them while walking up Hampstead Heath again and again and again. I am beginning to learn what it was like for the old storytellers to keep telling their story.

What is the most moving or intriguing story you have ever been told?

An Armenian storyteller called Vergine Gulbenkianhad tells a beautiful story about a man casting a net into water and bringing up a box. Inside a box is a woman, and she sings a song that includes a warning. Of course the man disobeys the warning, and so he decides to follow beautiful women down little alleyways. When he gets back to the box, the singing woman is gone. I think if you have ever lost anything completely in your life, you believe it’s your own fault and it’s agonizing. Those stories are very moving and very true. They don’t take any prisoners, stories.

[Caption: Xanthe Gresham PHOTO: Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums]