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Exclusive Interview with Storyteller, Michael McCarty

By Dr. Farzad Farahmand

Published in the February 2012 issue of the Calabasas Times Magazine:


Our special guest today is the Chicago born Mr. Michael D. McCarty.   He is a professional storyteller of African, African American, International folk tales, Spiritual stories and stories of his own personal life experiences.  His stories are informative, educational, inspiring and amusing, told in an energetic and inspiring fashion.


Michael has traveled to many countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, China, and all over Europe.  I had the pleasure of having a very interesting conversation with him on a beautiful, sunny and warm winter day at the Calabasas Commons.


Farzad:   Hello Michael, glad to be sitting with you today, outside the beautiful Corner Bakery  in the Calabasas Commons. 


So you are a Storyteller.  It is safe to say that this is a title that makes most people show the same reaction and ask the question whether this can be a profession.  It is an interesting profession to be able to tell stories for a living.  And I sense that this is what you love to do!!  And not many people love what they do.


Michael:  Yes indeed.  I love what I do.  I’ve been travelling the world running my mouth, doing something that I love.  And as they say, if your job is what you like, you don’t work a day in your life.  And I love what I do.


Farzad:  You are very lucky.  That is very rare.  Tell me something about your background. 


Michael:  I am originally from Chicago, and my first storyteller was my mother.  As long as I can remember, since I was about 2 years old, my mother told me stories and read me stories.  And she made me believe that I could be anything that I wanted to be.


I formally began storytelling in High School in the 60’s in Chicago, and I discovered black history and culture.  I would read about something and share that information by stories.


In 1992, I met a guy named Joel Ben Izzy who was introduced to me as a professional storyteller.  And I asked, you do what?  People pay you to tell stories?  And while we were talking, I said I’m going to do this and my motto is going to be, “Have mouth, will run it” which is now my website.


Then I asked myself the question, what would I do as a profession if I was rich?  I said, I’ll tell stories and said that’s what I’m going to do.  Then I fell into the world of storytelling.  There is the National Association of Black Storytellers, Biblical storytellers, annual storytelling conferences and storytelling festivals all around the country and the world.  Asia, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and South America.  And I fell into the world of storytelling.


Farzad:  So when you say storytelling, you come up with your own material and also you read existing stories? 


Michael:  Correct.  I do folk tales from around the world in different cultures.  I specialize in African and African American history and culture and have travelled to over 30 counties.  So I tell stories from around the world.  I also tell historical stories, personal stories of my travels and adventures.  And stories of the brilliant and stupid things that I’ve done in my life.


Farzad:  Personal stories of travel and adventures. That is what I love to do.  In fact that’s what I always do for my friends. 


Michael:  We all have stories that no one else can tell but us.  It is important to tell stories within the family to keep certain stories alive orally to be passed on from generation to generation. 


For example, Barbara Clark is a retired librarian.  Her great-grandmother told her the story of when she was freed from slavery.  And she was a little girl and the only one in the family that was told the story.  So the story was passed on to her.  Later, she became a librarian and a professional storyteller, and now that story and the memories of her grandmother are alive.  


Farzad:  So when a grandmother tells a story to her grandchild, she is influencing the life of that one child and passing on the story to them.  But that’s just one case.  In your profession you influence so many people at once.  You make them happy at the moment telling them a story and at the same time you make the stories come alive so that all of them can pass it along to other people.  You make a big difference in their lives and the lives of others. 


Michael:  Yes, it reminds them of some of the things that have happened to them.  And stories travel around the world.  I’ve found different versions of the same story in different countries.  Therefore we find things that make us alike and we get an insight into the things that make us different.


Farzad:  The question is not how different we all are, but how similar.  And you can find so much similarity between the things you find in different parts of the world.  Look at languages for example.  Similar words in English can be found in an exotic language somewhere else.  That happens when there is no Geographical connection. 


Michael:  Yes!  We are all interconnected in various ways, shapes and forms.  The world is a big place, but it’s becoming very small.  People always have travelled, learned and taken what they learned back to their place and shared it, and that’s how the world has evolved. 


Farzad:  It’s incredible!  I’ve been thinking about that too.  How languages develop, and some of the proverbs that we have can be found in other parts of the world. 


Michael:  Every culture has stories, and in every culture storytelling has been a very important part of that culture.  In the African tradition, especially in West Africa, there was what you call the Griot.  The Griot was a historian.  If you wanted to know about your great great grandfather, you would go to your family’s Griot who transferred information from your family from generation to generation.  And those stories would be passed on and shared, and that’s how history and culture was passed on throughout history. 


For example, the Arabian nights, Gilgamesh, and many other stories have been passed on from generation to generation, and now the whole world knows about them.  Of course, they are written in books but still there are people who passed them on orally.


Farzad:  Yes, it’s very important to do that!!  So, you get the stories from different parts of the world and try to compare them together and try to see similarities between them?


Michael:  Well, what I do is to look for little known stories and the untold stories.  For instance, in the last few years we’ve had these Tsunamis, especially the ones in Indonesia and Japan.  There is a folk tale.  This boy had listened to his Grandfather, and his Grandfather told him the story of when he was a young kid and there was a Tsunami.  And he told how the water had pulled away and went out before the Tsunami.  And that was the sign that a Tsunami is about to hit.  He listened to the story and years later one day as an adult he noticed that the water is rushing out.  He then told everybody about it, warning them to get themselves to the high grounds because he saw a sign that a Tsunami would be hitting soon.  And because of this boy listening to his grandfather’s story and recalling it, the lives of a whole village who were mostly fishermen were saved.  Only a few people died, instead of a whole village being wiped out, all because of this story!!


Farzad:  Just fantastic.  I love it!! I love it!!  It was an untold story.  A story that was told to someone, and he shared it at the right moment.


Michael: Yes, that’s right.  This child had the mind to listen.

Farzad:  You also do personal stories about you own life?


Michael:  Yes!  I sometimes tell funny stories, like for example I do a story about my daughter called “That’s my Baby”.  And it’s about her growing up, having to deal with peer pressure and me as a father having to deal with her having boyfriends and things like that.


Farzad:  How old is your daughter?


Michael:  She is now 41


Farzad:  Wow, you are kidding me!!  You are not 40.

Michael:  Oh no! I am 61, I’ll be 62 years old soon!!


Farzad:  I didn’t even ask you!! When were you born?


Michael:  September 7th, 1950


Farzad:  How many other kids do you have?


Michael:  I have a step son who is 28 now.


Farzad:  Are you married?


Michael:  Yes, actually, it’s a very interesting story!!  I met my wife because of storytelling.  In 1999, my wife was working for Neutrogena, and she and her friend put on a black history month presentation.  They got my business card from someone and contacted me to come and see me perform.  Well, they came and saw me perform, and my current wife Valerie was smitten.  That was her word!!  And she married me!!  We have been married for 12 years now!!


Farzad:  Wow, so you said you also like to teach story telling?


Michael:  Yes, I have work shops for teachers, students, business people, librarians and all kinds of people to learn to develop stories.  I get kids to tell stories.  And storytelling helps develop confidence, public speaking skills, and is a tool to promote literacy.  For example I do a program at the library, kids get excited about stories and then take out books and read stories.


Farzad:  And it is also therapeutic!!  Both for the storyteller and the person who’s listening!!


Michael:  Yes that’s right!!  The dynamic is the teller, the tale and the listener.  That’s what makes storytelling different from the theater.  In theater, there is a third wall.  The play is independent of the audience.  Storytelling is not storytelling without an audience. 


And another very important thing is the fact that storytelling is one of the original art forms.  There was music, dance, drawing and storytelling.  And from story telling came theater, poetry and other art forms.


Farzad:  So originally it was story telling!!  When you think about it, there was no technology!!  There was only a little feather, the tip of which was placed in an ink in order to write.  So art forms were performed orally. 


Michael:  Yes!  And even the feather came in later!!  What happened first is somebody telling about their hunt or the travels that they made etc….   Storytelling is embedded in our DNA as human beings.  I was reading recently that there is certainly a storytelling gene.  And one of the motivations of infants to learn to speak is that as they are growing and developing, they have little stories in their minds and they talk to themselves.  And if you tell them a story, even though they don’t understand the words, they’ll listen and react with facial expressions and different gestures.  So storytelling is in our DNA.


Farzad:  It involves the imagination!!  You are aware that something is going on.  Kind of like listening to a song in a foreign language that you don’t understand. 


So can you share with us some of your experiences from around the world, and some of the countries you have visited?


Michael:  Sure! I was in Argentina 3 years ago telling stories to kids in English, a language that they were learning.  And they were getting it even though they were learning the language.


Farzad:  Do you ever read stories off a book?


Michael:  No!! I only tell stories!!


Farzad:  This is something I love to do!!  I am a talker, and love to talk whenever I meet people.  I talk about my experiences in a detailed and descriptive way.


Michael:  Yes!  Description is very important!!  For example, there is a person at a party who has just come back from a vacation.  He talks about the vacation and you’re there.  While they are talking about it, you’re feeling the sand, the cold and what have you.


Farzad:  That’s me.  That’s me.


Michael:  There is always that kind of a person.  Like I said, it’s a major part of who we are as human beings.


Farzad:  Any sensation, be it taste, smell, touch, sound or vision can be reproduced in your mind.


I know you love your job and I envy you for that!!  It’s wonderful!!  As lit candles, we are responsible to light other candles.


One more question Michael.  You mentioned that your mother was your first storyteller.  Is she alive?


Michael:  No!!  My mother passed away in 1995.  She was from Barbados and she is the reason I am who I am!!  She always encouraged me to read.   She said if you can read, you can do anything.  That was my mom!!


Farzad:  God bless her


Well, thank you very much Michel for sharing with us your knowledge and experience about the art of storytelling.  It’s been a pleasure talking to you.


Michael:  You’re very welcome Farzad.  It is always a pleasure to pass on this information to everybody!!  Here, come with me!!  I’d like to show you something very interesting!!  My car!!  Let’s walk together to my car!!


Farzad:  Wow!!  What do you drive?


I walked with Michael to his car, and I was amazed when I saw it!!  The body of his car was covered with nothing but bumper stickers with amazing quotes written on them.  Over 300 bumper stickers!!  Things that make you laugh, make you think and make you read!!  His car not only provides reading material for other drivers, but it can also keep any pedestrian busy for days if they come across it while parked!!  Just another way, for the literacy advocate, Michael, to get his message across to the world.


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