Magic words: the power of feminist & post-colonial storytelling

Founder of Filotico Arts, Livia Filotico, talks to Rich Mix's Anna Woods about their new story telling event 'Magic and Power in Alf layla wa layla' - where Egyptian storyteller Chirine El Ansary, and mythographer and writer Marina Warner, invite you to listen to, engage with and discuss stories of magical transformations from The Thousand and One Nights

Storytelling is an age-old and universal art form, yet it’s not huge in the UK – not on the mainstream arts circuit, anyway. We have had an increasing number of storytelling nights (such as the fantastic Crick Crack Club events) here at Rich Mix and they are always popular – do you get the sense there’s a hunger for more dedicated storytelling events?

Absolutely. To give you an example, Chirine and I are running a development scheme for emerging storytellers. I hoped it’d be popular of course but the number and variety of applications we received kind of shocked me. There definitely is a hunger for more events, more training opportunities, and for a much deeper integration between storytelling and other art forms. The number of gifted storytellers and emerging talent out there definitely begs for that.

I think there are many reasons but one of them is that storytelling has a pretty unique ability to connect audiences and performers, and at times like the ones we’re living, human empathy and a sense of wonder are much needed. It’s something we as humans have always sought in one form or another, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever stop.

Storytellers have always used their art to bring communities together and to put into words the deepest values of their communities. That’s why they’ve always been so valued in society and looked up to as guides.

Mythographer Marina Warner makes some very interesting points about the significance of myths and fairytales. How did you come to hear about Marina’s work?   

Marina’s work takes all my passions and bundles them into a gorgeous mix of inspiration. I stumbled upon her work thanks to Treadwell’s, London’s premier esoteric bookshop, where I worked for over three years. I found Phantasmagoria on one of the shop’s shelves, on a particularly quiet Sunday afternoon, took it home and read it in in one breath. I was fresh out of university, where I graduated in anthropology and media, and the book is all about exploring the cultural history of spirits, unpacking symbols and metaphors and arguing for a radical imagination. You can imagine how excited it made me. I actually cried as I read through it. The next book of hers I read was Stranger Magic, and it inspired this event. The book is about feminism, magic and how 17th century Europe objectified the East. And obviously I was in love.

A lot of people will be familiar with at least some of the stories from the epic The Thousand and One Nights, do you think that people coming to your event will gain a new take on it?

Absolutely. I think it’s fair to say The Nights have had an interesting and complicated history. Fetishised by the West for centuries, admired by some and dismissed by others, I think The Nights have so much to say that hasn’t been heard yet.

For example, in this event we want to focus on how The Nights refuse to be pinned down to any one form, and how subversive that act actually is. Their shape shifts, flexes, adapts and mirrors a cosmology that is extremely open to The Other. This is in stark contrast with most post-enlightenment European cosmologies, where knowledge is fixed and narratives prescribed.

So along with feminism, oral literature and magic as tools for political subversion and cultural re-appropriation, we will also be looking at The Nights in a colonial and post-colonial context.

Part of the event will be a discussion of ‘the role stories can play in creating new futures’. I’ve heard this discussed in relation to science-fiction writing as well – it seems like right now we have a great need for stories that can imagine alternatives to broken systems. Can we expect an opportunity for the audience to join in with this imaginative act? I am certain there will be at least a few budding storytellers in attendance…

Before I could read, my dad acted out bits of Azimov’s Foundation for me. My first crush, at the age of 4, was one of my sister’s classmates, as he would tell me stories from Aesop before bedtime. At the age of 14 I began tabletop role-playing and around the same time I was introduced to magic and paganism. I might not have realised it at the time but all these things fulfilled a very similar need: they allowed me to get lost in alternatives so that when I came back to the room, I always had a lingering feeling of enchantment and possibility. These stories and the tools and frameworks people around me used to recount them, allowed me to think in ‘perhaps’ rather than in absolutes. And that is the most valuable gift anyone can receive and give. It’s the kind of gift that prevents wars from breaking.

We hope that everyone attending this event, whatever their views and their level of familiarity with the stories we’re presenting – which let’s not forget are all related to magic - might be inspired and comfortable enough to contribute their ideas. We are leaving a good 30 minutes for a Q&A session and another full hour after the formal part of the event is over for people to chat and discuss possible collaborations. My absolute dream is for a bard, a poet, a novelist and a ritualist to meet on the night and start some kind of artistic collaboration. Or rather, to think up an awesome solution to broken systems.

Livia Filotico is an events organiser, arts marketing consultant and founder of Filotico Arts. She works with arts organisations, universities, cultural institutions and individuals to understand, nurture and promote ideas of enchantment, storytelling and myth making within the arts and cultural sector. @LiviaFilotico