McElroy, Colleen J. 1999. Over the lip of the world: among the storytellers of Madagascar. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

McElroy is professor of English and creative writing at the University of Washington. This book is a result of her 1995 fieldwork where she explored Malagasy oral traditions and myths by “recording stories and song–poems from village artists as well as [conducting] interviews…” (p. xi).

The nine million people who live in Madagascar are a mixture of African, Malayo–Polynesian, Arab and Indians. The author visited a number of locations throughout the island to record stories and observe ceremonies.

McElroy explains that as she gathered material her definition of a folktale changed, expanding her research to include dance and performance pieces. She notes the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarnehn Bierhorst, The Mythology of South America 1988:97), who noted how storytellers incorporated various variants [emic or etic] in their telling, such as:

  1. omitting details due to forgetfulness
  2. adding details, often at the beginning or ending of stories
  3. multiplying details in terms of a favorite number, such as three
  4. reversing the role of two major characters
  5. changing a character from human to animal and vice versa
  6. add culturally specific or modern details
  7. make further changes to keep the story consistent

“Most of the stories are brief, their endings often abrupt, their motives sometimes more riddle and logic,” (xvi) dispensing with preamble and offering the tale for you to suspend belief, a feature common in stories of oral tradition.

McElroy acknowledges that translation is difficult, with stories rich in proverbs and poetic images. She comments on phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax, noting features that are representative of the languages of Madagascar. One resident, a poet, related that “In the early days, not all of the Malagasy were able to write. At first, many people only used the stories in the oral tradition. The writing came from these stories” (p. 21).

The traditional stories that the author collected are embedded within her own story of her fieldwork, her communication and interaction with the community of storytellers, and her comments on the various parts of the island where she collected the stories.

The middle section of the book has several color plates that illustrate aspects of the modern culture, e.g. a diviner, a spirit dance, a storyteller, funeral participants and performers, a sacred tree and offerings, a woman applying “Mangary” paste, papermakers and musicians, singers, and other performers or audiences.