By: Felicia Cooper, Story Coordinator
Lyn Ford has a story for everyone, and I mean everyone. She uses stories to unite community, to share history, and to connect with others. She told me she laughs every day. She is a published author of several collections of stories, including Boo-tickle Tales, Hot Wind Boiling Rain, Affrilachian Tales, and Beyond the Briar Patch. The following is a conversation between two storytellers.
You can get her books with Parkhurst Brothers Publishing at www.parkhurstbrothers.com
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Sharon, PA, Appalachian Western PA. I lived there most of my life. I moved to Columbus, OH, where I am now, in 1984 or 1985.
What brought you to Columbus?
My husband got transferred here. It wasn’t like I planned to be here but I’m so glad it happened. Because my children have done so well here, and I’ve made so many friends here. I do miss the hills! It’s kind of flat compared to where I grew up.
Do you know the history of how your family come to live in Sharon, PA?
I don’t know a lot of it. It had to do with the great migration, people traveling north for work. That’s where my family settled. My dad is from Tennessee, and my mom is from... East Liverpool, OH? I don’t exactly remember, but at one point they were in Danville, VA.
So you’re spread all throughout Appalachia?
Yes. When I was a little girl, we had relatives up in the New York part of Appalachia. I don’t remember, but I know we went north. Then we had relatives down into North Carolina. We were throughout the region, pretty much. These days, my sister and brother and some of my cousins are in Georgia.
When you see your family, do you get into your storytelling?
Most of the time, it goes to the person who says, “I remember when…” I have one cousin—he’s in his sixties—and he starts it off. He says, “I remember when we were sitting on the porch in the dark,” and we were telling scary stories, all the cousins, all of us. We were too afraid to come off the porch, leave all the lights off, you know. He remembers all the things like that.
How did you first get into storytelling?
I was the one who did the babysitting, so of course I told stories, and if they were getting on my nerves I’d tell them scary stories to send them to bed!
A lot of it, my dad told me, and I wish I remembered more. I’m trying to connect the dots for some stories now, and it’s hard because the elders are pretty much gone. But I also would make things up on the spot, and I never wrote them down. They’re out there in the ether somewhere, so I’m still looking for them. I wish I did have the sense to write some things down.
Do you write them down now?
Oh, yeah. Now, when I make something up, I put it down on paper. I usually make up spooky stories. I might try it out first, telling it a few times, before I write it down, but eventually I get it right. I know how to use it now, and that’s how I wrote my collection of short stories, Hot Wind Boiling Rain.
Do you hope that your readers will tell those stories to people they know?
Oh, definitely! I’m not one of those people who says that you can’t tell it. Even those stories that I’ve made up that are scary stories, the motifs are still folk tales. Now, it might be that I made it up, but somewhere there’s a root story that it came from, I’m sure. Now, I always tell people to go ahead and tell it but put it into your own words, so it comes from your heart, and just tell people where you found it.
Where did you pick up all your stories?
My favorite storytellers were my father, my grandfather, and my maternal grandfather. We called him Pawpaw. I told people he was a tall tale teller, and my grandmother, Josephine, said he was just a liar! And he would tell lies, try to get out of trouble, try and make something up. My mother always read stories to us and would tell us things about people in our family. But my dad always told stories, and so did my Pawpaw. Then there were stories that came from great grandmothers and great aunties and older cousins, and they got passed around and it became a great resource for my career. But at the time I didn’t know it would become my career. I was just the one that always wanted stories.
Can you talk a little bit more about how storytelling became a career for you?
Well, I was always telling stories to our children, and teaching preschool, and I was tutoring at their elementary school—helping them with spelling, reading, things like that—and the reason that was important to me was because I had always been a great reader, but I had a speech impediment up until first grade. I think by the end of kindergarten, I had it mostly under control, but I was very self conscious, and I stuttered. So if I could help other children feel comfortable and confident in their reading and speaking, I could feel like I was giving back. And I didn’t know that my own children were always telling their teachers that I was a good storyteller. So, next thing I know, I was invited into the classroom. The teacher got my name down, and that really opened some doors. I really have to give our kids credit for my storyteller career starting. For me, it was just what I did, not something that I thought I could do as a career.
What makes someone a natural storyteller?
The story just falls out your mouth. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to think about the beginning, middle, end. All of that, it just comes to you, logically. Even if you made it up—and your gestures and facial expressions—it just grows from you. My dad could make up a story on the spot. My grandfather, too, with his lies and everything. And my granddaughter Savannah in Nevada, she can tell a story. She’s a natural born storyteller.
Where do you tell stories now?
Right now, I do a lot of storytelling festivals and storytelling for educational conferences. I tell stories in libraries—summer reading is really busy every year.
Have you been back to Sharon, PA at all?
We went back... most of the elders had passed on, but we went through there for something or another, and it was, honestly, it was depressing. When I was there, there was steel, and corn, rail going through, and clean air. But that’s where I grew up, and it being a more rustic area... it’s depressed. The houses look a bit shabby. The lights, everything’s kind of falling down. The street where I grew up… our block is really gone back to more of a forested area, and there’s one house still on that road... Miss Smith’s house. I love the beauty of that but all the people are gone.
I talk to a lot of people from Appalachia, from all different towns, and a lot of people feel the same way. It feels like these industries have moved out of these towns, and there’s not much left for the people there.
There’s not enough white collar jobs. There are certain parts of that area that are doing okay—around the hospital area, of course, anybody teaching in the schools, things like that—but the middle class neighborhoods, the lower income neighborhoods, they’re not the same. It’s really depressing to be there, and to see them, and know what was, and remember the neighbors sitting on the front porch, and remember the clothing hanging on the line and over the fences while they were doing that work... all of that is gone. You can’t keep developing there if there’s no work and nothing for them to do. They’re going to go someplace else. And that’s the sad part. The people there are very limited in their options. Especially without many young families. I go back, and there’s a handful of folks still there. The church… is still there. I don’t know how well the church is doing. But as I said, our area, our street, has become like a wooded area. And the people there are upset the houses are gone, the neighbors are gone. But I’m looking at it as Mother Nature taking back her territory and giving it an opportunity to regrow.
And now there’s all kinds of trees there and natural wildlife. I used to think the most exciting thing is the playground. They built our playground on a hill, and it’s kind of funny, cause you’re playing basketball going downhill! Now, even the playground is gone. It’s a housing development, and all of that emptied out. It’s going to be a beautiful forested area. But it’s almost like... I don’t know how to put it, like one book closing and a new book opening. I know some people like all that. I say let it grow. It’s green, it’s alive, it’s thriving. The children don’t have the nerve to run through the woods the way we used to. They say “Oh, no, we can’t go in there,” but I would have been in those woods in a minute!
That’s partly why storytelling is important, to show kids examples of people who have been brave.
Yes, exactly. You can show them that if you can face the dragon, you can do more than just survive. You can thrash the dragon, you can get beyond the dragon, you can overcome the dragon, or you might just make friends with the dragon. At least give them the options. That’s why stories are really important. I always do folk tales for schools. If there’s something inside you, something you’ve got going on, there’s some way of speaking to it through folk tales.
Can you tell me more about your view on laughter?
Being able to laugh is so important, and we all laugh in the same language. It breaks down barriers, but it also breaks down stress. It’s good for your lungs, for your heart, for your mind. It gets your energy going. You gotta get a good laugh every day. I think that strongly connects to storytelling—the humorous ways storytelling can relate to others. Once I was storytelling, and people started coming in from other rooms to see what was going on because we were laughing so loud. Laughter exercises is something I do, for all ages, and they’re exercises you can do for free. It’s exercise for your insides.
One time, my husband and I were going up the hill where I used to live, and I always saw it as the longest, steepest hill, and I was kinda quiet. He looked at me, and I said, “It feels like this hill got a little shorter.” And we laughed, you know, because the perspective of a child and the perspective of an adult on that hill are different. It’s not as steep as I thought it was, it’s not as big as I thought it was, it’s not as tall as I thought it was. Everything is different. That could be bad, good, but it’s something to laugh about. Our memories expand what our reality is, maybe the truth of it, and that imagination connects our past with who we are now—who you are as a person. You’re probably going through the same kind of thing you always have been. I could sit around and feel really sad, but I choose to feel joy. I choose to try and find joy in some way in everything. I think that’s partly what keeps me feeling young and what keeps the grandbabies playing with me!
Can you tell me more about the word Affrilachian?
Well, it’s actually a word that is still very new. It’s been around since the late 20th century, for about 28 years or so. It was created by poet and professor Frank X Walker. He created the term Affrilachian when he found that the dictionary at the time considered “Appalachian” to be a white person living in Appalachia. It specifically said that. It left out everybody else. He had gone to a reading that was part of what was called the “Best of Southern Writing,” but it was supposed to have been called the “Best of Appalachian Writing.” And the coordinators changed the name of the event because one of the keynote speakers was Nikky Finney, an African American poet and activist. And I guess they didn’t think she fit the description, so they changed the name of the whole event to “Best of Southern Writing,” which made Frank question why. Then he created the word, “Afrillachian,” which reminds us of the diversity that has been with us in the hills for generations.
And when he created the word—the first time I heard it—it was like the sound of spring water. And I said, “Yes! That’s it!” Because my complexion and the way some of my family appears, a lot of people would ask, not who we were, but, what we were. If you said you were black, they looked at you like there was something wrong with you. So finally I had a word for my family, of African American heritage, as well as Native American and European American heritage, from the Appalachian region. It explains us exactly. So I named my first book Affrilachian Tales to honor that heritage. And I am so grateful that Frank made up that word. It just fits perfectly, and I use it all the time. Affrilachia is also in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, which makes it even more special.
And down in the southeastern part of Ohio, just beyond Athens University, there was a community of African American families established in the 1800s—going along the trails of the underground railroad and getting across the Ohio River. Some people living in that area don’t even know anything about it. I like to share those more obscure stories from the trails of the Underground Railroad. There is more to history than what’s in the books. More than what’s written down.
Is there anything else you would like to share about storytelling?
I think it’s important to pass on your heritage, to pass on your history, but also to pass on hope and creative thinking. All of that comes from a broad range of stories. “We’re the only storytelling creatures on this planet,” my grandfather used to say. Other creatures don’t sit around and share with one another in that way. We’re unique in that.
And I don’t know if it relates so much to Appalachia, but I encourage everyone to go to older people and ask them questions and see what they can find. They’ll get a portion of history that no one else can give them.
What is Appalachia?
It’s home. It’s heart. It’s a state of being. It’s a place where the past and the present all come together. There’s no place like it. You’ve never seen mountains like that. That’s what I really miss. It’s flat here, and I miss the hills. Here in central Ohio, we have the change of seasons, but if you want to see the real beauty of the change of seasons, go to the hills. There’s nothing like it. Also the mountain range that is the Appalachian region—on the large map of all the islands, on Pangea, where all the continents started to separate—you can see the Appalachian mountains were part of the northwestern part of Africa.
If you look at the map, and you look at how the mountains are building—what became North America, the part that broke off from Northwest Africa—that’s now Appalachia. So in my mind, stepping into Appalachia is also stepping into the heritage of Africa. The Appalachian mountain range was a part of what became Northwest Africa.
I tell the grandchildren that. I don’t know if it’s as important to them, but I hope it sticks with them. I tell them that—what, over 250 million years ago, this part of America was part of Africa.