Faculty Projects: Francophone Folklore (with Reading List!) with Mssr. Korta

Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that. Named after the late John Hughes, who taught English at Commonwealth for nearly thirty years, and after recently retired Head of School Bill Wharton, who founded the original Hughes fund in 2011 and championed faculty scholarship throughout his tenure, the Hughes/Wharton Fund ensures faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones. 

For his recent Hughes/Wharton project, Monsieur Korta traveled beyond the French “hexagon” to explore—and bring to his students—francophone works from across the globe, from the French Antilles to Algeria to Burkina Faso to Lebanon. These stories shared more than a common language; the same themes and archetypes appear in different corners of the world. Yet, distinct cultures and struggles also came to life and to light on each page, as Mssr. Korta hoped...

I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to travel to Paris this past summer, to dive into a vast and fascinating literary world of which I was only marginally familiar, and to begin developing materials that I intend to use in intermediate to advanced French language classes. 

My stated intent was to redesign the French 2 and 3 curriculum “to search, find, and finally integrate new cultural materials that are better suited both to Commonwealth students and to the current times we are living through. The materials will include songs, video, plays, and short stories and will be drawn not only from the French ‘hexagon’—from continental France, that is—but from the many other communities across the globe which claim French as an official language. The principal goal in researching and integrating new materials would be for students to hear and engage with a variety of voices, not all necessarily from metropolitan or even continental France.” I am happy to report that I was able to take full advantage of the time the summer months offered, as well as the opportunities to browse and discover new literature in the countless bookstores of left-bank Paris, beginning the process of synthesizing the information I happily waded through towards integration into the French curriculum.

The portion of my Hughes grant proposal that also allowed for considerable personal growth was to pursue a project that had already been in the works for some time, a natural continuation of materials I had taught before and lesson plans I had sketched out and begun to use in my curricula. I have, in my years of teaching at Miami University, taught some difficult texts—both stylistically and in socio-historical context—ranging from Aimé Césaire’s Tragédie du Roi Christophe on the Haitian Revolution and its tragic aftermath to Marie Ndiaye’s Papa Doit Manger, a play that exposes class and race relations in contemporary France. Last year, with my French 3 students, we read Pierre de Marivaux’s L’Ile des Esclaves, an early (and problematic) critique of socioeconomic class relations in 18th century France; we discussed Charles Perrault’s Barbe Bleue and watched Christine Breillat’s filmic reinterpretation of the ghoulish tale; in French 4, we read Marie de France’s Bisclavret, a medieval meditation on our relationship to otherness, and watched Michel Ocelot’s take on the tale and on others in a similar vein in his Contes de la Nuit. What all of these materials have in common is the voice they give to the historically voiceless, both in their content and in their own traditional position in the canon, for example, Breillat’s feminine and feminist reappropriation of Barbe Bleue, or the work of Michel Ocelot, who in his films draws from folklore from around the world and from francophone cultures in particular. All of these previous experiences in my own reading and in the classroom pushed me to explore francophone literature this summer and to begin gleaning new material that could eventually be used in studying language and discovering more new voices with students.

What all of these materials have in common is the voice they give to the historically voiceless, both in their content and in their own traditional position in the canon.

The vast majority of the new materials I engaged with this summer drew from folkloric, oral traditions of francophone countries and cultures. Encouraged by students’ reception of short folkloric works like the Lais of Marie de France, the Contes of Charles Perrault and of Madame Leprince de Beaumont (famous for first having penned La Belle et la Bête), I took a deep dive into nearly a dozen different oral traditions, exploring their uniqueness as well as their stylistic and thematic commonalities. Anthologies included folktales from the French Antilles, Senegal, Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Chad, and Lebanon. Personally, I found reading folktales to be a fascinating way to get a taste of the spirit of a culture: a taste both metaphorically—the way Chad’s folktales tell of the genesis of a people and of their material and spiritual struggle for national identity following the battle for independence from France—and quite literally in the way, for example, the folktales from the French Antilles, Algeria, and Lebanon were chock full of playful references to indigenous fruits and local cuisine. Other collections of folktales suggested a culture that relied on ribald humor to exorcise life’s hardships. Lebanese folklore is full of Rabelaisian tales of table-turning, and that Lebanese vein of humor was found again, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a Punch-and-Judy-type sublimation of violence in Algerian folktales. Finally, having come across a collection of folktales that told the stories of the regions of France, I could not resist reading some of those as well. The natural magic of Breton tales resonated with the atmosphere of Marie de France’s Lais, and, much like other sources of popular folklore, mobilized cultural artefacts such as garments, accoutrements, and cuisine to render its stories both vivid and unique.

In an effort to begin synthesizing all of this material and thinking about how to incorporate it into a course that teaches both language and culture, I collected hundreds of words and expressions in an Excel spreadsheet, a tool I chose so that I could later search and sort the entries and find words and expressions that recurred in the same or different folktales. This will help me gain a more precise sense of the difficulty of the texts and the vocabulary students will need to learn to comfortably read them. It was also a handy way to keep tabs on words that evoked cultural references, such as the “concession” in stories from West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire), which, I learned, is the agglomeration of homes organized around a courtyard where an extended family resides. In addition to words and expressions, I noted the affinity many tales had to one another across cultures. Themes in the Algerian Le Roi Coquelicot resonated with the famous Beauty and the Beast; Ablaye from Senegal is a lot like Le Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb); etc. Moreover, stock characters could also be traced from one tradition to the next: tricksters like the rabbit of the French Antilles and West Africa, culture heroes, representatives of established authority, and those who strive to assert themselves despite all odds. 

The lexicography I have gathered so far, along with the thematic links I have noted, will help me choose stories which students will have fun comparing, sparking conversation and the discovery of francophone cultures beyond metropolitan Paris.

Explore Our Language Offerings

Reading List

Anthologies of Francophone Folklore

  • Contes des Antilles (24 folk tales from the French West Indies/Antilles)
  • Contes du Sénégal (15 folk tales from Senegal)
  • Contes du Griot (40 African folk tales told by Congolese-Belgian writer Kama Kamanda)
  • Au Tchad: Sous les Étoiles (14 folk tales from Chad, told by Joseph Brahim Seid, 1962)
  • Contes du Bénin: L’Oracle du Hibou (10 folk tales from Benin)
  • Histoires de Goules: Contes du Liban (12 folk tales from Lebanon, told by French-Lebanese writer Aïda Soufel)
  • Contes arabes de Tiaret (Algérie) (31 folk tales from Algeria – Tiaret Province)
  • Histoires autour du Canon: Contes d’Algérie (24 folk tales from Algeria – Algiers, Biskra, Béchar, Béni-Abbès Provinces)
  • Contes de la Côte d’Ivoire (lien) (3 folk tales from Ivory Coast)
  • Petits contes des savanes du Burkina Faso (16 folk tales from Burkina Faso)
  • 3 Nouvelles du Monde
    • Amélie Charcosset (française ayant vécu en Irelande, Slovénie, etc...)
    • Hélène Koscielniak (canadienne)
    • Noura Bensaad (tunisienne)

Graphic Novels

  • Retour au Collège, La vie secrète des jeunes 3 (Riad Sattouf)
  • Aya de Youpogon, volumes 1, 2, 3 (Franco-Ivorienne, Marguerite Abouet)
  • Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi)
  • Franz Fanon (Frédéric Ciriez, Romain Lamy)
  • Carnet d’Orient, Carnet d’Algérie (Jacques Ferrandez)
  • Tahya El-Djazaïr, volume 1, 2 (Laurent Galandon)

Other Reading

  • Micromégas, Zadig (Voltaire)
  • Sarrasine (Balzac)
  • Bruges-la-Morte (Rodenbach)
  • La Mort d’Olivier Bécaille, et autres nouvelles naturalists (Emile Zola)
  • L’Extase du Selfie (Philippe Delerm)
  • Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre (Xavier de Maistre)
  • Contes (Eugène Ionesco, Etienne Delessert)
  • Contes et Légendes – Paris (10 stories told by Stéphane Descornes)
  • Contes et Légendes – Légendes de Bretagne (13 stories told by Yves Pinguilly)
  • Légendes et récits du Morvan (12 stories told by Sandra Amani)
  • Contes des Landes