The Story Behind Our Name

What are "anansesem"? Who is Brother Anansi?

Image: © 2021 Jeannette Edwards
The history books tell us that Anansi (also spelled "Anancy" and "Ananse") is a figure from Caribbean folklore which originated in Ghana, a West African country, in the 17th century. At that time, the Ashanti (Asanti) kingdom was powerful in West Africa. As stories featuring Anansi spread amongst Akan groups, they became such a central part of Ashanti culture that people began to use the generic word "Anansesem" (literally, “Words Relating to The Spider”) to describe not only Anansi stories but all kinds of fables.

Anansi stories were brought to the Caribbean by Africans who crossed the oceans as slaves. The stories were passed on orally from generation to generation and Caribbean people of all races still tell Anansi stories today.

Anansi was a spider of such wit and cunning that he outsmarted the Sky God who was then forced to give Anansi the gift of stories. So Anansi is not only a clever trickster who usually gets his own way; he is also the original bearer of stories and the owner of all the stories in the world. Anansi is known to be part man, part spider. It has been said that he often changes into a spider after he has tricked someone so that he can escape easily!

Why Anansesem?

We choose to call the ezine "Anansesem" because we see Caribbean children's literature as continuing the tradition of re-telling, re-invention and resistance that began when Anansi stories first took root in the Caribbean. The original Akan Anansesem from Africa were creolized and transmogrified to fit the Caribbean experience (e.g. Anansi, the spider-hero in the Akan tradition, has come to embody the anti-hero in Caribbean Anansesem, the legendary "smart man" immortalized in so many West Indian calypsos. Also, the Akan God, Nyame, has been replaced by the character, Tiger.) Likewise, Caribbean children's literature continues to re-invent itself, generating characters, images, storylines and meanings that best reflect the evolving Caribbean experience.

Also, Anansi stories may be seen as the archetype for Caribbean children's literature; they are a kind of foundation. By evoking the Anansi archetype, we are challenging contemporary Caribbean children's writers and illustrators to study the foundation, understand what it means and then build upon it. Anansi stories have served us well and will continue to, but now we must challenge ourselves to create a new, more dynamic tradition that is just as well-loved, just as powerful and just as far-reaching as Anansesem.

A people displaced from its homeland necessarily establishes a different relationship with its mythology, and the mythology must change to accommodate and incorporate the displacement.

                                                              -Celestine Wood in Lion and the Unicorn journal

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