On behalf of the New York Folklore Society’s executive board and the editorial
board of Voices, I want to congratulate Faye McMahon for winning the American
Folklore Society’s 2008 Chicago Folklore Prize with her outstanding book Not
Just Child’s Play: Emerging Tradition and the Lost Boys of Sudan, published by
the University Press of Mississippi in 2007. It brings all of us great happiness
to see Faye receive this richly deserved award.
According to the American Folklore Society’s web site, the Chicago Folklore
Prize, “awarded to the author of the best book-length work of folklore scholarship
for the year, is the oldest international award recognizing excellence in folklore
scholarship.” Since the prize was first awarded in 1928, Faye is the eighty-first
recipient. As Robert Baron recently commented in an email message to New
York Folklore Society members, the Chicago Prize is the “Pulitzer Prize of our
field.” In recognizing this major honor, it seems important to quote the voices
of a number of people, including the Chicago Prize judges, a member of the
Lost Boys, a doctoral student assistant, and Faye herself.
At the annual meeting of the American
Folklore Society in Louisville, Kentucky, on
October 23, 2008, members of the society
listened to the following comments from the
Chicago Folklore Prize judges:
The winner of the Chicago Folklore
Prize for 2008 is a gripping, fully
theorized first-person narrative by a
folklorist who, mindful of the cultural
risks involved, has worked for several
years with members of a culturally endangered
group, Sudanese DiDinga
war refugees relocated to the United
States—“the Lost Boys.” Felicia McMahon’s Not Just Child’s Play: Emerging
Tradition and the Lost Boys of Sudan, published in 2007 by the University Press
of Mississippi, shows that because of
the dislocations of war in Sudan, the
Lost Boys, though now grown, were
never properly initiated into manhood
according to tribal custom and so are
caught in a state of cultural childhood.
McMahon’s work with the group in
western New York State has been in
large measure devoted to helping the
refugees encompass that loss through
recovery of remembered tribal dance
and ritual enacted in public performances.
The reader cheers the group
on, honoring the Lost Boys’ dance and
hybrid, but absolutely and authentically
This book is multilayered and
thought-provoking, yet written in a
clear and jargon-free prose. McMahon’s
topic—and her methods—are painfully
relevant to us in an age of extended war,
population displacement, and economic
globalization. Folklorists of the twenty-first
century need to look not only at
the details of the author’s interactions
with this group, but also at the folklore
theory that informs every paragraph of
the work—and at its humanity. If folklorists
are becoming more like Felicia
McMahon, we and the discipline are
better than we used to be.
Lino Ariloka Timan sings during nyakorot, a DiDinga dance, at the Warehouse in Syracuse on October 27, 2007. Photo: Geof Gould
Faye received these comments by email,
because her festival of performances by
recent immigrants to the Syracuse area
took place two days after the American
Folklore Society’s meeting began. The
festival featured music, singing, dancing,
and craftsmanship by DiDinga, Vietnamese,
Liberian, and Congolese immigrants.
Earlier that month, on October 4, she had
organized a wonderful set of performances
by Nepali/Bhutanese, Meskhetian Turkish,
and Native American artists. I had the
privilege of attending those performances
with my husband, Geof Gould, who took
We were deeply moved by the
singing of the young Nepali women, who
were excited to be performing together in
their national dress; we also enjoyed the Meskhetian Turkish wedding dance performed
by a group of young people under
the direction of a proud mother. Geof and
I would have loved to attend the October 25
event, as well, but I was scheduled to chair
a panel at the meeting in Louisville.
Fortunately, some comments on the October
25 performances came from Bryan Ripley
Crandall, a doctoral student in English
education at Syracuse University and Faye’s
assistant. After the performances ended, he
wrote this email message:
I would like to send another round of
applause to Faye McMahon for what she accomplished today. Not only has
her book received a national award,
but today’s folk arts festival was outstanding.
Seeing so many community
groups of Syracuse come to perform,
dance, and share their culture was truly
amazing. The day was well attended,
the entertainment was educational and
moving, and the artwork was vibrant
and real. On the sidelines, with only
a few announcements here and there
about the performers yet to come,
stood Faye McMahon. She was tremendously
central to bringing all of
us together today: students, groups
from around the globe, volunteers,
academics, reporters, musicians, artists, etc., and without her hard work, grant
writing, devotion, and vision NONE
OF THIS would have occurred today.
Faye, I respect all you do. And Thank
You on behalf of the world.
This touching tribute eloquently expresses
Faye’s dedication to the people with whom
she works. She puts an enormous amount of
time and dedication into all of her preparations
for performances, working overtime
to make sure that performers feel happy
and proud of their contributions. Before
the performances on October 4, she made
a number of trips to show the performers
where they should park and how they should
get together. This sensitive attention to
people’s needs is typical of her interaction
with immigrants to the Syracuse area.
After I came back from the American
Folklore Society’s meeting, I asked Faye
some questions by email. A transcript of
our interview follows.
LT: How did you become interested in
working with the Lost Boys?
FM: In 1999 I was contracted by Tony
Clementi, then director of the Children’s
Museum in Utica, New York, to develop a
folk arts program to bring children of many
neighborhoods together for a family festival.
Tony wanted to ensure we included the
children of refugee families from Bosnia and
Burma who had just arrived in Utica. Until
Tony left his position at the Children’s Museum
in 2002, we collaborated on a NYSCA-funded
folk arts program that included folk
artists from these two new communities.
It was in 2002 that I was invited to teach
a university-wide symposium course entitled
“Beauty in Cross-Cultural Perspective” at
Syracuse University. Recalling the positive
community feedback Tony and I had gotten
in Utica, I decided to call Syracuse’s Refugee
Resettlement Services to ask if I could meet
with caseworkers to talk about the possibility
of including folk artists from new communities
in my classroom. Harvey Pinyon, a
caseworker, was very supportive. Dean Eric
Holzworth at the university agreed that folk
artists are community scholars in their own
right and provided honoraria for them. One of the new communities Pinyon had mentioned
were the Sudanese Lost Boys. After
meeting the young men, I felt compelled
to do whatever I could to facilitate ways to
bring recognition to their many talents.
Charles Lino (left) plays the lokembe (thumb piano), while Dominic Raimondo sings at a January 5, 2008, book signing in Syracuse. Photo: Faye McMahon
LT: How did you get to know the young
men and develop methods for working with
FM: Pinyon had suggested I first call Carl
Oropallo, the young men’s choir director at
Saint Vincent de Paul Church. Carl had been
directing the young men in the church’s choir
where they sang “church songs” in Swahili
and English and sometimes Dinka or DiDinga, two southern Sudanese languages.
But to say Carl was their choir director is a
great understatement. There are more than
150 Lost Boys and Lost Girls in Syracuse,
and they all call Carl their “Found Father”
because of his generosity and his years of
support in helping these young people who
are here with no parents to adjust to an
American way of life. Carl is an important
part of this book, and he has been an important
facilitator over the years.
So, I attended the Mass when the young
men were singing, and Carl introduced me
to them as a “professor who is interested in
your singing.” They were as curious about
me as I was about them, and I also think
they were very, very lonely, being resettled in
Syracuse with few opportunities to talk with
Americans. I guess you could say the group
and I made an “odd couple,” but worked.
They invited me to their homes and I invited
them to mine, where we ate pizza or picked
wild blackberries in my backyard. They
taught me basic DiDinga vocabulary, and we still laugh when I try to say “hohomala”
From there it is a long story about our
journey to get to know each other. There
were also long, lonely hours for me trying to
find published sources because the DiDinga
culture in particular is grounded entirely in
orality. I relied almost entirely on our conversations
and my observations of their public
performances, which I eventually coordinated
through Syracuse University and the Schweinfurth
Memorial Art Center in Auburn,
New York. Each time I wanted to ensure that
they were adequately reimbursed and that
their traditions were adequately contextualized.
I realized after some time that current
performance theories such as Bauman’s
could not account for the recontextualized
performances of relocated people, nor was Schechner’s “restored behavior” theory in and of itself enough to elucidate the complexity
of the process of tradition for transnational
groups like this. Instead, I applied a combination
of the two theories, which revealed that
childhood play traditions contributed to the
young men’s transnational identity emerging
in performances for new audiences.
LT: What impressed you the most about
the young men’s adaptation to new and difficult
FM: They are resilient. They are flexible.
They are playful. Most important, they
formed a real community. They bonded
together and never broke apart. But no one
is an island. When their cars got flat tires in
the middle of a snowstorm in Syracuse at
1:00 a.m., who do the Sudanese call? Their
Found Father, Carl. And inspired by Carl’s
kindness, I tried to do my part as a folklorist
by finding support for their performances.
LT: What are some of the most important
insights that you gained from studying immigrants’
FM: Most refugees who come to our
country come with optimism. After a few
years, many remain the poorest of our
poor and are living right on the edge. In
the U.S. we know it is not a fact that we
all pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. We
all got to where we are today with help of
someone we know: our family, our friends,
or our community. I try to remind myself
where I would be if I were to flee my country
and were forced to start all over where
I knew no one. Mary Pipher sums it up
in her book, The Middle of Everywhere: The
World’s Refugees Come to Our Town (New York:
Harcourt, 2002): “Picture yourself dropped
in the Sudanese grasslands with no tools
or knowledge about how to survive and
no ways to communicate with the locals or
ask for advice. Imagine yourself wondering
where the clean water is, where and what
food is, and what you should do about the
bites on your feet, and your sunburn, and
the lion stalking you. Unless a kind and
generous Sudanese takes you in and helps
you adjust, you would be a goner” (63).
LT: How can public and academic folklorists use Not Just Child’s Play as a text?
FM: Working with refugees while they
are still experiencing culture shock is not
without risks. It is also time intensive and
challenging. In public folklore work, cultural
facilitation is needed if we are to do
truly inclusive work. It’s important to pass
this work on to the next generation and
for students to have the skills to work with
newcomers. This work is truly important as
our world becomes increasingly globalized.
LT: How has publication of your book
affected the DiDinga immigrant community?
FM: I don’t think my book has affected
the DiDinga immigrant community, except
it has made them aware that they have a
unique culture—a real gift to give to us—
and that Americans acknowledge that.
LT: Do you plan to do further fieldwork
with the DiDinga or with other immigrant
groups in the Syracuse area?
FM: As a thank-you to the DiDinga
people for teaching me about their culture,
I’ve donated all my book royalties to their
fund to build a school and library in their
village in Sudan. I am already working
with several newcomers in Syracuse, most
recently the Ahiska (Meskhetian Turks of
Russia) and the Nepali of Bhutan. My life
has never been so enriched.
After I interviewed Faye, she suggested
that I send some questions to Dominic
Raimondo, a member of the Lost Boys
who currently attends community college
in Salt Lake City, Utah. During an American
Folklore Society meeting in Salt Lake City
several years ago, I had the pleasure of
meeting Dominic, who serves as the leader
of a group of DiDinga people in Utah.
Besides attending college and supporting
his disabled brother, Dominic continues
to dance and to make beautiful ceramic
cows according to DiDinga tradition. A
transcript of our interview follows.
LT: How are your studies going?
DR: It’s a struggle. And it’s all self-sacrifice
even though I need to speak for myself. What affects me is the financial
situation. Even though I am somebody who loves to read and to get new ideas
and to help the community around me and
outside, because of the obstacles you can’t
get ahead. Sometimes I have to try to take
one or two classes just to continue toward
my goal but it takes forever. If I can have
support, I think I can be a valuable in the
community, but it is hard. I just have to
struggle and tell whoever asks me, what are
your problems, I have to tell them honestly
because education is the only way for future
in my life.
LT: How has your participation in DiDinga dance performances influenced your
adjustment to living in the USA?
DR: It really helps. It has opened the
door for me to Americans to understand
me and me to understand them. It’s like a
key to a new society. You cannot get into a
new group without you having something in
it. It has helped me to share with American
society, to share my culture, but most important
for me to retain my culture. I could
lose my culture but through performing it, it
empower me. And one more point, and this
have also made DiDinga traditional dance
privileged. Without my participation and my
idea of showing to Americans we would not
have it existing, but because of the power I have in my heart and in my mind, it gives
room for our culture to exist forever and
ever in American culture.
LT: Please tell us your thoughts about the
publication of Faye’s book and its winning
the Chicago Folklore Prize.
DR: This is a big achievement in DiDinga
history. Never before had someone thought
of putting DiDinga culture in writing. This
book has encouraged me in difficult times
to do more, and I just read and talk about it
with a lot of people.
LT: How can readers of the book support
the DiDinga people?
DR: The reader can help DiDinga traditional
culture to continue by buying Not Just
Child’s Play. When the reader buys this book,
this is financial help for DiDinga people.
Money provides the tools to open everything
in the world. Then the DiDinga will use the
money to purchase their drums or ceremi,
which are skirts for women and feathers,
and those are important in our culture. For
this group in Syracuse, I have hope.
Dominic’s eloquent statement reminds
us how important it is for all of us to feel
hopeful and to work toward positive change.
Through the publication of Faye’s book,
we have gained a model for understanding
immigrants’ adjustment to a new way of life
through recontextualized folk traditions; we
have also learned to celebrate impressive
outpourings of courage and spirit. Thank
you, Faye, for writing this wonderful book,
and many congratulations!
Libby Tucker has been a member of the
New York Folklore Society’s board since
2005. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in
West Africa in the 1970s.
Faye McMahon introduces the DiDinga at
the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center’s annual folk arts program in Auburn on August 21, 2005. Photo: Geof Gould
Dominic Raimondo congratulates author Faye McMahon at a book signing on January 5, 2008. Photo: John McMahon
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 35, Spring-Summer 2009. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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