Isle of Story Festival: Marta Singh Has a Tale to Tell

Marta Singh

Marta Singh

Ask Marta Singh, the guest storyteller at this year’s Isle of Story Festival, how she became a storyteller and you get — what else? — a story.

“The real story,” she says with a laugh, although it’s “not romantic, I’m telling you!”

It had been three years that I had arrived to Canada. It had been about six months after my divorce. Me and my dog had moved just to Ottawa and I truly didn’t know what to do with myself. I wasn’t ready to go back, but I didn’t know how to go forward. The person whom I had been seemed to have disappeared and I didn’t know who else I could be, other than the one I had been all my life. But that life seemed…lost.

So, in those days I remember writing and asking just the good forces to please, tell me what to do with myself. And mostly, you know, when you’re in that state of mind, you’re asking for a sign, any kind of sign. So I was walking my dog one day — Henry, Golden Retriever — he peed on a poster that promoted the Ottawa Storytellers Annual Storytelling Festival!

And me being a person of words — not as a storyteller at all, but as a simultaneous interpreter and as a translator — I had never come across…the word “storytelling” and I decided I needed to go and check them out. And I was so lucky…because I could have gone into any room and had anybody tell any story, but I walked into room 156 of the Library and Archives of Canada and the best storyteller that I have known was telling a story…

That storyteller was the late Jan Andrews, a Canadian children’s author and the first president of the Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada. She would become a friend and mentor to Singh, but that first day, she drew her in with a new twist on an old tale:

[Andrews] was telling a story that picked up the story of Hansel and Gretel where I had left it when I was a kid, and showed Gretel going through some of the things that I had gone through in my late teens and early ’20s. And to me, that was like crossing a door that connected the past and the present: it was as if fragments of my life that had been lost had been just restored and returned to me. And it had been years that somewhere, other than in a book or a movie, I had been so grabbed by the heart, the throat, the gut into something that, well, it was pretty much thin air. It was conjured in the moment by the words and the artistry of the teller and then the minute she closed her mouth, the world disappeared. But it had been so real!

Singh was hooked, and that fall, when the Ottawa Storytellers held their annual beginners’ workshop, she signed up.

…I took it and I’ve never stopped since then.


I asked Singh, who is originally from Argentina, if she told stories in the sense of fiction or stories in the sense of recounting true events and she laughed again:

You know, when I go to schools, it’s like clockwork, I finish telling a fairy tale, a wonder tale, a folk tale, a ghost story, a story of my grandparents and the first question the children come up with is: “Is it true? Is it true? Did you see that really happen?”

I guess it depends on many things, really, the first one, what do you think it means when you begin upon a fairy tale and you say, “Once upon a time?”…[S]omething in me knows that fairy tales and wonder tales and folk tales are a bit of a blueprint of the journey that we have traveled as human beings here on earth…And the legacy that we have received from everybody who has ever lived and been human is these tales. To me, they represent the human journey and everything in it — the witches, the queens, the kings, the magic, the wise women at the crossroads.

She said she always thought that if she ever wrote, it would be fiction, only to discover, when she first tried to write:

I don’t have a bone of a fiction writer in me. I can’t even invent a dog peeing on a tree if I didn’t see him.



She asked Andrews for help and was given “four tasks” to complete which resulted in “bits and pieces of scrap paper where I had drawn memories.” In explaining to her first listeners what each memory stood for she found “the beginning of the show that you’re going to see on Thursday…called Landscapes of Silence.” Singh says the work weaves fairy tales and memoir into “a tapestry of what you find in fairy tales and what I found while I was growing up:”

I grew up in a pretty dark time, not that my childhood was dark, it was happy and I felt very safe, but I grew up during the last military dictatorship that ruled my country and…the way I grew up, which is locked up in a bilingual, private, English-speaking school in a very residential neighborhood, I wasn’t aware of anything that was happening. We became aware when democracy arrived and it was the first time I heard the word “dictatorship.” I had never, ever heard the word before the Falklands War, which was when the dictatorship ended.

So, when everything started to come to light (because the newspapers were basically tall tales) and…the military dictatorship falls and democracy arrives, then we begin to begin to understand the 15 years that just went by. I was 15, and information really starts pouring out and then we know the whole truth, the whole truth and…it’s a feat to believe that we lived the way we lived for 15 years.

Everything’s a little tinted by that (or a lot, it depends on the piece). Those stories are true to life. Some of them true to fact. And the rest of my repertoire is wonder tales, fairy tales and some legends from Argentina. But they’re also informed by history and social life of the place.

Singh has been performing solo shows for eight years now. She says “storytelling” is a word that has “exploded into a universe of atoms and meanings” these days, used by filmmakers, photographers, painters and others to describe what is they do but she herself is old school:

What I do is the old-fashioned way of storytelling, which is in real time using words.

You can see Singh perform in real time on Thursday, May 3, when she presents Landscapes of Silence at the Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney. She will also participate in a number of other Isle of Story Festival events (see schedule below).


Isle of Story Festival

The Isle of Story Festival will take place May 1-5 in Sydney, celebrating the past, present and future of storytelling in Cape Breton. Over the 5 days of the Festival there will be opportunities to attend feature workshops, a “Story Swap” with audience participation, storytelling events and more. All events are free and open to everyone. For more details, visit the Festival’s Facebook page.

The Isle of Story Festival has been made possible by a collaboration of local organizations, including Breton Books, the Cape Breton Regional Library, Cape Breton University’s Beaton Institute, the Centre for Sound Communities – CBU and Membertou Heritage Park. Support to make these events possible has been received from the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, Membertou Governance, Support 4 Culture, Nova Scotia Community Culture & Heritage, and Storytellers of Canada.


Schedule of Events

Wednesday, May 2
4-6 pm, McConnell Library, Sydney

“Sister to Courage: A Tribute to Wanda Robson” This event features Isle of Story Festival’s 2018 Distinguished Storyteller honouree Wanda Robson joined by special guests. Wanda will be sharing memories of her youth and her sister Viola Desmond.

Wednesday, May 2 
7-8:30 pm, McConnell Library, Sydney

“Wonder Tales” 
Stories, fairy tales, wonder tales by an array of storytellers including our guest storyteller Marta Singh and participants in Ronald Labelle’s Youth Fairy Tale Workshops. One highlight will be a tale or two from those told in the 1950s by Jean Deveaux of Glace Bay.

Thursday, May 3 
3:30-5:30 pm, Polish Village Hall, Whitney Pier

“Stories of Resilience” 
A cross section of Cape Breton storytellers share their personal experiences of strength, reflecting such recurring Island themes as immigration, labour, assimilation and family ties.

Thursday, May 3 
7:30 pm, The Highland Arts Theatre (The HAT), Sydney (pay what you can)

“Landscapes of Silence” The history of a country’s good people who strived to live at a time when silence meant survival. Our invited guest storyteller this year is Marta Singh, originally from Argentina. “Landscapes of Silence” is the story of a mother and a daughter who traveled across their silence, to reach out for what they had lost. A one-woman show recently performed at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre to rave reviews.

Friday, May 4 
1-3 pm, McConnell Library, Sydney

“Tea & Tales – Storytelling with Our Seniors” Guest storyteller Marta Singh will be on hand to encourage our elders to share their stories. We’ll make the tea and you bring the tales. We would love to hear “your” story.

Friday, May 4 
7 pm, Doktor Luke’s, A Respectable Coffeehouse, Sydney

“Story Swap” It’s an open mike evening of storytelling where anyone can be a storyteller. Based on the success of last year’s Story Slam, we are looking forward to a night filled with laughter and surprise and perhaps even a tear or two. Our guest storyteller Marta Singh will get things started as the rest of us put the finishing touches on our own stories. Hosted by Scott Sharplin.

Saturday, May 5
9 am, Membertou Heritage Park (located next to Membertou Trade & Convention Centre)

“Stories to Tell” 
A morning workshop with Marta Singh based on the premise that story is our first language and storytelling is an art form. Marta will work with participants on developing this language and cultivating this art.

Pre-registration required. Maximum registration: 18 participants. Please phone McConnell Library 902 562-3161 for more information and to register.

Saturday, May 5
12 noon, Membertou Trade & Convention Centre

“Spring Gathering/Mawio’Mi” 
Come share in an afternoon of food and the joys of dance, stories, drumming and community. Experience the Mi’kmaq culture of Membertou and help us bring the 2018 Isle of Story Festival to a rousing conclusion. FREE OUTDOOR EVENT.