Meet the Folklorists

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Turkish Delight: A Visit with Warren and Barbara Walker

Twice in 2001 I took the opportunity to make the all-day drive from south Texas, where I work at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, to Lubbock in the Texas panhandle to interview Barbara K. Walker and Warren S. Walker, Ph.D., scholars, authors and collector-anthologists of Turkish folktales. Although I had consulted with my fellow aficionados on Storytell, a listserver for storytellers, about what to ask them I needn’t have worried at all. I simply turned on the tape recorder, and three or four tapes full of adventures later (not counting a few hot chocolate breaks), I turned it off. In between, the Walkers shared with me and future visitors to our oral history archive their adventures and misadventures collecting folktales in Turkey and creating the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University.


Warren, left, said "The old man thought I had the Evil Eye and left shortly after this picture was taken. It was in Nallihan, a town in Ankara Province, in  December of 1961." Photograph courtesy the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures and Warren S. Walker (101-0297).

Warren and Barbara Walker are a loving couple, octogenarians who are as playful as teenagers, their six decades of full-partnership marriage notwithstanding. Barbara tells me that they met during World War II at Albany University where she was dating Frenchie, the handsomest young man left on campus, a boy she’d known since second grade. One day he took her into the library, down the stairs, and there sat a fellow—hair flopped down over his eyes, a bit of acne, jacket sleeves not quite reaching his wrists—poring over a book.

Frenchie said “Hey, Butch, I want you to meet my girlfriend.”

“Butch” was Warren. He stood up (Warren insists he stumbled and Barbara caught him!), held out a work-worn hand, chatted with them briefly, then said, "If you don’t mind, I've got to get back to my Latin."

And Barbara thought, “That's the one for me!” She snaps her fingers telling this.

They went through college and graduate school together, then Barbara taught school while Warren got his Ph.D. in English at Cornell. He went to Turkey as a Fulbright Fellow, and she and their son, Brian, went along. Brian quickly learned to speak Turkish from the other children, and Barbara picked up the language at the school where she taught. Warren learned least, he says, having gratefully accepted his students’ request that he speak English to them so they could hear the American dialect.
Warren Walker in Turkey

Warren, left, said "The old man thought I had the Evil Eye and left shortly after this picture was taken. It was in Nallihan, a town in Ankara Province, in  December of 1961." Photograph courtesy the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures and Warren S. Walker (101-0297).

The Walkers decided to collect folktales there, suspecting that such a relatively illiterate country must have a strong oral tradition.

Warren says the second best thing that ever happened to him—after falling and Barbara catching him—was meeting Ahmet Uysal, whom he describes as a “village person,” like himself a professor of English at the University of Ankara but born to a village schoolteacher. Uysal loved spending time in the rural areas and went to one rural village or another every weekend, and he agreed with the Walker’s hunch that the oral tradition was strong in Turkey but was amazed that anyone would find an academic interest in it.

Women receive a measure of respect in the cities but not so much in the villages, so it was Warren and Ahmet who set out together to scour the countryside for stories.

Now, Warren had thought that, if his Turkish got good enough, he could just sit down in a coffeehouse, ingratiate himself into the group, tell a story, and let one-upmanship have its way. Ahmet knew otherwise and taught him the pattern they must use to gain the trust of the villagers. They would go to the home of the muhtar (headman) where Ahmet would introduce himself and Warren. The muhtar would ask “How are you?” and “How is your family?” and “And the children?” After 20 or 30 minutes of such questions, then a long silence, he would begin again: “How are you?”… Then he’d send out for a hot tea, and they’d slurp—how hot it was!—then go through the silly drill again. If they passed that test, the muhtar would send for the hodja, the Muslim village priest, who would carry them through the same series several more times.

The first time it happened, Warren thought, “At last I get out to the village, and we pick a muhtar who’s an idiot, or senile, who can't even remember the conversation we've had!” (Well, that’s what he says he thought; I never saw Warren demonstrate even that small level of impatience.)

But Ahmet knew better; he answered politely the second time around, and the third, until at last the muhtar and the hoça (Barbara and Warren consistently use this spelling) would signal each other—Warren never figured out how—that the pair were trustworthy, then the muhtar would ask their business. When they explained they wanted folktales, he would call in four or five men from the field, and they'd each tell a story.

Afterwards, if they were lucky, someone would say, “You think those are good stories? Come by my house at 7:00 tonight, and I’ll tell you some stories!” If they got that far, the host would surely invite other friends and family who would also tell stories. Only twice in three decades did this pattern fail to work!

But, Warren says, Barbara got the last laugh. She collected just as many stories in the city as they did in the country. She found ways of meeting people who had moved from the country into town looking for work. For example, a maid whom they’d hired to clean their apartment each week heard Barbara dictating stories into the microphone.

“You want some stories like that?” She asked. “I know lots of stories like that!” And she told one into the microphone.

So Barbara said, “From now on, you come in every week and tell stories to the tape recorder, and I’ll clean house, and I'll pay you the same.” The girl must have thought, “These crazy Americans!” but she brought in new stories every week and told them into the tape recorder while Barbara cleaned house.

And so it went for 30 summers! In villages and coffeehouses, hospitals, and even prisons, Barbara and Warren collected stories. They taped them by day and transcribed and translated by night, then spent their “spare time” during the school year in Lubbock indexing and organizing the stories. They even collected Turkish folktales in Lubbock, for their activities and interest led to an exchange program between Texas Tech University and the University of Ankara, so when relatives came to visit their student children, they would get another folktale or two.

In 1982, rejecting offers from Harvard University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania, the Walkers donated their collection to Texas Tech University, where it became known as The Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative. ATON contains some three thousand stories, translated and fully indexed by Aarne-Thompson type, subject, teller, date and place collected, with variants noted—the largest such collection in the world, including Turkey! Nearby are the original 7-inch vinyl reels of audiotape; lacking only a few from their early years, when they sometimes had to transcribe quickly, then record another story on the same tape. All that they have done to create and maintain the archive has been a labor of love, their own devotion, their own dollar.

Although they have not spent summers collecting in Turkey since 1993, the Walkers continue to contribute regular hours each day to preserving and indexing the archive and welcoming visiting folklorists, scholars and storytellers. “We’re eighty,” they explain with a wink. “We don’t leave Lubbock any more.”

Barbara Walker is still living in Lubbock. Warren Walker died in 2002.


Resources from the Walkers

A hoça story from Barbara

Some Turkish folktale resources from the Walkers’ extensive publications

Visit the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative Online


Interview with Arabian folktale collector Inea Bushnaq

Bushnaq considers herself "an interpreter of my past, to the present." The same folktales that were such a "wonderful treat of my childhood... seem to be the ideal instrument to open doors for people who might not be predisposed to listen to anything about the Middle East." Thus, during the 1991 Gulf War, Bushnaq was invited to tell Arab folktales to children in New York City schools, and children in her Greenwich Village neighborhood still remember her as "the one who told us those stories!" Enjoy Piney Kesting’s this inspiring interview with her for Saudi Aramco World magazine.

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