For reasons beyond our understanding, somewhere off the coast in a southern ocean near a submerged reef, a young male hammerhead shark cautiously approached a huge humpback whale of many seasons and, with all the respect commanded by such a magnificent creature, asked: “Excuse me, Sir, but would you show me how to sing your song and dance your dance?”
The whale ignored the small voice, or so it seemed, as he arched his back, thrust his enormous fluked tail, and with surprising speed for such a massive body, catapulted himself through the surface of the ocean into the air above.
“Oh my,” the hammerhead exclaimed never having seen a whale breach before. “He is sure to drown up there out of the water.”
Seconds later, the water directly above the hammerhead exploded as the huge humpback returned to the ocean depths with a twist and a turn and a wink at his startled admirer.
“How do you do that, Whale?” asked the hammerhead.
“With a strong flip of my tail, young man” replied the humpback.
“How come you don’t drown in the air? All the shark elders warn us that the world above the ocean is dangerous.”
The humpback issued a small giggle, at least as small as a 50-ton humpback can giggle, so as not to offend the curious stranger. “Since you are too young to know such things, I will tell you whales breathe air. We need to visit the world above the ocean every so often.”
The shark was interested in whales breathing air, but returned to his original question: “Can you teach me your dance and your song?”
“Why, young shark, do you want to do whale things instead of simply being the shark that you are?”
The hammerhead swam closer to the humpback who clearly had signaled his acceptance of continuing this odd conversation between two different species of the ocean.
“Well, Sir,” the shark explained, “I have been watching you ever since you moved here from wherever you lived before. Your songs and dances make me feel different than I ever have. They make me feel…uh, special.”
“What do you mean, young shark?”
The hammerhead moved even closer to the whale’s ear for fear another shark would overhear their conversation. “I have been learning about shark life as I grow up here. There are some pretty great sharks here, strong, smart, fast, hard workers, expert hunters and very, very reliable, I mean, you can count on them to be sharks every minute of every day of every week of every month of…”
“Shark!” interrupted the humpback. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“Please forgive me, Sir,” he apologized. “It’s just that I’ve never felt this way before and I’m not sure what to do about it, except come to you, since it is your singing and dancing that is making me feel this way.
“I have been taught that what sharks do,” he continued, “not only is crucial to the survival of our group, but also to help the ocean survive by keeping it clean and healthy. The motto we learn is: ‘Sharks are lovers of labor, so labor becomes love.’
“But after watching and listening to you, I wonder if sharks aren’t meant to do something more than just work and survive. I mean these feelings I get when you sing and dance…I don’t know. They are so new to me. No shark I know has ever described such feelings.”
“Well, young man,” replied the humpback, “I can show you how to do a few songs and a dance or two, but remember, you are a shark, not a whale. You will have to make the songs and dances your own, not mine.”
“I will, Sir. I will,” answered the hammerhead with excitement in his voice.
Some months later, after the humpback had left the area for his summer migration to the cold water feeding grounds, the young hammerhead male made his way into the inner circle of female sharks to find a partner. Unlike any shark before, he approached the group by dancing and singing what he had been practicing by himself all winter long.
As he neared the center, a very large, dominant female hammerhead confronted him with her head forcefully shaking back and forth, left and right, as hammerheads do, warning him to back off from the inner circle. In a loud voice so all could hear, she scolded: “What kind of worker would you be, gyrating and muttering into our circle like this? Haven’t you learned how to act like a proper shark? No one would ever choose you as a partner!”
The young hammerhead had no choice but to retreat to the outer edge of the circle in humiliation. Near the edge, he was joined by a small young female hammerhead who quietly swam alongside him. After a while she spoke in a soft voice: “Watching you dance and sing made me feel…uh, different…special…like I’ve never felt before. Will you sing and dance for me again?”
And he did for many, many seasons; and, eventually, so did she.
jambbal‘s message: Labor keeps life on the level; art uplifts it.
When did you first start writing fables and what influenced you to do so?
I wrote the first fable, “The Terrier and the Tiger”, in 2002 to bring home a message to my nephew and his partner who were squabbling that communicating with clarity and caring was of utmost importance. I had always written essays and short stories with ease, so the form was comfortable and familiar. As I approached career retirement and heeded my wife’s mantra that I was suited to write children’s stories, the fables form emerged as I considered my retirement focus. It gelled when I sought to honor some of the great messengers in human history with an acronym based on their initials and realized I could arrange them to sound like the neighborhood nickname of my wife’s beloved grandfather, pronounced in Southern Italian dialect as jambbal. I wrote the final fable, “The Source”, in 2008 for and about her and him, by which time each had passed.
Say a little about your writing process—what inspires you to write, gives you ideas? Is there a certain time of day or place you go to in order to write?
I call myself a “spurt” writer, i.e., I write when the “spurt” moves me. I never suffer writer’s block, because during those periods when I am writing nothing, I have confidence the “spurt” will re-emerge and drive me into a flurry of writing in a burst of time. Once a piece is written, the craft of writing begins and I edit, edit, edit, then proofread, proofread, proofread. I don’t seem well-suited to remember what I write once written, because I believe I am a conduit for the writing, that is, it comes from a source other than me and truly feels that way as I am writing. When I read it, I say to myself, “Did I really write that?” Usually it doesn’t feel like I was the author.
What is the most treasured compliment you have received about your work? The most helpful criticism?
In reverse order, the most helpful criticism came from a literary agent whose agency declined to represent my fables book as it was in an esoteric, i.e., low sales, genre. She encouraged me to press on and keep writing, because “Your writing is head and shoulders above most of what I see.” The most treasured compliments I will ever receive were the moistened eyes of my wife, Mary Kay, who would look up from a last line and say, “Norman, that was beautiful.”
In your “About Jambbal” page on your website, you say you consider yourself another messenger for this time, place, and people. Say a little more about that—do you consider your fables prophetic, or simply instructive? Do you have one overarching message that you always try to convey through your work?
I would never be so arrogant as to think of myself as a prophet. The messengers, whose initials form the acronym ‘jambbal’, were all regarded as such by others. If my being, my life, my messages pose worth to anyone, well, that is for them to say, not me. I just write whatever comes to me and try to craft it to be read easily by anyone and everyone. That’s the ‘messenger’ to whom I refer. I leave the rest up to others.
The pseudonym I use now and will be using for all subsequent writing is Dahl Quarray, which, when pronounced in Italian, means ‘from the heart’. Whatever the source of the writing, I trust all of it to the filter of my heart, which I trust to be a vital organ of loving-kindness and forgiving grace. Any consequence of that writing I trust to you and everyone else.