Once there was a Quechua folktale. It begins with a trickster fox's penis with a will of its own and ends with a daughter returning to parents who cannot recognize her until she recounts the uncanny adventures that have befallen her since she ran away from home. Following the strange twists and turnings of this tale, Catherine J. Allen weaves a narrative of Quechua storytelling and story listening that links these arts to others—fabric weaving, in particular—and thereby illuminates enduring Andean strategies for communicating deeply felt cultural values.
In this masterful work of literary nonfiction, Allen draws out the connections between two prominent markers of ethnic identity in Andean nations—indigenous language and woven cloth—and makes a convincing case that the connection between language and cloth affects virtually all aspects of expressive culture, including the performing arts. As she explores how a skilled storyteller interweaves traditional tales and stock characters into new stories, just as a skilled weaver combines traditional motifs and colors into new patterns, she demonstrates how Andean storytelling and weaving both embody the same kinds of relationships, the same ideas about how opposites should meet up with each other. By identifying these pervasive patterns, Allen opens up the Quechua cultural world that unites story tellers and listeners, as listeners hear echoes and traces of other stories, layering over each other in a kind of aural palimpsest.