The Politics of Storytelling
Now suppose I’ve managed to convince you perhaps that yes, we control the world because we can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The next question that immediately arises in the mind of an inquisitive listener is: How, exactly, do we do it? What enables us alone, of all the animals, to cooperate in such a way? The answer is our imagination. We can cooperate flexibly with countless numbers of strangers, because we alone, of all the animals on the planet, can create and believe fictions, fictional stories. And as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, the same values.
- Yuval Noah Hariri
My intention for this Pa Gya session is to engage with you in self-reflections related to writing purpose. To do this, I think we must first recognize that storytelling is not only a creative act, but also a sacred and political one.
Storytelling is a sacred act because our words and ideas are frequencies that we put into the world through our writing of them. Frequencies that last an eternity. Frequencies that now even have a global reach, thanks to the age of the Internet. These frequencies of ours have the potential to be a blessing or curse, or even both at once. For as we all know, storytelling saves lives. Storytelling calls people to action. Or storytelling simply entertains. For some, storytelling renders them indifferent. But even more nefariously, storytelling also kills; it maims and silences many people—even deep in their dreamscapes. And it has done so for many a generation of people living especially in the very real fairytale called the Third World, but also too in the First and Second Worlds; hence, the making of new stories about those who live in a Fourth World.
Storytelling is political, since—as feminists remind us—even “the personal is political”. This is because storytelling is about our intentional, or perhaps for some accidental, manipulations of words and images, plus the ideologies they uphold and the collective meanings that are given to them. Storytelling is an attempt to convince. For as Phillippa Yaa de Villiers said yesterday in the poetry workshop I attended: “whether it is poetry or law, the purpose is to influence”. Storytelling is political because of how we are each positioned alongside, or often against, each other by age, gender, ‘race’, ethnicity, class, nationality, sexuality, intellectual predisposition, education history, and other aspects of our personal circumstances and experiences in specific geographies and times. Storytelling is especially political when we find ourselves speaking for others, as opposed to speaking with them. Ultimately, storytelling—just like any other kind of knowledge production—is much more about the making of power moves (no matter how small and insignificant they may seem) than it is about stating some kind of objective truth.
For these few reasons I mention, I would say we need to always try to read and understand the biases and prejudices held in stories and their telling. This very much includes our own creations, especially when we have the not-so-humble desire to transform others around us and/or the many out there in the world. The biases I think of are those imbued in (for example):
the language/(s) we use (e.g., that the written word is often privileged over the spoken. But some may say less so now in this digital age);
the standpoints we maintain (e.g., I am a feminist, I am an NDC or NPP member, I am Black, etc.);
the bodies (and species) we re-present (which is mostly ourselves as humans);
the specific ideas we promulgate (e.g., ideas around the developed vs the undeveloped, the civilized vs the uncivilized);
the secrets, thus silences, we keep;
the spirits we conjure up or else disbelieve in;
the multiple identities we juggle (e.g., Amin Maalouf argues that we have both vertical and horizontal identity pathways, to do respectively with our connections to our roots and to others in the current milieu);
the sense of (individual and/or collective) self we possess (e.g., that of the Akan concept of self as made up of the okra/soul, sunsum/spirit and honam/body that combine to make the individual who is an integral part of a cyclical lineup of the living, ancestors, and the yet-to-be born, or even Dr. Naim Akbar’s idea of the self as comprised of the personal, social, tribal and God selves); and so on.
Many of the above stances that we take in/on daily life, often place us in rather binary (and hierarchical) positions in relation to others who are either then with us or against us. This I see as the unfortunate result of Cartesian thinking that is the basis of most—if not all—westernized education. By this I refer to, Rene Descartes idea of “I think, therefore I am”; thus, his privileging of the mind over the body. And yet we know that life itself is not only complex, chaotic and plagued by many unknowns, it is also very ambiguous, contradictory and embodied epigenetic entanglements of people, flora, fauna, things, and ideas in constant interaction, in and across particular moments in space-time.
In light of the above arguments, the following writerly questions and quotes are useful triggers for facilitating our self-reflective interrogation into writing purpose, while also being cognizant of some of our own biases when it comes to storytelling and our expressions of self and others.
1. What/Who am I?
I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am.
- Thomas Cooley
Ubuntu: I am, because you are.
2. Why do I write?
I write because I have authority from life to do so.
- Bessie Head
3. Where do I write from?
Reading words, and writing them, must come from the dynamic movement of reading the world.
- Paulo Freire
4. Who do I write for?
If you don’t like someone else’s story, write your own.
- Chinua Achebe