Friday, February 4, 2011

Telling Stories

Prompted, perhaps, by North Americans' reaction to people of other races after September 11, Princeton Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers.  As the title suggests, the central challenge he's trying to elucidate is how we relate ethically to people whose values are unfamiliar to us by virtue of race or religion.  One of the solutions he offers is telling and talking about stories.  Every culture, he points out, tells stories.  When we join reading groups or simply go for beer or coffee after a movie to talk about it, we're engaging in one of the most important things people do:  "evaluating stories together is one of the central human ways of learning to align our responses to the world.  And that alignment of responses is, in turn, one of the ways we maintain the social fabric, the texture of our relationships" (29).  He suggests elsewhere that listening to stories from different cultures and in turn telling our own stories is one of the ways we change the world a little bit without imposing our own worldviews on others.  Stories aren't (or shouldn't be) dogmatic or polemical; readers or listeners can take what they wish--whatever seems to them (in the argot of my students) "relatable."

I'm teaching a class in expository and persuasive writing this term.  Knowing that writing in the academy encourages students to adopt or create a voice that is not natural to them, I begin by having them write narrative and descriptive essays that force them to find their own voices.  The vague multi-syllabled Latinate language of academic writing doesn't convey the immediate experience we hope for when we read a good story, so they're forced back into their Anglo-Saxon roots for strong nouns and precise verbs.  In the age of Facebook status updates and 142-character tweets, I was delighted by the variety of stories they told and by their attention to language and narrative form.  They wrote about listening to stories and to the rhythm of the reader's breath while tracing raindrops down windows in Vancouver and about how this experience changed their relationships to words.  They wrote about struggling with their family's attitudes towards food; about witnessing surgery for the first time; about the family history suggested by an abandoned farmhouse, a few photographs, and a bird that suddenly bursts into the empty house, filling it with mystery and terror.  One young student compassionately described a father's need for alcohol, understanding all the physical and emotional wounds it salved.  I experienced their stories alongside them; my world grew as I marked essays.

One of the reasons we people-watch, I suspect, is that we are witness to mini-stories.  If we apply my own mantra--"Just be curious"--to those tiny moments, we find that we too can be imaginative storytellers for a moment or two, even if only in our own imaginations.  One of Bill's habits, which charmed me shortly after we met online, was his ability to tell humane and whimsical stories about a man driving an old car erratically down the road or a woman walking purposefully under a sun umbrella.  He has a whole troupe of "imaginary friends" whose stories he tells me while we do the dishes at night:  their travels, illnesses, friendships, jobs.  My favourite is the archeologist Dot Savage, though I also love Madge with her erratic travels and health problems she always downplays.  I haven't yet met Madge, but she's coming to town this weekend to have a Superbowl party with some of her 85-year-old friends.  It will be a hoot, Bill tells me.  More hot wings will be eaten there than anywhere else in town.  But they'll use finger bowls.

The photographs are by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

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