In the spirit of breathing new life into some old draft blog posts, I have resurrected this one from last autumn. This is a post about stories, what they are, why they matter and how they can help.
By chance, today is the day the UK officially gives notice to quit the European Union. It is a marker in what is turning into a long, messy and divisive process. Re-reading my draft notes, I realised that today is all about stories. Politics is often about the way you tell it. We have seen over recent years how having a clear narrative (Labour crashed the economy etc, austerity isn’t a choice, take control etc) can make all the difference. These narratives present a way of spinning events, marshalling facts selectively, excluding dissent and ignoring inconvenient truths. They are totalising. That is where their power lies. Theresa May was ridiculed in some quarters for her “Red, white and blue Brexit” being meaningless, jingoist nonsense. Yet it went with her narrative, fitted with everything else she has said. It probably resonated with some folk. Her narrative is a simple one: we’re going to make the best of it. Simplistic and naive, if genuinely meant. But simple narratives tend to work.
And of course the referendum was all about narrative. Leave’s narrative was coherent, consistent, simple and banged home at every opportunity. Remain’s was a catchphrase, desperately uttered at every interval. “Take back control” worked because it reinforced an existing and well-established narrative. Cameron’s cringy attempts at wagging the dog with “Stronger Together” meant nothing and ran against the narrative (often deployed opportunistically by Cameron himself) that the UK was in thrall to unreasonable EU demands and being laid waste to by so-called open-door immigration. Of course, for the most part Remain were far more accurate in their claims. But there was nothing to pin on them, no narrative drive. There wasn’t a well-crafted joke, just the punch line.
Last autumn, I watched a TEDTalk video of a conference address by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She was speaking about the danger of a single story. Chimamanda spoke of her childhood growing up in Nigeria, the daughter of a professor and a university administrator. She described with passion her love of books and reading, but that her reading options were limited to the classic trope of British and American literature. Her enjoyment of these books was clear but Chimamanda didn’t realise as a child that they offered a very limited and homogenous view of life, the world and literature.
When Chimamanda turned her hand to writing stories, as many children do, they didn’t reflect the life she knew but were all about blonde Europeans drinking ginger beer. She confesses she didn’t know what ginger beer was! And she wrote at length about the weather, despite the fact people in Nigeria rarely discuss the weather in the same way Northern Europeans and North Americans do. She wrote about snow, having never experienced it. As an adult, Chimamanda acknowledges the books she read took her to a different place but dominance of books representing one culture led her to believe literature could only be about white people. As she grew older Chimamanda began to seek out African, and more specifically Nigerian, literature. Eventually she would write her own novels featuring Nigerian characters yet she implores us not to see her characters as representing an entire people.
Chimamanda shares another story from her childhood: about a serving boy employed by her family. Chimamanda’s mother was always saying how poor the boy’s family was and Chimamanda came to pity the boy. To her, all he was only a poor boy, with whom she had nothing in common. Until one day. When she visited the boy’s family, she was surprised to find a vibrant family using art and craft to make a living. Suddenly the boy was not simply just poor but actually a real person with all the complexity that involves. If we are only shown different versions of the same story about Others, that is how we will end up viewing them. This leads to dehumanising those we see as Other and view them as completely different to us. Disposession is about those with power creating single story about those with less power.
Chimamanda’s rallying cry is that “stories matter, many stories matter” so much they can humanise and restore dignity. So how do we use stories to bring humanity and dignity into our classrooms?