This summer I’ve had a chance to give presentations at the Rhetoric Society of America (in early June), at the Young Rhetoricians’ Conference (in late June), and at the Bread Loaf School of English’s Vermont campus (in early July). On each occasion, I spoke about a concept that’s been on my mind a lot during the last 18 to 24 months at least, and maybe a lot longer than that. In short, I’ve been concentrating on the power of narrative, of story. Why? In the simplest terms, because story is the universal genre, because stories lie at the basis of all cultures, because our lives are attempts to tell particular stories that guide us. Because, as in Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi’s telling book title, we have A Need for Story. Walter Fisher, defining humans as “homo narrans,” argues that “In the beginning was the word or, more accurately, the logos. And in the beginning logos meant story.” In “Life as Narrative,” Jerome Bruner argues that “the culturally-shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, to organize memory, to segment and purpose-build the very events of a life.”
In the talks I’ve given recently, I’ve focused first on how teachers of writing and rhetoric, and our students, can understand, challenge, explore, and remake the stories we tell about rhetoric and its origins, principles, uses, and practices, aiming to create a history of rhetoric that is much more expansive and inclusionary than the traditional Greek and Roman origin story. But I’ve also focused on how we might also take on the responsibility for story, for narrative, and for the way stories shape our experience of the world. We know in our bones, I believe, what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The danger of a single story,” which happens when whole groups of richly complex people are reduced to a single narrative. In her remarkable TED talk of that title, Adichie tells about her life as a child in Nigeria, growing up reading stories and writing stories about characters that all had “fair hair and blue eyes.” That was a single story that shaped her way of reading and writing. In her talk, she says it’s fairly easy to create a single story: just “show people as one thing and one thing only, over and over again, and that’s what they will become.”
Increasingly, I believe that it’s crucial for us to reject such single stories, along with master narratives of all kinds, and rather to pursue what I am calling narrative justice. Doing so is particularly important since I don’t see how we can achieve social justice if the narratives in which people are trapped and silenced simply will not allow for it. So we need just narratives, which can then lay the groundwork for and make possible social justice.
“Narrative justice” is not a term I have coined. We can find the concept used and developed in global health initiatives that aim to allow indigenous people to claim and tell their own stories. I believe we can learn from these efforts, from filmmaker Lisa Russell’s 2017 TED Talk titled “Promoting Responsible Storytelling in Global Health,” from Australia’s Dulwich Centre, which has pioneered a form of conversational storytelling they call “narrative therapy” and articulated a “Charter of Storytelling Rights,” and from activist Judithe Registre, who calls for “story equity” as she works on global poverty reduction.
Teachers of writing are uniquely positioned, I believe, to invite students to examine the narratives/stories that have shaped their lives, for both good and ill, to begin to interrogate those stories as well as the dangerous “single narratives” they can see at work all around them. Most important, we can enable students to counter narratives that diminish or demean them by using their own agency to revise or rewrite these narratives.
I used to begin every class I taught by drawing a thick stark line across the chalk board. At one end of the line I put “WRITING” and at the other end “BEING WRITTEN.” I still think it’s a pretty good way to begin a discussion that shows students just how much is at stake in their writing classes.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 9017 by Hans, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License