On the importance of storytelling
The other weekend, with an afternoon to myself, I made dumplings—a feat which isn’t remarkable by itself, except for the fact that when done alone, filling, folding, steaming, and freezing a hundred or more tiny dough pods of savory goodness, is a long, mind-numblingly tedious process. I understand, more than I can express, why bulk food production or preservation is so often a cultural tradition involving many people. In Korea, people--mainly women but sometimes whole families or entire monasteries--gather to produce near-obscene amounts of kimchi when the cabbage harvest is at its peak. In Midwest America, for decades, sisters and neighbors would show up in each other’s kitchens whenever a fruit harvest came in, strawberries for jam, apples for sauce, tomatoes, blueberries, green beans, zucchini--I have no idea how they prepare and store the zucchini for winter, but there has to be some way. My solution, in the face of a hundred-plus dumplings and solitude, was to stream several hours of TED Radio Hour from NPR.org, and I was very happy to stumble onto a show from April 2015 titled “Framing the Story.” More aptly explained in the show synopsis as “TED speakers explore the art of storytelling.”
Storytelling. Yes. Oh, yes.
Ruminations on storytelling is a favorite topic of mine. Not surprising then that World Weaver Press’s tagline description—once you look past publishing fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction, which places us in the industry, the next part—the part the describes not just the nuts and bolts of what we do, but why we do it and what we believe in that makes us get up and do it every day, is: We believe in great storytelling.
I am a storyteller. I know this because I believe we are all storytellers.
It is an innate component of the human condition. As much as we are drawn to the company of other humans—real flesh and blood humans, the digital renderings and diatribes of humans, the fictional humans we find in books—we are drawn to hear their stories and tell them ours in turn.
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
My aunts and uncles would gather around my grandmother’s kitchen table and tell stories. Things that had happened to them, things that had happened to people we knew, people we didn’t know, some that had become family legend. One story after another. I’d be tempted to dismiss this as “catching up” with each other if some of the stories weren’t already twenty, fifty, seventy years-old as we approached the table.
For hours and hours as a teenager, I was trapped at that table, the out-of-town relation there for a visit. It didn’t matter where or with whom we were staying the night, there was no place for me to retreat to. No smart phone to let me bury myself in the internet like any good apathetic teenager, no text messaging, no friends in town or transportation other than that controlled by the parental units. The storytelling had to be endured. And eventually, it got in my blood.
Some of us were better storytellers than others, but all of us spun out our tales for the consumption of others sooner or later. My Aunt Sherry, who could make friends with anyone, would spin out these long yarns, complete with waiving arms and animated facial expressions and the occasional voice impression. Somehow, the most uninteresting premises had a pretty good run of it under her telling. Although the impressions were usually more laughable than anything else. Me, I learned brevity. I have a tendency to ramble, laying the events out of order the longer the story gets. Brevity gave me chronology and, if I hadn’t otherwise ruined it, wit. But mostly, I sat and absorbed rather than spoke.
Back to the TED Radio Hour and people who are being notably more insightful than I am.
We're born for stories
They open (and close) with Andrew Stanton, who’s been writer/co-writer for Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, basically everything Pixar’s ever done that is awesome—and he tells us, “We’re born for stories.” Then, “We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing is a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.” They bring on writer Chimamanda Adichie, and Guy Roz asks her, “Why are we so drawn to stories?” She replies “Oh! Stories are how we make meaning of our lives. . . . Even recounting a story of something that happened to me, it make meaning of it.” Then for the clincher, Adichie finishes: “Stories are necessary, as necessary as food and water.”
As necessary as food and water.
Imagine if you weren’t allowed another drink of water, ever. You’d last about three to seven days, depending on the environment. Imagine if you weren’t allowed another bite of food, ever. You’d last, with water, at most, two months. Now imagine what would become of you if you were never allowed to tell another story. You wouldn’t die. Your body would keep functioning; science would affirm you lived, but what within you would stop? I wonder, wonder if I would ever speak again if no word that left my lips was allowed to be Story. If I would stop all but those functions required by others if I could not take pen in hand and make fiction, story, real or make-believe. I wonder—and that in itself is a story.
The danger of a single story
Chimamanda Adichie grew up in Nigeria reading British children’s literature. She was in love with storytelling, and all the stories she read were of blond-haired, blue-eyed children who drank ginger beer and remarked on the weather. So when she started writing her own stories, all the characters were blond-haired, blue-eyed children who drank ginger beer and remarked on the weather . . . traits that had nothing to do with her experience growing up in a middle class Nigerian household. “This,” Adichie tells TED Radio Hour, “is the danger of a single story.”
If you know only one story, you repeat that story.
Adichie goes on to tell the story of her encounters with her roommate when she went to college. I regret now that I cannot remember where Adichie went to college, regardless, her roommate thought “Nigerian” meant tribal music and campfires—things that fit with the roommate’s single known story of living in Africa. Needless to say, that when asked about her favorite music, the Mariah Carey cassette Adichie pulled out produced a, ah, conflict of story and reality for the roommate.
“If I want to understand a place or thing,” Chimamanda Adichie asserts, “then it can’t be just one thing. You can’t know one thing about a person or place and think that that’s it.” She pauses, then finishes, “I think it’s normal, maybe human, to depend on one thing and make assumptions.”
There’s been a cry on Twitter, long enough and loud enough to develop into a hashtag that does not seem to be evaporating—a true mark in the ephemeral culture of contemporary social media--#WeNeedDiverseBooks it cries. The official mission statement begins, “We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.” The banner, however, is carried for many reasons—sometimes diverse content producers (authors, editors, and illustrators), and sometimes for diverse characters in those books. Sometimes only for people of color, sometimes to denote all of the groups under the movement’s mission statement: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. Our mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process.” Sometimes the hashtag is trumpeted in conversations that have nothing to do with children’s literature. WWP doesn’t publish children’s, picture books, easy readers, or middle grade fiction, yet when touting the story of, for example, a mother raising a child with Asperger’s within the pages of a FAE short story, I’ve seen the tag used even though it is doubtlessly not a children’s story.
While Adichie never mentions #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the grass roots campaign is certainly in line with her notion that knowing only a single story of a people, place, or thing, is dangerous. Dangerous, indeed. We can expand that idea. Listening to news from only one source or network, is dangerous indeed. Reading only one genre of fiction and thinking it is somehow in confrontation with other types of fiction, is dangerous indeed.
I grew up surrounded by storytellers, but also with near-unlimited access to as much science fiction and fantasy fiction as I could consume. Or any other fiction, for that matter. I read because it made me happier than not reading. I wrote, badly, but kept at it. I eventually studied writing at the collegiate and graduate levels, and what I found was that my taste in genre fiction was not appreciated by the more vocal members of the student body (the faculty were rather hit or miss on this topic, so let’s leave them out of this discussion). Those vocal graduate students of my acquaintance were engaging in a single narrative. Their prejudice gave life and breath to dangers of a single story. It took a while. It took a trip to Odyssey Writing Workshop, an intensive writing workshop for serious genre writers—one focused only on speculative fiction—before I had collected enough narratives that got over my hang up: there is no single narrative when it comes to fiction or genre. There is no genre better than another. No one trope, whether realism, or mystery, or history, or speculative, that can or cannot be more literary than another trope. There are merely writers, writing what interests them. And of course there are people creating hang ups that don’t really exist. Those claiming the status of red-headed step-children and those who do what they love and do it well in, whether in the face of praise or adversity.
Yes, we need diverse books, we need more than a single story. And for my part, I’m happy to publish those books . . . or any other book, past present or future, provided the storytelling is great and the writing is above average.
Where 'needs' and 'story commandments' collide
But it’s about more than ticking a variety of boxes.
It is, as filmmaker Andrew Stanton (of Pixar) says at the end of the TED Radio Hour on storytelling: “Make me care. Please. Emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically.”
This, “make me care,” is one of his so-called Story Commandments. And I agree. Make me care. Don’t shame me into thinking I should care because of the purported diversity, and don’t be offended when diversity alone does not make me care enough to publish a work. Oh, no. Storytelling--storytelling is what can make me care, make anyone care. Great storytelling engages us emotionally, or intellectually, or aesthetically. And when it’s really, really great, it engages all three.
Give me a great story, and I’m there. I will sit for hours at your feet or around the kitchen table, elbow to shoulder with everyone else, just to hear you spin out a well-told tale. I’ll even bring dumplings to share.
Eileen Wiedbrauk, Editor-in-Chief
Eileen Wiedbrauk is an editor, writer, coffee addict, cat herder, MFA graduate, fantasist-turned-fabalist-turned-urban-fantasy-junkie, Odyssey Workshop alumna, photographer, designer, tech geek, entrepreneur, avid reader, and a somewhat decent cook. She wears many hats, as the saying goes. Which is an odd saying in this case, as she rarely looks good in hats. eileenwiedbrauk.com
World Weaver Press
Publishing fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction.