Monday, April 4, 2011

Saving stories or saving storytelling?

The other day I read an article in this week's Christian Science Monitor called "Saving the stories." I can't stop thinking about it. The article is about people in Qatar collecting stories from old people and packaging them for young people to experience. As I keep rereading it I keep coming back to a few particular sections of the article. It starts:
Growing up, Kholoud Saleh never heard the story of the donkey and the grain. Or the one about the magic fish that helped a lonely stepdaughter escape her evil stepmother. "The older people, they were told [these stories]," she says. "But us, no."
And this part:
In Qatar, stories have primarily been shared orally. This was partly by necessity – the government didn't offer comprehensive public education until the middle of the 20th century. ...
Folklore was a way for extended families to share their heritage and values. It "allowed grandfathers and grandmothers to play a big role in children's verbal education at home," explains Elnour Hamad, an art education professor at Qatar University.
But in the past 10 years, Qatar has rapidly transformed into a bustling cosmopolitan society. Now, young people spend more time at school and in malls than they do with their families.
The article describes how young people set out to capture some of the old stories the old folks tell, spurred on by a researcher who "armed them with tape recorders and sent them out to find elders." One the student collectors recalled that he
... ventured into coffee shops and mosques in the hopes of finding people to talk to. He was turned away again and again. "It was so difficult at the first," he says. "I would come to ask, and they would say no, no, no."
Eventually, he convinced one woman to share a story about a donkey that steals grain from an old woman on a farm. The donkey denies that he is responsible, but the old woman designs a clever test to figure out that he's the thief. ... Since that initial breakthrough, other stories have followed.
Some people involved in this project are converting the captured stories into "graphic short stories" with "accompanying illustrations." Says a student helper:
Today, kids are more concerned about Disney stories and TV shows ... We want to take them back to their tradition.
And a participant:
My daughters and my sons should really be able to read these stories.
Half of me reads this and says, yes, bring stories to the people. Good things happening. In fact at first I thought nothing but: we must put that link on our blog, it's good news.

But the other half of me keeps crossing its arms and saying: Wait a minute. I understand that people are trying to work with the rock-solid fact that people are unreachable except through polished, packaged, television-style stories today. But is that a rock-solid fact? Do we have to accept it? Can we change it? Could it be that saving stories and saving storytelling are at odds? If we concentrate on saving only one, might we unwittingly aid in the destruction of the other?

When I read this article I wanted to know some things. Why did people stop telling stories? What do the old people say about why they stopped telling stories? Why do they say "no, no, no" when you ask? What is the story of the loss of storytelling? What stopped working? Is anyone asking these questions? Or are we only asking about the stories themselves? Stories without storytelling are like facts without faces; they lose their humanity. It seems a hollow achievement to capture only the stories while storytelling itself is left to die. If young people "spend more time at school and in malls," can nothing be done about that? Is there no innovation or creativity we can apply to the situation? Are we treating the disease or only its symptoms?

I could imagine an article that involved all the same people, but in addition described a series of monthly meetings held in every city street or village where the old people were asked to tell the old stories and the young people listened. It's not hard to hold such meetings; just advertise a free meal and people will show up. You could even hold them in schools and malls, if that is where the young people are.

Consider the Laughter Clubs of India. In these people get together regularly to do something together that harks back to old times and helps them all. They don't preserve laughter: they preserve laughing. Maybe research projects with aims to reinvigorate traditional culture could sponsor and promote story clubs. And maybe some few young people might be attracted to the idea and might be given a small stipend to undertake a storytelling apprencticeship where they spend time with one or several old storytellers and learn to tell the stories themselves. What would that be like?

I've seen several other instances of people creating spaces where people come together to do something of mutual benefit. Have you heard of the Hole-in-the-Wall stations in India? These are shared workstations set up where people get together. From the web site linked above:
For experts, like Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, Hole-in-the-Wall is a ‘Shared Blackboard’ which children in underprivileged communities can collectively own and access, to express themselves, to learn, to explore together, and at some stage to even brainstorm and come up with exciting ideas.

For villagers, it is more like a village Well, where children assemble to draw knowledge and, in the process, engage in meaningful conversation and immersive learning activities that broaden their horizons.

And finally for children, it is an extension of their playground where they can play together, teach each other new things, and more importantly, just be themselves.
Could you imagine storytelling/listening centers like this? Why not?

If people created some sort of support for storytelling like this, some tape recording would go on here and there, and some stories would  be saved. But that would be a safe-guard in the event of loss, a complementary action, not the entire effort. What if there was a balance between reviving the practice of story exchange and reviving the old stories?

In the environmental movement there are groups like the Nature Conservancy who preserve land, and there are groups like the World Wildlife Fund who preserve the idea that nature matters. Which is more important? They both matter. What if there was a similar balance in efforts to preserve the narrative life of humanity? (Is there? Then why do I keep reading articles like this one?)

(Of course I am writing based on an ignorant reading of one newspaper article. Perhaps the people leading this effort are creating such a balance.)

What do you think? Is it better to save stories or storytelling? What is the best way to support both? Are they at odds? If they are at odds, what are some solutions? If they are not at odds, how do you see them?

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