Many stories matter

“I’m a storyteller, and I would like to tell you a few personal stories,” begins Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk.

I am already drawn in. Stories do that; I quickly connect my own experience with those of the teller. Adichie continues to tell some very interesting stories that illustrate a pretty profound point. But I will get to that in a bit.

First, I would like to tell you a story of my own.

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I learned about the power of storytelling almost ten years ago. It was when an amazing woman, Lisbeth, placed a mug on a table. She then gave a dramatic pause accompanied by one of her characteristic mysterious looks.

It allowed those of us in the room to take a moment to investigate the mug. It was no ordinary mug; it looked like it had cancerous growths covering one side. She asked everyone in the room to describe it using only one word. She scribbled down our descriptors on a flipchart page: white; bumpy; strange.

Then she told us the story about the mug. Leaving out most of the details, the basics went something like this: It had been like any ordinary mug at her family’s vacation cabin, but one day it had been lost. Decades later, it was found in the water below the dock, forever transformed by its years in the ocean. It was a powerful story because Lisbeth is an amazing storyteller.

After recounting the story, she then asked us to describe the mug, again using only one word. This time our words were very different: discovery; treasure; tradition.

Who can identify with “white” or with “bumpy?” True, these are important aspects of the mug, and no story of the mug is complete without these descriptors. But they are just that, mere details about an object. The details are not the story of the mug. Without the story, the mug is uninteresting. The story gives it context, depth, and meaning, and people can connect with “discovery” “treasure” and “tradition.”

Storytelling allows our audience to relate to us, and to share our experiences even if they were not there. I have carried this lesson with me since that day, and I am sure I will never forget that mug. Even if it is just white, bumpy, and strange.

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Going back to the beginning of this post and back to the storyteller: Adichie is a Nigerian novelist. In her talk, she posits that stories can be dangerous, that they can be “used to dispossess and to malign.”

How so? By telling just one story.

A quick example: when she moved from Nigeria to the United States, her new roommate was shocked by her. It seemed that “there was no possibility of Africans being similar to [the roommate] in any way, no possibility of feelings [for Africans] more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

This single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

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Sharing stories at Peace Corps headquarters

Sharing stories at Peace Corps headquarters

As I mentioned a few posts back, I won a blogging prize, and the prize was a trip to Washington, DC. There, I was able to share my stories with Peace Corps staff, returned volunteers, and the other prize winners. We also talked about the nuts and bolts of writing an engaging and readable blog. All six prize winners agreed on many things. One of which Jedd in Jamaica says nicely in his post:

We, like our fellow volunteers, are trying to be intentional about what we write because we want to make a difference in the lives of our readers. We don’t want to simply report about our lives, we want people to learn something new. We want to challenge stereotypes and narrow understanding. We wanted to provide greater perspective and truth. We are hoping that when someone reads about our experiences in Jamaica, it will challenge them to think about what it is they know, and whether or not it is true.

Contest winners marveling at Josh's Ethiopian tree climbing skills

Contest winners marveling at Josh’s Ethiopian tree climbing skills

“Why do you blog?” we were asked over and over in Washington. After listening to this TED talk, I can now reply by quoting Adichie : “to tell many stories. Many stories matter.” They have the power to challenge perceptions and give a more complete picture of a place and a people.

I wrote in an earlier post that Mexico is sorely in need of more stories in the general discourse; ones that extend beyond drug violence, corruption, and illegal immigration. “That is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

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When I came back to Mexico, I told my friends and co-workers why I traveled to the United States over a bag of imported chocolate covered pretzels (which they LOVED by the way). The most gratifying part of the whole prize was their response: they thanked me for sharing a more complete picture of Mexico with the world.

To them I respond: No, thank you:

  • for sharing your world with me
  • for being so patient with my language learning and my occasional strange cultural behaviors
  • for allowing me to learn, grow, and challenge my world view
  • for continually throwing me curveballs that keep me ever-just-so out of my comfort zone where I continue to be amazed, confused, challenged, and open for new risks.

Thanks also to Peace Corps’ Office of the Third Goal for developing this contest to recognize and encourage similar types of storytelling. It was truly wonderful meeting you all! Keep reading.

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My favorite parts of other winner’s blogs:

  • Jen and Josh’s photos that really do say a thousand words, like this one about coming home:

image

  • Jedd and Michelle’s creative use of videos, such as this Patwa quiz which highlights Jamaica’s pidgin language in a funny and playful way:
    Translations can be found on their post here.
  • Sara’s balanced perspective of Thai life including a post on corporal punishment in schools and a rare showing of emotion on Mother’s Day, both of which contribute to the rich variety of stories lived by the members of her community.

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Making me smile

  • Independence Day is rapidly approaching and it is apparent everywhere. Buildings are draped in colors of the flag, chilies en nogada are gracing restaurant menus, and my favorite: public transit vans are wearing sombreros!
  • Feeling valued: I have been asked to complete the following, on top of my job responsibilities and within six weeks (subtracting a week and a half of vacation to add to the chaos):
    • Write another grant, in Spanish
    • Serve as treasurer and co-founder for a girls empowerment outdoor adventure club
    • Conduct training sessions for the new Peace Corps group
    • Host a trainee as a job-shadowing experience
    • Help facilitate a 2-day interpretation workshop on the other side of the country
    • Teach my counterpart how to make American cookies
    • Organize regional and national meetings for the Volunteer Advisory Committee
    • Host Peace Corps’ Inspector General for an interview
    • Attend a goodbye party
  • Because I am a glutton for punishment fun, I also decided to copy PC Jamaica’s idea and start a PC Mexico collaborative food blog. I will let you know when you can start cooking Mexican food along with us!

To view the entirety of Chimamanda Adichie’s amazing TED talk called The Danger of a Single Story, click and enjoy!

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