Storyteller

When I was little girl, my Grandma Kelly used to write stories for me and my cousins. Every few months or so, we’d get a new one in the mail and each one was illustrated by hand, complete with cover pages and each sheet in plastic slip covers. Sometimes, one of us grandkids would make a guest appearance in the stories, which was always exciting. My whole childhood, these stories piled up until I had a binder about 3 inches thick called “Stories by Grandma K”. They were always part of the bedtime rotation and my favourite was about Cecilia, the cyclops who learns to love her big beautiful eye.

I remember so clearly the day I decided that I was going to write stories too. We were in the car on the way to visit my Grandma for the day and I told my mom I was going to make a story for Grandma K (illustrations included, of course). I was probably 7 and I wrote 3/4 of a page on lined paper called “Too Litle Grils Go for a Walk”. There were crooked trees lining the page and a whole lot of spelling mistakes but I was so proud of my story and couldn’t wait to give it my Grandma!! She loved it (or claimed to, hehe) and about a month later, a story by the same name, dedicated to me, appeared in our mailbox. Grandma had taken my idea and written a longer story, completing each copy with my story photocopied at the back. I was enthralled. Look at what an idea that had started as a thought in my head had become!

And so, the stories continued. In elementary school I kept extra notebooks and filled them with stories featuring my friends and I as the “Horse Helpers” who rode horses and saved people in our neighbourhood. I self published a poetry book called “Daisy Chains” and wrote my first “novel” in 5th grade. I thrived in creative writing classes and clubs and told anyone who would listen that I was going to be an author when I grew up. I entered poetry and short story contests and sometimes I even won.

And then the storytelling began to stretch beyond paper. I read a ton as a kid and would reenact the stories for my friends who didn’t want to read themselves. At camp I would drag a book out over a week or two, using funny voices and making the best (aka my favourite) parts last the longest. I loved when friends would ask what I had been reading or ask me to tell them a story. I remember going on canoe trips and making up tall tales about the trees following us as protectors on our voyage.

In high school I discovered blogging and loved that I could share my thoughts whenever I felt like it. I learned about spoken word poetry and fell in love with the way people could dramatically and passionately twist words into powerful performances. Even my everyday life became filled with stories of spontaneity and humour, sometimes even stranger than fiction, that I would retell to my friends, hands flying and eyes sparkling with excitement.

I love to tell stories, in every way, shape, and form. When I think about the core of who I am and what I am passionate about, my identity as a storyteller is always one that just feels right. It settles into my soul like it belongs there. I love words and the way creativity and the real world weave together like multicoloured threads, making people stop and listen and feel and engage. Remember the last time you read a book that made you cry or laugh out loud or wish you could have coffee with a character?

I want to do that.

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I want to tell authentic stories

Ask anyone who knows me – I like to talk. Specifically, I like to tell stories. I try to keep them honest, to recount them the way they actually happened as best as I can. Sometimes I tell it in a dramatic or funny way but I keep it real. And isn’t that what a storyteller is? Someone who relays the facts without distorting them but also without boring people?

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The thing is, stories are how we relate to people. It’s how we share bits of our lives, parts of who we are. It’s a way to see that we aren’t alone in the world, a way to let people in, a way to be vulnerable. Sure, sometimes telling my friends about my crazy professor or my long drawn out adventure across campus to get a form signed may not seem like a vulnerable thing but it’s all part of the continual process of letting people in, of learning to relate to others and of learning how to confidently portray who we are.

But what if I didn’t get to tell my own stories? What if they were always being told by observers who didn’t really understand me and who wanted the narrative to fit their own perception of who I am? They say that there are three sides to every story: your point of view, the other person’s point of view and the truth. What if the other person’s point of view was the only one to be told, always, in every circumstance? More importantly, what if their version of the story always portrayed you as weak, incompetent, destitute or worse?

That is the danger of a single story.

As many of you may know, this summer I will be interning in Malawi as part of pursuing my degree in International Development. I am so very excited to have gotten a position with Art and Global Health Centre Africa as a Youth Leadership Officer and I cannot wait to go and live and learn with people on the other side of the world, in a continent I have yet to visit. As part of the course uOttawa has associated with the internship program, I have to go through 30-50 hours of pre-departure training this semester. We usually meet on Saturday mornings and discuss how to ask yourself powerful questions about your internship, how to look at issues of power, privilege and intersectionality, what is means to build capacity in your host organization and other topics to help each of us make the most of this incredible experience while also being as respectful, helpful, humble and open-minded as possible. I am grateful to be part of a program that cares about the ethics behind working internationally in the Global South. And after a weekend of training with WUSC, CECI and Uniterra, I am also feeling pretty blessed and encouraged by the insightful, intelligent, passionate and thoughtful other interns who will be going to Malawi at the same time as me, as well as those who will be in other countries this summer. It is very inspiring to be in a room with people who share your passions.

A week ago we watched a video recorded at TEDGlobal in 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The official description is “our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”(see video below).  Basically, she talks about the pervasive international perception of “Africa” as a poor country in need of saving, and the importance of exposing oneself to multiple stories or perspectives of individual countries and people in order to relate to them, to celebrate difference while also seeing the threads that tie us all together. At least that is what I got from her message, although it is far from verbatim.

When I got home, I started searching for movies, TV shows, YouTube videos and books about Malawi and/or by Malawians. I found very, very few. Those I could find were mostly written from the perspective of foreigners.

And so I guess what I have been pondering is, how do I make sure that when I tell stories about my time in Malawi, I am not perpetuating the single story? How do I stay true to my own perspective and also accurately portray other people’s experiences? How do I avoid telling stories that are not mine to tell while also using my opportunity to learn from the Malawian people and share my thoughts, feelings and lessons learned with those here in Canada who do not have the same experience? I want my time in this nation to impactful, to build capacity in my host organization, to build capacity in myself and to share knowledge with those who I have influence over, whether through my relationships, my social media, or this blog.

I know that my stories will always carry bias. The biases of being white, of being a Christian, of being Canadian. Of speaking English as a first language, of being a student of international development, of being straight and of the quirks of my own personality. Even that fact that I identify storytelling as being part of who I am, influences the way I communicate, the way people listen and the opportunities I am given to be heard.

I want my storytelling of my time in Malawi to be authentic, honest and true to both me and the people I share my experiences with.

I don’t necessarily have answers, no promises of how I am going to make that happen. But I want you all to know that it is something I am thinking about and something I am going sincerely make effort towards.

So watch this space. I am filled with anticipation. I feel very privileged to get to pursue the things I am passionate about and to have experiences I have dreamed of for a very long time. And I am excited to share them with you. Adventures come in all sizes and types and I try to live everyday like an adventure. But I have to admit, some are a lot more grand than others and I suspect my time in Malawi will be one of the greatest yet.

Please watch the video below and think about the ways in which you can explore broadening the narratives you hear.

Thank you for listening to my stories. I am so grateful to each of you for making space in your lives for my words.

Until next time, Sam