by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
I was recently asked to deliver the opening remarks for a concert produced by the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra here in East Tennessee. It was an interesting invitation because I’ve found myself in conversation for the last few years with the League of American Orchestras, presenting about storytelling and collaboration across the arts. Just in general, there seems to be a lot of interest and projects building around interdisciplinary collaborations. It feels so fresh and vital and invigorating.
The performance I introduced in Johnson City was a collaboration that the symphony had developed with Megan Wells, a storyteller who has performed with us here in Jonesborough many times. For this project, Megan worked very closely with the orchestra director, Rob Seebacher, and the Tri-Cities Jazz Band on an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin. The result was a European story (though it was reimagined by Megan as an environmental tale) combined with a distinctly American form of music. Quite appropriately, I think, the name of the event was “Heartfelt Heritage,” and it has gotten me thinking about how our understanding of the past informs the present and shapes our future.
A lot of arts organizations (including ISC) have been thinking through ways we can engage new audiences and rethink our own narratives as organizations. This line of inquiry was deepened by the disruptions and challenges caused by the pandemic, but it was something we were already thinking about. We’re grappling with our identity, looking at what we’ve done well (or not so well) in the past, and finding new ways to be socially engaged with programs like Freedom Stories, which celebrated the under-told stories of African Americans in Appalachia as part of ISC’s 50th anniversary. We’re also looking for ways to explore history and tradition without feeling bound by them—reshaping our own stories and letting go of the pieces that have been holding us back.
It’s so interesting, the many lines of heritage that come together to inform everything we do, as organizations and as individuals. Take the late Ray Hicks, for example, a storyteller who became an iconic figure for the old ways of mountain life in Appalachia. (He was the first storyteller at our National Storytelling Festival in 1973, and he would have been 100 years old this year!) The traditional Jack tales that he loved were of course shaped by the mountains he knew so well, as well as his Scottish and Irish heritage. But Ray was also descended from the Cherokee tribe—a connection that may not be obvious to even his most devoted fans. He was actually an expert forager, with a deep understanding of natural medicine. His connection to the land and its people and its stories all came together to make him who he was.
Ray’s fascinating heritage and the way it informed his art may sound unique, but you can discern a similar approach in some of our youngest voices in American storytelling. At the last National Storytelling Festival, in October, new voice Brigid Reedy combined storytelling, cowboy poetry, and a wide range of American music styles, including jazz, swing, and blues, to incredible effect. Ray Christian crafted personal narratives about the three distinct stages of his life as a kid raised in poverty, a paratrooper in the Army, and an academic. You may have noticed that storytelling here in the United States focuses much more on personal narratives than tellers in other parts of the world. In the UK, for example, personal storytelling (like Donald Davis’s stories about growing up) isn’t performed very often.
One of my theories is the American focus on personal narrative is because the U.S., as a nation, is still exploring its identity through its stories. Understanding our national and international roots is a conversation that’s still unfolding and expanding, especially as people who have been marginalized or oppressed have new opportunities to share their experiences. We are moving away from the notion that this country has just one definitive story of its history. And that’s an incredible step towards progress, even as we continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.
We all come from stories, plural, but there has always been a tendency to anoint only one of those stories as the truth. One way to think about the recent surge of racism and nationalism in the U.S. and the UK is that our cultural identities as nations are experiencing growing pains, trying to accommodate stories that were untold or under-told for too long. Growing up as the brown son of immigrants in England, I could see – just by default – that the dominant cultural narrative was a story, not the story. One of many. But that’s not something that’s necessarily obvious to people who have always been at the center of the story that a country tells itself.
Even though I’m very proud of my family and our multiethnic heritage, the racism and xenophobia I internalized from growing up in a predominantly white English town has haunted my adult life in ways that aren’t always obvious to me. Just for instance, I recently made Indian food—Punjabi-style saag and chole (spinach and chickpea curry)—for my wife. The food had all the usual flavors and seasonings: onion, garlic, ginger, roasted cumin and mustard seeds, tomatoes, and other spices. It was an incredible meal. But when she mentioned that she was taking leftovers to work for lunch the next day, I was shocked. I told her she should take something else because people would mock her for the strong smell.
“That’s actually racist,” she said. Somewhat to my surprise, I realized that she was right.
It dawned on me that in my childhood, kids and even adults would make fun of me and my family because of what we ate and what we smelled like. And I still carry this shame with me, even though I know those people were wrong—and even though curry is now considered an essential part of British cuisine. It was so interesting to me that my wife, who grew up in rural Appalachia, could help me come to this realization about how my past impacts me in the present day. That small anecdote represents both the challenges and the rewards of intercultural understanding, and how people who are different than you can both cause you pain and help you heal.
While we often talk about how communities are divided by difference, there are also many stories of communities who celebrate it. In Scotland, where I spent a decade living and working in my early career, there was a project called “There Are Many Threads of the Tartan.” The interwoven multicolored threads were thoroughly Scottish, but had a potent symbolism that reflected the cultural diversity that Scotland celebrates. My Sikh tartan represented my parents’ heritage in India and East Africa, as well as the generations of Sikhs who have made Scotland their home. When I left to move to the U.S., a friend at my leaving party said, “You leave as a son of Scotland. Do Scotland proud.” I had never felt as Scottish as I did in that moment, when I was leaving the country and closing that chapter of my life. I felt like William Wallace, the famous Scottish knight.
Over the past year, ISC has been collaborating with an organization called E Pluribus Unum, a nonprofit based on the national motto (“out of many, one”). We’ve been exploring how to value and celebrate many different kinds of stories alongside one another, which is of course a founding principle of this nation. The human journey involves joy and sorrow for everyone. Those shared experiences are one of our most compelling and useful tools we can use to support people who are in crisis, and to build more resilient communities.
We can see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves, while valuing the differences that make us who we are. But over the last decade, too many people in this country have lost sight of that.
Next year, ISC will launch a brand-new initiative funded by the New Pluralists collaborative. It’s called “More than One Story,” and it’s designed to use storytelling to challenge the polarizing narratives that drive us apart and cause conflict. We plan to study the impact of storytelling to strengthen civil discourse in communities and across sectors.
Stories help us understand who we are, and how we relate to other people in the world around us. We can use our stories to share something as simple as what we had for dinner last night, or to share something more sweeping and profound about our lives. Articulating our experiences to the world, and being given the space and the tools for self-expression to do so, is a form of empowerment and joy.
As we head into the holiday season, a time of year when we’re often spending more time with our families and friendly new faces, it’s good to remind ourselves of what an incredible gift and rich resource our differences can be.
Here’s a final story. Years ago, before I had permanently moved to the United States, I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. I took a tour of the tenements in which many different kinds of immigrants had lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. These were people who had moved to NYC from all over the world. During the tour, we entered a preserved space, a room where an Orthodox Jewish family had lived. The guide described how people of different traditions lived in the adjacent apartments, and how, on the Sabbath, the Orthodox residents relied on the kindness of their neighbors to turn on a line switch in the morning and off again at night.
I’ve always loved that detail, and the idea behind it has stayed with me for all these years. To me, it represents the ideal and beauty of a multicultural society, where people not only practice different traditions, but those differences are valued and essential. To me, it illustrates the core truth that people from many different walks of life are meant to interact, to support one another, and to lean on one another to feel safe.