One Festival, Many Stories

The 1976 National Storytelling Festival

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah

Any sort of anniversary or celebration is a chance to reflect on the past, as well as an opportunity to learn something new. This is true of us as individuals, as families, and even as institutions. For my father’s last milestone birthdays, for example, I’ve prepared a story to present to him. I went through the process when he turned 60 and 70. On one level, I’m celebrating his personal history, and his place in the familiar family lore. But I’ve also noticed that, each time, I uncover something new—some event or detail that I didn’t previously know.

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic a lot as we move towards the 50th annual National Storytelling Festival. On one level, as we reflect and remember, we’re memorializing the past. But it can also be a process of revelation. With the event coming up in October, there’s a chance for every single person who has a meaningful connection to the event to rekindle old memories, and maybe even learn something new along the way.

The Festival has its own story, and we each have our own perspective on it. I try to keep in mind that I’m a relative newcomer. I didn’t grow up with the Festival. I wasn’t even born when it began in 1973! So it’s been a real education for me to learn about all the ways in which the Festival has touched different people in different ways at different times.

Everyone holds a piece of the history, and no two perspectives are just alike. I think of Juanita Brown, a friend and founder of the World Cafe movement, who told me she that was inspired to launch after attending the Festival. I once had dinner with George Dawes, the founder of the Moth, and he told me about the time his mother convinced him to go to Jonesborough. (She followed our work closely.) The former president of Rotary International once told me that he and his wife were big fans of the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. And there are of course so many other people who have been influenced by stories they’ve heard here.

The experience of gathering for three or four days has its own set of stories, too. I know of many friendships that were forged here. Often, I talk to people whose family tradition is to always stay at a particular guest house, or to stay with friends or family who are local. They have those reservations for life, and they regard each October as a kind of homecoming. I see a lot of beauty in that.

Like most stories, the Festival’s story has moments of triumph, as well as tensions and conflicts. It reminds me of my own family. We have characters. And there are, inevitably, differences of opinion. But at the same time, there’s a shared sense of love and respect. We have shared history. Part of what I love about my own large, quirky family is that there’s a lot of vibrancy and electricity when we get together. There’s nuance to be found in long-lasting relationships that span decades and generations.

I think the 50th Festival is going to be a natural time for people to get together and reminisce about the past, especially given that we haven’t had a chance to gather in person for a few years. I love hearing testimonials from our audience members whose families have been here since the beginning. Many have passed along the tradition to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

In my own family, we have a great religious gathering every so often. It involves a reading of a holy scripture that takes three days to read from beginning to end, nonstop. Naturally, participants drift in and out. During that time, we might sit in silence and listen, or fall asleep at the back, or cook food. Generally, somebody always stays awake. Finally, there’s a big celebration on the third day that involves a large communal meal. The Festival is the same way, in that it’s too big for one person to see it all. You can only be in one tent at a time, and maybe there are moments where you need to take a break, grab a soda, or go home to take a nap. By the third day, a magical transformation has taken place. Collectively, we feel rejuvenated. We feel connected. We feel a sense of contentment, of being part of something with people we love and other people we don’t even know. There’s a communion, a fellowship with one another, and a spiritual joy that comes from gathering over a period of days.

But I also like to remember that, as individuals, we’re walking away from this time together with different things. Some people learn something, or feel reaffirmed about their existing beliefs, or have a new understanding of someone’s identity. Some people feel inspired to gather stories from their communities, or craft new ones altogether. The Festival is different things to different people, and that is part of what makes it so beautiful.

There’s a tendency with milestone occasions to focus on what has endured and remained the same. But I also take great pride in recognizing that our Festival of today is different in meaningful ways from the Festival of 50 years ago. The folk movement of storytelling has come a long way since 1973. Over the years, we’ve made the Festival more inclusive, more diverse, and more encompassing of different traditions from across the country and around the world. During the Festival, you can walk down the streets of Jonesborough and interact with people from every state in the United States, and many from abroad. We’re all different characters from different walks of life who are coming together to share something important. We’re learning something together about our collective past, present, and future.

Today’s Festival is a living expression of the storytelling movement, and as such it has multiple meanings. It’s an open-ended story, comprised of many smaller narratives that overlap. It excites me to know that, beyond my lifetime, the Festival will grow in ways we can’t yet anticipate. And I know that, along the way, we will continue to reflect on where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going, for generations and generations to come.

I’m often asked to talk about the impact that the Festival has had, but I don’t think that’s quantifiable. Millions of people over five decades have been touched by these stories, setting off chains of events that are big and small. I remember reading a book about a NASA scientist who was trying to figure out a problem related to a rocket. To solve the problem, he went back into his childhood, somehow remembering an experience from when he was five years old. I don’t recall the exact details, but the gist of it was that the memory helped him work through the problem.

I think the stories that are planted in people’s imaginations and hearts here in Jonesborough have similar unpredictable consequences that play out in ways we’re not necessarily aware of. When I think about the impact that storytelling and the Festival itself has had on the world, it’s hard to truly grasp the sense of the scale. The possibilities are infinite, which might be my favorite part of the story. In the coming months, I look forward to reflecting on some of these stories together.