by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
This blog is part of a special series of reflections leading up to the 50th annual National Storytelling Festival. You can read the first two entries, on how the Festival means different things to different people, here and here.
The first annual National Storytelling Festival was in 1973, and as we get ready to celebrate our 50th year I’ve done a lot of reflecting on that first convening in Jonesborough and what it has meant. I wasn’t there (I hadn’t even been born yet!), but I feel a deep personal connection to it, in part because this has also been a milestone year in my family. Fifty years ago, in 1972, my parents were forced to flee Uganda under threat of death from an evil dictator. And 2022 is also the 75th anniversary of the partition of India and Pakistan, which led to a terrible refugee crisis that also affected my people, including my granddad, who was forced to fight. My family’s stories survived through the stories they carried with them when they were displaced and driven out of their homes.
In 1973, with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs, my parents landed in a small town in the south of England, where I was born four years later. So when I say that you can lose everything—your home, your treasures, your clothes—but no one can take away your stories, I really mean it. Your stories belong to you, and they will keep you company wherever you go. For me, as a child, stories were what my parents used to tell me and my brother about where they came from, about my grandmother, and about other faraway family members and places and traditions.
Growing up in an immigrant family in the south of England, I didn’t often see myself reflected or represented when I looked around. (I was the first person of color born in my hometown.) But I learned a lot at our huge family gatherings. (My extended family is scattered all over the world—mostly in the UK, but also in India, Canada, and several East African nations.) We would gather at the cul de sac at the end of the street of our small concrete housing estate. Sometimes there were 50 or 60 or more of us, including my parents and my grandparents, many first cousins, and many more extended family members. My aunties would turn our garage into a restaurant-style kitchen with large cooking pots called patilas. With my uncles and cousins, I would help chop the onions. There were so many! And as we prepared the food, which would take all day or multiple days, there was laughter, music, banter, and songs that continued late into the evening or even the early morning. My grandmother often played the dholki drum as people clapped and danced.
Sometimes our elders—and especially my grandmother, our large and proud matriarch—would sit under the tree in the backyard, or on the sofa in the house, and everyone would gather around to hear a story. They told us stories of survival, courage, love, faith, and belonging. Often, they spoke in Punjabi, our mother tongue. Even in my memory, these occasions retain a sense of vibrancy. My family loved to celebrate life. I remember someone mentioning to me that they had noticed a big party at our house, and I had to tell them it was actually my mother’s funeral. Even though it was a difficult time, we felt smothered in love.
At nighttime, my little cousins and I slept side by side on the floor while the adults stayed awake to take turns singing old Bollywood songs. Every corner of the house was occupied, and we’d wake up to the smell of my aunties making hot masala chai. On nice days, we would head to the seaside for a picnic.
I think that, over the years, I’ve sought out that warm and lively atmosphere in many places where I’ve lived and worked. It’s a good, comfortable feeling, and I think our Festival has it. Jonesborough is a place where people of different ethnicities, traditions, ages, and backgrounds come together in fellowship and story. People are generally happy to be there. There are different families and friends and perspectives. And through the stories themselves, we hear what my colleague Nick Spitzer, who hosts NPR’s “American Routes,” describes as “information disguised as entertainment.” Just as I learned about my family and our heritage in my family’s informal gatherings, the stories that we hear each year at the Festival are teaching us about other places and times and traditions.
Stories and our modes of sharing them are intrinsically linked to identity and understanding who we are, where we come from, and what we value. In recent years, in the U.S. and elsewhere, issues of identity have increasingly come to the fore, often with the terrible baggage of tension, conflict, and unrest. It’s incumbent upon us to unpack stories about our collective heritage, and find ways to honor everyone without becoming defensive about traditions that no longer serve us as a society.
When I was a kid, we were sometimes told folk tales at school assemblies. At night before I’d go to bed, I’d switch on the globe lamp in my bedroom and imagine different places in the world. The seashore was close to our house, and during the day I’d look out over the water and imagine other places, knowing that one day I’d get to travel and see them myself. Every day, as kids and as adults, I think we’re all just trying to make sense of the world we live in. We’re continually searching for meaning and purpose, and we’re naturally curious. We have a deep desire to seek out truth, and to meet and connect with other people. And sharing stories with each other is integral to all of that. Our faiths and traditions, the way we craft quilts or pass along recipes, and even the way we decorate our front porches or put stickers on our cars tell stories about who we are and what we believe.
When we look at the world in this way, it’s clear the idea that one story or identity could replace another is false and even silly. Life is not a zero-sum game where your success comes at my expense. Our stories are interconnected and interwoven, and there’s room for everyone to pitch in, because together these tales form a tapestry that is always expanding (much like the universe itself).
Stories are a form of magic. And you can’t capture magic with a formula or an algorithm. Business consultants and advertisers might use the language of storytelling for their own purposes, but stories aren’t transactional. In public relations, or on the news or social media, people look for the shortest way to tell a story. And I think that approach is wrongheaded, and that we’ve all suffered for it. To really understand something—let’s say the U.S. South, or the country, or the subcontinent of India—a three-minute elevator pitch isn’t going to work. (Certainly, if I’d asked my grandmother to a story in three minutes, I’d have gotten what is known in the business world as negative feedback!) A single story or a single article or a single book also isn’t going to work. We need to listen to many different perspectives to better comprehend the big picture.
Stories also help us build important mental and emotional muscles. Kathryn Tucker Windham, one of the matriarchs of the National Storytelling Festival, often talked about how the role of storytelling is to help us to truly listen. Stories can’t exist without at least one listener. But modern life and its distractions discourages us from cultivating that skill and that appetite.
Storytelling is a real counterargument to the sense of powerlessness that many of us feel when there is trouble and conflict in our communities and in the world. It’s not just a force for social change; storytelling is social change itself. It helps us connect, engenders new understanding, and inspires us to act for positive change in the society in which we live. I think stories can help us see past the surface of our political opponents and rehumanize one another in an environment that encourages us to do the opposite.
We have a natural tendency to be interested in the stories of people like us. But every story holds some form of truth. How much are we willing to listen to those truths, fully and intentionally, and without judgment— even when they’re different from our own?
Our Festival is an opportunity to broaden and expand our understanding of one another, and to delve in and hear complex stories that have been forgotten, neglected, or suppressed. Our approach is a curious combination of ancient and modern, and our stage is a space in which we work to preserve tradition for future generations as much as well as further storytelling as a living art form here and now. As listeners, storytelling gives us a chance to connect with others, even if we’re just sitting together quietly.
Multiculturalism is a foundational American value that we need to celebrate, not fear. The story of this nation is bigger than any one of us, yet it is closely tied to our individual identities. There’s beauty in each and every person’s experience, if we only take the time to listen and understand.
At this year’s Festival, as we celebrate our 50th year dedicated to the art of storytelling, I’ll be thinking about those gatherings I used to have with my family, and the warm sense of wonder that came from learning about where we all come from. I wish that for all of you: time to hear stories that foster a sense of joy and comfort, and an open mind and heart to listen.