Friday, January 20, 2012

Zadie Smith, you speak straight to my heart.

One of my least favorite conversation starters is "I have to tell you something, but I can't right now, so it has to wait." Or: "We need to talk. Come by at 5." I will spend the time between now and 5 worrying about the something, the talk.

I have lots of somethings to tell you, but they have to wait and it breaks my heart.

While my own stories are brewing quietly, please read the words of Zadie Smith. They travel with me, stirring me every once in a while, reminding me of why it is that I love the craft of storytelling. In the January 2012 issue of Guernica, she discusses her desire for a different type of storytelling in international development. In her words:
This is no special flaw in the world of development—every large organization has its technocratic lingo and unreadable reports. But it seemed to me a shame that between the highly technical, acronym-heavy documents written within the world of development and the often saccharine self-descriptions of the church workers, there were so few people writing development stories from a human perspective. Stories that were not especially concerned with a man’s eternal soul or his statistical representation, but with his life.
The words jumped out of the page because those are the stories I aspire to tell. 

She goes on to discuss "Writers Bloc", an Open Society-funded initiative that endeavored to send fiction and non-fiction writers to find such stories.  Smith argues: "A writer hopes to make connections where the lazy eye sees only a chasm of difference." The task of these writers was to do just that, to return from the four corners of the world with "reporting without the wonk."

And so Aleksandar Hemon took to Bosnia, Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie to Nigeria, Rachel Holmes to Palestine. Start with Zadie Smith's reflections on the need for this kind of storytelling and click on to the bottom of the piece for the writers' accounts from Pakistan to Haiti and Bangladesh to South Africa.

I have been thinking about the place for feelings in my work, both as a storyteller and as a conflict specialist. I seem to have gathered a lot of feelings along the journey and to have even made my peace with having them. A friend likened this internal peace-making process to "melting icebergs." My melted-in-a-puddle self is particularly exhilarated to read the following in Zadie Smith's piece:
But it is also natural, upon entering the gap between first world and the third, to feel something, to be moved, and to have opinions, to express anger.
Some of you will take issue with the terminology "first and third world" and you will be right. But I will also join you in taking issue with the absence of feelings... with the type of storytelling, work and personal investment in highly vulnerable communities that makes no room for being moved. 

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