World Storytelling Day
There are many examples of verbal and non-verbal forms of communication in the animal kingdom—acoustic communication, non-vocal auditory outbursts, bioluminescence, chemical cues, and many others that we are yet to understand. Arguably, the single most important skill that may have allowed Homo sapiens to dominate Earth’s systems is the ability to convey complex ideas and complicated histories to the next generation through shared languages and writing.
Long before the invention of writing, human social interactions included the use of stories to preserve and transmit histories, traditions, languages, and world-views. Storytelling was an intimate yet communal creative experience where oral narratives were sometimes combined with drawings, dance, or music. The long and varied traditions of storytelling through myths, legends and epics span every culture on our planet from the aborigines in Australia to the Bush Cree in Canada, pre-dating even the first forms of world literature that evolved in ancient Mesopotamia.
Myths, legends and epics is also the theme for the 2019 World Storytelling Day, and storytelling events all over the world are held annually on the March equinox.
Reading: From social to individual
In the past couple of centuries though, as the access to literacy and to the written materials increased, social reading gave way to silent reading, and storytelling as a community activity declined around the world. In major reading cultures of the world like Chinese and Indian, where their script do not have many spaces between words, and where literature depends heavily on prosody, silent reading may have evolved differently. In Renaissance Europe though, historians argue that silent reading not only changed the way we read, but also led to a new preoccupation with the individual.
With the escalation of industrialization and new technologies in the twentieth century, written and visual media largely replaced oral forms of social activities. Concurrently, the effects of anthropogenic changes to the Earth’s systems began to be manifested in global climatic disruptions, injustices, violence, and other challenges that clearly cannot be solved by doing more of the same. In this milieu, storytelling is re-emerging as an important tool to involve people at every level. Stories allow people to engage with issues that are large and complex because we feel compelled to listen when we ourselves are included in the storyline.
Every story serves a purpose: to relay a message, to give us insights into the past, or to entertain. Storytelling as a tool for the marginalized peoples around the world enriches historical understanding by expanding it beyond the machinations of dynasties, leaders, and rulers. Storytelling, therefore, also pushes back against the construction of history by the social and political elite of the time. Most importantly, including women’s and girls’ stories also highlights the neglect of women in different accounts of historical movements and moments. Amma’s Daughters is one such story, which shows that we have been looking at human history with one eye closed.
Amma's Daughters: A Memoir
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led one of the largest non-violent mass movements in the world, the Civil Disobedience Movement against British imperialism in South Asia. Inadvertently, it opened the doors for an unprecedented number of ordinary South Asian women to join the freedom movement, which included a young girl, my grandmother, Prakashwati Sinha, or Amma. She served three prison terms for treason and sedition between the ages of 12 and 15, and subsequently spent nearly a decade in Gandhi’s Ashram. The need for the historical authentication of her personal diary and published autobiography led to my archival research and the narrative memoir, Amma’s Daughters. The archival research also revealed that my grandmother was one among the many hundreds of thousands of women who made up the cadre of the freedom movement in South Asia in the first half of the twentieth century.
Amma’s story needed to be told not only to celebrate her extraordinary life, but also to show that the lives of ordinary women and men inexorably affect, and are affected by, the historical processes of the time. These connections need to be made evident in all historical narratives, otherwise every generation will be doomed to fight the same battles for justice and dignity. As Thomas King illustrates in The Truth About Stories, stories are the key to, and our only hope for, human understanding… so let’s try to listen well.