“A story, after all, is best when shared, a gift in the truest sense of the word.”
The Book of Salt, Monique Truong
Aside from a few theoretical texts, I’ve been reading novels and poetry for the past week. It’s been lovely. Each piece has presented an opportunity to listen to and become fully engaged in another person’s story. It has been stories, in fact, that emerged as the key element within this third unit. When I think about stories and the power they have to incite, I’m reminded of a TED talk Chimamanda Adichie, author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, gave in 2009. Adichie spoke on the danger of the single story; that telling a singular narrative where a people is represented as one thing and one thing only risks flattening experience to problematic stereotypes. Stories, thus, come with the consequence of essentializing cultural experience. Despite this danger, Adichie articulates:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. … When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A month ago I wrote on my experience performing a cultural story for SpeakeasyDC. Storytelling, I wrote, “offers a method of displaying the multiplicity of cultural experience as well as contesting the essentialism often attached to cultural narrative.” With cultural experience so deeply embedded into feminist, queer, and ethnic narratives, how might theses stories actually perpetuate larger concepts and frameworks that construct these very identities in the first place? Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience” offers a salient critique on the role that seeing and visibility play in narratives of experience and identity. Scott, a feminist historian, problematizes the authority that experience wields; that someone’s lived experience is itself the foundation and evidence that that experience exists. Scott finds issue with this “evidence of experience”; such evidence reproduces rather than contests ideological systems. Instead, Scott asserts that experience is not something people have, but is rather something that people are constituted by. Scott influentially claims that experience should not be the origin of our explanations but rather that which we work to explain. Experience, then, is both an interpretation as well as something to be interpreted. Within this contradiction, Scott recommends an ardent historicization of experience where categories such as desire, homosexuality, heterosexuality, femininity, masculinity, and other seemingly fixed entities are situated within their respective historical contexts.
Shari Stone-Mediatore’s Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance presents a productive critique to Scott’s poststructuralist perspective. Stone-Mediatore acknowledges that experience-based stories tend to represent a certain genre of text where each experience-based narrative subscribes to stereotypical identity markers. (i.e. Mixed-race narratives would touch on notions of passing, ambiguity, borderlessness, confusion, unbelonging etc). Here, the discursive power of experience is maintained. Is experience, then, confined to the discursive terrain or is it material or perhaps a mixture of the two? Stone-Mediatore claims that Scott’s poststructualist critique continues to find prevalence due to a deficit in theories that actively engage in the “subtle and subversive” aspect of experience. By asserting that experience is not only shaped by discursive practices, but is also a reaction to and disruption of discursive practice, Stone-Mediatore reveals that experience is both an effect of language practices and of the material effects of political/economic systems. Poststructural critique fails to account for the elements that move beyond discourse. In order for stories to grapple with marginalized experiences they must, according to Stone-Mediatore, confront the complex, contradictory, and historically situated contexts in which these experiences emerge and reside.
As I sit with Scott’s proposition to historicize experience and Stone-Mediatore’s embrace of the complex and contradictory, I find myself rebounding between the discursive and the material while I nod my head to the idea that experience is something that must be learned and could only be learned in a certain moment. We need to historicize experience. But, we also need to embrace and authorize our complex and contradictory experiences. Scott would say that experience is not something we have, but is a group of structuring forces that define and produce our conception of self, as well as others’ perceptions of us, within a particular historical context. Quite the opposite, Stone-Mediatore would assert that experience is certainly something we have ownership and agency over. Stories, especially those concerning cultural experiences, are defined by power. Who has the ability to tell a story and who has the authority to make this story into what Adichie called "the single story"? Furthermore, who has the ability to define experience and who has the authority to claim that that experience is authentic? If we frame experience as always already constituted by structuring forces then how are we to creatively imagine and produce a response to those often disciplining and singular discourses?
We are agents in the multiplicities of our experiences. By reclaiming experience and simultaneously historicizing it, stories have the potential to move beyond discourse and become something much more embodied. Stories on marginalized experience matter so long as the narrators actively participate in an engaged storytelling where expert knowledge is disrupted, multiplicity and ambiguity prevail, and poetic freedom flows without restraint.