The Political Power of Narrative

Years ago, when I was working in the women’s health movement, I was fortunate enough to attend the last of the three UN Decade for Women conferences in Nairobi, Kenya. Ten years later I also attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. During the intervening years I was present at various other fora where women spoke, often giving testimony about their life experiences and sharing the challenges they had faced and overcome. 

Bearing witness to those moving testimonials was an unforgettable and moving experience. Whether through individual conversation or a particularly compelling speech, the impact of the stories those women told is still with me, and while I don’t recall many individual stories now, I still remember the profound effect of listening to those collective voices from courageous women bringing their reality to life for all the world to hear.

Their first-person accounts, painful as they often were to hear, gave me, and all who heard them, a far greater understanding, and a deeper empathy, than any speeches riddled with statistics could ever have done. One woman talking about her own experience with female genital cutting because of patriarchal-driven custom, or one woman relating her experience of spousal abuse or rape during war, sears itself into your soul as no official document can.

I thought about those conferences and about the importance and power of story, particularly as a writer, while watching the Democratic convention. The video of Humayun Khan, the brave soldier who died in America’s war, and the now-famous appearance of his parents at the convention, as well as Michelle Obama’s reflections on how she and her husband raised their daughters during the White House years, and other memories shared by speakers in the course of their remarks, all served to remind me of how compelling personal narratives are and of their importance in political discourse.

We all have stories to tell. And those stories are important. They matter – to us, and for others. As a British faith-based organization called Stethelburgas put it on their website, “Hearing the stories of others breaks down the fears that underlie prejudice, and opens us up to the perspectives of others. Through story we see more easily the unique challenges of every individual, and how their beliefs and attitudes make sense within the context of their own experience. We may still disagree with a particular perspective but begin to see how that view makes sense within the story of that person’s life. As a result, we tend not to argue with story as we might with opinion. Stories change the ‘contract’ with the listener.”

I can think of so many narratives, often shared through extraordinary oratory, that changed the contract with listeners.  Sojourner Truth, an illiterate slave who was a small woman with a huge heart and a big voice, told a story when she asked of her all white, male audience, “And ain’t I a Woman?” Martin Luther King, Jr. did it when he said to the world, “I have a dream.” Gandhi inspired his followers when he admonished, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Alice Paul, who fought so hard for women’s right to vote, shared a bit of political poetry and wisdom when she said, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

Vivian Gornick understood the central role narration – story - plays from a writer’s perspective. In her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative she points out that memoirists always explore a situation through the story embedded in it. “The situation is the context or circumstance; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” And she adds, “The memoirist must engage with the world…must convince readers they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know.”

Gornick’s words, it seems to me, are relevant for speakers and listeners as much as for readers, never more so than within a political context, especially during this unprecedented election.  The stories, and the oral narrative within which they reside, afford us an opportunity to break down fear, to open up to others, to truly listen, and to see the unique challenges ahead of us in new ways, ways that no doctrinaire speechmaking or facile sound bite can. 

The truth is we are all hungry for story, child and elder alike. The love of a good tale never leaves us, especially when it’s about someone’s dreams, the reclaiming of our better natures, or striving together for “the golden fleece” promise of a positive future. 

Whether those stories come to us by way of books, visual narratives or spoken words, we owe it to ourselves as never before to be paying attention to them, and to be seeking their gifts in this time of challenging governance.  


Got Chutzpah?

It’s one of my favorite Yiddish words. Chutzpah. It means guts, balls, a touch of arrogance, courage. To be full of chutzpah is to be a risk taker, a speaker of truth to power, a pain in the butt, a winner, a cool dude, a person who gets things done. Even then, there are nuances to the word that are hard to convey whenever you try to translate Yiddish words into English, even when they’re part of the general lexicon.

A joke may help. An old woman gets on a crowded bus. Standing in front of a seated young girl hand held to her chest, she says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me your seat." The girl gives up the seat. The girl takes a fan and fans herself. The woman says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." The girl gives her the fan. Minutes later the woman says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here." The driver says he must stop at the next corner. Hand across her chest, she says, "If you knew what I have, you would let me out here." The bus driver pulls over and lets her off. "Madam, what is it you have?" he asks. "Chutzpah," she replies.

The first time I realized I the rewards of chutzpah I was in eighth grade. In those days girls had to take sewing while boys enjoyed shop. To this day I can barely sew a button back on so having to make a nightgown was unbearably challenging, especially since the sewing teacher only helped girls who liked sewing. One day I said as much to her in a pique of frustration while struggling to thread a bobbin. The sewing teacher was black; next thing you know I’m hauled into the principal’s office accused of making racist remarks having to do with a nightgown. Stunned, I faced the principal and said, “I never did any such thing. What I said was, ‘You only help girls who like to sew.’ Then I drew myself up and continued. “I’m a minority myself. I’m Jewish. Do you think I would make nasty remarks to another minority?” The nonplussed principal stared at me. “You must apologize!” he demanded. “I’m sorry but I cannot apologize because I did nothing wrong,” I countered. Then, in the absence of a response, I left the room. And that was that. Score one for chutzpah.

There have been many more incidents since then when chutzpah held me in good stead. On my first job interview I pretended to take shorthand when in fact I was remembering what the man said before racing to the typewriter to tap the words onto paper. Later, after I had worked some months for him (and taken Speedwriting), he said, “I knew what you were doing. I figured anyone who could pull that off deserved the job!”  

 I’ve played the chutzpah card in Bali when a cop tried to con me out of money for a faux traffic violation, and in Chiang Mai when an optician overcharged me for glasses. Chutzpah trumped passivity when I reserved a 16-pound turkey for Thanksgiving at a well-known Washington, DC food emporium and was given a 22 pounder instead. It happened again at Christmas; I got my turkey and two bottles of wine free. The ultimate chutzpah, I suppose, is that I married a gentile man in the days when you could get disowned for such a thing.  

But here’s the really important thing about chutzpah. It’s not just something you call upon for fun or to flex your muscle, and it’s not something you use solely to get what you want.

Rather, it’s a strategic way to stand up for yourself, like Gandhi did in order to free his Indian nation from British rule. It’s what you draw upon in certain circumstances so that you are not duped or diminished. Chutzpah well-demonstrated is an effective way to remind people that you matter and that you are not going to be ignored, trivialized, disrespected or rendered invisible. It’s a way of saying, “Don’t mess with me because I’ve got your number!”

Yiddish – derived from German and Hebrew – is a marvelous language. Some of its words are so filled with nuanced meaning we just couldn’t get along without them. How else can you convey the fatigue of a long schlep or the aggravation of someone else’s mishagoss? How can you describe all the joy embedded in a Mazel Tov? What better conveys a complainer than someone who qvetches endlessly?

Still, for me, chutzpah rises to the top of my limited Yiddish tongue. It serves my inner rebel, reinforces me in my convictions, and most happily of all, renders me a force to be reckoned with. Who could ask for more than that in a single word?