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.