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Where stories take us

We begin to tell stories at an early age. At first they are a story
about self, the me, the ego of our lives as we fancy ourselves the center of the universe and so we are, the focus of our parents’ lives. We are dressed and fed and cared for and loved. So it makes much sense that our first tomes revolve around us. We are the subject of every plot whether in pursuit of crayons or finding the perfect marionette or chasing a ball into the corner and being trapped by a big dog or an insurmountable piece of furniture.

Gradually our world widens, and our stories allow in more people and maybe mom, dad, grandpa, or teasing brother is a figure in our narrative where adoring faces play a role. We think in stories as we explain and recant our lives to ourselves, speculating on where we fit, who fits with us and where our stories have occurred and grown.

Not surprisingly we are always egotistical, the first person narrator presiding as we move beyond our fingers and toes towards those at the footposts of our houses: the nannas and ooh-ooh bears who have cuddled us, but pushed us outwards exceeding the confines that have kept us safe. Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment explains why children are so fascinated by witches and dark deeds.

Further, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age, the author writes,

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories…That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that …
(Peter Swirski in The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2013)

Those of us who are readers lust for new books that will entertain, intrigue, disturb and delight us, particularly with elements from worlds with which we are comfortable. In “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt (surprisingly married to Paul Aster!), she surrounds her characters who are artists or art historians in a world familiar to me. With every reference to Manet or Modilgilani I feel at home, intrigued and fascinated by the tale of two boys, the lifelong friendship of their fathers and ensuing destructive relationships. Art is integral to the story, a metaphor for real life distortions with its intricacies, shadows, personages behind and beyond the constricting frames of paintings described. Performance art in the story reminds me of Alan Kaprow and Christo’s mammoth installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin or the canopy of yellow umbrellas in California and blue umbrellas in Japan at the same time. Memories from my youth and older. So the story,for me, became a touchstone to connect with matters that matter to me.

My husband loves biographies of presidents and countries. He thinks in terms of politics, the rise, the fall, the conundrums of people who play powerful roles. For relief, he also reads fiction. He likes Wayne Johnston-unlike me, perhaps a mixture of both worlds. His interests more eclectic and wide sweeping than mine.

But art like literature if we allow it to, encourages us to transform what we know: to see things differently, from fresh eyes, as Picasso said, “To see with the eye of a child”, and perhaps, if we gaze longer, linger more thoughtfully, and dismiss what we have been told to think, we might deepen our comprehension of ourselves. AS my second grandson would chirp, ” I do it mine own self”. Baudelaire is reported to have also exclaimed, “A child sees everything in a state of newness.”

Years ago when I taught Magic Realism in my Post-colonial Literature course at Northern Secondary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did that for my students. They were encouraged to look once again as a child might, imagining beyond the literal.

For example, magical events in One Hundred Years continue to multiply with such events as people literally shrinking when they age so that their shoes and hats fall off doll-sized body parts; blood flows down streets where violence has occurred; young girls levitate themselves into the heavens: multiple points of inspiration where real documented actual events have occurred and impossible, fantastical happenings are intertwined. South America’s intrigues, assassinations, takeovers are represented along with the countries’ three civil wars and the infamous Banana Massacre(1929). I lingered on the steps of the actual ”United Fruit Company “ in South America, incredulous it still stood, but renamed. Marquez’s overriding theme in the book is that no imagined event can be as fantastical as those lived out in the atrocities of war and abrogation of individual rights.

In their class presentations, one student convincingly linked mathematical symbols to the structure of the novel, diagramming and explaining the metaphysical on two levels; another student concocted a series of pictures that reflected the disintegration of the Buendia(the family protagonists) house; another tied his hands together to become a visual metaphor for repression in the novel. Yet another to represent the fecundity of a couple that resulted in the proliferation of farm animals baked copious sugar cookies in the shape of pigs and horses.

Before teaching the novel I had read it and found it difficult to follow. Imagine one sentence that unwinds beyond a full page, and the density of ideas in the novel thickly translated from its original Spanish; however, working with my students back then and sharing their excitement at the miraculous wonderfully unbelievable fairytale quality of the story- based in political and social reality in South America- re-energized me to find delight and embrace the book myself. My understanding was further enhanced by the students’ work that emerged. In deed, my students taught me, often, I will admit, more than I originally knew. One of my cherished possessions remains a child’s book of pull-outs, flip-ups, colour changes and animation that four talented students gave me after their introduction in an incredible presentation.

For my students, taking their own initiatives to extend the meaning of the novel even propelled them outside of the classroom. Some contacted Amnesty International who came to our class with two representatives: one speaking quietly in Spanish explaining the perils of the para-military in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace. Others became involved with Street Kids International and went to Ottawa on behalf of the Colombia’s displaced and victimized youth. Thus, the book that confounds and blurs the verisimilitude of actual facts much like a fairytale had sparked a seed: a Jack and the Beanstock seed that sprouted in unlikely places breaching the confines of our classroom.

Paolo Freire a South American philosopher and educator was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He worked with the poor, talked about “ co-creating” so that workers might have a stake and take responsibility for changing their own lives rather than accepting the theories and narratives of others. Nonetheless, he encouraged the downtrodden to see from new perspectives, tell their owns stories, extend traditional boundaries and attempt new venues to promote change. To create their own NEW stories.

Just yesterday as I again struggled with the translation of Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, I was struck by the conversation of the observer-story teller, Maria and a friend. She reflects at length in her head about absolutely everything which is sometimes pretty tedious. Yet several ideas stick with me profoundly,

…once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…( Vintage,2013,p.132).

From my very first year of teaching in the Jane-Finch corridor, in a Grade 12 class when we were studying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, a young woman had offered,

“Maybe a weed isn’t a weed to nature, maybe it’s a flower”.

That is what a good story does, it sticks in your imagination and grows upwards, outwards, entangling and blooming unexpectedly, becoming part and parcel of your own trajectory, a thorn that pricks you, embeds in your head until, a fresh blossom erupts.

A simple story that begins and ends with you.

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