Meaning Is Enough?

Our monthly story-workshop sessions (they alternate with story-shares on Saturday mornings at the Bluecoat) take many forms and cover many aspects of story. At our last I took as my starting point a quotation from a speech made by a young woman at an event I’d recently attended at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, The night was set up to provide young individuals with a platform to express their views and opinions on the world today in the manner of TED-Talks and even The Moth. This young woman chose to talk about studying literature at university. She was a writer and this led her to complain about the academic emphasis on “meaning” which had stifled her creativity and which she said she found “demeaning”. I don’t know if there was any deliberate word-play there but I empathized with her because my own three year dedication to studying literature had produced the same feeling in me and those three years, however stimulating, had been one of the most productively barren of my life, certainly in terms of creative writing.

I asked the story-group, was it possible to tell a story without meaning? The eventual answer was of course, No, because the listener will always find meaning in what we say, even when and where it was not intended. We humans are meaning machines, after all. All the same we had a go, at creating a story which was no more than a series of episodes, adventures with no particular order or significance. The Arabian Nights is probably no more than that in its sum. Each adventure, however, could be said to contain meaning, but the listener can choose to ignore this low-level significance and just take each episode at face-value. Then I suppose their sub-conscious would extract whatever significance was meaningfully to be found therein.

But the moment we started to order the tales, into “seven tales for each day of the week,” or “a month of adventures”  or “A day in the life… “ or “A Thousand And One Nights”, meaning seemed to creep back in in the form of significant numbers, which implied meaning based in structure. Only some kind of randomness in the telling could evade the tendency to find meaning in a story. I was reminded of the German writer Robert Walser who in later life suffered from an extreme nervous condition which eventually led to his consignment to a sanatorium but which seemed to be evident in his writing from a much earlier stage in that he wrote stories which often avoided narrative structure and closure. His novella “The Walk” for example could be seen as no more than a meandering account of an afternoon’s walking with all of its episodic highs and lows. Walser specialized in a meaning which lay below and beyond structure.

In the end we gave up on a search for meaninglessness and after our tea-break I set an opposite task to those present, – to give an account a life of someone. The proviso was that the life should have meaning and significance for the teller. I led off with two examples; a friend whose adventurous early life was the opposite of my own and a reminder of both how I might have lived and the nature of my own life; also Franklin Roosevelt, the American president whose public administration and much of his personal life have always been an inspiration and source of optimism for me. Thereafter, although not without exception, the contributions of the group took a more elegiac turn. Friends and family members and mentors were celebrated and mourned in their passing and with profound emotion. It was a very remarkable sharing which absorbed our attentions and affected all of us deeply. From it I could only re-draw the idea which had impelled me to set the task in the first place – that when a story has meaning for the teller, and to the extent that it does, the matter of technique and skill in story-telling becomes largely irrelevant. Or, to put it another way, our best story-telling is about ourselves.

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STORYTELLING AND ACTIVISM

STORYTELLING AND ACTIVISM – A Keynote Address to the “Storytelling And Activism” Symposium  held at The University Of South Wales, Cardiff, on April 25th 2015

I stand here as somebody who leads a storytelling group and I’m an occasional storyteller, – although I think that plays second fiddle to my encouraging other people to tell stories and develop their own storytelling capabilities, – but I also stand here as a transgender performer and I wanted to invite my gender counterpart to spend some time with us in this space because between us we’ve got a certain amount to say about this particular issue. (Image on screen)

I was delighted to be invited to address the connection between storytelling and activism from a personal point of view and I started out by posing a number of questions to myself, speculations if you like, I don’t pretend to have come to clear conclusions about them and I don’t pretend that the references I use to try to get there are definitive, but it was an interesting journey and I hope it will be for you.  There are a lot of questions along the way and I’m going to give you some of the underpinning questions now; so that you can judge at the end whether in fact we’ve got any way towards addressing them.  One of them is the question, Is our storytelling equal to our times?  Is it up to the task in hand?  The second one asks whether or not storytelling and activism, rather than being collusive, are actually counterproductive, whether they get in each other’s way?  And the third one is, If we appear to cling to a universality, a universalism in storytelling, do we cling to that at our peril, or at least to our disadvantage?  All of those questions will surface at different times during what I’ve got to say.

I start off with one of the great storytellers, – Geoffrey Chaucer, great English storyteller, and his collection of great stories, “The Canterbury Tales”, – and my first speculation was, What if Geoffrey Chaucer had written The Activist’s Tale?  He didn’t write The Activist’s Tale, but this started me off with a very interesting set of speculations because of the structure of “The Canterbury Tales”.  There is, first and foremost for my purposes, a tale told by a Canterbury pilgrim, but there’s also a Prologue in which the teller gives an account of themselves Each of those two fundamental sections are themselves sub-divided. Most of the tales have a kind of moral dimension to them, which means that they are there to produce an idea or a set of thoughts. This makes them moral tales, but there’s also the ‘tale received’. When somebody tells you a story, that isn’t always the story you receive because of the context in which you receive it.

The notion of the Prologue is also split because, as well as the account given by the tellers of themselves, there is also the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”, in which Chaucer gives a portrait of each of the storytellers from the outside, so they both give an account of themselves, – they “prologue” themselves – and they are included in the General Prologue. One story breaks out into four separate aspects.  If you take, for example, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the Wife of Bath tells a tale, a kind of Arthurian tale which is really a challenge to husbands across the world and male hegemony.  At the same time that’s been the occasion for a huge amount of academic debate about what actually was meant and that is the tale received.  Then there is the Tale’s prologue, in which the Wife gives the account of her five husbands, and there is the General Prologue in which Chaucer portrays her in all her pomp, so we’ve got all these four things coming into play at the same time. This made me think of when in “Alice Through the Looking Glass” Alice meets the White Knight. The White Knight, having delivered his song as he departs, goes to the lengths of making clear the difference between what the song is called and the song’s name and what the song’s name is called and so on which gives us this real nest of post-modern signifiers which I think contains a kind of lesson for us when looking at a story.

If we’re talking about this putative Activist’s Tale you would have the tale told by the activist which presumably would be part of their storytelling kit, – their way of activating people, arousing them, giving their Tale a moral dimension, leading them to a particular set of behaviours, – but then that might be received by the people in a different way.  There would be the activist as they give an account of themselves, what we in modern terms call their back story, and there would be what the activist seems like for somebody standing completely outside of them, – how then Chaucer might describe them.  The four story elements will, I think, come in as I’m exploring these ideas with you this morning.

I started off, of course, by saying that Chaucer didn’t write The Activist’s Tale, but this then led me to a second speculation which is, more or less, Would Chaucer have recognised an activist had he come across one? (in the sense in which we perhaps understand an activist and I’ll come to that in a minute), and the answer I arrived at was that he should have done because during his lifetime and in the city in which he spent most of his time, there came to its climax the Peasants’ Revolt led by Jack Straw and Wat Tyler.  Whatever you think of those people Chaucer would probably have taken a negative view of those events, given his wife’s nationality and his particular job, – he wouldn’t have liked what they were doing  (In fact, Jack Straw gets a very brief mention in “The Canterbury Tales”, but it’s a noncommittal mention), You would however assume that Chaucer would know what an activist is, but I think he would never have created The Activist’s Tale for a very simple reason, – Wat Tyler and Jack Straw would have been seen to be one-offs, they would have been seen to be historical figures.  Each would have been considered an unrepeatable kind of individual and their actions not to constitute a human type in the same way as the Wife of Bath or the Pardoner does.  Effectively they would have been seen as  – whatever word Chaucer would want to use -; they would be seen as revolutionaries. Is a revolutionary an activist and is an activist a revolutionary and do the two basically correspond?  We might think about that later on.

I therefore concluded that Chaucer probably wouldn’t have found enough of a type there to have included the Activist in the journey to Canterbury or indeed to have told their tale, but this set me off on another speculation.  Where were the activists, the characters who were activists, in our literature? (and I mean both the stories which come to us through the commons and the great written heritage of literature – even if I’m only really at this stage probably talking about European work.  I’ll be talking about other stuff later).

I looked around and I started to ask almost randomly of figures from stories whether or not they were activists.  Is Beowulf an activist, or is he in fact a tragic warrior?  The Boy Who Set Out To Find Fear, is he an activist or is he simply a lucky fool?  Is Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” an activist or is he just a clever politician?  And as I worked through the years and through the generations of the centuries I came to the conclusion that the one thing that all these lacked was a politics, which is to say a political project, a sort of common cause.  And if you ask, what do I mean by “activism”?  well, I’ve bodged together a kind of definition which works for me – activism is “vigorous political practice in support of a creed or common cause or shared belief”.

The characters I’ve just named don’t have that and I think it’s not until the 19th century and not until the 19th century novel – and I’m prepared to be corrected on this – that we actually have characters in books that correspond to the notion of an activist.  There are activists, quite prominent ones. in Disraeli’s novel “Sybil”, which is also about civil unrest, but I think the fullest and most finely drawn portrait in the 19th century after that is probably Will Ladislaw, one of the key characters in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, and he becomes an activist. From being something of a dilettante he eventually finds himself as a political activist. I wondered what had happened in the 19th century to produce this development,

I moved back then to look back for historical figures we would probably identify as activists; I went back to Guy Fawkes.  This reminded me of something that is quite a useful corrective for the things that we think about now, the idea that one nation or culture’s activist is another nation or culture’s terrorist.  Take, for example, the “Arab Spring”, or 9/11.  People acting politically would have been seen by one culture to have been extremely dangerous and by another as a source of inspiration and hope and activism.

I went on from Guy Fawkes and I came through the Levellers and I came through the Diggers, – and I’m moving very fast through the centuries now -, interestingly, of course, at our puppet show yesterday I was wondering whether Jack Sheppard was an activist – then I moved on to Lord Byron and his part in the Greek campaign until I eventually sped forwards to Gandhi, on to Rosa Parks and then to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  And I was interested by that sequence because there is a point somewhere towards the beginning of the 20th century when two forces are brought to bear, two story forces are brought to bear, upon those people, and they’re contradictory forces.

One of them canonises the activist, turns them effectively into a saint, something that has happened to Nelson Mandela over the years.  At the same time there is critical biography which tends to unpick the nature of the character and expose them as having feet of clay.  With the honourable exception of Rosa Parks you will find that many of those figures, perhaps all of them in their different ways, are seen to be flawed human beings.  And so the flawed human being and sainthood both occlude what is probably the reality of being an activist.  They pull the character in different directions at the same time as obscuring the notion about what an activist is there to do, and to that extent I think story has compromised activism. As somebody who had a very brief moment of media exposure a few months ago in which I was billed as an “unsung hero”, I’ve had time now to think about this, this peculiar idea of being famous for being not famous, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a circle that can’t be squared – you can’t be both.  I’m of the feeling now that the song corrupts in the singing, even in the moment that it inspires, and this is something to do with the way in which activism has become entrammelled with heroism and the notion of the activist as hero.

Once you do inspect the notion of the activist as hero or heroine, then the activist comes across as very complex, a complicated character indeed.  You have this notion of the lone idealist with their solitary mission, – and there are some activists, like Ned Ludd for example, who were probably not activists at all but have been elevated to that level, -and you come across the idea of the activist as an outsider, almost a tragic figure, who is both idealised and at the same time vilified, and how, let’s say in the character of Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities”, the aim of activism is to self-redeem. Because of this confliction – it’s what William Blake called “self-contradiction” – we limit the activist to only existing through actions not through being. The character of the activist then becomes immensely conflictive and self-contradictory.  One aspect of this came to me when I read a book recently by a Jungian psychiatrist/psychologist called Melanie Starr Costello. The book is “Injury, Illness and Imagination” and in it she analyses what’s called the “hero complex”, She’s interested in somatic experience so she points out that heroism has a rather rigorous and quite detrimental effect upon physicality as well as mentality. Not merely is the activist compromised psychologically by what happens, they’re also affected physically.

If we want to take this critique just one stage further, we can say that if we have an activist whose tale is meant to make us behave in a certain way, this smacks of propaganda, advertising, and that dread word “instrumentalism”.  From this sequence of interrogations you could conclude that “the activist” is an idea which is so deeply flawed that it doesn’t have any usefulness for us.

What I’m actually talking about are the perils of protagonism, and the idea that activism is ‘what somebody else does’.

Just recently I signed an online petition in support of a woman called Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and Máxima Acuña de Chaupe is a landowner in Peru. She is standing up against a company called Newmont who wished to take over her land for mining.  I duly signed the petition in the belief that my support would be welcome – I believed it might even have been slightly effectual – but as I did so I realised that actually it was Máxima Acuña de Chaupe who was the activist, – and what was I?  I was the clicktivist. I was the person who had, with one stroke of my mouse, as it were, lent my support to the cause.  Or was I, to use another phrase, a nano-activist?  What I wasn’t, – I was not Máxima Acuña de Chaupe.  I was not in the forefront of it all.  And if this means that agency is elsewhere you would, I believe, want me in this address to propose an alternative.

The alternative for me is not the story of I but the story of We.  It’s not the story of Me, but the story of Us.  It’s the story of plural endeavour, – and that is one of the things that I’m going to spend a little bit of time thinking about now – but I want to be very careful about the use of the word “We”, because “We” is whoever gathers together as “Us” and, for example, I wouldn’t be interested in the “we” that was the “we” of international financiers or the “we“ of people traffickers or the “we” of politicians.  I wouldn’t personally want to be present at any gathering where such people got together and shared their favourite stories to create a kind of solidarity, – it would not be the kind of solidarity I’d be interested in.  When we refer to “We”, I need to be clear who are the “We” that I am talking about now.  They are the excepted. Not the accepted, –  in fact the accepted are in contradiction to the excepted, – but people who are pushed to be an exception from society’s ministrations if you like, people who are marginalised, people who suffer, people who have to endure, people who need to survive, people who need to prevail but may not, people whose main wish is simply to exist, – people who endure and exist in their own world and in fact draw strength from their own world, – to adhere to the ways of their world and their community and to draw upon their own resources to create resilience for themselves.  The kind of people I’m talking about are perhaps the same kind of people who were commemorated at the base of the Statue of Liberty,-

‘your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, .yearning to breathe free’

and possibly also the group of people who never really had their moment when Ken Livingstone was running the GLC and proposed the idea of the “Rainbow Coalition”.  We are not talking here about sub-divisions, people divided by gender or sexual preference or ethnicity or capability, we’re talking about people who, within those sub-divisions, have been pushed to the very edge of society. That is the “We” that I am interested in. It’s the “We” that I think that our stories need to deal with and we need to bring those stories out.

Are there such stories out there?  Well, I’m in South Wales today and I’m pleased that last year I saw a film called “Pride” which seemed to me in many respects to pull together the stories of plural endeavour.  It was, for those who didn’t see it, a film about the rallying together of both the London based LGBT community and the South Wales striking miners during the mid-80s period and how the two collided, colluded, finally collaborated and found common cause.  I think here is a modern model of the We Story that I’m talking about.

I believe that, if I reach out further, I’d find more examples of this kind of story in native African village tales and in Maui community tales, and there’s also the possibility that the story of the Israelites in the Bible is equally a kind of We Story; a story of plural endeavour.  And in finding those stories out there what I’m actually proposing is “passivism” – not pacifism as in the proponents of peace, but as in the proponents of being passive – because what constitutes the raison d’être of the “We” is resistance and re-activism. Everybody in the “We” that I’m talking about is reacting to circumstances and that’s obviously in some respects different from activism.  How does “re-activism” connect with activism?  is a question I’m going to address later on.  So I’m proposing, maybe provocatively, maybe straight from the heart, the notion of passivism, – and people who are there simply to carry on being as best they can under the circumstances.

Now whether or not there are a lot of tales in that tradition, whether there should be more, whether we here and others should be creating them and drawing them out to the rest, is another issue, but passivism is also to be found in stories of individuals and in fact one story that would fit that category is actually written by Chaucer.  (I say written by Chaucer, but Chaucer, like Shakespeare, drew his tales from everywhere).  It is “The Man of Law’s Tale”, the tale of Constance, the Emperor’s daughter who is subjected to an inordinate amount of interference in her life.  She is sent abroad to be married off, she’s set adrift on the great seas of the world, she’s accused of being a witch and a murderess, she is set adrift on the seas of the world yet again and she seems to endure an endless amount of interference in what would otherwise be her life path.  When I offered this story to my story group, in synopsis I have to say, there were quite a few objections to it, and one woman said, “You can’t do anything with her because she’s so weak,” which I took as a challenge.

I went back to that synopsis and I told “The Man of Law’s Tale” in such a way that, I believe, it drew upon the power of imaginative transformation.  I told a tale such that Constance’s processing of those things that happened to her in her life was actually a source of strength. It was the imaginative transformational capability which I believe inheres in the experience of being female, and I was pleased to find some support for this in a book called “Feminizing Chaucer” by Jill Mann. In it she lights upon a characteristic, a feeling that I think is very important, which is pity, and she says of pity, “Pity is the pressure brought to bear by the sufferer on the beholder.” In the case of that story, it is the invisible strength which acts as the champion that otherwise Constance lacks. And active pity, the notion of a relationship in which it’s not the sufferer who is pitied, but the sufferer who pities and brings that to bear, opens up a whole area of feeling around that situation that seemed to be important. I came to the conclusion, which I think Jill Mann would equally have come to, that what Constance does is to choose what must be and in choosing change it, – transform it.  I know that this is an old idea – it’s probably millennia old, – but it seemed to me that it’s a rallying point for what’s important.  Constance in her story can be seen to choose what must be, and in choosing transform it.

Now if we weren’t gathered together on an April morning in Cardiff I would wish us all to be so on a warm April night in California in La Jolla, the University of California in La Jolla, at an event brought together in support of a great fabulist, Robert C Elliott. In 1982 on that particular warm night the address was presented by the celebrated science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin and it was called “A  Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be”  It stands with that awkward title even to this day in a book of essays, and although it’s an essay it’s an address, it’s the address this address would like to be if it wasn’t this one and it wants to be that because it has affected my life, it has changed my thinking, it has given me new ideas, it has recalibrated the way I see the world. It’s a very fine essay which I commend to you if you don’t know it, but all I can do today is to mention four things in that address which I think are pertinent to what we have gathered here to consider.

One of them is incidental.  Ursula Le Guin described the people of the world as “exiled from paradise” and that resonated with me even though I can’t quite connect it with everything that I’m saying.

The second thing is that she’s a very able and coherent proponent of the idea that progress and progression should not be the drivers of society’s evolution, and I think she’s here implying that kind of mechanical technological-driven progress and progression. Interestingly, I think, the notion of narrative embraces progression, so I recognised that this challenges some things in which we are implicated today.  She has a lot to say about narrative, of course, because she’s a writer.

The third thing she does is to use a rather resonant phrase. She says that our concentration in life should be to “persevere in our own existence”,  and the fourth thing she brings up is the notion of Coyote, whom we might recognise as the trickster figure who appears many stories throughout the ages, generations, millennia,

I’m glad for the appearance of Coyote, because one of the sub-invitations that brought me here today was to address issues of transgender and the transgender community and their relationship with stories and activism.  I was glad to take up that invitation for all the reasons in the world, but one of the caveats I had to make was that I could at no point pretend or claim to be speaking on behalf of the whole range of transgender experience or individuals, because it is a world of great diversity and for me to be a transgender performer does not automatically or completely make my experience congruent with people for example who transition physically and psychologically.  The only thing we all have in common is transitioning, – some of us do it regularly, some of us do it once and some people do it in small increments over a long period. There are a whole set of other gender complications which are all put under this heading of “transgender” as part of creating a common cause. If I was to talk about that I couldn’t represent everybody within the transgender community and I wouldn’t want to try, but I did want to invoke transgender as part of this discussion because I think it’s very important for what we are here today to do.

What was I going to do if I wasn’t’ going to be able to represent all transgender?  Well, I’ve taken one particular angle on this because I’ve got a very comprehensive collection of newspaper cuttings relating to transgender issues and behaviour and I’m going to go through a number of scanned newspaper cuttings (images on screen). I apologise if I move too quickly, but it’s in service of the larger argument and I would say that when I make comment I’m commenting upon the newspaper “take” upon the individual; – these are not my personal comments about the individuals referred to in the newspaper items.  You can take this if you like as the General Prologue to Transgender as written, not by a great humanist like Geoffrey Chaucer, but by journalists.  Each of these was cut from a newspaper and taken at face value as having something to do with transgender.

So here is Nathan Thursfield (images on screen) who is prepared to go into extreme debt to have the cosmetic surgery necessary to make him look like Katie Price.  This is the Metro. a newspaper that is probably very happy to look at a few harmless eccentrics or harmless narcissists, and so Nathan becomes the subject of a newspaper story.  He may be the only person who wants to do this; or there may be a lot of people, but he is in a sense a curiosity.  This is in the curiosity cabinet of transgender references, whereas here is a story of Lisa, Ian, and Ian who is also Susan, and Ian and Lisa are going to get married and Ian decides to be Susan on the day, and again because it’s a personal issue, – it’s a marriage, it’s a wedding, – we are invited to look upon this as a curious example, possibly of English eccentricity, rather than to know exactly what kind of a transgender story was going on under the surface there, and of course the pictures are always about the notion of contradictory apprearance.  It’s always about look, it’s not about interior.  Whereas “Boy, 10 went back to school a girl”, starts to introduce this idea of a much wider problematisation brought in by transgender, which is that if you have chosen to transition in any sense, and you go back into various, groups, societies, institutions then immediately it provokes other people’s activities. There’s a touch here, which we’ll have more of in a bit, about the transgender as victim, but also transgender as provocateur inviting personal insult and difficulty.  And it gets more complicated here.  This is a Guardian article where the parents, the whole family, are now coming to terms with the fact that their daughter has already chosen to change gender and the whole article is about the extent to which the family needs to adjust.  Transgender here is creating complications in almost every dimension of what we call normal family life.

This is much more tabloid; – “I took a knife to myself for DIY sex change”. The individual here who’s now Kirsty didn’t in fact, I’m relieved to say, get as far with the knife as the headline would suggest, but went as far as what would be called in some senses “a cry for help” and help did arrive because Kirsty eventually had the surgery necessary to change sex.  But self-infliction is a very big storyline in tabloid descriptions and accounts of transgender, so, ‘transgender individuals make life difficult for themselves’, seems to be the implication, in the pursuit of the trophy photograph which is about the physical change, which again is not all that it’s about.

This is a particularly complex story, but it’s also a very tabloid story.  It’s about a couple who were married, and the male in the relationship physically abused the wife.  She took a knife to him to protect herself, killed him and then discovered that actually “he” was a “she”.  The complexities of what’s going on there are considerable, but the important thing is that it was taken by the tabloids as being both a dramatic revelation and a self-infliction. The idea of violence seemed to go with it all, also the notion of secrecy.

And there is one more even complicated story that I’ll be telling, but now we go into more senior journalism and this is important because the Hijra community of India have started to claim a much wider range of rights.  They are now essentially more integrated into Indian society and here The Guardian is reporting on that.  By contrast the “yan daudu” of Nigeria are actually in more trouble now because the new regime in Nigeria is orthodox Christian, fiercely, censoriously Christian. Whereas the “yan daudu” lived in reasonable integration with their society, they’re now being outlawed and their lives are becoming more difficult.

This is the transgender as victim.  This is the main headline of the Liverpool Echo.  It wasn’t as big a story as I think the headlines would suggest, but there was the idea that the transgenders going out there put themselves at risk and are likely to eventually experience that risk in the form of violence.

Then of course you’ve got the joker in the pack – Grayson Perry – who complicates and makes life difficult for everybody by presenting in different ways at different times, but as an establishment figure, somebody who has just this week received the freedom of the City of London, Grayson Perry is a person whose provocations are both accepted and welcomed, – I was present at one of Perry’s Reith Lectures last year.  And in terms of the great provocation of course none can actually match April Ashley who has had a very great deal of press recently a propos of a major exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  She came from Liverpool, but in her wider life she complicated legality, she challenged society in protracted law cases about who she was and what she was allowed to be and she challenged notions about womanhood, – she also challenged notions about manhood for that matter.  She challenged those notions about what kind of success you could experience as a transgender and in a sense she is – not the very first but, in this country at least, – the Queen of transgender history, I had the pleasure of meeting her a few years ago  and she retains that sense that she’s done something. She is not self-conflicted, however much we may feel, using the long traditional headline “Born in the wrong body”, that we want to impose confliction upon her.

And then, this is the last one, – Cassandro the drag queen star of Mexico’s wrestling circuit.  Cassandro moves in and out of different genders.  There’s a sense of theatre about this, but there’s also a sense in which, within the wrestling circuit at least which is probably not one of the world’s senior sports, and seemingly the rock business as well, all kinds of provocations are possible,.  It’s a Guardian article again, but it’s positive, at the same time niches the whole idea of transgender.

One thing that comes out of all of this is that transgenders are provocative, problematising, complicating, making life difficult for everybody, requiring new definitions, and there is an ongoing battle if you like between the media who want to find a way of putting a box round all of that and the actual truth, the remarkable separateness and individuality of transgender experience.  When I said that transgender is a world of diversity, it’s not the diversity of the wildflower field, whereby if the wildflower field was infinitely large it would contain every species of flower,  the Chinese call that “the ten thousand things”, meaning all things.  It’s not that, it’s the diversity of the sea coast where every measurable section of the sea coast is unique and different and has a different outlook.  And the sea coast is not a bad place to be – it’s got a view of two different worlds – but it is on the brink of, some would say. the brink of oblivion, and it is also the margin, the place where people are forced to, and this is where my “excepted” find their place, on the sea coast.  In this kind of diversity nobody has the same point of view as anybody else.  That’s a different kind of diversity from the wildflower field.

We need, I believe, to subvert some of the traditional narratives and one way I do this is by using this idea of point of view. By telling a story from a different point of view each story becomes a different story, but from the point of view of a transgender simply to be is the complicated narrative. Simply to be transgender is to complicate the narrative structure, that narrative take on life we’ve seen in some of those newspaper items.  The journalists are battling hard to find a box to put all of those stories in, a “story “ in which to incorporate the transgender experience.  In a sense I’m saying that to be transgender is to be activist, to be trans-activist if you like, and that seems to be important although you could argue that transgender is only one of a number of excepted groups that relate to activism.

There have been a number of what we would more traditionally call activists within the great transgender history (Interestingly the poster of this symposium has the Rebecca Riots on it), and every one is different. There were the drag queens who stood up against the police at Stonewall in the celebrated gay resistance of the late1960’s period in New York, but there is a very good example of transgender as activist, or activist as transgender which is slightly different, one which trounces, trumps and generally overbears everything else – Chelsea Manning.  (image on screen) Chelsea Manning, who as Bradley Manning, released into the public domain through WikiLeaks the largest amount of classified and semi-classified information about American military activities ever.  Bradley Manning who was betrayed by a confidante on the web and was arrested, subjected to nine months of unwarranted solitary confinement.  Bradley Manning who was eventually court martialed and given 35 years of prison sentence.  Bradley Manning who in that moment chose to declare Bradley Manning as Chelsea Manning.

And this is where choosing what must be and transforming it comes to its apogee, in Chelsea Manning whose story, – inasmuch as we know it, and there’s not been much told, – straddles activism, idealism and realism, innocence and experience.  As Bradley Manning he was only in his early 20s when he took on this great act of activism, but this story also posits the idea that transgender and activism are next door to each other as promontories on the coast of life, and I think the story of Chelsea Manning as so far told, – and Chelsea Manning cannot tell her own story at the moment because it’s only recently that she was even allowed on Twitter, let alone in an outside communication system – the story of Chelsea Manning blows out of the water all my neat generalisations about activism, story, passivism, protagonism and the rest.  It’s an immensely complicated tale and it’s a real tale and one of these days I believe that Chelsea Manning will be able to tell her own tale.

My question behind all this is, Is all activism reactivism?  In the old days the story would have been about a motorway, now it would be a fracking company.  Do we have to wait for somebody to turn up on our doorstep threatening before we need to be activists?  Is it always about resistance or is there some kind of pure activism which actually flows through us like a red thread through the whole of our life?  In other words, Can we live activism?  Can we be the cause that we advocate? This is what I believe transgender is.  I was speculating earlier on whether or not if the activists, as I portrayed them or the tragic activist, were subject to self-contradiction, so. Is there a non-contradicted kind of activism or activists? What I’m trying to point out is that I believe that transgender lends weight to that idea.

If transgenders are innately activists the question is, What would a transactivist’s tale be?  What would be their desired outcome?  Would it be moral, to produce particular kinds of behaviour in people?  No, I think the Transactivist’s Tale would be, – its desired outcome would be – openness, tolerance, understanding and pity, the act of pity in people.  And although people who cherish story and love its magic and its shamanistic enchantment could say very simply that all this talk of “We Story”, all this talk of realism, all this talk of desired outcomes, is pure instrumentalism and pure instrumentalism is the death of story, – I could say to you, that’s a small price to pay if what we eventually end up with is a fairer and better society in a more open world.  But I don’t need to make that retort because the story that the transgender tells is the story of … it’s imaginative, it’s a magic, a unique, story, it’s a surreal story, it’s a hyper-real story, a magically real story, a dirty real story, it’s a story full of hybrid realities and, such stories – do they exist?

I believe they do. I believe that we wrote one of them, Mandy and I – it’s called “The  Mandayana”.  It’s a transgender epic in the great tradition of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  I believe there are many other such stories out there.  “The Mandayana” is full of rich images and this gives me a chance to reference one other person and one other piece of writing that has informed my life over the years. Sir Michael Tippett, the composer, – Michael Tippett as he was then – wrote a rather remarkable essay in his book “Moving into Aquarius”, about the notion of images.  In it he says that it’s only through images that the inner world communicates at all and he then goes into a radiant passage describing the images that are appropriate for the difficult and turbulent times in which we live.  That was in the late 1950s.1960’s and more than fifty years later I’m prepared to admit that Michael Tippett’s images of what society needs may have changed, but I believe that his notion of the image as the way of communicating our inner world is still very important and where he’s making images contingent on time and period  I would add place.  I would suggest that in any place and time there are particular images that need to be brought out and extracted.

What times are we in now?  Well, we’re on the brink of an election.  My instinct is that after the election – whoever wins it and whatever the configuration of people within government -, the accepted and the excepted will be further and more distinctly separated. I also believe that there will be a great need for us to persevere in our existences because endurance and survival are more likely to be necessary than they have before, – whoever prevails in this particular election.

On that basis I would say that we need storytelling more than we’ve done before and, if it’s not to be a pastime, if it’s to be something effectual in the great scheme of things, we need images.  Where do we find them?  In the inner world.  What are we doing to find them?  We’re reaching inside for our own “inner transgender” if you like, or, to put it another way, we are reaching for our problematised souls and we’re bringing them out.  And if we can do that then I believe that we can prevail and I would say that – well, I know that – the Activist’s Tale is in all of us.  It’s in every one of us and if we can tell it we will also qualify ourselves to write the Prologue to our own Tale, our own self-account, and on this non-showery April day the General Prologue of all our lives will be a better, fairer society within a more open world.  Thank you.

Just Tell Me

One of the pleasures of running a story-group is in the sheer originality of the approaches which the members bring to the offering of stories. I’m an enthusiast for home-grown diversity and rarely does a meeting go by without someone providing a new and sometimes experimental “take” on story-telling. Out of such variety does the future of story-telling grow.

Recently John gave us an unusual experience – his “story” was an escorted excursion round a landscape familiar to me, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire. It started as a topographical meander through the park as though we were accompanying him on a shared walk, and then branched out into historical interludes about the various historical events which have distinguished the park over the last 600 years, like the imprisonment of Lady Jane Grey. In between were moments of simple nature poetry which at the same time seem to suggest imagistic connections with the events and the whole story ended, like many a good Sunday stroll, where it began. It was fascinating and charming and repaid close attention, and what struck me about it was how it evaded the usual categories of story whilst still offering its own particular satisfactions.

What I concluded was that John had not been telling a story – he’s been offering a “telling”. In my mind then a telling was not a full-on recounting of a narrative structured classically to maximize drama and impact but a kind of sharing enacted in real time, or in the virtual time of a walk. It was episodic and often shifted perspective but we never felt, as listeners and audience, that we were being lost or left behind. John’s telling was underpinned by a feeling and a poetry. A telling is fundamentally poetic

As it happened earlier in the session I had invited all present to recount a “memorable homecoming” from their own experience and Max had shared, as part of this, the time she had experienced a deeply accident-prone return-to-base in the Far East. There were enough agonies in the account to shiver the timbers but the only point-of-reference to classical story, as with the others’ contributions, was the ending. It came home, and safely and generally well. Otherwise it was a “me” story, the very basic unit of story-sharing, and again an example of a telling. Both Max and John in very different ways were saying, – Join me on this journey.

There’s something very engaging about a telling. Sometimes with full-on performance story-telling the audience can feel quite assailed by the experience and challenged to keep up with the complications and intricacies of the sustained narrative. Outright virtuosity can sometimes be exhausting. A telling, apparently by contrast, invites and gentles us along but, if offered with the ingenuity of a John or the pained recall of a Max, is equally satisfying and more inclusive. We join the teller in their experience rather than witnessing a performance. Both approaches are valid, of course, in the growing realm of story-telling in the U.K. today but just as watercolours are as much loved as heavily-worked oil-paintings so I think we should cherish the democratic and unforced pleasures of a good telling, as well as the high drama of a big “story”.

The Art of Stories, the Story of Art

It may seem strange to be recommending an exhibition to storytellers as a source of inspiration, but “Mayas – Revelation Of An Endless Time” at the World Museum in Liverpool (until 18th October) is just that – a storytelling source, and not just for the stories it enshrines. More than 300 objects mainly from the rich middle period of Mayan history collected from museums and historical sites across Mexico are wonderfully well showcased in this free exhibition, and, story-telling apart, I defy you not to be impressed by them. Jewellery, ceramics, large architectural carvings, representative figures, masks, burial offerings, all these make up the exhibition with pertinent videos illustrating ritual and scientific calculations (the Mayas virtually invented accurate time-keeping and astronomy), also a comparative time-line of Mayan history. It’s enough to reward several visits. I have been to the exhibition four times now and am still finding in it new things to wonder at.

If I recommend a storyteller to pay a visit to “Mayas” it’s not principally for the stories, but they are there. The Mayas may not have emphasised individuality in their civilization, and you won’t find micro-dramas represented in the treasures, as you might when looking at the Bayeux Tapesty, for example, or Renaissance paintings, but the Mayan mythology is very powerful and several episodes of the ur-text “Popul Vuh” are visible in various carvings, including the Creation Myth of the Hero Twins, which would certainly suit those who like their stories elemental and cosmic. There is also the long and complicated history of the growth and sudden decline in periods of Mayan civilization, wherein are to be found kings, heroes, abandoned cities, sacrifices, and all manner of myth-inflected epochal event. And there is the more historical narrative of the conquering of Mexico by Cortez, which is nothing if not tragedy on the cusp of absurdity (you can buy the classic account in book-form in the exhibition shop). Thankfully the Mayas are the ancient Central American civilization which wasn’t entirely wiped out and 6 million of them are to be found in Central America and Mexico today. All that is there for storytellers who want their material already in narrative form.

For me, however, the magic of “Mayas” is in its suggestiveness and in the aesthetic of that civilization’s artefacts. Many ancient civilizations have left us artefacts but the nature of Mayan carving and their representation of character is somehow poised between the real and the artificial in a way which seems to me a parallel to that of fairy and fantasy tales and in more recent times cartoon films which at their best do bridge the gap between the actual and the virtual in an entirely enhancing way. Mayan relief carving is just shallow enough to throw the images forward without implying complex depths – they can delight children and well as adult art-lovers. The people represented in these carvings and ceramic illustration are recognizably of human extraction but fictional too, villains morphing into ogres, kings into animals, animals into gods, gods into abstract patterns. The atmosphere of magic pervades the whole exhibition. Equally impressive are the hieroglyphic letterings, so meticulously decipherable that they can be used in calendars, history markers and head-dress decorations. Each is a small, dense and fascinatingly suggestive icon, a story-microbe or atom, as indeed are Chinese written characters, the difference being that the Mayan glyphs are most often in carved relief and feel like objects not signs. They are worth dwelling on and the exhibition gives you, and your children, plenty of help in appreciating their detailed allusions.

I mention these aspects of the exhibition because they are a source of inspiration for both original and interpretative story-telling. If you have a classic story on the stocks you will find its main characters somewhere in “Mayas” and by studying them you will feel closer to them in your telling. Everything from Beatrix Potter to Satan seemed to emerge from the display cases, to this visitor at least. The Mayas resemble us in their exaggeration – if that is not too paradoxical a statement. At the same time, if you are lookig for something to start you off on an entirely new and personal story almost anything in “Mayas” is beautifully suggestive. Why not start with the tiny golden frog which is almost the first object you see in the exhibition?

In another aspect, also of relevance to storytellers, the Mayas resemble us not at all, or, to be exact, their civilization does not, and this is its wonder and its inspiration. What are we to make of all this obsessive time-keeping, of pitz, the ball-game where the ball is struck by the waist, of blood-letting, of internecine struggle, of empty cities and mathematically perfect topographical alignment? Everything, you may say, – it sounds like our very imperfect and absurd present world. Maybe, but to visit “Mayas” is to seem to peer into an episode of science fiction where even gravity, death, history and genealogy seem to follow different rules. If we are honest about the Mayan civilization we would have to say that it is strangely “other” and almost impossible to fathom. And here we have its inspirational nature for story-tellers, for those who like to create parallel universes, other worlds. Contemporary fiction-sequences like “Game Of Thrones” or Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” are just such an epic of otherness, elsewhere but powerfully reminiscent of something buried deep inside ourselves, that part of us where we may feel least at home. I would bet that many video-game-makers have also feasted their imaginations and visual stylings on Mayan artefacts. If you want to give unreality a material and human face pay a visit to “Mayas”.

All I can say is that I came away from the exhibition with a renewed sense of the power of imagination and full of ideas for story-telling, characters, style and narratives. I want my tellings to be as poetically.strange and familiar as anything in those displays. “Mayas” will soon be gone to other cities, but catch it if you can, and see if you don’t come away as fired up as me.

Growing A Story

GROWING A STORY

We sometimes take fully-formed stories to tell, from a book maybe, and mainly we learn them, memorize them, and that’s that, although they’re never quite the same when we tell them as the way they’re written down. But mainly we work on a story, sometimes shrinking it to a workable length but usually “growing” it bigger and make it our own. We fill them out with descriptions, invented incidents even, and whole set-pieces, a bit like the way the often slender story of an opera is swelled into a three hour long drama.

At the same time we can find stories all around us, not-quite stories which need to be grown into something which will satisfy us and our audiences. It might be a news item or headline, an incident in the street, an unusual object, and we think, “That would make a good story”. And sometimes we’re commissioned to find a story out of an exhibition, and have to look for the seed of a potential story in images or objects.

What these have in common is that they are not enough as they stand, – they lack the essential qualities which satisfy as “story”, which are,-

Narrative coherence

Consistency

Completeness

Imaginative depth (or “meaning”) and poetry

Without these things an audience is unlikely to feel satisfied by the telling,

So we grow our stories.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

The fragment we have here is unsatisfactory. It may be the beginning or the ending of something, but it is just a situation. It doesn’t have any context, that is it doesn’t explain enough about how the situation came about. It contains unresolved tensions. It doesn’t relate fully to a world, so it is almost meaningless.

This is a way of dealing with such a fragment,-

1) Rumination

First of all we just dwell upon what we have, and for a while if we want. No judgements, no rush to repair or fill it out. What is it possibly about? What interested you in it in the first place? What is the key thing which makes it want to be a story through you? What other thoughts does it set off in you? What questions does it raise about itself? Taking time over these questions allows us to explore its potential and prepare ourselves for some practical work on the fragment which will grow into a story.

2) Resolution.

There are number of unresolved aspects of the situation (underlined).

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Some will be more important to you than others. Choosing the ones which matter to you enables you to shape a resolution to the story, The things that are important to you need to go through a transition to be resolved. How would you like the food, or the dwelling, or the ‘not knowing what to do’ to be resolved? Other things can stay the same – they are the “givens” in your story. The idea of living in a shoe may not matter to you, or the lack of bread.  What has to undergo change in your story before it feels complete and coherent?

So we jump to the end and conceive of how that will be. We can almost say the last few sentences already. And not all conclusions are happy ones, of course.

3) The World Of The Story

You want now to hurry up and join the beginning situation to its ending with lots of incident and description, but pause a moment to consider the world which is suggested by the fragment. Every story creates its own world, some very different and separate from the everyday world we live in. If this fragment was all we knew of the world, what would that world contain? What kinds of people? What kinds of living? What kinds of incident? And what kind of a world is it? Happy? Conventional? Limited? Disturbing?

Now there is the question of whether, and what, you might want to bring into that world to resolve its tensions. Is it a big enough, adequate enough world so that you can use what’s in there already to produce your ending/resolution? Or do you need to bring in more people, more places, magic, the supernatural, a helpful advisor, an unusual event? Will the resulting story be more magical or more material? More realistic or more fantastic? How near is it to what we call reality? What makes it different?

4) The Journey

Or we could say, The Transition(s). Now you can start on the process of getting from the opening situation to its conclusion. You will already have ideas, and it is entirely up to you how you fill all that out, but there are, in the great world of stories, many kinds of transitions which have been used and it’s quite likely that yours will be like one of them. There is,-

The Labours – a set of difficult tasks which must be accomplished before all can conclude.

The Pact (or deal) – an agreement which makes the conclusion possible, but at a price which has to be paid before it can happen. This often takes the story into deeper emotional waters than were apparent at its beginning.

The Test – some personal challenge which an individual must pass before they can bring about the situation which resolves everything.

The Revelation – something which is not suspected but which makes things possible through new knowledge or awareness.

There are other classic transitions, but whichever you use it will help you to notice the structure which underlies it.

So you go ahead and take the journey of making the narrative of the journey.

Tonalities

How you tell a story depends on your character as a storyteller. How you tell this story will be influenced by this character, although it might develop, extend or stretch your range in the process. Here are some questions which may help you to pitch your storytelling to match style and content.

Are you a Gossip or a Bard?

A gossip shares the story in a knowing and relatively intimate way, based on the idea that it is something personal to them and new to the audience.

A bard declaims the story to a wide audience, sometimes wider than the people in the room, with an implicit understanding that the story belongs to history and is already at least partly known by the audience.

Obviously most people are somewhere between Gossip and Bard but their storytelling is affected by where they fall on the range between.

Are you a Bearer, a Sharer or a Medium?

A Bearer delivers the story which they have received from tradition or established accounts.

A Sharer offers their story or version of a story as though from their own experience and recreation of it

A Medium presents the story (or seems to) as though intuited from the ether in the moment of telling.

Again most people are, or can be, a mixture of two or all three, but their telling will reflect this, and parts of a storytelling can draw on any of these.

First Person or Third Person?

You may tell your story as though you are involved in it or as something reported by others. Many things beyond the words, including tone of voice and descriptive colour, will be affected by this

Detail or Parable?

You may be story-teller who relishes detailed descriptions including sensual evocations, or you may feel more attuned to events and incidents.  A story which depends on incidents and events is often what we call a parable. All stories contain the possibility of both. How far you emphasize one or the other will depend on your storytelling style and the content of the story. (A shiver or a taste may be important to what happens).

ROGER HILL – March 2015

Story-telling – Food For Thought

REFLECTIONS ON OUR STORY-SHARE on 18th July 2015

After our recent session of story-sharing I was thinking about how stories belong to families, and how we respond to them depends quite a bit on how far we recognize to which family of stories the one we are listening to belongs. Mary’s story of Betty Mouat, for example, the story of a woman who is inadvertently is cast adrift on the Northern Seas and who makes her way home with strange difficulty, is a story of true events and so has to follow those events mainly faithfully, even though the events complicate the narrative arc, and we have to ride with the swells and troughs of her adventures to the end – because they are true. The storyteller is bound to the spar of the story and we can accept the diversions and episodes once we know that the point is that this is the way life has been and that is its power as a story. The storyteller can re-build the story as myth or legend, by streamlining the narrative, drawing out images to create depths of meaning and significance and crafting the ending into a closure both moral and emotional, and then Betty Mouat’s adventures become self-sufficient and “poeticized”. or they, the storyteller, must adopt the tone and demeanour of the reporter or curator of history. If the telling hovers between history and myth/legend it may confuse us and leave us too preoccupied with what it is to pay attention to how it is.

By contrast John’s telling of Carol Ann Duffy’s children’s story “The Lost Happy Endings” offered us a story which begins in classic story-fashion but eventually plays a number of meta-narrative tricks on the listener/reader. We can be comfortable with it once we’ recognize that it is a writer’s story which is aware of being a story, and where the writer with their golden pen is hovering at the edge of the telling to nudge us into thoughts about what stories are and do. In that sense it is a very 21st Century story, just as Betty Mouat is a very 19th Century story, the century which brought us Grace Darling rowing out to the sinking ship, and Greyfriars Bobby the faithful dog. Carol Ann Duffy’s story belongs in the tradition of Borges and Calvino and Danilo Kis, offering its self-awareness up to us in a way that a 19th Century audience might not have appreciated. (although devotees of Lewis Carroll might have got the idea). Once we realize that we are hearing a “knowing” story we can be comfortable with it, and it is the storyteller’s job to allow the knowing to be present during their telling.

David’s story, an original creation and destined to be an inset episode within a personal account, is both a “My Life” story and a structural device to deepen our understanding of a person’s life. So far we have only the “My Life” story, told in the first person by a pigeon, and the rhythms and the eventualities are those of autobiography. People’s lives rarely follow a classic narrative arc (or if they do, and all those episodes and complicating diversions, are streamlined away, it is usually to prove some point about human nature – many celebrity autobiographies are very moral and self-justifying) so when they become autobiography it is for their anecdotes and vignettes that we enjoy them, – once we realize that this is what they are. Novels in pseudo-autobiographical form, however, like “Great Expectations”, can achieve a coherence and depth which eludes, for example, Katie Price in her series of self-accounts or even Paul O’Grady in his, much more entertaining ones. David, anyway, has set himself to use a pigeon’s episodic account of his life to give depth to a boy’s singular account of his situation. It will be great if he can get the two kinds of story to play off against each other. and I’m sure he will. For now think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the ”Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe”.

And what was Decima’s tale? Ostensibly it was an original fantasy about a ping-pong ball which had lost its “ping” and as a story does not yet have an ending. This prompted a lot of suggestions from the listeners as to how to complete the story but everything will hang upon what kind of story it is. If it’s a micro-tragedy in Calvino-mode then it will end when the creator/teller has exhausted the series of fruitless remedies to the situation. If it is a fable or parable it will end when the ping-pong ball finds a new perspective on its loss. If it is a lexical whimsy it will end in a flourish of pings and pongs and smells and balls and word-play. However it proceeds and ends we will study the ending to finally make sense of what we have been listening to, what we should think about the world and to what family of stories it belongs – and Decima will have made all her telling consistent with what kind of a story she thinks it is.

Four stories and four story-families, and in our workshop a fortnight earlier we addressed urban folk-tales and Chinese ghost and monster tales, different families of stories, both trading in the sensational and often horrific, but the former needing a resounding punch-line ending grounded in the quotidian and the latter mainly refusing any kind of narrative closure while the monstrous apparitions continue to resonate in our minds in ways which maybe were even more powerful for their original audiences.

My advice is to know what kind of story you are telling and help your audience by crafting your telling to help the audience know too. If you do want to play with narrative types and even subvert them you still need to help the audience know which inter-story-family contrasts you’re invoking. And as a final reflection, I have just finished reading Neil Gaiman;s “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane”. At first I was unsettled by it but once I realized that I was experiencing not a boyhood memoir or a tale of adult  angst but a profoundly metaphorical account of elemental forces like Ursula LeGuin’s “Earthsea Quartet” or David Almond’s “Skellig” I was happy to allow its pleasures, and pains, into my soul.