Last fall, I took a Native American Studies course with the wonderful instructor Judy Bluehorse Skelton. Our text was extremely shallow and inadequate, but the best Judy could find, so we used this as an opportunity to challenge and interrogate the text as an opportunity for thought-provoking discussion. As we examined the book chapter by chapter, we arrived at the chapter on Native American Literature.
I was excited at the outset, because stories are dear to my heart and the thought of being exposed to a trove of new, rich authors was delightful. But the chapter bothered me on a deeper level than any previous. Its constant explanation of the themes in the literature was unwelcome and intrusive: I was being told what to think about these narratives, rather than getting to simply experience them. It actually robbed me of an important facet of that experience, by imposing an outside interpretation before I’d even gotten to read them for myself.
It was an essentially colonialist approach to appreciating stories; studying and cataloging, sorting by theme, and essentially treating them as a dead thing—no, more than that, even actively killing them in the name of preserving their valuable qualities. Since the text brought up the relationship of literature to language, I was struck by the parallel to language learning, specifically the value of approaching a language on its own terms rather than trying to translate the words into your own context. There’s a reason Willem Larsen, founder of Language Hunters, calls this “Killing Fairies“; something very real does die when you use analytical tools to hammer another language into your native language’s shape. The same applies to stories: a story is, and doesn’t have a “literal translation”; it means itself. When authors Kidwell and Velie tried to nail down the “meaning” of a novel, the novel itself wriggled out of their grasp.
It’s a difficult paradox: how do you you appreciate and discuss stories when the language of analytics ultimately fails to truly describe a story in a fundamental and catastrophic way? I suppose the starting point is simply acknowledging the limitations of such discourse, even if we can’t entirely escape it.
Which is not to say I wish to disengage my critical brain when I encounter stories! But it’s a tricky balance, maintaining awareness of stories’ agenda while honoring and taking nourishment from them. For me, experiencing a story involves a sort of surrender to the internal reality and modality of the tale; it’s “true” (though that’s an inadequate and misleading word) in its own context, true in a felt, emotional, mythic sense, even if it doesn’t refer to “facts.” Examining the problematic elements of a story is an important part of the process, but that comes later. First comes immersion, the living and feeling of the story as it washes over me. If a story’s message or agenda is too noxious, I won’t be able to achieve that immersion (and probably be more well off for it), but that experience is my goal, and the standard by which all stories are judged.
Because I couldn’t engage with the stories dissected by Kidwell and Velie, which I hadn’t read for myself—novels like House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko—my thoughts turned to a story which I do know, which also deals with the theme of connection to the land: the film The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry.
In Roan Inish, an island off the coast of Ireland (Scotland in the novel) is deserted by the fishing community that lives there, as the younger generation becomes restless for the city and moves there in search of work. Only the old remain, living on the mainland in sight of the isle. All concerned is portrayed as broken and empty, needing connection with the island to be whole. (“Do you miss it greatly?” “Roan Inish? Ah, it’s only a place, I suppose. Mostly I miss the way of life. You’re surrounded by the sea, with your whole family about ye.”) A girl, Fiona, is sent by her city-dwelling, widowed father back to live with her grandparents on the coast. The country-dwelling family seems more connected with their place—with the land and sea—than the city-folk, but are still wounded by their severed tie to Roan Inish. Her baby brother Jamie had been lost at sea in the evacuation, forming a living symbol of the disconnect from their place: “The sea had taken poor wee Jamie. It was angry with us for leaving Roan Inish.” The old folk know they belong on the island, but are resigned to their lot. The next generation want nothing to do with the place. It’s only the children Fiona and Eamon who are able to provoke the family to action and reconcile them with the island. As I write these words, I know that I’m doing violence to these stories, as surely as the Kidwell/Velie text does violence to the stories it explains. I have to stop; I’ve said too much. The only words that have any life in them are the scant quotes from the actual film. I’d rather you hear ten words of it than a thousand of mine:
My words are not the stories; they are only a brutish finger pointing clumsily at the stories themselves. I don’t know how else to write about them, though. Game designer Vincent Baker is fond of saying that when someone asks him a roleplaying theory question, he can’t answer it, except by designing a game around it. In his interview on Clyde Rhoer’s Theory from the Closet [49.15], he put it like this: ”I’m a game designer, not a statement creator! If I want you to understand [a particular game design concept]…I’m going to design a game and put it in front of you, and you’ll understand how it works in that game.”
Ultimately, the way to share the gifts of these tales would not be to write a paper about them, but to simply share them—give you a book to read, or sit down with you and watch a film. Or tell you a story. Or play a game together. I think it’s no accident that in so many traditions, elders and teachers answer questions with a story. The story isn’t an explanation or an example of the answer, the story is the answer. Even in Christian tradition, Jesus mainly just tells stories, and says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Only when pressed, in a couple of Gospel accounts, does he finally concede and give an explanation to his closest followers, presumably reluctantly.
A story is itself. A story is lived experience, both of the teller and of the untold generations through which the stories have been handed down. A people who think in stories (and not in platitudes or in “rational arguments”) would, I feel, have a greater grounding in love and empathy and of relationship to the wider world.