Learning From Stories

Human beings learn from stories all the time. In everyday conversation we tell and share stories to teach and entertain and strengthen social bonds: what to cook with a glut of apples, why I found my house keys in the fridge, when auntie Flossie fell off Blackpool Pier. We learn from stories in books and films, in songs and plays, and we tell each other those stories, too.

Researchers and academics learn from journal articles and policy documents, monographs and webinars. These also contain stories, though they are often in disguise, and they tend to be briefer and with less depth than stories told or shown. A lot of us enjoy this kind of learning, or most of it, though it takes more effort than the other kind.

I have some good news to share. We can learn useful information for our scholarly work from novels, memoirs, and poetry. For example, regular readers will know of my interests in Indigenous research and ethics, and in anti-racism work. Some of my teachers here are books I have read. As usual with my book posts, there is no system involved, I have just pulled some volumes off my shelves. Some were recommended to me, some I found in bookshops.

The Marrow Thieves by Métis writer Cherie Dimaline is a post-apocalyptic tale of a northern America devastated by global warming, where Indigenous people are being hunted for their bone marrow because it has special qualities. The protagonist is a boy called Frenchie who becomes separated from his family and has to travel north to try to find them. This book is classified as Young Adult literature, presumably because the protagonist is a boy, but I wouldn’t let that put you off. If you don’t like any kind of speculation with your fiction, you probably won’t enjoy this book (although there isn’t much), but I do and I did. And I learned a lot about how it can feel to be Indigenous, because that is one of the things novels can teach us which official writing mostly can’t. The Marrow Thieves won a bunch of awards, which is not surprising as it’s a terrific book.

Indian Horse by Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamese is another book focusing on Indigenous experience. This one is straightforward fiction, telling the life story of an Ojibwe character, Saul Indian Horse, and his trials and joys. It is beautiful, evocative and moving – and informative about the effects of individual, group, systemic, and national racism. It is very skilfully written, drawing me into unfamiliar cultural experiences such as competitive ice hockey, and enabling me to identify and empathise with people unlike any I have ever met. The characters and their experiences stayed with me long after I finished reading. This excellent book has now been made into a film, Indian Horse, which was the highest-grossing English Canadian film of 2018.

Night Spirits, by Ila Bussidor and Üstün Bilgen-Reinart, is a true story, the story of the Sayisi Dine people who were relocated – with only a few hours’ notice – by the Canadian government in August 1956. They were moved from their ancestral homelands in remote northern Manitoba to a slum area on the outskirts of Churchill, a frontier town on the shores of Hudson Bay. The Sayisi Dene had had little contact with white people and moved from a life of self-reliant sustainability to being social outcasts. Over the next 17 years, almost one-third of the Sayisi Dene died violently or as a result of their terrible living conditions. Ila Bussidor is a former chief of the Sayisi Dene and Üstün Bilgen-Reinart is a broadcaster and journalist. They worked together to tell this ‘dark story’ and to tell it ‘in hope’. It is well written, but emotionally hard to read because it is so full of injustice and tragedy. Yet there is hope: in 1973 the remaining Sayisi Dene began to assert their independence and leave Churchill to build a new community.

Poetry, too, tells stories. The anthology New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Ojibwe writer Heid E. Erdrich, brings together the work of 21 Indigenous poets from the 21st century. All the poets are from different parts of the lands we currently call America and Canada. The stories they tell are compelling, lyrical, raw, visual, sometimes funny. I didn’t know any of these poets’ work before I read the anthology, and I was particularly taken with Layli Long Soldier. I wanted to reproduce one of her poems here, but I thought I might fall foul of copyright, then I found it online so here’s the link to Obligations 2 which is an astonishing work, unconventional, perhaps the closest to a perfect poem that I have ever read. This anthology is delightfully multi-vocal and insightful.

I also want to learn from single voices and about racism closer to home. I pulled Let Me Tell You This by Nadine Aisha Jassat off the shelves in my last trip to Housmans radical bookshop, which I love to visit when I’m travelling through Kings Cross/St Pancras (I’ll be back when I can travel again, I promise – if you’re in the area with a little time to spare, do go and check it out). Jassat is a young British Asian poet whose voice loves and rages, punches and strokes with deftness and delight. She tells stories of contemporary British Asian life, with an emphasis on women’s and girls’ experiences in family and friendship. Her writing is readable, insightful, and a great teacher. This is her first collection, and it’s an impressive debut; I look forward to finding out what more she has to say in the future.

We’re back to the US for Hot Comb, a terrific collection of graphic short stories by Ebony Flowers, which I found in Waterstones in Cork in February. Regular readers will also know that I love graphic novels and comics, and part of why I love them is for their ability to take me into places I could never go – or, at least, not without causing change by my presence. These stories take me into Black society and let me share and learn from some of the experiences there. They are well written and drawn, with memorable characters. (And I discovered, in finding her link for this post, that Ebony Flowers is also an ethnographer, who uses comics in her research work – yay!!)

One of the best things about all of these books, and others like them, is I get to learn from people of colour without bothering them in person. And another best thing is that they are all so enjoyable to read – harrowing, too, at times, but that’s part of the point of literature for me: to move me emotionally, because that, too, helps me learn. As well as the grief and loss and pain, there is hope and growth and joy in these books, and humanity, and gentle teaching.

If your interests are in other areas, search out books and films that deal with your favoured subjects. If you too are interested in anti-racism, then I recommend any or all of the books described above. And if you have recommendations to share, please put them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $57 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $57 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

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