In the Beginning…

 

The Storyteller by Sally Wiener Grotta
The Storyteller (c) by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

In the beginning…. How many tales start with those three words? In all languages, from every people who have ever walked this earth. Here is mine – or at least, my latest.

In the beginning, there was Story. Before Story, all was amorphous, unfathomable. Mysteries too profound and daunting to ever be knowable. Yet the human mind needs shape and form. We struggle to create it even in a dense, nebulous fog. We look up at the night sky with its chaotic multitude of stars and see creatures and gods staring down at us, maybe even watching us.

We are so small and insignificant, mere pebbles in the surf, tossed here and there by forces beyond our ken. Why? Who made it so? Questions formed in our minds and gave birth to Story. And with Story, we stepped up one more evolutionary level, becoming human. 

Story gives shape and meaning. It’s how we learn to ask questions, to try to find answers.

The nature of Story is that it is as changeable as the world it seeks to understand, as varied as the many storytellers who weave the tales. With every retelling, new threads and new colors are added, as new answers try to reshape the questions, sometimes replacing the old.

I have been fascinated by Story as long as I can remember. At a very young age, I was privileged to be immersed in a wide ranging buffet of tales, all of which shaped my mind, my beliefs and eventually my own tellings. Greek mythology. Christian parables. Jewish, Asian, African and Native American folk tales and spiritual traditions. So similar in many ways to each other, as each human being is similar to others, especially in the nature of our questions. And yet, just as each person is unique, each tale came to me as an individual, with a personality shaped by its progenitors, birthplace and cultural milieu. Over the years, they have merged and morphed, becoming as much a part of me as my childhood memories – which are yet another series of stories I tell myself, a personal mythology that I use to try to understand who I am, where I came from, and why.

So, though I may not be able to pinpoint which influences came from which tale, I carry them within me. They taught me the important lessons of Story: that questions are what propel us, and that a good tale touches all of us, reaching through barriers as nothing else can.

That’s why storytelling is an integral component of all education and why in my novel The Winter Boy, it’s a primary vehicle used by the Alleshi (a cloistered society of widows) to train the young men entrusted to them. Tell a student a fact or idea, and it has a small chance of sticking, with more and more being forgotten as time passes. But give students a good, meaningful story that threads the ideas and facts into the fabric of all too human lives, and they will hold it within them until it becomes part of them, and they may even share it with their grandchildren. Thus the Alleshi have created a unified society out of diverse tribes and villages, using Story as a common language and social glue.

Yet, sometimes stories can throw up obstacles, too – often surprising the teller. I tell book discussion groups that the novel I write isn’t the novel they read. That’s because we all carry our histories and preconceptions with us, flavoring our reactions. But that’s true not only with reading but living. Even as we hear words and ideas, we reshape them as our personal predilections would have them be.

In my novel Jo Joe, Judith Ormand (a mixed-race Jewish woman raised by her white Christian grandparents) returns to her hometown, filled with anger and bitterness as she confronts people from her youth who hurt her, shunned her, or simply didn’t love her as she wanted/needed. It’s a story of prejudice and lost innocence, told from Judith’s first person view, created from within her, shaped by who she is and how she sees the world, until her history becomes a personal mythology on which she has built her life. She – and the people she has known — project misconceptions and expectations rather than see each other fully. I am pleased that Jo Joe is being used to fuel discussions about bridging the ethnic/racial divide.

Why did I choose to make Judith multi-racial (with a father who is French, Black and Jewish, while her mother is a white American from a Christian family)? It’s that subconscious I was talking about earlier. Judith was born in my mind fully formed, right down to her name, churned forth by Story so that she was who I needed her to be for the novel that evolved out of her. I’ll leave it to others to psychoanalyze me why I needed Judith, why I was compelled to write Jo Joe. All I can say is that Judith is a soul-deep part of me, just as Joe Anderson is (the white boy who cruelly broke her heart). As all the characters I write are. Even Wayne Anderson, Joe’s violent bully brother, who comes from my deepest nightmares.

Some might question the appropriateness of me writing in the first person of a multi-racial woman. I would respond, until you know me, truly know me – and my writing – please don’t project your expectations on me. You might be surprised what you find under the first impression you might have of this white middle-aged middle-class Jewish woman.

Judith learned that lesson the hard way. I’m still learning it, though I believe that my multi-cultural upbringing has helped me to try to understand before projecting, to try to listen and ask questions before reacting to surface impressions. It’s a constant struggle for me, as it is for all of us. Shortcut stereotyping – or as CW would call it, profiling – is an easy default. When I see a stranger – or read a new author’s book – it’s much simpler to try to slot him or her into categories I recognize and feel comfortable responding to, either negatively or positively, based on my history with other “similar” folk. The more difficult, but much more interesting and rewarding path, is to try to see and read each person anew. That’s another and probably the most important lesson all those tales that I ingested as a child taught me.

From the beginning, Story gave us a wide diversity of voices, sung to different rhythms. Sometimes we haven’t understood each other’s words, actions or histories, but we have Story to guide us, to change us and help us grow until, if we’re lucky, we can learn to understand and appreciate each other.

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