Friday, November 11, 2016

Just a beginning: Why It Is Important to Tell Our Stories

“The personal is political.” ~feminist rallying cry

I’m trying to write myself out of a pickle. For months, I have been circling around the idea of why it’s important for us, as women, to tell our stories but I haven’t written anything down on the page. I initially thought that in bona fide academic fashion I would include voices the likes of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Walker and Rebecca Solnit and let them speak for me. I had written notes in the margins of their books and printed out articles, marked passages I wanted to quote, and others I wanted to paraphrase. I intended to expand upon those writings with little more than my personal agreements upon the text, and I thought that would be enough. However, to my dismay, I left every single one of those resources at home, a proper justice for someone who had put off writing her paper til less than 24 hours before her presentation was due.
So, there I was without a proper paper to present. My former professor, mentor and friend Sandra Maresh Doe then read to me a proposal letter she is writing to ask for support in her writing and research. In the proposal, she told her story about how chasing a male relative’s work for decades has led her to this point in time. She read about how publishers told her that this story about an artist named Ray Boynton was separate from her own, that the Boynton biography and her autobiography could not be mixed.
“But. . .this story is your story,” I said. I felt angry and was probably a little pushy, too. In her proposal, and in the text of the book she is writing, Doe talks about a life of her own very impressive accomplishments that, though she won’t admit it, often go overlooked. She talks about many of the deep personal connections she has made along her search. She speaks about motherhood, sisterhood, losing lovers, family members, and a breast to cancer.
I’ve heard pieces of this story multiple times over the years during various presentations on campus and off, but for some reason, it never hit me as much as it did today. “This is your story,” I said.
Doe admitted, passionately that she doesn’t want to continue with this project because why would she continue chasing a man who had burned through three wives and has remained a bit of a ghost, leaving her alone to complete his story for him, to fill in the blanks where he left off. She also admitted that she wanted desperately to finish the work: Can’t leave the work unfinished, after all.
“That is honest, what you’re telling me. The want to finish this work and your frustrations with it. It is not two stories you are writing, it is one; and it is yours. Further, those frustrations are definitely part of the story.”
We had breakfast and I still did not have a paper; I did not have a clue on where to start. I began thinking about other friends’ and loved ones stories I have heard over the years. I thought about some of my own. There were so many stories. They came rushing in:
I remembered the friend whose drink had been laced with rohypnol and who woke up abandoned, groggy and bleeding; the friend who had been gang raped and who took the main instigator to court, only to lose her case because of the way she looked (she was asking for it?); the loved one who was beat in front of her children, her hair dangerously close to lit burner coils; the woman whose baby’s papa sent her flowers and her favorite fruits after promising to take care of her and her soon coming little one, only to abandon them in an unpaid for hotel when he went back to an ex-girlfriend; the woman whose boyfriend became angry at her when she wouldn’t have sex with him because he had brought home crabs from sex with another woman; the woman who asked me to take her photo down off of a college club site because she was afraid a stalker would find her; the woman who confides in me that she’s going back to exotic dancing because she can’t make enough money otherwise, and this despite the sexual harassment that men deem warranted because of her occupation; the woman who owns three strip clubs and also founded an organization to help women who have experienced sexual violence; the woman reporter who constantly has to assert her significance and powerful voice in the realm of journalism; the woman who has laid aside her whole life to be a mother and caretaker; the woman who was told she could be a singer in a band if she became the band fluffer; the woman who kept it secret that her husband raped her first daughter, the same daughter that was a product of another rape; the trans woman who was told that she would never be a real woman. . . .
I could go on. And many listening right now can recount stories of their own, stories they’ve heard from friends, family members and loved ones, stories they have experienced themselves. Luckily, there has been no better time than now to speak up and to share these stories. Sharing them instigates courage. It creates community and solidarity. It creates change.
Personally, I have felt stunted in my expressions and have shirked telling stories of my own. I suppose that is why I did not start writing around this idea til now. I know conceptually the importance of telling stories and I know what feminist writers would say. Still, I’ve been afraid and silent.
So, this morning, I decided to reach out to my friends on Facebook as a way to reach out to people and to begin a process of rounding up community. “What do you think?” I asked. “Can you help me? Why is it important for us to tell our stories?” I had no idea so many people would answer. Here is what they said:
  • This is where I always start about anyone telling their story: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” ~Zora Neal Hurston.
  • It’s important for us to tell our stories so that we are not written into invisibility by men. . . again.
    • Case in point: A man writes in this thread what he would do if he were writing my story. . . .I thank him for his input and let him know that no one will be writing my story but me.
  • It is important to tell our stories because a lot of people don’t have to live it. They don’t live it, so they don’t see it, or if they see it, they pretend it’s not there. For a lot of folks, they don’t think it’s real if they don’t see it. Last night, I had to tell my own boyfriend personal stories about being a woman in the workplace and the story of my sexual assault. It’s not his fault that he didn’t know, he’d never witnessed this himself. But he didn’t believe that sexism is real. He didn’t know about misogyny. I had to explain to him what misogyny is. It’s our job to share our stories, to inform that yes, these things are happening all around us. It’s not his fault he didn’t know -- he never saw it, never partook in it, never had to deal with it. But for those of us who do have to deal with it, it’s our jobs to show those who love us. It’s our job to open their eyes to it.
  • We all have a story. . . ‘when having done all to stand, stand therefore.’ When you think you can’t continue, can’t survive, or that you are not strong enough, think again. We are all capable of greatness, even in the smallest measure, shaken and stirred by conflict but still intact.
  • I grew up in the time of bra burning and Gloria Steinem’s brand of Women’s Lib. When I was a child, I thought that maybe marriage would be out of date by the time I got to be my age. Yet, ironically, we still are talking about the same issues, decades later. I wonder just how have we evolved as a culture? Have we simply become more PC, and never truly addressed the core issues?
  • Because the romance lie dominates book sales and keeps women hooked on finding the right man.
  • Because our real experiences and thoughts and feelings are not told.
  • It's important because without knowledge of the past, nothing will ever change. We need to know where we came from to appreciate where we are and to realize how important it is to keep going.
  • Stories define us, our histories, our families, our hearts and souls. The telling of story is recognized universally as essential to humanity, from Doctor Who, to Native American, especially western Apache, traditions, all the way back into prehistory. I would love to see some women seize the narrative and run with it, telling their history in the epic tradition, making correlations between womanhood and heroism, like Joseph Campbell did for men with The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Or continuing where Clarissa Pinkola Estes started with Women Who Run With the Wolves. Keith Basso did some great interviews with Apache elders of both genders when he was writing Wisdom Sits in Places. Those three books are my favorite studies of human narratives.
  • I feel it's necessary teaching for the daughters and granddaughters of this country. It's a health concern to me. Some women are taught not to speak up by their families and society at large needs to teach them how to do so and provide a safe container to hold them. So the scary stories and uncelebrated joys don't turn into ill health and disease.
  • There's no freedom for anyone until we are all treated equally. Just because we can vote and have jobs doesn't mean we are equal. I want the same pay as the men in my industry doing the same job as me. I want to be taken seriously when doing business with men. I want to be able to make choices about my own body. We aren't all the way there yet.
  • We want our stories heard so that our lives will have lasting meaning. Maybe our experiences can help others who come after us.
  • If our stories are never told, it's like we never existed and once again our voices silenced. We live in a patriarchal world where this has been the norm for far too long.
  • For one reason and one reason only: To remind yourself that you're real. ←(and I would add, to remind the world that you are real).
  • I think it's important for everyone to tell their stories. These stories help people to heal and help to create our history. It also can so often help others by hearing these stories. It may trigger something for healing purposes or just allow a person to feel heard, which is important to our human existence.
  • If we let others know how we have struggled, it somehow makes us seem weaker in others' eyes. The reality of it is this: We are stronger than we even know and the trials and tribulations we have gone through have made us who we are. We have learned and evolved from the young women we were to the women we are now.
  • I went through a very turbulent first marriage and I have said from the beginning of my healing process with that, if I can help one person get through a similar situation or save someone from it, then all was not lost. I love the person I have become and I love my life. I have learned that I am enough just as I am. Wonderful place to be!!!
  • For me, it's a very personal way to feel connected. To share/trade stories with other women gives me a feeling of safety, and validation that my own stories and experiences are ok, I'm ok. When I listen to other women confide in me, I feel useful in their experience.
  • As women (and this can extend to anyone who has dealt with oppression), we have been indoctrinated by a wealthy/male dominated world that has practiced & preached that everything is on their terms. When our voices and stories become heard we have the opportunity to change other people's lives for the better.
  • Because when men go through puberty their voices crack...girls turn to women so quickly, protruding. It's so important to support girls turning into women, so they can pass the baton, we can support one another. Physicality reveals the worlds inside.
  • Because when we tell our stories, we learn what our story is....
  • Because no one knows them better than we do. And because "Not telling it has been changing me, and not in a good way."
It is my hope that we can all become inspired and empowered by coming forth and naming those things that have been weighing heavily on our hearts and holding us back. I hope that we can listen to each other and begin a process of healing that can bring about the kind of transformation we yearn to see. I believe that it is imperative that we do.
I would like to close with one quote from Audre Lorde after all: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” So here’s to that (!).
Thank you.