As alluded to in my post on Indigenous relationships, oral storytelling plays a role in building national identity. In fact oral storytelling is a powerful tool in bringing people together into a nation. Gottschall (2012) identifies national myths that form the American identity; things like Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and George Washington could not tell a lie. These myths are not necessarily true but they represent an understanding of what it means to be American and they are mostly conveyed through oral storytelling handed down generation by generation. Gottschall (2012) writes, “they represent determined forgetting, an erasure of what is shameful from our national memory banks so that history can function as a unifying, patriotic myth” and he continues, “The purpose of these myths is not to provide an objective account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together-to take pluribus and make unum” (p.124). Yes, sometimes these national stories hide harmful truths and sometimes they do more harm than good. However, there does seem to be a need for something to bind disparate groups together into a nation and this means there is a role for oral storytellers and librarians to play.
Yashinsky (2003) writes, “storytellers live in the real world. we vote, we participate in public affairs, we join the debate” (p. 197). He goes on to describe a storytelling event that took place on the eve of the Quebec referendum in Canada; a moment where the country was on the verge of dividing and national unity seemed unlikely. At this event a group of English and French storytellers gathered to share stories; Yashinsky (2003) describes the scene, “for one brief and bittersweet evening, I understood what Canada could be. The storytellers were doing what our politicians had been unable to accomplish. We weren’t trading lists of grievances, arguing over constitutional amendments, effusing over or shunning our neighbours. We were simply listening to each others’ stories” (p.197). From this experience Yashinsky (2003) realizes, “perhaps the greatest value storytellers bring to the world of politics is our love of listening. My country is still in a state of uncertainty, still trying to know and claim its proper destiny. My hope is that change can begin by listening to each other’s stories” (p.199). In building a national identity there is a need to spaces where stories are shared that help us get to know our fellow citizens, where we learn what it means to be a member of this nation and where we listen. Libraries have always been places where stories are shared but I think this stresses the importance that these stories be diverse; representing many community members and ensuring that many voices are heard. Especially since, libraries are providing a space for stories that are forming our sense of national identity.
Ideas for Libraries:
A storytelling night where you share national stories and confront both the truth and untruth in them. This would require a staff member to learn some of these national identity stories and then be comfortable leading participants in a discussion about the history behind these stories and participants personal encounters with these stories.
A storytelling night where different community members share their stories about citizenship and what this country means to them. This could be a chance to identify commonalities, and challenges that participants share. This type of program would require a staff member to facilitate and could require some sessions where participants are guided through preparing their stories to share. An alternative could be to put together a panel of diverse storytellers from different parts of the community and have them share their stories with a question and answer time afterwards.
Storytellers to check out:
Gottschall, J. (2012) The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. New York: NY, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Yashinsky, D. (2003) Jack Fury and Friends. In A.Cox & D.Albert (Eds.), The healing heart: Communities. (p. 197-199) Gabriola Island; B.C.:New Society Publishers.