Story Story, Remember a Story…

As storytellers or storytelling language teachers, we don’t just tell stories to teach a bit of grammar, or for the craic (although we certainly do) we tell them to help break down barriers whether it’s physical, geographical, political or otherwise.  It also introduces empathy through fictional or non-fictional characters and maybe, just maybe, someone remembers those stories long after we’ve told them.  But what of those stories that have stuck in our minds since we first heard them?  Have you ever wondered about stories you’ve told that might have stuck with someone else?  Just yesterday, I got, what could only be described as utterly floored by a story that I will never forget.  It wasn’t a new story too, but the context … the context changed everything.

Before I get to that, I’m going to recommend three stories that have stuck with me in pretty powerful ways since I first experienced them – and that’s the correct word to use – experienced them – because some stories are so powerful they pull you in and you never let go of them.

Also, if you’re wondering why I re-read some books or tales, there is actually research that says that we enjoy stories more if we already know the ending.  We even enjoy stories when we already have the spoilers for them before reading/watching them. 

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie

This is a short story in a collection of short stories that all language learners and language teachers should read at the very start of a course they teach.  It’s a tale of an immigrant mother trying to bond with her American born son by creating for them a magical paper menagerie of animals to play with.  Neither mother nor son can speak the same language.  LeVar Burton read the story on his amazing short story podcast some years ago, you can listen here.  All I’m going to say about the story is … brace yourself.  I still remember where I was the first time I reached the last page of the story.  I was on a bus pulling out of the town of Benavente, Spain, between Leon and Zamora as I headed north to meet my partner in Asturias.  I was sat on the second row of the bus and by the time we passed the wee football ground of the local team … three or four of the other passengers around me had to actually get up and ask me was I OK having read the final page.  The answer was a definite no.  It’s an incredibly powerful tale, beautifully told and even on the podcast version, there is a deafening silence Burton leaves once he’s told it, before discussing it.  I’ve re-read and re-listened multiple times, and it still holds the same effect.  It’s a story about communication and lack of which is what all stories want to help with.  Definitely give this a listen or a read, well worth your time.

“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

I’ve read this one a few times since it came out in 2008 and strangely enough, different parts of it stand out and speak to the reader every time I’ve read it.  It isn’t a Discworld book, which Pratchett is most famous and beloved for, however I think this book is the best thing he ever did write.  It’s marketed as a ‘young adult, coming of age’ book, but it’s really a take on a lot of things all at once, but not once does Pratchett ever offer his opinion of difficult topics like religion, belief, politics or philosophy, sexism, imperialism, nationhood or identity, he allows the reader to experience the story then make their own minds up.

“Thinking. This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.”  Just about sums it all up.

The story is a cross between Island of the Blue Dolphins and one of those ‘worlds collide’ stories where two people from completely different walks of life end up having to survive together, putting aside their differences to get by.  It talks about all the heavy hitting subject matters going, especially death and religion, but covers them in a way that shows two sides and two completely different mind sets to difficult topics, and simply leaves them on the table.  It doesn’t judge nor dismiss any and the reader can come to their own conclusions.  And since it’s Terry Pratchett, there are some great, laugh out loud moments that lighten the mood and take you by surprise.

“Don’t look back!”
“Why not?”
“Because I just did! Run faster!”

Again, this is a book I’ve read again and again, probably once every other year.  The first time I read it, the end of the story stuck out as it was a great way to finish a story.  It isn’t a happy ending or a sad ending.  It is an ending to a story that had run its course, and that’s what I liked about it.

Other times when I read it, the representation of philosophy, life and death became more and more interesting in the characters and worth more time.  There is a beautiful passage when the main character is burying a dead relative in their traditional funeral manner, even though the central character Mau isn’t religious.  He gets questioned by the other central character Daphne as to why does he bother with all this tradition and formality when it’s the dead who were religious, to which he shows respect for the elders’ religion, saying that even though it isn’t his belief, it’s what the dead would have wanted, however, “he was a good man, he deserved better gods than the gods he believed in.”  That stuck with me as a pretty powerful passage.

There’s a beautiful innocence of the story as well.  The two main characters are in their early teens and only really discovering themselves before they get thrust together due to unfortunate and deadly events. 

Lately I’ve had to make do with the e-book version on my Kobo as opposed to the large blue and black paperback when I first got the book (and I can still picture myself reading it with the dog) but it’s one of those stories that stuck in my head and I can see the events, characters and timeline so clearly it almost feels real.  It’s the art of a good story and hope more people give this book a read, it’s one of my favourites and criminally underrated.

“That’s what the gods are! An answer that will do! Because there’s food to be caught and babies to be born and life to be lived and so there is no time for big, complicated, and worrying answers! Please give us a simple answer, so that we don’t have to think, because if we think, we might find answers that don’t fit the way we want the world to be.”

Final Fantasy X

Listen… to my story…

Yes, that’s right, it’s a PlayStation game from 2001.  Video games can have amazing stories as well don’t forget.  In fact, since you are taking part in them actively, they might even be more memorable than one that is being absorbed passively.  That said, I don’t care much for video games, but the first 10 Final Fantasy games do tell good, compelling and extremely deep stories.  FFX being the peak of the entire series, both in storytelling and in musical composition.  There is a reason why this 21 year old game is still considered one of the greatest video games of all time.

In taking topics like death, faith, organised religion, race, the afterlife and ideology there is a very fine line between telling a good story, and screwing it up completely and coming across preachy and condescending.  Luckily, the writers for this story (which if you want to experience without a PlayStation 2 can watch the 11 hour version on YouTube) got the storyline utterly perfect, using real world issues and mixing them with a fantasy world.  It showed how ignorance, racism, and tradition can look from the outside allowing the viewer to make their own conclusions without the writers pushing any one idea.  It’s another one of those ‘worlds collide’ stories where our main character (you, the player) are thrust into a new but simpler world free from technology for the most part, and you have to work out what on earth is going on and how and where you fit in with it all.  Organised religion has a very strong hold on this new world, but as things start to unravel, all isn’t quite what it seems, and in fact, from an outsider’s standpoint, a lot of things don’t make logical sense, or even seem fair.  There’s corruption at the highest levels, control of the people, and fear deliberately spread through media channels …sound familiar?  A story like this would be so easy to tell in a bad way but this story is engaging, has surprises throughout, and does a great job of fighting the mindset of ‘that’s how we always did things, so it’s still grand’ feeling, that can keep people far too rooted in the past (just look where I’m from…).

But the real grab and memorable point to the story is the way in which you are drip fed pieces of information as to what is actually going on with the main characters – you are deliberately kept in the dark from some dark truths and only at certain points do you find out what really happens, making the lead characters ignorance actually your own ignorance of the story.

Just like the above stories mentioned though, even as a grown 34 year old …. The final act still utterly destroys you and leaves you floored – just like any really powerful, quality book would.  Unlike the other stories, this has a sound track that works perfectly alongside it, the sound track actually has toured the world with orchestras from Japan playing it. 

There is a feel good, colourful and deep story the whole way through, one worth telling as a great representation of real world situations and topics, but it also knows when to pull punches, when you least expect it.  Well worth watching/playing if you get the chance.

Snegurochka / The White Maiden / The Snow Girl

Which brings me to yesterday’s telling of The Snow Girl, although you may know the story by one of it’s other names.  I’ve heard this tale told from many different cultures around the world, I’ve heard German, Russian, Norwegian, Canadian, Slavic, Indian and Nepalese versions of the story but the general idea is still the same. 

An older couple who cannot bear children wish to have a daughter, and one night the wish comes true, and they get a daughter made of snow.  She is loved by her family and village and is incredibly popular.  However when the spring weather starts, all the children of the village celebrate the coming of the new season by jumping over a bonfire.  To the sadness of her parents, the snow girl wants to take part, knowing that she will melt and disappear, but says to her loving parents, that even though she will disappear now, she will always be there with them.  She then jumps over the fire and disappears. 

Context is king.

Any time I’ve heard this story, it has been a standalone story.  Sometimes on the topic of seasons, sometimes on the topic of weather, sometimes, it’s just a great story to tell.

But yesterday’s telling, which wasn’t actually planned (as all great storytelling sessions really are) was one I will never forget.  That is because the context of its telling was one I did not see coming.  One of our storytellers based in USA was telling it to their students to inform them that their school principal had died of Covid.  Want to silence a Zoom room in an instant? There you go.  Not a dry eye.  The story now takes on a much more powerful meaning.  It suddenly is much more memorable and ultimately real.  But not only that, it shows how a tale like that can involve everyone from young children to adults instantly, breaking down any age or experience barriers and bring everyone to the same level to think about what death means and how to handle it.  In fact, the use of storytelling here appears to be a much better tool for handling something like death than anything else ever could.  And amazingly, we were told the students didn’t cry or get upset, but actually wrote letters to the principal and talked about how that person would always be with them, looking over them just like the snow girl.  Even though they couldn’t see them anymore, they would always be with them in some way.  Never actually gone. 

And that, is the beauty of storytelling. 

The stories, the people, the events, the imagery, sound, feeling and occasion of stories.  They will live forever.  So thank you Bowen Lee for your story yesterday.  That will live forever with me.

“The People And The Friends That We Have Lost, Or The Dreams That Have Faded… Never Forget Them.” – Yuna

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