The Stories We Tell

Our world is built on stories.

Creation myths. History books. Medical journals. Scientific hypothesis. Tabloid tales. Math problems. Romance novels. Religious texts.
Haikus and headlines and tweets and tik toks and column inches.

We humans tell each other stories — and consume them — every second of every day we twirl around on this hapless planet.

Our societies, our systems, have been shaped by stories. Not all of those stories have been truthful. Or equitable. Or hopeful. It is exactly because stories are powerful, because they have the potential to sway minds and arts, that they are often wielded as weapons.

We all do it. To protect ourselves. To obfuscate. To get something we want. We tell stories to each other, about each other. About who’s right and who’s wrong, about who has more value, about who the winners are.

We tell stories to ourselves about ourselves. About why we can. Why we can’t. About what we want. About what matters.

We pick and choose our stories like we’re at some kind of word buffet, loading our plates with only the most palatable, the most pleasant voices. The ones that won’t give us indigestion, keep us up at night, upset the relatives.

Left to our own devices, most of us choose the same story over and over and over again. A single story, the sanitized version — or the villainous version — that keeps us most comfortable and reinforces stereotypes. A story that centers one voice, drowning out all else.

The single story says that Black men are dangerous, and Black women angry. That immigrants steal good old American jobs, that Asian people are at fault for the COVID-19 pandemic, that Mexicans cross our border bearing only drugs and crime, that women are weak, that Jesus is white, and that America is #1, always and everywhere. The single story gets preached from pulpits, printed in textbooks, encoded in law.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of this single story, of its danger.

She says, “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to, “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she continues. “The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’

“Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

In 1975, cultural anthropologists Edwin and Shirley Ardener came up with the Muted Group Theory. It’s a communication theory that says a dominant group — the people with the power, are in charge of society’s communication system: social norms and vocabulary. Marginalized groups, in order to speak up and be heard, must learn to use the dominant group’s system.

But it’s difficult for these marginalized groups to articulate their ideas because they have to go through a translation process to try to make themselves understood. They don’t have the power, so they are not as free to say what they wish, which continues to keep them from having power.

“What makes a social group muted is that claims of its members to participate into social life are discounted and that they have internalised the idea that they are not entitled to raise their voice,” says Marcel Calvez, a French researcher and professor of health and disability.

They have internalized the idea that they are not entitled to raise their voice.

Two years ago, I began writing an essay called “Permission to Speak” that turned into a talk that turned into a workshop. I was thunderstruck by the discovery that I did not feel entitled to raise my voice. That I was waiting for permission to tell my story — permission that, for a long time, I didn’t believe I could grant to myself.

But along the way, as I’ve shared Permission to Speak with all kinds of people in all different countries, and as they have shared their own stories with me, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just about finding my voice. It’s about listening to other voices — voices telling stories that are not like my own.

Tell/hear. Hear/tell. They’re two sides of the same coin. Yin/yang. Moon/tide. If you talk about only one, you’re leaving out the other. Telling only half the story.

I’ve been thinking, for months now, about how I could use my own platform to elevate other voices, how I could share my own megaphone. And I’ve come up with this: the VOICES Series.

The month of March is Women’s History Month. And so, every other day for the next 31 days, I’m going to publish a story from a woman whose voice you haven’t yet heard. I’m going to publish 15 of these stories, and let these women share who they are, what they care about, how they are making their way through the world.

Because, as Chimamanda says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter.”

“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

So let us tell some stories. Or rather, let us listen.

photo by Patti Monaghen

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna