Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Importance of Telling Tales

September 11 -- Never Forget

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. "Where were you when you found out?" was a question asked over and over. As a resident of central New Jersey and daughter of a downtown NYC business owner, the events of September 11 were very real and scary for me. I remember exactly where I was when I found out what had happened. It was the end of first period, US History, my sophomore year of high school, less than a week before my 15th birthday. A neighboring teacher told our teacher to turn on CNN. We saw the damage of the first plane crash, and we watched the second plane crash live. It didn't seem real. The gravity of it sunk in as the day went on.

This was the scene I watched when I first learned
about the World Trade Center being hit during class.
Nothing of substance happened in school that day. In every class, we watched the broadcast. A friend and I hugged each other and cried. My cousin found me in the hallway, and we called his house from the guidance office to see if our aunt and my dad made it out of the city. And as this was all happening, my mom was in the hospital with my aunt who had gone in to labor that morning and had my cousin. The doctors and nurses were so glued to the t.v. that as my aunt was seizing in her bed, no one took notice. Luckily, my mom, an RN, was there to call them away from the horrifying scene.

In the end, I was very fortune that I lost no one that day, though I heard many horrific stories from family members who worked downtown: one had body parts fall on his car, which he later abandoned when the buildings started to collapse and ran the rest of the way to Brooklyn; an aunt who worked in the financial center was evacuated (though her car parked under the WTC wasn't as lucky); my dad who came home on the ferry covered in soot and ash; my grandfather, an FDNY retiree, lost many men he once fought fires with. I sat next to kids in class whose parents, aunts, uncles, never made it home.

But my story is nearly second hand. I didn't see the wreckage with my own eyes for a month after it had happened. I didn't lose anyone I knew. Others did, and their stories are far more important.

Dr. Benjamin Luff from SUNY Stonybrook Medical Center was one of the doctors who saw first repsonders after the attacks. Dr. Luff explains that "doctors often reduce patients to their symptoms." The patients become their disease, but as he met with first responder after first responder and heard their stories, he realized that these people had something to share, something that, as a nation, we needed to hear. Their stories are terrible and incredible. Most importantly, though, these oral histories remind us that there were people involved. September 11 has become all about numbers: 911, 343 firefighters dead, 2,819 murdered in the attacks. It reduces the tragedy to a list. The stories of the first responders make real for us the sacrifices that these women and men made that day and the traumas they have had to deal with as a result. They also show us that in the face of intense evil, there is intense good. They remind us that there were real people there that day. They make sure that we will never forget.

Another war, another story

The original diary of Anne Frank
As I was watching the memorials and television specials, I was also reading The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank's diary. Her voice captures adolescence as it takes places in a cloistered annex of an office building during World War II. She talks about the everyday, the typically adolescent, the domestic. She talks about her life as a maturing writer. She also talks about the horrors of being a Jew in occupied territory and the awful feeling of anxiety produced by hiding. Her diary teaches so much more about WWII than one learns in a history book. Again, she makes it real. The power of the narrative is that it creates empathy. She isn't just a statistic, another body in a concentration camp or a mass grave. Her story makes history alive for her readers. It is an especially important one for those of us who are living again in an era of war.

She also reminds us of the importance of stories as an outlet to deal with trauma. She needs to write, to tell her stories, to stay sane. It is her way of being remembered in a world that has forgotten her.

Why we need narratives

What I am getting at is the importance of narratives and how upset it makes me that our society, especially our academic society, places their value at the bottom of the totem pole. Some of the best and most important works of literature are, in fact, nonfiction narratives, yet we discourage our students from producing anything of the sort, unless it's a low stakes assignment or "creative writing" (though, my problems with that division will have to be discussed at a later time). We tell them, "don't use I. Don't tell stories. You can write from experience, but don't talk about that experience. Make sure you cite the authorities." Why can't they be authorities?

Finally (I apologize for the lengthy post), this leads me to think about the potential dangers of narratives, most especially "master narratives." Our master narratives erase the narratives of the marginalized. By throwing out the little guys, we lose so much, and we reinstate the power of those already in power. With master narratives, we enable people like Hitler to take charge because as everyone knew, the Jews were to blame for economic crisis. We allow innocent Muslims to be harassed in the name of the War on Terror because we thought every Muslim was out to kill off all non-Muslims. We think everyone who comes to America gets a fair chance at success. These are the narratives that pervade because time and time again, we wipe out the voices, the narratives, that speak to other perspectives.

I say, let out students tell stories, and listen to them. We need them if we want to change our world for the better.

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