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Learning to Listen: the Power of the Identity Narrative

ENG 308 final project text set

Allison Szatkiewicz

on 30 April 2010

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Transcript of Learning to Listen: the Power of the Identity Narrative

Learning to listen:
the power of the
identity narative On the surface, this clip from "The Lion, The Witch, and The wardrobe seems fairly funny, maybe witty, if you catch the reference to the story's allegory. But what if I were to tell you that this clip is in fact a great example of how people create and layer stories that go on to shape our cultural and societal understanding? The clip is supposed to be funny, but it also demonstrates how complex and intricate stories can become, not always as straightforward as we might think.

Stories are an enormous part of how we think about the world around us. From the more obvious storytelling of novels to the sub-texts of advertising, to our own memories and family histories, everything has a story behind it. We hear these stories everyday, and they have a huge influence over how we see ourselves and our societies.

But what about the stories we don't hear? It is dangerously easy to fall into the habit of taking things at their surface value (to see this clip as something funny, and nothing more). The explicit stories we hear and tell are important—but so are the ones we don't. Both influence the creation of identity, and only by learning to listen more carefully and hear all the stories can we gain a complete understanding of ourselves, our culture, and our society. This is an essay, written and read, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In this essay, Adichie describes how she struggled as a young woman to reconcile the stories she was given in her childhood with those she knew to be true about her country and her own life. She warns against the danger of the "single story," providing with examples from her own life proof of the harm that can be caused when we fail to recognize the validity of multiple narratives. the single story Our culture is constructed of stories, the ones we tell ourselves and those that are told about us. They come from the books we read, the TV shows we watch, our religions, our families, our histories. All of them combine to create what we call our identity, a thing that has the power to not only define us, but also those around us. What we must be careful of is making sure that we give ourselves a chance to hear all the stories that surround us. american born chinese by gene luen yang This book is a great starting point for beginning to open discussion about alternative stories. Written as a graphic novel, the narrative of the book is itself divided into three stories, told by three characters who all share the desire to fit in. Besides this major theme (itself a common story in young adult literature) the book also does an excellent job of bringing to light many stereotypes about Chinese-American individuals. In two of the stories, the Chinese heritage of the characters Jin and Chinkee presents a serious problem, either in their minds (in the case of Jin) or in the minds of those around them (for Chinkee). That is to say, the stories that Jin told about himself, and those that others chose to tell about Chinkee, had a serious impact on how the characters saw themselves and their culture, and how they acted as a result. When they had only one story to follow, mainly that being Chinese made them outcasts and unequal, they suffered. Only at the end of the book, when all three characters convene in an odd twist of events, are any of them able to see the other stories that were being told, and thus create a more correct story for themselves. Stereotypes are spread through out our culture, and no one knows that better than young adults. They are often related to behavior, beliefs, looks, or language, and they are used as a way to judge others either out of a lack of understanding or a false sense of superiority. As demonstrated by the stories in American Born Chinese, relying on these extreme and charicatured versions of people as our sole basis of understanding limits both the characters themselves and those around them whose skewed perspectives go unchallenged. luna by Julie anne peters Another book which forces us to question the stories we tell, Luna is a novel about a young male transvestite and his transition from male to a female, told through the eyes of his younger sister. Self-named Luna, a girl who “only appears in moonlight” challenges not only her family and friends' perceptions of gender, but also the readers' as the expectations and roles of men and women in our society are repeatedly presented and discarded. In a family and a community that are less than welcoming to these challenges, Luna and her sister are forced to write their own tales of what it means to be siblings, what makes a man or woman, and how to love unconditionally. There is a very prevalent idea with people that there is such a thing as "normal". What exactly normal is can be a bit elusive, but none the less the conviction still holds strong that some how, some where, it exists. This is especially true when it comes to questions of gender and sexuality. It is rarely if ever contested that there are more than 2 genders, or biological sexes for that matter. Almost every movie, ad, and clothing store in mainstream western culture promotes these interpretations of gender and sexuality - and in the few circumstances where a different story is told, the individuals in question meet with conflict. Luna's story shocks her family, estrangers her friends, and nearly drives a permanent rift between her and her sister. She is not "normal", and it isn't until the characters of the book are able to redefine this concept, to tell a new story of normal, that they can begin to overcome their hesitations. merchants of cool This documentary, made by Frontline for PBS, explores the market of “cool” - who defines it, how it changes, and how it's marketed. Cool has become a major market, aimed specifically at teenagers, and the amount of time and detail put into discovering the next big thing is extensive. The documentary explores the transitive nature of what is “cool” and the exchange that happens between teenagers and the media. It provides the realization that while teenagers affect the media, the media also affects teenagers (the stories teenagers tell about themselves are altered by the stories the media tells about them, and vice versa). The result is a strange mix of supposed individuality fed through the medium of advertisement and reality TV. A search for individuality is one which practically every teenager will take at some point in their lives, but it is certainly not an easy one. Between pressure from peers and a constant stream of advertisements, teenagers are constantly told how they should look and act (and how they shouldn't). We've reached a point where constructing any kind of identity free from media influence is nearly impossible, and this in turn has seriously affected how we go about constucting and interpreting our life stories and identities. speak by laurie halse anderson This novel, about a teenage girl who gets raped at a party, concerns a kind of story that is slowly gaining a stronger voice in our communities. Assault and sexual violence against women is nothing new in our societies, but is a narrative that in the past has often been silenced. Anyone who has suffered sexual abuse has instantly faced the challenge of balancing the story of their abuse, the stories told about abused people (that they are weak, deserved it, are tainted because of it), and the knowledge that it is often a story that no one wants to hear. In Speak, protagonist Melinda must sort through the words of others, their expectations and judgments, to find her own voice. Melinda is afraid to speak out in this story because of the ramifications she knows her story will have; she's already hated by most of her classmates for calling the cops on the party where she was raped, and the boy who did it is much higher in the social food-chain than her. It isn't that she doesn't want to tell - its that she doesn't think anyone will believe her. This is an instance where silence is the story. Her lack of voice is meaningful because it is the manifestation of a form of oppression; through fear, her story is kept from being heard. Although Melinda eventually finds her voice, her silence is as much a part of her story as the words she finally manages to produce - and both her silence and her voice drastically change how her identity and that of the others involved in her story is shaped. Too often we fall prey to the assumption that those with out a physical voice have no stories to tell. In this poem, by a Def Jam Poet named Rives, that assumption is discarded for a glimpse into the kinds of stories those with disabilities have to share. People who do not have disabilities have the luxury of never having to consider what life with a disability is like; hearing the words of the deaf students Rives has worked with opens the listener's ears to other stories which have to this point been silenced. "sign language" In general the access we have to stories about disability are very limited. Often, unless we become directly involved some how with an individual who has a disability, we remain unaware and uneducated. The assumptions that are then made about people with a disability is that they are in some way inherently less than a 'normal', non-disabled person. It is believed, for example, that they always need help, or are less intelligent or lower functioning. Yet the students Rives describes are far from incapable, and believing otherwise only acts as a barrier to our own understanding. detroit institute of art: rivera court These murals, by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, are located in Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Art. They represent, according to the DIA, “a tribute to the city's manufacturing base and labor force of the 1930's.” They honor the workers who dedicated their lives to the auto industry, which was the economic life blood of the city, many of whom faced wage cuts and job loss during the Great Depression. Rivera's art tells the story of these men and their sacrifice, but it also goes a step further. Besides the main walls which depict actual images of the factories, the walls of Rivera Court are covered in smaller panels which comment on the nature of industry and progress. The murals show us both the positive and negative potential of human “improvement” - technology that lets us fly, and also drop bombs; chemicals that can save lives, and also destroy them. What is progress? Why do we value it so much? American prides itself on being a "progressive" country, full of advanced medicine and technology. Ours is a story of proseperity and civilization, of forward thinkers and sophistication. The stories of these frescoes are of hard work and dedication, progress and potential; however, they also have the stories of devastation and insecurity, regression, and a powerful question of responsibility. "richard cory" This song, inspired by a poem of the same name by Edwin Arlington Robinson, follows on the idea of material wealth and what it means to be successful. The narrator in the song longs to be like Richard Cory, a man who symbolizes power, privilege, and fiscal wealth; he “curses” his own inability to live a life like Cory, desiring nothing else. Even when it is discovered that Cory has killed himself, the narrator is willing to trade places dead is still better than poor. This is a powerful commentary on the importance of wealth in our culture, and how our definitions of success can define our personal opinions. The narrator in Simon & Garfunkel's song sees himself as a failure, because the story he has of “success” is Richard Cory. Cory on the other hand clearly does not see himself as a success, as demonstrated by his suicide. Wealth, prosperity, excess, luxury, power; these are the stories of success presented in the song. When the narrator's life doesn't match with this image, the only explanation available to him is that he is somehow a failure. In Richard Cory's case, we can infer that it is the realization that none of these things fulfill him. This story calls on us to reevaluate our priorities, and explore what it really means to be successful. "First reading since" This poem is one that I find particularly powerful in examining the idea of multiple stories. September 11th was a devastating event for people all across our country, a horrifying day that shook the security and sense of safety we had been blessed to have. People reacted with sorrow, with fear, and with anger. Almost as soon as the identities of the hijackers were known a barely veiled surge rose up against the Arab community in America. Anyone who looked Arab was checked at airports, had letters from the government sent to their homes, had assumptions made about the kind of people they were and the beliefs they held. The majority of images of Arabs in our media were negative, concerned with death and war. These limited stories we were given reduced us to fear and hatred, promoting the assumption not only that there is a specific type of or way to be “American” but that anyone who did not fit this type was somehow dangerous or threatening. Instead of fully uniting as a country, people turned against each other out of ignorance. By only listening to one story, the story created by the shock, not the understanding of, a horrendous event, we found ourselves torn farther apart instead of glued back together. Monster by walter dean meyers Another story that blurs the lines between what we know as true and false, Meyers' Monster is the journal of a young man on trial for felony murder. Shifting between the courtroom, prison, and scenes of the robbery-gone-bad, we learn the story of Steve Harmon and the convoluted events surrounding the shooting of a drugstore owner. Slowly more and more information is revealed, but as the story progresses the truth becomes increasingly more tangled. Steve struggles to make clear his own memories of events while balancing his fear and the rhetoric of the courtroom. He and the reader are forced to face their morality, questioning what it means to be evil and good, and how those definitions influence what we perceive as truth. Even in the conclusion of the book, when the verdict is delivered, we are left unsure of Steve's innocence or guilt. We often approach truth as though it were something concrete and tangible. In reality, the stories of the events that shape our lives are affected and altered by our own perceptions; what we remember and how we remember it are individual variabilities. We can't know for sure whether Steve is innocent or guilty, good or evil, because he doesn't know himself. The lines between these concepts are blurred, if they exist at all, and Steve and the reader's ultimate struggle is in coming to terms with the ambiguous nature of human existence. stoufers advertisement This ad looks just like thousands of others we see everyday. At first glance, it seems straightforward enough; a family, eating dinner together, happy, maybe a little chaotic. It's the "typical American family", as seen prolifically through out our culture. The saying goes that a picture says a thousand words, however, and this ad is no exception. Certainly, this image tells a story of family - but what kind of family? What sort of values and ideals does it promote? If we look more carefully, we find stories about class (high porportion of middle-class images), gender (daughter in a tutu, mother serving her family), race (it's true - there are far more images of white Americans than anyone else), and the hegemonic ideal of family (heterosexual, 2-3 kids all a couple years apart in age). For most people, this is the story of the "average America", even though few if any families actually meet all these expectations.
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