Storytelling: power, resistance, survival

Faculty: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Category: Staff

1 February 2020

Jeanette Baxter

Storytelling is inextricably linked with power. A great illustration of this from the world of literature can be found in the tale of Scheherazade, the main narrator of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, who has been sentenced to death by her husband, King Shahrya.

Out of fear of being betrayed, the king has declared that he will execute a new bride every day. So, for 1,001 nights Scheherazade tells her husband a story, always stopping just short of an ending in order to continue with her tale the next day and therefore stay alive.

For Scheherazade story-telling is a matter of survival. But it is also a form of resistance; a chance for a marginalised person (here a woman) to challenge traditional power structures (here the patriarchal sovereign), and to influence and change attitudes and behaviours.

It is this idea of story-telling as a form of resistance that galvanises the projects that run out of the New Routes, Old Roots research hub at ARU. We work with a range of marginalised communities – refugees and asylum seekers, women, children, the homeless, the elderly – who typically do not feature in history books, but whose lives are essential to the day-to-day unfolding of history as a collective, lived experience.

A current example of this is the project Havens East: Uncovering the Lost Stories of Basque Child Refugees in East Anglia, which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), 4,000 children were evacuated from the Basque region of northern Spain and sought sanctuary in the UK. Our project is recovering the untold stories of the children who came to Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, as well as the stories of the local volunteers who worked tirelessly to help them. We are lucky enough to be working with some of the surviving Basque refugee children, known collectively as the Niños and now in their 90s, to hear and preserve their stories of exile and settlement before they are lost for ever.

What is becoming clear from our research and conversations so far is that story-telling is an important way in which any displaced person or group can imagine themselves into their new lives and locations. Stories of the past allow precious memories of family, friends, and community to live on in new and uncertain conditions. At the same time, story-telling is an important form of identity formation; an opportunity to create an alternative story that, whilst intimately bound up with the past, is not limited or defined by it. Instead, and just like Scheherazade, the story-teller has the chance to become an agent in the telling of their present and the creation of their future. This is story-telling as survival.

By Dr Jeannette Baxter, Research Convener, English Literature

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