Telling stories

The infinitely wise and magical Tracy Chapman’s song ‘telling stories’ begins as follows:

There is fiction in the space between

The lines on your page of memories

Write it down but it doesn’t mean

You’re not just telling stories

There is fiction in the space between

You and me

 

We are always telling stories. It is through the telling of our experiences – to both ourselves and to others – that we come to make sense of them. As one character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah remarks: “the story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns and directs us”. Achebe here suggests that the stories we tell not only make certain meanings of experiences possible, but they also make possible certain ways of being.

At the heart of my PhD study is the question of how being raped has shaped the way I understand and enact my identity post-rape. This requires the telling of the story of what it means to be raped, as well as situating this story amidst, alongside and against the stories of others’ sexual violations.

I am more than apprehensive.

The telling of this story will require the unravelling of many other stories. I know that I will have to unravel the story of the ‘rape victim’ who is forever marked by their violation. I know that I will have to unravel the story of the ‘rape survivor’ who uses their trauma to construct a ‘better’, more robust self.  I will have to unravel the story of the ‘blameless white girl’ – who is unluckily in the wrong place at the wrong time and the story of the ‘silly black girl’ – who puts herself in danger. I will have to deconstruct these comfortable ways of understanding why it is that some people are violated and others are not and why some people are able to ‘heal’ and others are not. And in this process of deconstruction I will have to find new, less neat, less coherent, more troubling ways of understanding myself.

In thinking about how to tell this complex, uncomfortable story I was recently presented with other words by Achebe. About storytelling, he says: “art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him; an aspiration to provide himself with a second handle on existence through his imagination…. [It is] one of the forms he has fashioned out of his experience with language”. The stories we tell are therefore not merely attempts to recreate the ‘facts’ of our experiences, but rather to recreate our experiences in ways that make it possible for us to read them as ‘facts’.

As I write my PhD I write not about what happened to me the night I was raped, or what happened in the days, weeks and months following the rape. Instead I write about what it means to look back on those experiences from where I am now – distanced from the experience, partially reconstituted, partly ‘healed’.

The story I will write has been told and retold, both inside and outside of my head. It has been deconstructed and recreated over and over and over. In the process I have simultaneously deconstructed and recreated myself, as ‘victim’, then as ‘survivor’, as irreparably damaged and then as pieced back together and then as damaged again. Perhaps this is what Stephen Crites means when he says: “a coherent life experience is not simply given, or a track laid down in the living. To the extent that a coherent identity is achievable at all, the thing must be made, a story-like production with many pitfalls, and is constantly being revised”.

If I cannot hope to construct something coherent or to tell the truth of what happened to me, what is it that I hope my story can do?

The answer to this question is complex, multiple and partly formed, just as I imagine that the telling of the story will be. I want my story to move into less certain terrain, to disrupt unitary narratives and unitary selves, to break down the distinctions between the self and the social, to recreate the human in all of its messiness. In these ways I hope that my story can exist in “the space between you and me”.

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