The Importance of Storytelling


After a well-deserved break, the MIDPAssociation Blog Team are back and winding up for an exciting year to come. Our new Content Editor kicks us into the New Year with this timely piece on storytelling… 

For me, storytelling is one of the most complex forms of empathy that human beings possess. It just so happens that one of my favourite authors Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a critical piece on communication where she explains that the act of telling and listening to a story is not as simple or as passive as we assume. In sharing a story, we become part of something bigger than ourselves. Both storyteller and recipient become connected by something intangible; both parties become part of a whole. It does not matter if the story is not about you. The ability to feel empathy for a stranger is what redeems human beings.

Take for instance, this incisive article on The Guardian about the power of memory and the importance of context and cultural sensitivity in visual arts. What I found so enlightening about this production is that Angelina Jolie herself explicitly says: “This is not my story”. The fact that the Khmer-language film boasts of an all Cambodian cast and crew seems to reinforce the idea that the target audience would indeed be Cambodians. This is not a Hollywood blockbuster set in China but featuring a white Caucasian male as its hero or protagonist, or another film about a particularly daunting episode in a developing country’s history that is conveniently narrated in English and features an all-star American/British cast.


Every story has an intended audience

As the superb Uma Kothari reminded us in her talk last year on Visual Solidarity and Everyday Humanitarianism, when it comes to presenting narratives, the media is never unbiased. As a matter of fact, media often encodes ideology and underlying perceptions of those running the story. This is precisely why storytelling is so important. If we consider the impact we can have – not just telling a story, but by HOW we tell that story – it becomes evident. We are not the passive spectators we would like to believe.

Therefore, stories can also be dangerous. If we look at events from these past few weeks, the term ‘doublespeak’ has been repeated incessantly with regards to Trump’s Press Secretary’s accusations that the pictures released from his Inauguration were indeed false and meant to harm Trump’s image. Stories can be used to belittle a mostly all-female movement that shook the world but was ironically analysed and discussed by a mostly all-male panel on CNN. Stories can be used to divide. Stories can be used to justify the unjustifiable.

Therefore, we should always be aware that the stories we tell or the posts we share on Facebook will likely have an impact. It is important to be mindful of what you are writing and for whom, and what the consequences can be. This is of particular importance in the development sector, as the manner we narrate development efforts can affect how marginalised people are perceived. We need to ask ourselves: is this my story to tell? Am I contributing in a positive way or am I just perpetuating existing power imbalances? Am I contributing towards stereotyping and marginalising the voiceless?


Storytelling as an act of defiance

While this piece might be grim enough to be narrated by Lemony Snicket, there is one positive thing I would like to highlight. The most wonderful trait of stories is that they connect us to one another. Yes, stories are responsible for shaping our thoughts and ideas on a certain topic, but they are also responsible for generating empathy. Indeed, what we need now more than ever is empathy. This is why storytelling can be a powerful act of defiance.

Here at the MIDPAssociation, whilst being wary of how the next four years may unfold, we remain excited for this fresh academic year. Through all the uncertainty, there is one crucial point we can hold on to: our peers will continue to inspire us. Few things are more motivating than being surrounded by incredible human beings. We are looking forward to a year full of new surprises, new faces, and new challenges.

So come on, stand up, be defiant, share your story.


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