Storytelling across Generations
by Nikki Shaffeeullah
How do we tell stories across generations? How do we do it unconsciously? And in what ways should we do it intentionally? These are the key questions that seem to be occupying the minds of the contributors to this issue of alt.theatre.
We were struck by the congruity of these pieces: we did not seek them out by theme, but they all happened to come to us at the same time. Of course, the handful of artists and writers featured in these pages aren’t necessarily demonstrative of the pulse of performance creators in Canada. But the thematic alignment and urgent tone of their current projects do invite reflection on why performing artists of different disciplines, cultural backgrounds, and regional locations are searching for new ways to connect the stories of their grandparents and ancestors with their contemporary creation processes.
We’re always pondering identity in this bilingual, multicultural, colonial settler-state, but perhaps 2015 has been an especially remarkable year for critically assessing what it means to be (a) “Canadian.” In June, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee released the final report of their six-year long examination of residential schools, a document holding monumentally important recommendations, including that Canada must move from “apology to action” to begin to achieve reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of this land. In September, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to “new and existing and old-stock Canadians,” immediately triggering national conversations on what these categories mean and who holds them to be true. The next month, voters overwhelmingly decided to end Harper’s six-year reign, the byproduct of which gave Justin Trudeau’s Liberals a majority government. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November provoked empathy for victims and their families across the ocean, but also catalyzed charged conversations at home about who is welcome to the title of “Canadian”—conversations ranging from social media banter, to violent acts of xenophobia, to public and private commitments to reject racist backlash and build safe spaces for newcomers, in particular refugees from Syria. It has been a year of asking Who belongs here? Who are we? What stories are we telling? What stories are we not telling?
It was slow but sweet relief to acknowledge that the post-colonial mess that is my ancestral history is also the world’s history, and I did not have to negate any part of my (lived and ancestral) self in order to honour another.
The articles in this issue provide a survey of how artists use their craft to uncover stories from past generations and move them into the present and future. In “Fictionalizing the Holocaust: Apologism, Revisionism, and Evil-with-a-Capital-E,” writer and activist Sarah Woolf sits down with playwright Darrah Teitel to discuss Jewish identities, Teitel’s play Corpus, and the play’s exploration of how, three generations later, we remember the Holocaust. Teitel describes never having the “privilege” of not knowing the stories of the Holocaust and Woolf notes how “experiences of trauma and memory morph” over generations (12) in their discussion of how Corpus plays out “the debate that Jews have had, both privately and publicly” about the nature of evil. Teitel’s script is in part an intervention into how stories of the Holocaust are told—as she says, “We can’t complicate things to the point of complete obscurity” (13).
In “The Tashme Project: Revitalizing Japanese-Canadian Identity through Theatre,” Matt Miwa shares how he and Julie Tamiko Manning co-created a verbatim oral history piece about Japanese Canadian internment because they felt an urgent need to “articulate who contemporary Japanese Canadians are, and who we can become vis-à-vis our confrontation with the past and with each other” (29). For them, interviewing their elders, bearing witness to their stories, and creating space for those stories on today’s stages represent in part “an invitation to communion for Japanese Canadian audience members” (29).
For some, the impetus to learn stories from past generations comes from a desire to render their current art practice more connected to their cultural origins. Improvisers Todd Houseman and Ben Gorodetsky created the long-form improv format Folk Lordz in an effort to integrate the storytelling traditions of their cultures—Cree and Russian, respectively—into their performance craft. As they share in “Folk Lordz: Northern Stories,” a collection of travel diaries, the process of developing the Folk Lordz form led Todd, who identifies as “an urban Cree person living off-reservation,” to develop a desire “to connect with Elders from First Nations communities in order to better learn and understand traditional storytelling forms” (22). Through their ongoing travels and studies, they are learning their own lessons about how to tell stories across generations: “If traditional storytelling forms are not practised, they are forgotten. But if they cannot adapt, they may lose their value (26).” For others, reviving stories from past generations is about helping one’s culture resist assimilation. In “Owning Our Roots on Dangerous Roads,” Menka Nagrani, dance artist and founder of Montreal’s Les Productions des pieds des mains, describes her process of learning traditional Québécois step-dancing and finding ways to theatricalize it on the contemporary stage. She declares, “Returning to the basics, to the foundations of our artistic lineage, is a way for me to resist the influence of mass culture and the standardization that it generates” (30).
There are many ways in which artists arrive at cross-generational storytelling; but their reasons for doing so are concomitant: intervening in processes of memory-making and history creation; breaking silence around trauma; archiving the past; deepening and expanding contemporary artistic practices; and strengthening connections with cultural communities. What I find most exciting is seeing the incredible potential for practices of storytelling across generations to imagine, and influence, the future.
I feel a sense of communion with the contributors and their need to connect the form, content, and processes of their current art-making with that of their ancestors. As a teen growing up in Ontario who spent a good deal of time either making theatre or engaged in anti-racism activism, I neglected to see the connection between the two: I did not fully recognize how systems of colonialism had intersected with my artistic education to lead me to know and value the stories of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and Oscar Hammerstein more than anything outside of the Western canon. Throughout school and the first few years of my career, I grew quietly curious and then loudly frustrated as I came to realize that what I had been taught was good art—or in some cases, was art at all—was based on Eurocentric standards.
And so, I began to explore what stories and artistic forms might be somehow more authentically true to me, artistically indigenous to my culture. But—what culture? India, where most of my ancestors supposedly originated? Guyana, the country where my more recent ancestors were brought to work as indentured servants and where my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived? Could the Quranic traditions from some lines of my family or the Biblical stories from others count—even if these religions, too, came to my ancestors through colonial systems? What about Toronto, where I was raised? Even if classrooms and theatres weren’t providing stories connected to the cultures I came from, isn’t the theatre ecology in Canada mine as much as anyone else’s living and making art in this land, especially since I had come to love so much of it?
I don’t know at what point I began to shift my thinking—and perhaps it wasn’t a shift, so much as a concurrent process of realization—but I came to understand that I didn’t have to uncover some pure, ontologically indigenous art form or story from my ancestors in order to make art that was literate and critical of the cultural systems in which they were created. It was slow but sweet relief to acknowledge that the post-colonial mess that is my ancestral history is also the world’s history, and I did not have to negate any part of my (lived and ancestral) self in order to honour another.
In reflection, this process of growth resembles Elizabeth KüblerRoss’s familiar five cycles of grief: first, denial when I did not yet have the tools to understand the cultural normativity of the art that surrounded me; then anger, when I did; then bargaining, as I searched for something somehow “true” for me; then anger and depression when I had difficulty finding anything that made sense; and finally acceptance when I realized that my artistic and cultural “truth” was for me to decide for myself. Like Kübler-Ross’s stages, the cycles are not necessarily linear, and they might occur more than once. But I wonder if there is a sixth stage for the postcolonial artist: imagination. Freed by imagination, the artist is able to intentionally seek stories from different cultural pasts, and weave them together in ways that are responsive, instructive, and elicitive for today’s world.2 I recall Walidah Imarisha’s suggestion that imagination is “where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless” (4).
How are we carrying stories forward across generations? As artists we are fortunate that our work is explicitly about storytelling. One of my recent endeavours has been developing a theatre-devising series called The Old Stories Project, which I have thus far facilitated as artist-in-residence at Camp fYrefly, a national retreat for LGBTQ youth, and again as part of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group’s event series, Culture Shock. In it, I work with participants to uncover cultural stories (myths, fables, bed-time songs, religious parables, and the like); analyze how power, oppression, and beauty work within the story; identify what it is about the story we wish to embrace and what we wish to reject or rework; and then adapt the story and give it new, resonant life.
While, certainly, this project is about developing methods of politically engaged art-making, it is equally meant to be a process of cultural healing—an invitation for participants to imagine new meaning in their ancestors’ stories. Specifically, it is designed with individuals and communities who don’t often see their cultural stories reflected in the mainstream, and those who have a hard time seeing their identities reflected in cultural stories in mind. It is a process of taking stories from cultures that the mainstream renders invisible or deems to be backward and making those stories resonate here and now; of taking cultural stories that erase or reduce non-normative genders, sexualities, or abilities, and reimagining those stories in ways that centre and celebrate those perspectives. The project recognizes that while stories from past generations may not always be a perfect fit for our lives today, finding new ways to treasure them can be deeply nourishing for people from marginalized cultures and communities. For me, facilitating this project so far has been a great way to practice the process of reimagining ancestral stories, and has affirmed for me the transformative power of imagination.
Stories from past generations live in our selves and our communities, and they will find ways to surface. For even when we are not explicitly art-making, we are adapting cultural stories: We create new versions of old cultural stories when we move our selves from one land and rewrite our lives in a new one; when we build tiny or big communities that reject holding gender as its most salient principle of social organization; when we cook our grandmothers’ recipes and substitute spices for ones available at the corner store; when we allow the necessity of our situations to not limit, but inspire our responses to them. The pieces in this issue encourage us to intervene in these inevitable processes so that we can tell stories across generations with care and make adaptations with intention.
This article was originally published as the editorial in Issue 12.2 of alt.theatre.
1 For more on the Islamophobic backlash in Canada following the Paris attacks, see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canadianscombat-muslim-hate-1.3324282
2 For another multi-stage approach to postcolonial meaning-making, see Poka Laenui’s essay “Processes of Decolonization,” which describes another five-step process for indigenous activists engaged in decolonization: rediscovery and recovery; mourning; dreaming; commitment; action.
Imarisha, Walidah. “Introduction.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Ed. Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Marée Brown. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2015.