Stories and the Power of our Narratives

Rauika Editor, The Reverend Blythe Cody, shares her thoughts on the power of stories and their potential to create empathy or drive us further apart.

“We take back our stories, we take the centre, we reverse the gaze, and we transgress boundaries, setting our narrative beyond the spaces we have been allocated.”

–Amminatta Forna

Human beings are storytellers; we have used narratives–both oral and written to help us make sense of our world and our place in it. Stories allow us to enter into a world beyond the confines of our own experiences and therefore have the potential to create within us an empathy for people, cultures, traditions, religions, and places that are different from our own. This is especially true for literary fiction; stories that allow us to travel through space and time, to imagine what it feels like to be an elderly person, or return to the experience of primary school. We can know what it was like to survive Auschwitz from Elie Wiesel, to live under apartheid from Frank Anthony and Can Themba, or to feel the terror and hope of those fleeing slavery from Colson Whitehead.

There is a well-established link between the stories we absorb and the empathy we develop for people who are unlike ourselves (see the work of Dolf Zillmann). But what about the opposite end of the spectrum, what about the damage a story can cause and the pain it can inflict through the characters it brings alive? If the characters are misrepresented, if the perspective is unbalanced and inaccurate, the narrative can be difficult to overcome both for those who find themselves described in the story and for those who believe the stories to be accurate representations. Amminatta Forna writes that “To see oneself only ever reflected through the eyes of another is to view the self through a distorting lens.” Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian Nobel laureate, explains it in this way “All Africans meeting a European who has never met an African before must first break through the preconceptions, reinforced by news reports and articles, of Africa as a place of unending misery.”

In August of 2023 Jennifer Smart wrote an article for the Spinoff that analysed the reading lists of the English departments of secondary schools in Aotearoa. These are the top titles: The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985); The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925); To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960); Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945); Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954); Macbeth by Shakespeare; 1984 by George Orwell (1949); The things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990); Othello by Shakespeare; and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003). No Witi Ihimaera, no Patricia Grace, no Keri Hulme or Alan Duff; no Paula Morris, Alice Tawhai, Kelly Ana Morey, Tina Makereti, James George or…Smart says of these text choices, “Every time we put a book in front of students to study, we’re saying ‘this literature is worthy of your close attention’; ‘these words and ideas are important.’ But what does it say about our self-image if we’re not setting New Zealand novels for close study?” What indeed?

In an October 2023 article for The Spinoff, Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, English teacher and wahine Māori, asks that very question, examining the motivations and the roadblocks that are keeping us from using more of the stories of this land to help our young people make sense of our world and their place in it.  Hawkins narrows the problem down to four main obstacles: lack of time, the normalisation of colonial hierarchies, a deficit of understanding of mātauranga Māori, and resistance toward change. Hawkins concludes her article with a challenge for us to “…do the mahi now and ensure that we are giving our students the opportunities to read indigenous stories, to know that they are valid, of a high quality and to be empowered by novels that they might be able to see themselves in.”

He Taonga Tuku Iho is the curriculum project of Kurahautū, beginning in 2024 we will be developing history curriculum resources that will enable us to share our Anglican taonga — stories of the Anglican Church from a mātauranga Mihinare perspective — with young people. Honest stories of redemption, justice, perseverance and hope.  These stories will empower and equip teachers to teach the history of their rohe alongside iwi, hapū, and local historians. Perhaps most importantly, it is our hope that these stories will not create a distorting lens but will instead provide a tool that will help young people to see the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia as an integral and beautiful, if not complicated, part of their whakapapa.