The Power of Storytelling – The Imperative of the Narrative

(My essay for “Deconstructing Literature:Women’s Narratives of Violence and Constructions of Collective Identities” – Prof. Giti Chandra  – at the Young India Fellowship Programme.) Taking three award-winning books by women writers … and an idea that words, or telling the story of violence breaks the Vicious circle of Violence, as we know it.

Thesis Statement: My essay shall explore the relevance and power of storytelling and how it is an effective literary tool in discovering the subtle nuances of mother-daughter relationships across different cultural backgrounds. It will also discuss how storytelling can serve as an instrumentality for overcoming socio-cultural barriers, shaping an individual and collective identity and serve as the basis for the larger narrative upon which Histories (those forgotten or ignored) can be re-written, and directed towards the ‘inclusive’ advancement of society at large. 

As a child I would always fancy myself to be a storyteller ‘when I grew up.’ I would lie beside my grandmother, only to listen enraptured by the tales she would narrate, and soon be teleported into an alternate world of talking trains, trees and animals, Gods and apsaras, pirates and sorcerers – all the stuff that myths and legends were made of. Over the years, I came to realise that often the same plot could be repeated, but the way the story was told was never the same. The art of story-telling is what is required to spin a mundane occurrence into a timeless tale. And now, as the secret desire that I have nurtured since the age of six, to be a novelist, is on its slow bumpy road onto becoming a reality – a profound consciousness has been gained in knowing that ‘Nothing tells like a good story!’

It has indeed been an astonishing personal journey, almost cyclical in nature – as the Young India Fellowship through a number of the courses[i] taught here has made me re-visit my childhood days more often than any other period of my education. I believed, and more so was made to believe, that storytelling and writing was not a suitable profession for a young girl who seeks to be financially independent, and would in no manner be a necessary ‘skill’ for any life’s lessons or survival. But having encountered upon the works of three award-winning novelists, women from three different cultural backgrounds[ii], one is forced to re-think of how narrow those perspectives were. They have narrated a part or a whole of their personal experiences or ideas, but having also touched upon pertinent themes like violence and collective identity.[iii]

Each day here, we are taught how powerful effective story-telling is – whether in science, history, the arts, philosophy, management or communication. In the words of Robert McAfee Brown – “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”[iv] And while reading these works of literature, I was reminded of a very poignant, personal thread in these novels – of how storytelling carves a niche identity in mother- daughter relationships or in an all women or women-centric inter-generational household, not unlike my own.

As a literary tool, employing storytelling within the narrative rebuilds authenticity. It enables the speaker not only to recite abstractions formulated by others but also articulate stories that represent the speaker’s unique creation.[v] It also enables the writer to narrate his or her own story, in an honest representation as may be seen in these literary works.

Amy Tan herself says in ‘Mother Tongue’, “I am a writer and by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life, and spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power or language – the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade.”[vi] The Joy Luck Club is Tan’s first novel where her personal story has been adapted into the narrative of Jing-Mei-Woo, who can be said to be a protagonist in this novel.

Isabel Allende once said “Write what should not be forgotten, you can tell the deepest truths with the lies of fiction.”[vii] It is widely known that ‘the House of Spirits’ began as a letter to a dying uncle of Allende’s and that many of the events that occurred in the unnamed country in the novel are quite similar to the story of her native country, Chile from where her family had to flee following the military coup of General Pinochet that ousted and killed her uncle, the socialist leader Salvador Allende.[viii]

Toni Morrison may be quoted here as well, when she says “Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it.”[ix] Her childhood days were filled with numerous folktales – the method of storytelling that found way into her novels. This articulation of black stories and histories in their own voices, can be singled out for being amongst the first few representations of an ‘America’ that was otherwise not known.[x] It is thus seen that contemporary storytelling is widely used to address educational (socio-ethnic, socio-cultural and socio-political) objectives.

As a child I was extremely attached to my maternal Grandmother. She had raised me almost single-handedly till I was seven years old, as my mother had to devote herself into working hard as a young civil servant, post her divorce. My grandmother told me several stories; it is through her that I got to hear the mother’s story – especially the huge gap of her early marriage years which were marked by the incidence of domestic violence. My mother embodies the ‘silence marking the site of trauma’[xi] and apart from mustering all her courage to narrate those horrific acts of violence inflicted on her by my father as evidence in Court, she has never spoken of it again. I maintain that I am grateful to my grandmother for sharing my mother’s story as it helped me understand my mother, and forge a very close bond in my teen years. I am an only child, and it would have been a very lonely childhood and adolescence in those nomadic years of my mother’s very transferable job had it not been for this ‘art of storytelling.’

My mother would fill me in with stories of her day, my grandmother would tell me stories of our family, her childhood, different places we could visit, moral lessons – or they would fill my room with books that would travel with us wherever we would go. Today, I may confidently declare that my grandmother, mother and I share more than a familial bond – we are friends and allies and family all in one, and I am convinced that the stories we shared strengthened us as individuals.

Quite like in the House of the Spirits[xii], where Clara[xiii]  who “All her life, she would remember the afternoons spent in the company of her mother in the sewing room, where Nivea sewed clothing for the poor on her machine and told stories and anecdotes about the family.[xiv] Nivea, Clara’s mother “realised that people never invited her daughter to their home and that even her own cousins did everything they could to avoid her.[xv] (This is due to Clara’s psychic abilities to foretell events, from an early age that incited fear in other people) She so successfully compensated for the lack of friends with her own total dedication, however, that Clara grew up happily and in later years would recall her childhood as a luminous part of her existence, despite her solitude and muteness.”[xvi]

The entire plot of the Joy Luck Club is illustrative of the power of storytelling in developing the profound bond between a mother and daughter. There is a marked cultural barrier between the Chinese mothers and the American born daughters. This is further exacerbated by the imperfect translation of language- and so the mothers use storytelling as means to overcome these barriers. The stories are often a caveat against a behavioural trait – e.g. Ying-ying St. Clair decides to tell her daughter of her own past when she foresees that passivity in her daughter’s marriage shall cause her tremendous pain, not unlike how she once suffered in China.[xvii] Some stories – like that of Suyuan to her daughter Jing-mei Woo is motivated by a secret desire to be able to tell her that she loves her and her twin daughters who were left behind in China, even if she seems controlling and competitive of her daughter otherwise.[xviii]

In the moving first chapter of the Joy Luck Club, the significance of storytelling in mother-daughter relationships is subtly signposted. As the ‘Aunties’ of Jing-Mei give her the money to visit China and locate her step-sisters who her mother could never meet, they cajole her into promising that she will meet them and tell them all about her mother. When Jing- Mei replies “What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything.” The next line is “The aunties are looking at me as if I had become crazy before their eyes.” They express shock and disbelief and are fearful of her ignorance as in her, they see their own daughters for whom the stories could mean nothing to them. Jing Mei hears the chorus “Tell them stories …” until she assures them that she will ‘tell them everything.’ but to herself thinks ‘What more can I promise?’

As the reader moves ahead to the next few chapters, one discovers that the bond between mother and daughter braces up when the daughters face challenges in their own marriages and seek or receive support from their mothers in ‘seamless Chinese or broken English’ through  the sharing of stories.  As each woman reveals her secrets trying to unravel the truth of life, the strings that tie them together become more tangled, more intertwined. As the text argues, “A girl is like a young tree; you must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, and running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away.”[xix]  Through this process the daughters begin to see that they are turning into their mothers and the mothers see themselves in their daughters.  These women slowly learn the beauty of a mother/daughter relationship.

A similar frame in storytelling is seen in Toni Morrison’s Beloved where the principal character Sethe[xx] must confront the ghosts of her past and the story of her escape to Beloved[xxi] and Denver[xxii]. Here too a bond is forged between the three women, that emerges strong even after the departure of Paul D[xxiii], where they sing and dance, eat and celebrate Beloved’s return. In hindsight, one sees that this is the first time Denver comes to know her Mother and armed with the truth that her mother’s act of killing was out of love, not murder as she had heard, she becomes a stronger and more independent woman who seems to have overcome the ‘ghosts of 124.’[xxiv] I would personally extend this line of thought to Toni Morrison’s Sula,[xxv] where there is notable absence of the element of storytelling in both the Peace family as well as the Wright family. Sula and Nel do not bond with their mothers at all, but find companionship, as young girls of twelve, in each other instead.[xxvi]

Storytelling is also the powerful narrative of the Anti-slavery movement. Slaves, being treated like animals and meted out dehumanizing treatment were made to believe that they were deaf-mutes – this is enunciated in the text of Beloved where Paul D’s mouth is clamped shut with an iron clamp to render him ‘speechless’.[xxvii] Speech and expression is what demarcates human beings from the animals that they were told to be. Baby Suggs appeal to the community is in to raise their hands, sing and shout – to voice and move like free people.[xxviii] If silence marks the site of trauma, as narratives of violence often render a reader to imagine the horrifying truth which cannot be spoken of, it is the attempt at breaking the circle of silence that breaks the ‘vicious circle of violence.’ Storytelling thus is one of the means of overcoming the trauma of an act of violence, while this may not be as easy to occur as can be said, it holds true in the works of literature discussed here as well.

In the Joy Luck Club, Jing Mei narrates that “Over the years, she told me the same story, except for the ending, which grew darker, casting long shadows into her life, and eventually into mine.”[xxix] What Suyuan Woo faces in Kweilin is the dark chapter of her life, and she begins to shed some light into it at different intervals of time to her daughter. Though she is never able to complete her story, the process of the narrative begins only to abruptly end at “Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.”[xxx]

In the House of Spirits, writing is ‘the saving idea in Alba’s mind’ that keeps her thoughts occupied and escape from the doghouse, even as she is brutally raped, hurt and barely alive.[xxxi] The long paragraph that follows tells us of how Alba tries to obey her grandmother’s spirit and take notes in her mind until “she was able to bury herself so deeply in her story that she stopped eating, scratching herself, smelling herself, and complaining, and overcame all her varied agonies.”[xxxii]

I ask here – is it as simple as the idea? That the sharing of stories could give space for healing? Do women have the ability to move ahead by internalizing the trauma that could have been met upon them, or must there be some kind of outward channel – through speech, song, writing that tells the story out. I believe that it is necessary to express oneself, in whichever manner one may be comfortable in doing so – and I also believe that this is precisely what each of the authors seek to illustrate.

Storytelling is thus not the end in the process of recovery or healing, but a process or a means to what may or may not reach its conclusive end.  This is beautifully seen in the last few pages of The House of Spirits – where we see Alba desirous of writing her family’s story and telling her daughter (whom she is expecting) everything she knows to break “that terrible chain” of vengeance. “I want to think that my task is life and that my mission is not to prolong hatred but simply to fill these pages while I wait for Miguel, while I bury my grandfather, whose body lies beside me in this room, while I wait for better times to come, while I carry this child in my womb, the daughter of so many rapes or perhaps of Miguel, but above all my own daughter.”[xxxiii]

I also find that in each of these texts, storytelling also completes the formation of an identity or image the reader imagines of the characters in the plot. The idiosyncrasies’ of the Mothers in Joy Luck Club, the genealogical traits spanning in four generations of women in the House of Spirits or the ‘coming of age’ in the character of Denver in Beloved is formed into a complete image only once the texts of the books come to an end – right where their individual stories also complete. While these stories are set in different cultures, countries and eras – the timelessness of the tale, where discovering one’s history is very important for an individual is emphasized. As Jing-Mei narrates in last paragraphs of Joy Luck Club –   “I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they all look familiar. And now I can see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood…. Together we all look like our mother. ”[xxxiv]

While this essay has largely delved into the nuances of mother-daughter relationships through storytelling, I would like to conclude on a note of where I scale up the power of effective storytelling unto its larger narrative. Striking features of these texts are that they depict what were the Histories of some of the most pertinent socio-cultural- economic and political issues of the last century – Slavery, the identities of Immigrants, the horrors and the aftermath of the devastative wars and revolutions, violence and the voice of the woman. But the impact a powerful story and the literature of these Histories that may be chosen to be ignored, is far greater than what mere factual telling of events could ever be.

How the ‘black’ identity or the Sino-American immigrant identity or the Latin American rebel is depicted in popular culture is far less ‘stereotyped’ when we hear stories in the community’s or tribe’s own voices. Good Literature plays an undeniable role in raising socio-cultural awareness of the pluralistic world we live in. We begin to understand different paradigms of culture – where the unknown is no longer written in the language of the unfamiliar made familiar, but of how those stories may have actually been told from generation to generation in another paradigm.[xxxv] E.g. Suppose a fish jumps out of water and sees a bullock cart. When it returns into the water, it is given the task of describing the bullock cart to other fish. While the fish tried to familiarise its observation with the underwater world in order to make the bullock cart resemble something that might be underwater- it can never be an accurate description. Similarly, when cultures inter-mingle – fusion does not happen as easily as making music –many observations and stories may be lost in translation. It then becomes of great importance as to who is accorded with the responsibility of penning a story that is representative of his or her tribe. Or of anyone who might have a perspective different to the ‘mainstream’ text, as this shapes a collective identity and is directed towards the advancement of society at large.

This is the argument in favour of a post-colonialist, trans-cultural writing of History that might assist in shaping the identities of many sub-cultures, tribes united by a dialect that does not have a script for language, mixed genealogical races or any other subaltern group that has faced forms of ethnic and cultural violence coupled with a loss of their heritage. In Native American philosophy – it is rightly believed “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”[xxxvi]

In the words of Salman Rushdie “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” [xxxvii]To be a person then would be someone who has a story to tell.

[i] They are Sociological Reasoning, Writing, and Gandhi’s critique of Modernity, History and Reason in Modern India, Plato’s Republic, Philosophy of Science, Deconstructing Literature and Art Appreciation. Each of them has devoted a class towards childhood recollections or storytelling in some manner or the other, which has inspired me to become a writer.

[ii] Amy Tan – Chinese American, Isabel Allende – Chilean and Toni Morrison – African American

[iii] Upon a general background reading of the lives and influences of the authors.

[v] Online Summary of “Storytelling Passport to the 21st Century” – John Seely Brown, Steve Denning,

Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak:  Some of the world’s leading thinkers explore the role of storytelling in the world viewed at paragraph 2, sub-heading 2, last viewed on 21/11/2011

[vi]  Amy Tan. “Mother Tongue” 50 Essays. Ed by Samuel Cohen 3rd Ed. Boston Bedford 2011pg.396 para.2 Print.

[vii] Information gathered from the author’s personal website last viewed on 21/11/2011

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Quote  from Web.Taken from last viewed on 21/11/2011

[x]Information gathered from the Web at. last viewed on 21/11/2011

[xi] Classroom lessons in Deconstructing Literature by Prof. Giti Chandra.

[xii] Novel by Isabel Allende, originally published in Spanish, translated by Magda Bogin , Black Swan Publications, 1986

[xiii] Character in the House of the Spirits, first introduced on para. 1 line 1 of the book

[xiv] Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, Chapter 3, Paragraph 10

[xv] Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, Chapter 3, Paragraph 11

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Amy Tan ‘The Joy Luck Club’ Part iv. ‘Queen Mother of the Western Skies’, Chapter 14 “Ying-Ying St. Clair: Waiting Between the trees”

[xviii] Amy Tan ‘The Joy Luck Club’ Part I. ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’, Chapter 1 “Jing-Mei Woo: The Joy Luck Club at pg.21 of 1998 Ed. Vintage Books, London. Print ”

[xix] Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, Chap 11 ‘Without Wood’ pg.191

[xx] Sethe is one of the principal characters in the novel ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison. A former slave, who has escaped and a resident of a free state, where the novel is situated.

[xxi] Beloved is another principal character after whom the novel is named. In the entire text the character is seen as neither real nor unreal – and a dark ‘ghost’ of Sethe’s dead child.

[xxii] Denver is the third principal character in the book who is the daughter of Sethe.

[xxiii] Paul D is the central and only male protagonist in this novel, another slave from Sweet Home where Sethe has escaped, he brings with him the memories of the past Sethe has fleed from.

[xxiv] At Chapter 18

[xxv] Another novel by Toni Morrison, first published by Vintage Books in 1973

[xxvi] Toni Morrison Chapter 1922, Sula

[xxvii] Chapter 10 of Beloved, Toni Morrison

[xxviii] Chapter 9 of Beloved, Toni Morrison

[xxix] Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, Ch. 1.


[xxxi] Isabel Allende, ‘The House of the Spirits’ Chapter 14.”The Hour of Truth”

[xxxii] Ibid

[xxxiii] Epilogue of ‘The House of Spirits’ last paragraph

[xxxiv] Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, Chapter 16 : A Pair of Tickets – last paragraph

[xxxv] Paradigm as defined from the famous work ‘The Study of Scientific Revolutions’ Thomas Kuhn, 1963

[xxxvi] Quote from Web. last viewed on 21/11/2011

[xxxvii] Ibid

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