Academic journal article MELUS

Editor's Introduction: Ethnic Storytelling

Academic journal article MELUS

Editor's Introduction: Ethnic Storytelling

Article excerpt

   I will tell you something about stories,
   [he said]
   They aren't just for entertainment.
   Don't be fooled
   They are all we have, you see,
   all we have to fight off illness and death.
   You don't have anything
   if you don't have the stories.
   Their evil is mighty
   but it can't stand up to our stories.

--Leslie Marmon Silko (n. pag.)

When Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony was published in 1977 with the above epigraph about storytelling, it seemed to herald the coming of a new form of literature by ethnic writers that would reclaim the erasures of the past through innovative acts of linguistic creativity, acts that would defend and maintain the stories of ethnic cultures while using these stories to move forward into a different future of racial tolerance and diversity. Stories were not moribund items from an ethnic culture's past, but active, breathing, always growing things, pregnant with life itself. "I keep the stories here," one of Silko's storytellers comments, pointing to his belly, "See, it is moving. / There is life here / for the people" (n. pag.). Silko's words seem to promise healing for her protagonist Tayo; moreover they imply that ethnic storytelling would remake a fractured, fragmented modern world, traumatized by war, violence, and pernicious uses of storytelling by the dominant culture.

Almost thirty-five years later, at the start of 2011, I find myself pondering whether the idea of storytelling as a form of salvation still has validity. We repeat over and over that storytelling can remake the world--yet what has changed? The essays in this issue of MELUS examine the potentialities-but also the very real and practical limits---of storytelling for ethnic cultures. There are some things that do escape language, that cannot be narrated in any exact or precise way, that are lost to violence, trauma, or erasure. Storytelling itself, we see in this issue, has been renovated to take account of its own limits, and there is a focus on partial and inchoate stories, on fragments and bits of language that, while they do not make us "whole," may still enable survival. How do stories need to change--both in form and content--to endure and move forward? Each essay takes up some of these questions and moves toward a more nuanced sense of the limits and powers of storytelling, as well as the changes it undergoes in a modern diasporic world. In keeping with this focus, we conclude the issue with an interview with a documentary filmmaker that depicts the innovative forms of storytelling that have emerged in our new media, postmodern era.

Our issue begins with Jean Wyatt's "Storytelling, Melancholia, and Narrative Structure in Louise Erdrich's The Painted Drum," an essay illustrating both the power of storytelling and how it changes in a modern world for native peoples dispersed from their homeland. The essay accounts for the puzzling lack of formal explication of the central character's (Faye's) healing--the narrative structure dramatizes but does not describe the mechanisms of her cure. Using Freud's theory of melancholia to situate the protagonist's ailment, Wyatt then examines how the later parts of the novel, devoted to Ojibwe stories of loss, grief, and survival, require the protagonist and readers to engage in relational thinking to connect these stories with Faye's own personal and family story. Most interestingly, since Faye's cure is built directly into the narrative structure, a reader must actively participate in the story to make sense of it. Readers create meaning through associative leaps between different stories, experiences, and peoples; moreover, this structure puts the reader in the position of a listener in the oral tradition. Innovation from tradition is also a key factor, as the story must adapt to have a powerful function in today's world; according to Wyatt, Faye's "recovery is tied not so much to a homing in to tribal lands--although she does plan to return to the reservation to participate in the ceremonies of the drum--as to a homing out, a relocation and reconstruction of the Ojibwe landscape and its animals in the place of exile. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.