the power and the story

This picture is one of my favourite from the Storying Sheffield exhibition that I wrote about here. It turns out it’s also an apt illustration for the book I finished just a day later – The Long Song by Andrea Levy.

The Long Song  is a powerful novel about a black woman living through slavery in Jamaica. No obvious link with Storying Sheffield there, but in fact both have similar issues at their heart: how do we tell stories and what happens when we do?

In particular – how can people who lack power tell stories? In The Long Song, the people with power can paint over the bits of a story that they don’t like. So the white painter refuses to include ‘the disgusting negro hovels’ in his depiction of the plantation. And the plantation owner’s sister retells a suicide event as a story of murder, framing an innocent black man in the process. But even when the black, female narrator is in court and being harangued about the importance of telling the truth, she is not given a proper chance to speak.

In an interview at the end of the book, Levy describes how her research into the history of slavery revealed very few surviving documents where black slaves speak of and for themselves. ‘Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists,’ she writes.

For Levy, fiction can provide an answer. ‘Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out,’ she says. ‘I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record.’

This is an interesting angle on the historical novel, that strange and fascinating blend of the recorded and the imagined. For Levy, the combination of historical research and her own imagination meant she could ‘breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events’. Her central character, a black house slave called July, leaps from the pages as a passionate, charming and often cunning woman. Dramatic events like the Baptist War happen around her, but they are not as prominent as her strong and captivating telling of the details of her life.

By giving a voice to one, fictional woman and the people she has contact with, the novel explodes the conventional narrative, summarised by Levy as ‘almost … a morality play with the planters as the villains, Wilberforce as the white knight and the slaves as simply a mass of wretched voiceless victims’. Instead the reader enters a complex, unique society full of strong and vibrant characters getting on with their individual lives, even in circumstances where their very humanity is denied.

For Levy this creative act gave her a new perspective on her ancestors. Her determination to trawl through mountains of racist documents for her research is frankly amazing, but at the end of her afterword she describes how the experience of writing the book left her with a sense not of horror but of awe.

‘Our slave ancestors were much more than a mute and wretched mass of victims and we do them a great disservice if we think of them as such,’ she writes. ‘If history has kept them silent then we must conjure their voices ourselves and listen to their stories. Stories through which we can rememember them, marvel at what they endured, what they achieved, and what they have bequeathed to us all.’

Levy’s tone is upbeat. Nevertheless, there is something heartbreaking about people having to have their stories imagined for them because they were never allowed to tell them when they were alive.

That’s one of the reasons why Storying Sheffield is so important. People who have previously been unheard get a voice, and because the university is supporting them, the whole profile of storytelling is raised. There’s an enormously positive vibe around the project. For me, this is at least partly because it connects with something deep within the psyche, something that recognises that to tell our own stories is both a right and a necessity. The best stories are the ones that belong to you.

Storying Sheffield

Stories and Sheffield are two of the things I love most in life, so when the two come together I get very excited.

It happened this week when Sheffield University held their second, amazing Storying Sheffield exhibition. Storying Sheffield is a groundbreaking project which brings university students together with the people of Sheffield to create a living portrait of life in the city.

Half the participants in the project are second-year undergraduates studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Storying Sheffield is an optional module which they can take as part of their degree. The other participants are people from the city who generally have no background in higher education and who come from groups which tend to be socially excluded – mainly long-term users of the mental health services, and people with physical disabilities.

The course is a mix of academic sessions and workshops in which participants work together on creating representations of contemporary life in Sheffield.

At its heart, Storying Sheffield is about giving a platform to stories that are rarely heard. In the process, it challenges all kinds of boundaries to create a unique and multi-faceted portrait of the city. As undergraduate Josephine wrote in the catalogue for the project’s exhibition last week: ‘Storying Sheffield allows you to break the rigid boundaries that society imposes upon you – when else would I work with an actual adult (as opposed to a fake one) in a real (not student) house representing stories that are so often ignored?’

The blend of techniques used by the participants challenges more boundaries by promoting the telling of stories through a huge range of media. Film, textiles, photography, maps, drama and cardboard boxes all formed part of the final exhibition, alongside written material.

The result, to quote course director Dr Brendan Stone, is ‘a web of fragments, stories, and representations, or, to use a phrase from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “a cloth woven of stories told”’.

What is evident from the exhibition is that this phenomenal explosion of creativity is the result of a genuine two-way exchange between the university and people from other parts of the city. Undergraduate Charlie wrote that the best thing about the project was ‘being given the opportunity to work with Peter who has showed me so many wonderful things and taught me so much’. Peter himself wrote: ‘I’ve learnt more about myself through this course than with any doctors or shrinks.’

It’s an exchange that also inspires participants with a fresh perspective on Sheffield and deepens their sense of belonging. Kate worked with two undergraduates to explore her Christian faith and her role as a mother. Afterwards she wrote: ‘For years I have wanted to run away from Sheffield. Watching the students make short films of different places in the city has inspired me to make friends with my home town and in a matter of months, I have grown to love Sheffield, warts an’all!!! It’s made me realise that how I view Sheffield is not necessarily a matter of reality, but of perception.’

When people are given space to tell their stories, there seems no end to what can change.