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What's Told is More Than (Story) Telling

Telling. Listening? Writing.

One of the Good Ones by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite had about an hour left to finish its story. The counter clicked down second by second. I sent a Facebook message to my friend that read, “The moment when you wish you had the real book instead of audio so you could skim fast to the end.”

The real book. What about the print made it any more or less real? The story had engaged me. Moreover, the audiobook took away my control of the story. My role was to listen, not look ahead, not count pages. In the crackle of audio I was forced to let go of the narration and one other very integral indicator of how white supremacy shows up, worship of the written word. Its power. Its priority. Its privilege.

I recalled words shared with a trainer a few years before and with colleagues in Guatemala, a few more years before that. The importance of reading and story, key skills that narrative provided, were not synonymous with decoding nor producing text. To my trainer, I had equivocated the act of her daughter, a reluctant reader, listening to audio book versions as akin to ‘dropping weight’. To my Guatemalan colleagues who identified as K’iche and Kaqchikel speakers, I elevated the oral storytelling activities in the literacy manual as equal to those where students read print text. So, what did I actually believe?

First, listening was hard. Standing on a curb across from a main plaza, I had told Carlos has much. My words to him were something like, “I can’t focus. I tune out. Paying attention to the story told aloud is so difficult for me.” As an educator, what had I been telling about what’s telling. Was it the book I valued or the story? If I was listening, what was I listening to, the story or the voice? What was I telling about what’s telling? Education, and its employment of the written word, were part of a system created by the oppressor. In my colleague’s case, Spanish who had both burned a writing system that existed before their own, misinterpreted both language and print in the Mayan stories they recorded, and the insistence on the narrative that my colleague’s ancestors had only ever been oral storytellers.

Second, listening was hard. I told myself this every time my dad repeated a family story that was somehow told in echo of his singular voice in a mostly empty house containing the two of us and two dogs instead of multitudes of family voices. To capture the story, you had to be in the right place at the right time enough to know the story. In the same breaths he wondered aloud about how people didn’t know their roots, didn’t know their stories, I exhaled the reality of the lone listener.

Telling. Listening. Writing?

Returning to the worship of the written word as white supremacy practiced in society specifically, the true role of establishment of print at the top of a narrative hierarchy remained even less clear. For the oppressor who valued writing, it was the oppressor’s writing that had no value. Too often, treaties, laws in print didn’t stand up in practice any more than the pages would in water. Texts labeled as fact and then elevated by governments at so many times across history were more fiction than the novels those authorities monitored. Each book, with all its words, could be easily recycled into yet another page. The color a little grayer, but the page would be serviceable.

Reading and writing, language and power were not the initial reasons I was in Guatemala. I joined Peace Corps first, specifically the Environmental Education program. An activity fellow volunteers and I used for art classes within the program was to make recycled paper. To create books, you need multiple sheets of paper. To create paper, you need multiple fibers connected together. Dr. Anton Treuer in “Language Warrior’s Manifesto” emphasizes this idea of connection. He emphasizes it not only in the dissemination of story itself but in the pieces, the fibers, used to record. For oral language in his Ojibwe culture this is by describing language as each identity’s ‘characteristic sound’. In today’s practice of constant migration and malleable identity, this creates stories without their unique words, words without contextualized meaning, pages without their fibers, print without stories. The stories being told, were not about the pages, because the pages were not what actually counted, though each bore a number.

Telling? Listening. Writing.

The audiobook finished that evening. The warm toned voice infiltrated the cold winter of my bedroom in its final pause. I waited. For? For what’s next. What's told was more than (story) telling. Pacing and breathing, pausing and releasing. The voice had stopped. Still, story was still tucked in around me and between the bedspread, two different kinds of heaviness across my chest. Story would remind me when it was done, when it required repeating either in the same voice or another. Story would tell me what's telling, most especially about my own.


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