“Even as I start to tell it, it changes. Telling a story always changes things” (Powell “A Basket is a Basket Because”)
This past weekend, I worked on the second draft of my intellectual autobiography. I told about my mom’s trauma, and how I came to listen to her stories about these traumas during my years as a teenager and young adult. I also talked about how these stories got twisted and misunderstood in the mental health field. I had a great deal of emotion come up with these stories: the sadness and anger of being misunderstood – as her stories were woven with my own – and of not having a place to tell my stories. The emotion that came up though, was not all sadness. In telling my story, and in knowing that it might be listened to by people who would receive it thoughtfully, however, I felt some happiness. In writing my story – in telling it – I realized that my identity in the program is more than just a scholar of rhetoric or composition; I am also a storyteller. Telling the story changed it. I rewrote the ending of my story. I wonder how my story will change when I tell it out loud to my classmates. How will it change in my time in the program? What new voices/stories will weave with my own?
“To write about family and history is to try to give voice to silenced ghosts as much as to give strength to the living.”
Calling my project an intellectual “auto”biography doesn’t seem to fit, because it is not just my story. I’m telling my mom’s stories, other family members’ stories, and the stories of my loved ones. This weekend, as I was writing, I talked to my mom about our stories. We were both struck by how different things look now, and were in awe that the things that happened beginning ten years ago actually happened. As I brought up what had happened in my mind – the pain of learning how my mom was tortured and then dehumanized by the mental health system – I found the words from Malea’s article from earlier this semester constantly resurfacing: “stories take place.” Nowhere was it clearer to me than listening to my loved ones talk about their trauma. Their stories had taken place, and their tellings had taken place, and now my telling was taking place, and all of these are constantly changing, because our relationship to them is changing.
And these stories need to be voiced. I think of my great uncle, a gay and autistic man, who was was murdered. His murder was covered up and glossed over by the cops. I also think of the relatives that I mentioned in my last weekly response, and how their stories are very much real in how they continue, inevitably, to affect the present. They are even more alive when we tell them and give them a voice, as the quote above reminds us. I believe that the “Walking With Our Sisters” memorial illustrates our ability to “give voice to silenced ghosts as much as to give strength to the living.”
I was struck by Christi Belcourt’s words on this project: “I think what it might do is give people the vocabulary and empower people to begin to talk about it. Because it’s such a difficult subject to speak about. But I think what it might do is help people to frame it in their discussions with others in a way that gives them a way to talk about it and a way to keep it in the forefront of peoples’ minds.” Belcourt also spoke of how some families do not speak about tragedies involving the disappearance or murder of indigenous women, and how when these families die, we don’t hear any more of them. This project, and the words of the scholars this week, though, show us that we can always strengthen our relationship to these ghosts. They also show how the process of awaking these ghosts needs to be an engaged ceremony and a conversation. The ceremony that all of these artists have created together to honor all of these women – including the ones that we can’t necessarily name – stands in deep contrast to some people’s attitude that the past is in the past; get over it. Such an attitude, I realize from looking at the Walk with Our Sisters project, not only silences people in the present (and invalidates their experiences), it also doesn’t recognize the presences of these ghosts in the here and now. I’m realizing that Indigenous methodologies help us see this more than Western orientations to history, which looks at what has happened in a much more linear fashion by organizing history chronologically. Connecting to space and place also encourages a personal relationship to what has happened – because as the Brooks explains, it is about a relationship with a concrete, material place.
As I listen to these stories, I recall what Malea Powell and Thomas King have said. In Malea’s “A Basket is a Basket Because,” she writes: “This story is yours now. Do with it what you will. Teach about it. Write about it. Blog about it. Forget about it. But don’t say you would have done any of that differently if only you’d heard this story. You’ve heard it now” (483). One thing I don’t want to do is forget the stories that I hear, but I know that I do. The Walking with Our Sisters Memorial reminded me of stories that I had heard during my time with Saint Cloud State’s Women’s Center. In this presentation, Nicole Matthews and Guadalupe Lopez talked about the Garden of Truth Report. I cried when I watched the presentation, because I learned how sex trafficking and forced prostitution were related to the trauma, incarceration, and disappearance of women in Minnesota (link to project). I wanted to do something; I had heard their stories, but in truth I have done little to nothing. I guess what I’m realizing, more than I did then, was that these stories have been told to me. And I always have a choice – and am always making a choice – about what I do with them. I feel frustrated by wanting to do something, but not knowing how. Fortunately, however, reading about cultural rhetorics as a method has pointed me to some of the concrete ways I can do something with the stories I know, including how I can engage with them.
“It is pointedly local and unfailingly episodic. It is also extremely personal, consistently subjective, and therefore highly variable among those who work to produce it.” (Brooks’s, “The Common Pot,” xxiv)
Reading this quote, although it echoed some the readings from previous readings, really stood out to me. I realized just how much this challenged a lot of what I was reading in Composition Studies: WRA 878. In the beginning of this class, we read Stephen North’s 1987 book The Making of Knowledge in Composition Studies. In this text, North lobbied for different research methodologies to basically take themselves seriously and firmly establish themselves by systematizing their methods. He wanted them to identify the parameters and methods of their methods and then stick to them, so as to establish credibility as well as create methods that are capable of being reproduced. Although this book is dated, it is still an influential text and importantly, reveals more recent works that echo the idea of creating reproducible research projects. Realizing the fallibility of the “replicable” research method/study, I feel like I need to be cautious of those who claim such an argument in their work. It also opens up possibilities for the kind of research that I can do.
Place, Spaces, and Practices
For me, the readings this week were a synthesis of the other readings we’ve had this semester. I’m realizing that this is really a big shift in the way I relate to scholarly work and stories. I think I am particularly struck by the emphasis of Native American rhetorics on place-worlds, and relationships to concrete, material places. Last week, Malea and I had a short side conversation about her research visiting the places where Eastman, Winnemucca, and others lived. I told Malea that could relate in terms of the road trip I took with my parents, both American Studies scholars, out west when I was nine. Even though I was young, I remember vividly standing in certain historical sites and feeling the stories from the past in ways that I could not have if I had not visited them. Realizing the importance of entering into conversations with the land as a core part of research, I wonder what spaces are related to my own core stories.
In my case, some of the spaces in which my stories take place are not far from my Minnesota home. My mom’s childhood home, where she was traumatized, is in town. Our relative’s homes, schools, and churches, going back many generations are very close to mine. I have visited them a few times, but without really knowing how to be with them. As a kid and even as a teen, I didn’t have the same kind of drive to know the stories of earlier generations of my family that my mom did. What my mom recently realized, however, was that her desire as a kid to know her grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s stories was a part of her that realized how important it is to understand how the violence had come about. She needed to understand more strands of the basket than were easily visible.
Having seen how the scholars this week have engaged with “texts, bodies, materials, ideas, spaces, or spaces of knowing,” I feel encouraged to revisit all of these in my own life. I’m thinking of spending more time and dwelling in some of the old homes of my ancestors, as well as engaging with some of their material objects. This past year, I took a picture of almost every piece of antiques/keepsakes that my mom owned. Some had been passed down for many generations. Inspired by Brooks’s maps, and of Christie Belcourt’s work, I think I would like to map out the stories of my ancestors.