Sometimes friends will be over, everybody talking, and one of the little kids will get antsy so I’ll pick up a book and start reading, quietly so as not to disturb conversation. But pretty soon nobody is talking any more, everybody’s listening to Winnie the Pooh and Piglet track the Heffalump. I’ll bet you can sit in any small coffee shop, open a book, start reading aloud “Once upon a time,” and by the third paragraph, the whole coffee shop will be dead silent.
Stories. I’ve always thought of them as addictive entertainment for which – for some reason – we happen to be hardwired.
One time I was trying to learn Italian and found out that “storia” was the word for “history.” Then I found out that “storia” also meant “story;” it meant both “history” and “story,” and I was desparately confused. History and story are distinctly not the same thing, not at all. Write a history of something, the reader should more or less believe it. Write a story about the same thing, the reader rightly thinks “it’s Katy-bar-the-door.” I thought about this some more and became indignant. History is done by scholars trained in finding and assessing evidence and arranging it in the order in which it happened. Stories are the authors’ constructions, arrangements in whatever order the author likes. This is pretty much the standard view of anyone who speaks English.
Too bad for the English speakers. I read in Wikipedia that all European languages, including the rest of the Germanic ones, also use the same word for history and story. Then I ran “history” through Google Translate and tried picking the non-European languages and they were pretty much split on whether history and story should share the same word. I’m not claiming scientific rigor for this but it seems true enough and what the ever-loving hell is going on here? I’ve been fretting about this for years. In what sense are history and story the same thing?
Meanwhile I was working on a story on how Native Americans handled their 10,000-year co-existence with Cascadia’s massive earthquakes and tsunamis. The tribes didn’t traditionally write their history down, they told it to each other and about a century ago, what they said got transcribed. Some of what they’d tell was clearly myth, story – Thunderbird and Whale were fighting. And some of it was clearly history – the giant wave caught people without their canoes and they all drowned.
I read all these stories and histories and then interviewed the people whose grandparents had heard them. And I had one of those lightning-bolt perspective-switches. I remembered my grandmother and her sister in their rag-top Jeep driving the dusty country road — me in the back seat hanging on and listening with all my might — talking about every farmhouse we passed: who lived there, who they were related to, who their wives and husbands and kids were, what they did in high school, what they were doing now, on and on. My grandmother and her sister were doing what the Native Americans did: they were telling stories, they were talking history, both at once, same thing.
So I derailed those interviews right away from geologic catastrophe and asked the people who’d been told the stories about the telling itself.
Member of the Huu-ay-aht: “I have to start in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I visited my brother who lived with my great-grandfather, and had to listen to a lot of stories at dinner table and in the evening. You have to sit down and listen just like you have to go to school, and it happened around mealtime, evening when there’s no electricity and your evenings are idle. We just had a gaslight, candles and a woodstove. We had to be there, we had to sit and listen, it was education, things we needed to know. People are designated to remember, my brother and I were chosen to hear the stories and given the responsibility to pass them on, I passed it on to my son and he knows as much as I do.
Member of the Grande Ronde tribe: “The storytellers are identified early on and are trained. The historian was a very responsible position. You couldn’t alter the stories and you had to retell them exactly as they were told. I read anthropology research in Africa that found the stories were more accurate than the written word.”
Member of the Coquille tribe: “[My uncle] said, ‘We have to go on a five hour drive to this place [where a tsunami had happened] so I can tell you this story and that’s the best way to tell a story, at the place.’ So we went to Gold Beach and did then a mile and a half hike up the hill. He [showed me the fog coming up the river] just like the tsunami and told me the waves came up that river and all the trees were covered and that’s what made the story real. I’ve been fortunate because every time someone has something important to say and wants it remembered, they talk to me. And they want me to be accurate. If someone gives you something like that, accept the gift the way they gave it to you.”
I wonder whether the history/story merger has its origins in pre-literate cultures. History told as stories, told in ways and places that make you remember them, by people who accept responsibility for remembering them, who are trained to do it and constrained by accuracy? Sounds like a good plan for carrying on civilization. And just like that, I’ve figured out the very good reason that stories are hardwired.
Photo credit: Thibaud Saintin