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What Gandhi Taught Me About Telling Stories that Mean Something

[1]Surprise! We weren’t supposed to be back to regular programming here at WU until tomorrow, but then Kelsey Allagood sent this gem to us. There aren’t many free days at WU in 2021, but today was free and so here is a gem of a post for you to enjoy today. Before we get to that, though, please meet Kelsey:

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She currently lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry. You can find her on Twitter @kelseyallagood [2] and at kelseyallagood.com [3].

Kelsey, thank you for the post.

WU Community: Enjoy!

What Gandhi Taught Me About Telling Stories that Mean Something

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the role of story in today’s world: the world of Plandemic, of fake news, of conspiracies about everything from the results of elections to the contents of vaccines. Everything serves a narrative, I hear, no matter which side you’re on.

As writers, editors, publishers—as tellers and influencers of story and narrative—what is our role in this search for truth? Do we have a responsibility to always seek truth, or should we stick to what we know, recognizing that people will see what they want to see in the stories we tell?

In my fiction, I write the kind of stories I want to read, with happily ever afters and notes of hope in the final words. But I know from personal experience that bad things happen to good people, that endings are too often tragic, lives left unfinished. Am I being disingenuous, am I producing artsy propaganda, if I prefer to write stories that so blatantly fly in the face of these facts? Or am I just bored of retelling things I already know?

A few years ago, I watched an HBO series called Boardwalk Empire. It starred national treasure Steve Buscemi as a corrupt bootlegging politician in Prohibition-era New Jersey. The show had everything: great drama, morally gray characters, rich costumes, sex and violence. But as the show reached its final season, I stopped watching. All the characters I had cared about were dead; all that was left were the criminals, the liars, the killers. I just didn’t care about what happened to them. In what seemed like an attempt to show how circumstances can turn anyone bad, the show totally alienated me.

A similar thing happened with another HBO show, Game of Thrones. The medieval fantasy show shocked audiences by killing off its stereotypical honorable hero in season one. I liked this move, which made the point that simply “being good” isn’t enough to help you survive. By the last season, it seemed that the only survivors were the ones capable of being as coldly calculating as possible (yes, I will argue with you about this in the comments). Yawn. If I want to see tragedy unfolding in real time, all I have to do is check Twitter or turn on the news.

We all see bad things happening every day. Seeing our experiences represented in the media can be a very powerful thing—you can even see that in the current media-savvy president, whose supporters often praise him for “telling it like it is” (read: “how I see it”). This is not to argue that we should never present things as we see them. Authors from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, for example, deserve the space to tell stories that have for too long been brushed aside.

As an anxiety sufferer, I deeply understand the urge to consume media that tells me things are already bad. Thinking about every possible thing that can go wrong in a situation makes me feel prepared. Like I’ve thought through all the bad stuff, so nothing can surprise me.

Obviously, this is not how things work. I have been and will continue to be unpleasantly surprised by all of the bad things life can throw at me (see: the entire year of 2020). But by ruminating on them, I trick myself into thinking I’m taking action—that I have some control over something on this this spinning rock that’s hurtling through space.

This year seems to have proven that facts only matter as long as they confirm our preexisting beliefs. It doesn’t matter what the data or evidence says; if it challenges our perception of the world, our brains jettison it.

But if there is no universal truth—which is not my argument—and if readers will still take whatever they want out of the stories we tell, why do stories still hold so much power over our lives? As authors, saying that all we’re doing is helping individual readers connect with their own emotions and thoughts is completely ignoring the role that stories have and continue to play in our lives as members of a society. Those preexisting beliefs are the result of decades or more of narratives by people with something to gain. They tell us that our government can’t be trusted, that scientists can’t be trusted, that you can become a billionaire if you only work hard enough, that if big corporations and the ultra-rich make money so will you.

 Of course our readers are going to look at our stories through their own lenses—the ones that stories have helped them shape over the course of their lives. Our role as storytellers is to write stories that help shift those lenses. Because one side is already doing it: the side of anti-science, of xenophobia, of cynicism. It’s time some other voices push back.

Why don’t they? Because it’s hard to imagine new, positive worlds. And it’s even harder to take action to create them.

In my first semester of college, which I spent at a small hippie school in North Carolina (I say “hippie school” but what I really mean is “private school where barefoot unwashed trust fund kids drove their new BMWs into town to attend drum circles every Friday”), I took an introduction to peace and justice studies. The professor was a small, mustached man who led a trip to Fort Benning, Georgia, every year for the School of the Americas vigil. The vigil is held to honor the victims of the School’s graduates, many of whom have gone on to allegedly commit crimes against humanity [4] in Latin America.

Students were invited to attend the vigil, but the trip was independent of our college, and not tied in any way to our grades or credits. I thought I might go after learning about some of the victims, like the Guatemalan bishop Monsignor Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death in a garage two days after releasing a report on human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war. Three army officers were convicted in his murder, one of whom was a graduate of the School of the Americas.

Today, the school has a new name (WHINSEC) and a required human rights curriculum [5], but it continues to operate as it has for decades. The vigil for victims attracts tens of thousands of people each year, including well-known figures like Pete Seeger and Susan Sarandon. In recent years, the Army has built higher and higher fences around Fort Benning to deter trespassers, but for a while there were always a few protesters that purposefully crossed onto Federal property to get arrested.

 On purpose? I remember wondering, the eighteen-year-old only daughter of an overprotective former cop. Of course, I refused the trip. I was afraid of being arrested; I was busy with school; I didn’t want my parents to be mad. And in that, too, I came up against the uncomfortable truth of words versus action. The vigils go on, but the arrests have been minimized by razor-topped fences.

Despite tens of thousands of people holding vigil, graduates of WHINSEC continue to commit extrajudicial killings, like that of Berta Cáceres, a Lenca indigenous leader, feminist, and Honduran environmental activist, who was murdered in 2016. But a few hundred people over several decades trespassed onto Federal property, and the Army built razor-wire fences to interrupt their actions.

That same freshman-year class was where I first learned the term “satyagraha.” Mahatma Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha,” or “holding firmly to truth,” as a way to describe the brand of nonviolent civil resistance he led in India to resist British colonial rule. Satyagraha, in short, demands that a resistor always maintain principled, no matter the difficulty of the situation they may find themselves in. Satyagrahis must respect their opponent while nonviolently resisting orders given in anger, protect their opponents from insult and injury, submit peacefully to arrest, and cooperate with prison officials during one’s detention.

But there’s another branch of satyagraha, one that gets less attention because it’s harder, more complex: Gandhi called it the Constructive Program (CP). According to the Metta Center for Nonviolence [6]:

“[CP] describes nonviolent action taken within a community to build structures, systems, processes or resources that are positive alternatives to oppression. It can be seen as self-improvement of both community and individual.”

When Gandhi was a political prisoner, he spun his own clothes on a charkha, or spinning wheel, which became a symbol of Indian independence. During the first Palestinian Intifada, in addition to protesting Israeli government policies, Palestinians planted community gardens, shopped locally, taught in neighborhood schools, and established social networks (the in-person kind). These actions are emblematic of the Constructive Program and of satyagraha, where people make themselves self-sufficient even during intense repression.

In other words, you recognize that things are bad, but you don’t just complain about it: you also gotta build stuff.

Authors from historically marginalized groups have been leading this effort for a long time. Queer authors have pushed for queernorm worlds—settings in which being queer is not something to hide or feel ashamed of—in fantasy and science fiction. Indigenous authors like Rebecca Roanhorse have imagined alternative earths where cataclysms have left mostly indigenous peoples alive. These worlds are not utopias. They are rough and real and tragic. But they are different from our current world, and that’s what’s hard.

Envisioning new worlds—not new planets, but new approaches to justice, or to coexistence, or to love—is hard. That’s why the slogan “defund the police” has gotten so much pushback, even from my highly liberal, educated friends, as well as Barack Obama. “You’re going to alienate people,” they say. Yes—because people don’t like the world to shift. It’s scary. It’s destabilizing. Imagining a world in which we don’t jail people for breaking societal laws is scary, because if that changes, what else can change?

It’s scary, but it’s also liberating. It’s no coincidence that the rise in queernorm literature has coincided with the increasing acceptance of queer people in mainstream life. Does that mean literature led directly to Obergefell v. Hodges? No—action did. Does that mean we’ve solved homophobia? Of course not. But we are taking steps toward creating a queernorm world, and queernorm literature is giving us ways to interact with those new worlds, making them less scary.

As storytellers, we have a special relationship with the truth. In a time when every day, truth seems to fall by the wayside in service of self-interested narratives, our responsibility as storytellers is not to engage with truth—or Truth, if you want to go the universal route—but to shape it.

How does that translate to our work as writers? In addition to living our lives according to our truths, as storytellers, we have a special superpower: the power not just to reflect honesty as we see it, or Truth in the universal sense, but to shape it ourselves.

Give me a community that bands together to defeat the Big Bad, not another Chosen One story.

Give me a queen who invites her enemies to the table and realizes that reparations are needed.

Give me that sweet, sweet truth and reconciliation commission drama.

Okay, that last one might be a little much, but I bet a skilled writer can make it interesting.

As writers, editors, publishers, people with decision-making ability over what gets seen or just what words we put to a page, let’s dream bigger. I’m not arguing that every story needs to have a moral, or that we all only write utopias, or even that the good guys always win in some noblebright fantasy. Ignoring the ugliness of the world doesn’t make it go away, and in the year 2020 (almost 2021), not acknowledging the pain and suffering of others does survivors a profound disservice and disrespect.

Yes, let’s get messy, roll around in that amoral or morally gray, grimdark world. But let’s also look for ways to deal with it. Small ways, like Gandhi’s spinning wheel. Can our characters try their hardest to be good and not harm others, even when it’s hard? Can we give others a model for how to overcome our fear around taking action, even when it’s risky?

Stories matter. Narratives matter. And by ignoring the stories and narratives that rule our current world, we’re abandoning a chance—even a duty—to change those narratives into something better.

Have you ever read a story that made you want to stand up and change something? Do you think storytellers have a responsibility to imagine different worlds? When writing, do you prefer to write stories that take a grimmer view of human nature? Do you think that the coldest characters (well, maybe not THE coldest) won Game of Thrones?

About Kelsey Allagood [7]

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.

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