We travelled to Prince George, BC, recently for the Aboriginal Storytellers and Writers Festival. It’s an annual gathering of people for whom the idea of creating and sharing story is central to their lives. What it represents is the recognition that story and the act of storytelling are vital to our sense of ourselves regardless of our background.
Though it’s cast in a First Nation context the truth of that recognition is there for everyone to see. It was an honour to be asked to attend and I wanted to bring my best stuff to share.
My event was early Saturday afternoon and I shared the stage with the novelist Eden Robinson, and poets Gary Gottfriedson and Duncan Mercredi. We were Ojibway, Shuswap, Haida and Metis.There was a good-sized crowd on hand to hear us read and the atmosphere was enthusiastic. That’s the thing about stories: they pull people together and no matter if they’re poems, short stories, parts of novels or, in my case, spontaneously created tales told on the spot, people are drawn to their energy.
The work we presented that day was wide-ranging. While I sat with the crowd and listened to my peers share their energies, it struck me how vital storytelling still is to everyone. Here was a room dappled with folks of every background. Young and old, students, professionals, housewives, labourers, readers and book lovers – a cross-cultural microcosm of Canada in one room.
Looking around that room, I could see that everyone is keen on a good story well told. I was touched by peoples’ fascination with words spoken or read aloud. My people say that we are born with the craving for language. When we curl in the safety of our mother’s belly we hear words in the darkness as our loved ones move about talking to each other or talking to us. When we emerge out into this reality we bear that desire for words with us and when we hear stories, voices rolling at a fireside, in candlelight, or under theatrical lighting we feel reconnected to something magical.
Leaving that room, I was sold again on the importance of the storytelling tradition to the future of our species. But it was what happened later, in the living room of our good friends, that the truth about stories was revealed to me fully.
Vaughan and Blanca have been friends of ours for five years now. They stood up for us at our wedding and we love, respect and honour each other. We share a love of the land, books, music and home. They live in Quesnel, BC, a four-hour drive away from our home in Kamloops but when we get together it’s like there was never any time apart at all and the talk is lively and good.
On our last night, there was a fantastic argument. The words flew around the kitchen table and there were some heated exchanges. It was centered on the effect computers and technologies have on our ability to communicate and our ability to deal with problems and issues. Points were made, points were rebutted and it was a good, old-fashioned tussle and even though there was some anger expressed it was a well-fought, fair and compassionate battle. In the end there was no clear winner.
The next day we set out on a great hike into the backcountry and sat around a waterfall and cavern drinking in the atmosphere. The verbal jousting of the night before was gone, replaced by mutual admiration and a joy in being together. It struck me how wonderful it is that good friends can do that. They can put on the gloves and slug it out verbally and no one ever gets hurt.
It’s because of stories. It’s because we’ve taken the time to tell each other the stories of our lives. Who we have been, who we are and who we hope to become. They have come to know us in our foibles and failings as well as in our success and determination. We’ve shared our brokenness and we’ve shared our healing and our recoveries. We’ve shared the stories of our lives and in their telling they’ve allowed us to be ourselves, to be real.
That’s the truth about stories. That’s the subtle and powerful energy they bring to our relationships, our homes, communities and nations. They have the ability to bring us together. And the truth is that they don’t have to be elaborate or fancy, published, televised or acted out – they just have to be about us. When we share them, we let ourselves be known and we build strong relationships. We can argue, we can fight and the story of us keeps respect front and centre – and everyone everywhere needs that.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from Doubleday. He can be reached at email@example.com.