Literary Hub

What Would It Mean to Live in a World Without Stories?

empty shelves

The great 19th-century French modern realist novelist Gustave Flaubert once wrote to the Russian author Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” The world around the ivory tower has since grown. It is now the globalized world of the 21st century and its realities beat rapidly at all walls. Storms hit in every direction. Stories have a problem. Writers are not keeping up with what is happening in the world to help us understand what in hell is going on, but one of the major threats for writers and thinkers whose ideas and work disregard the barriers is censorship of the truth. The British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie once explained: “Good writing assumes a frontierless nation. Writers who serve frontiers have become border guards.”

Amitav Ghosh, another award-winning Indian writer of novels such as The Hungry Tide, in his latest book titled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable examines the reasons why catastrophic events are not more readily seen in literature, and why writers find it hard to move from the backdrop of normal reality in the familiar world of the individual. Ghosh claims that writers do not know how to, or cannot change, or believe it is too difficult to try to change other people’s worldview. I know my novel The Swan Book, which was about climate change, was marketed in the US as a science fiction book, which it most certainly was not. Amitav Ghosh believes that the climate crisis is a crisis of culture and of losing our roots in the environment, and thus a crisis of the imagination. He hopes that out of this struggle “will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes . . . that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art in literature.”

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig “because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well.” This old cliché was how Bill Whalen, a seasoned analyst of US elections from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, explained how to fight Donald Trump’s method of relentlessly making the US mid-term elections all about him. The advice Whalen gave was not to take the bait, but to play the game differently, and the way to do this was by dealing with issues affecting people, and by telling the story another way.

While thinking about this huge subject of silencing, the muting of voices, and bullying tactics used to oppress, humiliate, manipulate, create fear and exclude, I thought about how to tell this story about censorship in another way—by visualizing an extreme situation where the world was stopped from telling stories. Let’s say we lived in a story-less world where our rich literary traditions no longer existed, and have been excised from memory. What if we become censored from enjoying the simple pleasure of reading any book? Or from hearing an amazing story told that made us laugh, or stories that have continued to bring a smile or chuckle when we remember the story or storyteller? Although I present this scenario as an imagined situation, it is close to the reality in which Aboriginal people have lived for the past two centuries, and I will come back to this later.

What would perish if we could no longer tell stories? The word? The world?

What would perish if we could no longer tell stories? The word? The world? I wonder if we are already controlled by our own inertia in a censored world of our own making. Are we fast reaching the point of not realizing how we are being censored from speaking out, or banned from telling the truth, or through our fear of the consequences of creating waves, of bringing unwanted attention, surveillance and criticism to ourselves? The storytellers who cross boundaries will soon learn in almost vigilante fashion to guard their work from being tampered with or altering its meaning (in the process of publication where decisions are more often than not made to suit market interest). We learn how to preserve the integrity of our work by becoming more skillful as writers, negotiators, fighters for words, fighters for truth. Dr. Sanaz Fotouhi, a scholar from Monash University, writes about the commodification of censorship in Iranian writing in English, and explains how the popularity of Iranian narratives in the West,

framed in a way that appeals to a buying market through an emphasis on censorships and oppressions, could in some ways be seen as somewhat beneficial . . . But, this pattern which might get books flying off the shelves because readers pick them up to learn about the oppression and censorship that is going on in Iran, is riddled with all kinds of socio-political and ideological problems, that is inherently repeating a vicious cycle of oppression in a new framework.

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Let’s say Fahrenheit 451 has been achieved. Let’s imagine we have reached the stage where all books are believed to be so treacherous to humanity because of the slightest possibility of dangerous ideas being contained in them—such as climate change and global warming scientific research, or too much compassion for others, and the possibility, as Toni Morrison says, “of sharpening the moral imagination.” Governments might say—but not to you or me—that a free mind not tied to government must be, and therefore is, completely dangerous and should be feared by the general population, because free minds cause madness for governments.

In this scenario, of imagining a world without books, [the] wonderful State Library of Victoria, a national treasure, is doomed to become a tomb. It will be a forbidden place of abandoned books through the damp winters of time, where spiders scramble over the pages of fallen books coated in mildew and scurry through the great cobwebbed world gleaming under shafts of light that shine through the grime-covered glass of the Dome Reading Room. The book I had left open on page 50 and 51 long ago—say it was Don Quixote—is unreadable under a forest of strange black fungus that grew on top of an apple I had left to hold down the pages. This place is a darkened ghost library now, kept under tight security around the clock. There are strict controls about who can go inside this building to fight their way through the webs of censorship about what must never be removed from its shelves and who is permitted to read a book from here. You will have to jump through many hoops to get permission to even read a page of any book, or to write, even if you are only writing in a bureaucratic formula that is rigorously controlled and policed by the government, or by some world authority controlling what will be written by rules it places on how to think and what to see.

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If the stories that live in all of us were accused of being too reckless for the nation, too dangerous for the country’s ears with assimilatory ideals, or of threatening a narrow view of the world, what would we do? I hope that we would cultivate our memory by continually whispering stories in our mind as Aboriginal people continually do, and that we would be brave, just as our people took great risks to keep the spiritual law stories strong in secret gatherings held in the middle of the night outside missions and reserves where they had been institutionalized under state laws, and were punished for practicing Aboriginal law. And just as our people do today, by continually teaching children the important stories that cultivate memory and cultural imagination, and helping our children not to rely on sound bites or social media or to believe that the internet is the source of all knowledge.

Clarence kept saying that he finally felt a great burden had been moved from him at last, by being able to tell his story to the world.

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I was recently in the Gulf of Carpentaria as part of the ARC research project Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature, for which Aboriginal oral literature is a feature. We traveled through Gangalidda savannah plains country to Doomadgee, a former Aboriginal Mission, to develop a documentary with Clarence Waldon, a senior Gangalidda man and gifted oral storytelling leader, who is recognized by his people as being one of the great leaders in shaping contemporary Aboriginal politics in the Gulf. He wanted me to write his story, and we talked as the recording team taped our conversations by the ever-flowing Nicholson River—a tranquil place outside Doomadgee where about 1,500 people from the lower Gulf of Carpentaria language groups live. There was the constant laughter of children playing nearby as their mothers fished, and brolgas calling their big story from the other side of the river. These familiar sounds of country and family focused Clarence’s thoughts, and he reminded us on several occasions that the future of children in his community depends on those children knowing and understanding their history, and having their own people tell them these stories, including how missionaries had treated Aboriginal people in Doomadgee up to the 1960s, and how such harsh treatment had affected his life.

Now at the age of 64, Clarence kept saying that he finally felt a great burden had been moved from him at last, by being able to tell his story to the world. I felt gutted at hearing him say this, because I thought, why has no one in this country heard this great man’s story before? I know there are many more Aboriginal people whose stories are never heard. Why is it only now, in this supposedly modern Australia of 2018, that he has felt the great burden of his story being lifted from him, even though his world had not physically changed through the telling? His life has great hardships, racial inequality is forever present, and his world is incomprehensible to continuing government actions to structure and control his community and tell his story for him. There is little true self-governance by his own people, to be able to give them the ability to really move ahead by creating economies, and determining their future after almost 200 years of interference and imposed wreckage on his culture.

The story of Clarence’s childhood makes Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist seem like a picnic. Clarence’s childhood involved long hard chores, hard life in dormitories, having his mouth washed out with a piece of Sunlight soap and seeing other children similarly having their mouth washed out with soap if they spoke their own language, or if they spoke in a way that was not allowed by the authorities in charge of looking after these children, or if they gave cheek, or spoke back. His nephew spoke about the punishments of teenagers, young men or women, young lovers who were found out for sneaking away from the dormitories in the night to see each other, who were then forced to go around the community wearing rough sacks with holes cut for the head and arms just to shame them. He spoke of parents being forced to flog their children by order of the head missionary who stood and watched to make sure that the parents did a good job of it.

The anthropologist David Trigger in his book Whitefella Comin, spoke of physical beatings by parents of girls around the age of 14 who had ran away from the dormitory. Trigger explained: “They were subject to physical beating by their parents under the supervision of the superintendent and were told that if they struggled during the beating they would have their hair shaved off. Some of the girls struggled and one of them . . . was among those who had the whole of her hair shaved off . . . That was a disastrous and traumatic experience for a little girl of 14 years.”

Alienation is what happens when people feel that they are not in charge of their stories, either locally or in a globalized world.

It seemed like a miracle to me that Clarence is able to speak his own language and is highly respected in his cultural responsibilities to his ancient story line, and that no matter how hard the mission authorities had tried to stamp out his language and culture and his spirit with severe floggings with whatever they could lay their hand on at the time, they did not destroy the logic of Gangalidda consciousness in his thought and language, even though the scars left on his body are his daily reminder of his treatment as a child.

The missionaries were obsessed with getting rid of the devil which they saw as being ever present and causing all evil in the world. Did they believe that the devil lived inside Aboriginal people and that they could only be “saved” by being converted to Christianity, as Trigger suggests in his PhD thesis on Doomadgee? Indeed, this was the reality of government laws: to socially engineer the lives of Aboriginal people with the aim of totally transforming Aboriginal cultural consciousness, which was thought to be evil, or witchcraft, or sorcery. The idea of institutionalization was to break down Aboriginal consciousness through harsh rules and punishment under a bureaucratic web of censorship, and by extracting or muting what happened to Aboriginal people across Australia.

This reality was condoned by government with its eyes always averted, its view conveniently elsewhere, far from these institutions. The individual lives of Aboriginal people made invisible by being suppressed into figures on broadsheets of outcomes—the statistics, not the realities of what was actually happening that speak to a child who would feel the terrible weight growing larger as he got older, a weight that could only be let go by telling his story to the world. Clarence does not trust other people telling his story. How would he? He is not hidden in statistics. Not hidden in numbers on a spreadsheet. He is real, and larger than the rational words used for convenience to deliberately mute the powerful impact of emotions and feelings with convenient terms such as institutionalization—or racism, assimilation, integration, intervention, closing the gap, border control.

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The American writer Rebecca Solnit, in her essay “A Short History of Silence,” writes that: “If libraries hold all the stories that have been told, there are ghost libraries of all of the stories that have not. The ghosts outnumber the books by some unimaginably vast sum.” What are we to do with the ghost libraries that belong to the voicelessness of the greater force of humanity, including the increasing number of people who are losing their homes and livelihood because of global warming? The spirit of the land and sea is becoming polluted stories, and the fate of the world is more at risk from being dominated by hollow stories to suit the short-term interests of the more powerful. The ghost stories will grow larger and more complex, more inaccessible and unknown, and unretrievable from where they are hidden in the deep crevices of the mind.

The world is at risk of losing the epics of cultural knowledge and survival that enlighten and enrich all of humanity, by the great numbers of the world’s population moving from homelands where they can no longer live, because so too are these stories of place being uprooted, as they move in ever-increasing waves of migration to reach faraway places where they are either not welcomed, or are struggling to survive. There is so much of the Earth’s knowledge that is at risk of falling into oblivion because it becomes a burden too huge to carry by people forging uncertain paths of survival. Just as stories die when we have censored them from being heard through the cruel act of condemning people to linger without hope for decades in refugee camps or under institutionalization. The genius in every individual’s story is lost forever when you lose the ability to tell your own story. Books can be written about the victims of censorship, and the American author Lionel Shriver is all for the silencing of other voices in her belief that she has the right to claim greater freedom of expression for those who are more privileged, and by asserting that she could better write the stories of people who desperately need to tell their own stories. 

Alienation is what happens when people feel that they are not in charge of their stories, either locally or in a globalized world. This is the problem of censoring, of silencing, amputating parts of the story, or having stories stolen, or writing official scripts, or having your story told on other people’s terms.

Stories have been blown off course. Marooned. Caught in nets. The storytellers will need to fly higher, be braver to capture more of the world, and tell stories more imaginatively, more forcibly, and powerfully enough that they subvert the censoring narratives of inhumanity.

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From Overland Issue 234. Used with permission of Overland. Copyright © 2019 by Alexis Wright.

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