Writing Our Stories

In Malea Powell’s “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing” she begins,

This is a story.

This phrase is separate from the rest of the article. What follows could be construed as a story, but not in the traditional academic universe that the Western world has constructed for itself.

The abstract describes her article this way:

“In this story I listen closely to the ways in which two late nineteenth-century American Indian intellectuals, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins and Charles Alexander Eastman, use the discourses about Indian-ness that circulated during that time period in order to both respond to that discourse and to reimagine what it could mean to be Indian. This use, I argue, is a critical component of rhetorics of survivance.” (396).

What follows is a researched academic article. The phrase, “This is a story” is attached to a footnote:

“There are those in academia who would ask me to lay claim to storytelling, and to its centrality in my work, as a manifestation of ‘Native American’ cultural practices. And while I don’t deny the importance of storytelling to the Native peoples of the Eastern Woodlands community of which I am a part, neither would I want to overlook the way storytelling works in both the rural midwestern farm community in which I was raised, the ‘postmodern’ academic communities in which I participate, and the dominant narratives used to create and imagine ‘America.’ In other words, storytelling isn’t just an ‘Indian’ thing for me; it is essential in the creation of all human realities.” (429)

In this footnote, Powell resists the essentializing and romanticizing move that often takes place, even in (perhaps especially in?) academia, when studying, qualifying, discussing Othered groups. In many minds, educated and uneducated alike, Native American cultures are strictly oral (extend this to other non-white, non-European cultures as well) and as such, the spoken word, or stories, is deemed to hold a unique, almost magical place in those cultures and groups. Powell resists this essentialization and romanticization by pointing out other communities where storytelling is vital. In a sense, this footnote demonstrates survivance (the combination of survival and resistance tactics) that Powell discusses throughout the article.

One final quotation from Powell:

Elsewhere I have accused the discipline of composition and rhetoric of deliberately unseeing its participation in imperialism, both that of Great Britain and the United States. In my mind that critique is not meant to demean the real and productive work done by traditional scholars in composition and rhetoric; it is, instead, a way to make visible the fact that some of us read and listen from a different space, and to suggest that, as a discipline, it is time we all learned to hear that difference. (398)

Powell is already reading and listening from a different space because she has labeled her article as a “story.” This construction is an interesting one, because it acknowledges that academic writing is story. The academic selects the frame, the beginning, the organization, the dialogue (quotations) to include, and determines the best stylistic methods to use to fulfill her goals.  Going beyond a metaphor, however, Powell’s use of the word “story” also draws attention to the fact that even researched, supported writing is constructed, fictionalized, to a certain extent and most certainly more than we would like to acknowledge as a discipline.

As Amanda J Cobb notes in her article, “Understanding Tribal Sovereignty: Definitions, Conceptualizations, and Interpretations:

The United States is so used to looking through the lens of its own powerful sovereignty–and, importantly, to having that image reflected back to it by other nations–that the United States, including its citizens, too often cannot recognize that what is looked through is merely a lens. (119).

So, we have story, to be taken metaphorically and literally, and now lens, which I think can be taken metaphorically and literally as well.

The lens that has been placed on Native Americans is actually a screen–a terministic screen, to borrow from Kenneth Burke. They have been constructed as the “vanishing” race for so long, then as a child race that needed parents, then as a primitive race on its way to development, and now, I don’t even know what–somewhere between a mystical people that’s close to nature and worthless drunks that mooch off the country.

What story, then, has been told? How can we untell that story, or tell another that will be just as powerful?

After reading articles like LuMing Mau’s “Writing the Other into Histories of Rhetorics: Theorizing the Art of Recontextualization” and Morris and Rawson’s “Queer Archives/ Archival Queers” I kept thinking about this question.

The problem for me, with comparative rhetoric, is the comparison. There’s always an impulse, when we finish comparing, to make the move to evaluation and say one is better than the other. That involves measuring the idea against a normative idea. When we talk about “queering” the archives (or queering the canon, etc.) there’s a push against the normative, which can also instate its own sort of normativity at some point.  So, what kind of story can we tell? Do we need to recontextualize the canon? Queer the canon? Ignore the canon?

So many questions, and so many different ways to try to answer them. My final one: can we ever read someone else’s story without somehow viewing it through the lens of our own? (okay, one more) And then, how does my story distort the others that I read and encounter?



One thought on “Writing Our Stories

  1. Honestly, I am unsure that we can untell the story. I really believe, try as we might, cannot read another’s story through any lens other than our own. From our own experiences to the expectations taught to us, we can’t help but be jaundiced in our reading and encountering others’ stories, lives, truths.

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