Storytelling As A Site For Feminist Activism: A Critical Guide

Written By Kanishka Sikri

I find it important to entangle oral storytelling as both a site for women to historicize and archive our histories in spaces—physical, social, and economic—we are traditionally denied entry; and a location to subjectify our lives as marked positively by emotion, materiality, and lived reality in the midst of “objective” chronicled histories. In such discursive and physical space, oral storytelling gives us the praxis to both transform the ways in which we can locate lived intersectional demarcations, and re-configure the legitimacy given to women’s histories, stories, and lives.

(Anderson et al., 1990) stress the importance of storytelling for women’s activism because our histories are deliberately concealed, altered, and (mis)represented as “our means of knowing…are written for us by men who occupy a special place in it”. Locating our histories outside of the colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchal institution of the written word which places clout on the seemingly objective—rather a concealment of the universal image of the white, middle-class, straight man—we can see women’s “survival [a]s a form of resistance” (Hill-Collins, 1990); and the subsequent documentation of such survival becomes a site for feminist resistance. Interrogating oral storytelling from this perspective of everyday protest, scholars such as Hill-Collins and Rebick greatly problematize hyper-visible activism and draw our imagination of resistance from that of the grand, abstract, and socially visible to that of the hidden, concealed, ordinary, yet politically and socially transformative. Ordinary folk who continue to feel the degradation of oppressive structures in their lived fabrics should not be disregarded as activists because they may be “unable to articulate [their] political ideology” (Hill-Collins, 1990).

Shifting my own understanding and prioritization of this hierarchy of activism closing upon the “celebrity women” (Ross, 2008) at the top, I have begun to position my oral histories to focus on women in my own life who while unable to name drop the theories they utilize, are making “tangible political changes” (Hill-Collins, 1990) in the lives of my community. These changes, following suit of Hill-Collins, do not have to be in direct alignment with any feminist movement or consciousness raising session(s), but can exist anywhere as Rebick stresses—in the classroom, the home, the temple, the community centre, the workplace, the restaurant, or the store. To prioritize these acts of dissent, we must redesign what we consider political, resistance, activism, and social change, as the seemingly simple and trivial, such as “refusing the make-the-coffee-or-run-the-Gestetner (copy machine) role became [and is continuously becoming] a political act” (Rebick, 2009). In spaces where marginalized peoples do not have access, authority, safety, or even desire to visiblize their resistance in overt and carnal capacities, these indirect acts while still revolutionary can provide strategies of protest that may conceal the consequences of such resistance. I hope to then place my practice of such storytelling at the entanglement of a transnational intersectionality frame to “reclaim the history of ordinary people” (Hill-Collins, 1990).

Moving forward, feminist scholarship—that I find to be truly radical and effective—expresses that oral storytelling does not negate the privilege, extraction, and ethical dimensions of researcher-object relations that follow suit of other research methodologies. While they do offer diverse pedagogical methodologies, they must still be accompanied with care and caution through effective questionnaires and the deliberate manufacturing of spaces for reciprocal dialogue. (Gill, 2012) writes of “this artful listening practice as ethnographic method and as theoretical starting point”, highlighting its importance as more than just a methodology but a conceptual frame that utilizes certain features and participatory toolkits to further emphasize its live unfolding. Drawing from several scholars, I see three important features to include in our interview and questionnaire toolkits when conducting such oral histories.

Firstly, as Sangster stresses there is a turbulent role of agency at play in the way questions are asked and answered. Traditional understandings place the procedures of ethics as one in which agency can be exercised by the interviewee if they are given a “safe” space—carnally quite impossible and ill-defined—and empowered by sisterhood and solidarity—which also remains ill-defined and ignorant of the ways difference cuts across just gender. Instead, these non-extractive methodologies must be “created by the agency of both the interviewer and interviewee” (Sangster, 1994). The interviewer must be disengaged from previous stereotypes, hold the ability to identify themselves both independently and in relation to their interviewee, and access the material capability to engage in a participatory “process of evoking rather than describing narratives through ‘cooperative’ dialogue” (Sangster, 1994). Creating such agency in both actors also requires a concurrent psychological ability to be actively present (Anderson & Jack, 1991). Seemingly laud, not possessing such skills renders interviewer’s incapable “to listen—closely, fully—to people, to space, and to context” (Gill, 2012).

Utilizing the preceding methodologies in our toolkits must be combined with questionnaires that are transnationally intersectional and respective to the interlocking dimensions of people’s existence that cannot be narrowed to any one identity, definition, or title. We must utilize language, prompts, and enrich dialogue that give space for “tales of both degradation and transcendence” (Freedman, 2014), of good and bad, and all the spectrums in between. By doing so, we do not reduce women to mere performers of social relations we have prior identified, and concurrently ensure “women are the subjects and not objects of study” (Anderson & Jack, 1991). Without rendering interviewees to placeholders or performative actors, postcolonial and black feminist scholarship has stressed the identification of identity and barriers prior to further dialogue. This is especially important when cutting across the divides of social class, gender, race, location, sexuality; always but especially when we do not identify with that group, we must be sure to utilize questions that allow for the “locating [of] experience” (Rebick, 2009), but that are still situated within the matrix of domination and power structures, as to not omit our own privilege as exercisers of said oppression.

Without recognizing our own roles in the oppression of our interviewees—specifically in already entangled and colonially embedded researcher-interviewee relations—we risk harm to our research participant by dis-embedding ourselves from our direct and indirect role in their lived experience. For this reason, our interviews “must be situated within social relations and structures of power which are real and ‘knowable’” (Sangster, 1994), not to circumvent or overpower but to provide clarity, solidarity, community, and sisterhood that is real, true, and felt by the interviewees. Combining the two, rather than utilizing either or, to create spaces that are taking ethical responsibility at both the individual and collective levels allows us “to uncover aspects of social life that had been socially invisible” (Anderson et al,. 1990); and I hope to lift the fold on such “hidden” stories in my own practice of the transformative art of storytelling.

References

Anderson, K., Armitage, S., Jack, D., and Wittner, J. (1990) “Beginning Where We Are. Feminist Methodology in Oral History.” In Feminist Research Methods. Exemplary Readings in the Social Sciences, edited by Joyce McCarl Nielson, 94-112. Boulder: Westview Press.

Anderson, Kathryn and Dana C. Jack. “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analysis.” In Women’s Words. The Feminist Practice of Oral History, edited by Sherna Berger and Daphne Patai, 11-26. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. (1990) New York: Routledge, 1990. Chapter 7: Rethinking Black Women’s Activism, pp. 139-161.

Freedman, Samuel G. (Aug, 29, 2014) Chronicling Mississippi’s ‘Church Mothers,’ and Getting to Know a Grandmother,” New York Times, August 29, 2014.

Gill, Lyndon. “Situating Black, Situating Queer: Black Queer Diaspora Studies and the Art of Embodied Listening,” Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 20, Issue 1, 2012, pp. 32-44.

Rebick, Judy. (2009) Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political. Toronto: Penguin Canada Chapter 4: Ubuntu. We are People Through Other People. Pp. 68-83.

Ross, Loretta J. (2008) Storytelling in SisterSong and the Voices of Feminism Project, in Telling Stories to change the world: global voices on the power of narrative to build community and make social justice claims. Eds. Solinger, Rickie; Fox, Madeleine; Irani, Kayhan . New York: Routledge. pp. 65-71.

Sangster, Joan. (1994) Telling our stories: feminist debates and the use of oral history. Women’s History Review. 3:1, 5-28.

 

Kanishka Sikri

kanishkasikri.com

writer—poet—post-de-colonial theorist—transnational feminist working to dismantle our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy

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