Stories Change The World

Joe Giallo - Ecuador


February 23, 2011

“Power is the ability not just to tell a story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” –Chimamanda Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

I left my former host family, the Montenegros, for two reasons. The first of those two reasons was due to a lack of interaction between us. On any given day, at any given dinner, I would say nothing, and no one would say anything to me. In the last days of my time with that family, when I was actively trying to provoke conversation, I would often jump in where I could, and say something, and the conversation would almost invariably end soon after. This, compounded over the course of three and half months, made for a very distant relationship between us. It was never mean-spirited on either part, simply formal and detached. The second reason was due to the disappearance of a sum of money, every month, from my wallet, which I left in the house. All I can say on that matter is that I’m sure for a fact I did not spend the money. As a result of these two incidences, I asked to change households, and after a brief stay in my boss’s household, I did so.

There you have it. That’s how it was. But for the purposes of this post, the content of that story isn’t as important as the way I told it. That story is about as strictly factual as it’s possible to be. There’s no opinion. But there very well could have been. In fact, that was my first impulse. To load on as much opinion as possible, and show you that I was in the right, and prove to you that my previous host parents were in the wrong.

So, why didn’t I write the story with my bias? Well, to be honest, I did. My first draft of this blog post was exclusively about leaving that host family, and was designed, almost subconsciously, to persuade the reader that my point of view on the matter was correct, while providing the illusion that I wasn’t still in my mind blaming my host parents for what went down. That draft was shot down in revision for many reasons, but one of which was because no one would ever hear my host parent’s side of the story. So, while I was struggling to find a way to get over the fact that I didn’t want to acknowledge there was a way my version of events could be wrong, I began to read The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie, and stumbled across the quote you see at the top, and I got that feeling I usually get when I’m about to have a life-altering realization.

It occurred to me that in the telling of this story, I’m going to create a definitive story of my host parents. This story, the last one any of you will hear about, in all likelihood, about the Montenegros, will be the story that comes to mind when you think of them. And it’ll be all you have. In that way, I’m defining the Montenegros to the world at large, by means of the internet, with a single story. And if I colored them how I was going to when I wrote that first draft, I’d be condemning them without them ever having a chance or method for response. When that hit me, it hit me like a sledgehammer, and I started rewriting the story almost immediately. The wise words of Spiderman returned to me:  “With great power comes great responsibility.” The result is the story you see above, which I sincerely hope does justice to both the Montenegros and myself, but also two lessons which I’d like to share.

The first thing that I extrapolated from the experience and Adichie’s work is what I’d like to call the Storyteller’s Responsibility, a corollary on power, as Adichie defines it. While a mix of stories is preferable, so as to avoid having anyone particular definitive story, sometimes, as in the case of foreign exchange, a singular story is all a particular writer can give and all a particular audience can get. Case in point, Global Citizen volunteers. When placed in that kind of position, it’s the responsibility and duty of the writer to bring as impartial and holistic a story to his audience as possible, so as to do justice to all the involved parties, especially those who may not have the same privileges of information dissemination or as large an audience. It’s not because opinion is bad, but because in the absence of contrary opinions, opinion can quite easily be taken as fact, and the storyteller, at least insofar as non-fiction is concerned, has a responsibility to the truth.

The second lesson I’d put forward is a consequence of the first point, what I’d call a Storyteller’s Reward. In the very process of stepping back and rewriting the story, in setting aside my opinions and biases, I found the truth in the situation, something I might not have found otherwise. In being forced to recognize the other side, and then set both pieces apart, I found a truth lacking blame, or even personal hurt feelings. A truth without victims, just people. A truth about a clash of cultures, inside of which I cannot only forgive my family for what happened, but also myself. A truth I can walk away from without regrets. I feel that the storyteller, in pursuing justice, finds truth, and in truth, peace. And let me tell you, it’s a lot nicer than seeking sympathy to get vindication to feel satisfaction.

I’d like to end on a note tying both of these points back to Global Citizenship. Global Citizens are essentially the links between their home countries and the rest of the world, acting as agents of change through the exchange of information, ideas, and experiences across country lines. But, standing in the way of that exchange are complicated and nasty cultural conflicts, like the one I described above, where not only is there no right answer, but the opinions present make it impossible to see clearly. Filmmaker Gavin White said at the beginning of my Global Citizen Year that “Ultimately, we tell stories because we believe in change.” I’d like to add on to that. I’d say that the only way we can really achieve the kind of positive change the world needs is by telling stories the right way. Because in reality, there are so few stories in America about places like Ecuador, and it’s relatively easy to create a concept of a place when there are no competing ideas. It’s the Global Citizen’s responsibility in this kind of environment to tell the difficult culture-clash stories in such a way as to promote and encourage an unbiased viewpoint in their audience. In doing so, we can begin to tear down negative biases and stereotypes by utilizing the power we have to create definitive stories that don’t fan the fires of misunderstanding and distrust.

As Global Citizens, the work we do in country will probably not change the world. The stories we tell to the world will.

Joe Giallo