Is There a Storyteller in the House? Telling for Peace

by Caren Neile.

Twice in two months this past winter, I participated in peace rallies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The rallies were held in the “free speech area,” little more than a slab of concrete connecting two sides of the urban campus. Because I teach storytelling at the university and host a performance series of tellers, I was asked to contribute a story.

My university boasts more than 30,000 students, but it is mainly a commuter school, with many students who hold full-time jobs and travel up to an hour each way to attend classes. It takes a lot to lure them to campus on a Friday afternoon, when few classes are held. These preventive anti-war demonstrations garnered some press interest, but little more. Could it be that students were not sure where they stand? Or was the threat of war, as opposed to actual body bags, not enough to heat up opposition?

At the first rally, a friend and colleague set up a stage, with a cordless microphone and amp. There was also a table with drinks and snacks, because that, after all, is the biggest draw of any campus event. Arriving late from another gig, dragging my cookies and bottled waters to the refreshment table, I was dismayed at the smattering of attendance. At most 25 people lined the edges of the concrete.

But an actress and director I knew well was reciting a poem about peace as I pulled up, and I immediately felt a surge of warmth: This is where we artists and activists belonged.

It was a wonderful winter day in South Florida, which means splendid spring most other places of the country. Sea-blue sky, whisper of a breeze, 60 degrees in the shade. About nine speakers, including professors, students and alumni, had taken the platform one by one. I went on after the actress. I began by telling them how for me, as for others of my generation, this was a wonderful reminder of solidarity against the Vietnam War. I briefly related how my father had penned my junior high-school-aged sister a note when she missed school to attend a march on Washington in the early 1970’s. He had written, “Please excuse my daughter from school yesterday. She was sick of war.” I was so proud of him for that. We talked about that note in my family for years.

Then I told “Kofi’s Hat,” the West African story retold by Susan O’Halloran in Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert’s The Healing Heart: Storytelling to Encourage Caring and Healthy Families (New Society, 2003). It’s a story of two couples-two brothers and two sisters who were so close that they had never even disagreed, much less fought. Until, that is, the day they were hoodwinked by a man who wanted to create dissent between them in order to win a contest. The story concludes with the two couples no longer speaking to each other.

I love watching college students listen to stories. There’s a look on their faces that we see at no other time.

No happy endings here, which always seems to shock the audience a little. Then I passed through the tiny crowd with the microphone, Oprah-style, and asked them to rewrite the ending of the story. They were shy. Maybe three or four people spoke, haltingly, about the importance of communication to prevent and resolve conflict. But they did speak, these students, and they would not have otherwise.

The following month, at another, larger rally, I told “It’s Not Our Problem,” a story from Burma and Thailand found in Margaret Read MacDonald’s book Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk About (Linnet Books, 1992), also retold by Elisa Davy Pearmain in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World (Pilgrim Press, 1998), under the king’s refusal to allow his chief adviser to wipe up a fallen drop of honey, and all that results from his lack of concern as the mess escalates.

I say the rally was larger than the first, but it was anemic by the standards of the other gatherings held concurrently throughout the world. Forty people, maybe, listened to the speakers at any given time. The demonstration was held in the same place as the first, a sort of campus thoroughfare, so we did have a few onlookers and on-walkers. But the energy was meager.

“Please excuse my daughter from school yesterday. She was sick of war.”

Three speakers before me had cancelled due to Florida flu, so when I appeared, after having warned the organizer the evening before that I wasn’t feeling so well myself, she greeted me like a long-lost relative and immediately ushered me up to the stage. As many times as I’ve told it, this time, I didn’t do justice to the story. Unfortunately, my adviser and my boss were both in the crowd, hearing me tell for the first time. I wished I had a sign that read, “I can do better!” I was focused on myself, on my performance, instead of on the crowd. I knew it, and I knew this was “our problem,” but there it was. That was all I could offer that day.

The story is about escalation, about the dangers of letting small problems slide. When I decided to tell it, I wondered, “Doesn’t this seem like a story you’d tell at a pro-war rally?” But of course there is so much more to a folktale than meets the eye, so many more interpretations than the most obvious. So when I was finished speaking that day, I encouraged the gathered students and professors to participate with the words, “Tell us how this story supports what we’re doing here today.”

Once again, I carried the cordless mike through the crowd. But this time, I could not get to the speakers fast enough. A bird-like, 92-year-old woman talked about how we must prevent war before it gets out of control. (I hugged her.) One young man, a foreign student, equated the honey with elitism and power gone mad. Other brave foreign students talked about how the U.S. must be an example to the world. A small boy read the words he and his mother had printed on his sign: “No more war.”

So many people came forward to speak that I wondered what they would have done if they had not gotten a chance at the microphone. Gone home angry? Empty? Frustrated? They were not listed on the roster of speakers. Would they have dared to approach the organizer for a spot? I doubt it.

We had to stop at one point to let another scheduled speaker take the stage. Then I was asked to return and resume the dialogue for another 20 minutes.

When I went home to bed that day, sicker than I’d realized, I knew I couldn’t have ruined that story if I’d tried. It was much bigger than I was.

I have been invited to tell another story at the next peace rally, to be held later this month. The organizer e-mailed me that everyone who had participated in the previous demonstrations remarked on the important contribution that my storytelling had made.

I would love to be there, I told her, but I have another obligation that day. Ironically, I was defending my doctoral dissertation, which is about the power of storytelling. I have joked, over the past four years of study, that on that day, I would receive my pad to write prescriptions for the oral tradition. As the date approached, however, I saw that this was no joke. I have heard, lately, the call “Is there a storyteller in the house?” And I have been honored to respond to it.

This article first appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Caren S. Neile teaches storytelling at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. She is social action committee coordinator for the Healing Story Alliance.

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