True Stories

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Today we asked our daughter to tell us a story.  Here it is:

Amma and Daddy and Baby and Amma!  We’re a family!  We peed.  And then we got up. And then we went downstairs and had some food.  And then we had some dinner.  And then we had some lunch.  And then we went in the room to sleep.  And then Daddy shaved off his scratchy chin.  And then I took out my eyes.  And then I took out Daddy’s eyes.  And then we went to bed and then we got up.

Our daughter is two years old, too young to have given much thought to the question of fact vs. fiction, but it’s clear that she intended her story to be an account of our day.  Like any account of an event, hers reveals — both by inclusion and omission — her priorities and her perspective.  It includes her own interpretation of observed events — her hypothesis that contact lenses are removable eyes — and the type of blurring of who exactly did what (in fact, I’m the only one in this family who wears contact lenses) that will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to reconstruct a family memory with his or her siblings.  No two people live in the same world; no two siblings are ever raised by exactly the same parents.

If writers had a professional oath, it would be John Berger’s famous line: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”  It’s the epigraph to at least two novels — In the Skin of a Lion and The God of Small Things — that deal consciously with the idea of multiple perspectives, of quiet or silenced voices.  Everyone has their stories; every story deserves to be told, not just the official narratives of the powerful.  This seems so basic, so self-evident to any writer or reader of good fiction, that I feel almost silly writing it out.  It’s precisely because writers work with words that they know exactly how blunt a tool words are, how inexactly they capture experience, how something is always lost in the telling.  It’s that struggle to preserve and to convey human experience that drives us, but we know that the more meaningful or transformative an experience is, the more slippery it also is.

Good fiction resists black-and-white questions, let alone black-and-white answers.  But though I’m convinced that the world would be a better place — that there would be fewer wars, a more equitable distribution of wealth, less class warfare — if everybody read good fiction, I’m not in charge of what the rest of the world does in its spare time, and neither, apparently, is anybody who agrees with me.  And so it has come to pass that all of us are surrounded every day by people who believe in absolute truth.

I admit I’m fascinated by those who believe in absolute truth.  This is why I read the blogs of  “Bible-believing” Christians and “Torah-observant” Israeli settlers.  Fairytales and children’s stories revolve around dichotomies — hero/villain, perpetrator/victim, truth-teller/liar — because dichotomies are comforting.  And yes, the thought of being able to impute any tragedy or inconvenience to a single cause has its appeal, particularly on days when our civilisation and our planet seem to be in so much danger that I want to pull the bedclothes over my head and hide from the news.  I wonder what my life would be like if I were one of the simplifiers, but the reality is that I can’t even pretend to be one of them for the sake of convenience: when my mother relays to me the latest episode of a long-running quarrel in the extended family, I refuse to yield to the implicit pressure to choose a side.  “Don’t know who is telling the truth,” she likes to say, to which I reply: all of them and none of them.  In a parenting article recently, I read about how young children will tell you what they wish had happened instead of what “really” happened, without a clear sense that they are lying; in other words, when they’ve been wishing for a thing hard enough, it becomes real inside their heads.  I read that and thought: young children?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who lives in Israel sent me a link to a blog post she’d written about the ways in which a fundamentalist belief in “facts” — to the exclusion of subjective experience — are tearing our world apart.  The post is well worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll quote here the one and a half paragraphs that are particularly relevant to what I’m trying to say:

This land is full of such rich narratives, each of them carrying truth; what makes the news, by the time it’s boiled down to the jargon of good guys and bad guys, is not even the 10% of the visible iceberg.  As a writer, and a human being, I collect these narratives.  I absorb them.  I try to find a way to carry them all within me.  Even when some narratives don’t seem to include much objective truth, I listen with my heart to the person whose story has led them to their understanding.  There is always truth, there, and often it is more powerful than facts.

Because this is the way I experience the world, I am often accused by friends who are personally connected to this land of not seeing The Real Truth, and willfully not letting that Truth in.  They come at me armed with information—so much information!—about what really happened in 1948 and long before, or 1967, or about Hamas, or about the ethics of the Israeli Army, or etc.

What do you do with people who “come at you” with a Truth that is different from yours?  Most of us know what it is to love someone who holds views that disappoint, or even shock, us.  At worst you bury the thing on which you will never agree, try not to think about it.  At best — if you are as self-aware and as brave as my friend of the above blog — you confront the differences, wade through them to something like empathy.

A few days after I read my friend’s thoughts on Truth, one of the Israeli settlers whose blogs I follow wrote, on the subject of the Jewish “right of return”: “To me it’s a very simple issue.  We, Jews, have the primary rights and must use them.”

To me it’s a very simple issue. That line is my red flag, wherever I read it or hear it, whether it precedes a speech on religion, nationalism, armed conflict, family quarrels, literary criticism, or raising a child.  Nothing is simple.  In my world there are no heroes and villains, no wrong sides and right sides, no liberators and terrorists.

I don’t love the woman who wrote that line; I don’t even know her.  But I made myself read a few other posts on her blog that day, to remind myself that she is more than that one line.  I read some of her one-dish recipes, I read about how much she enjoys using the pool in her neighbourhood, I read about her grandchildren.  It’s true that if I asked her to tell me the story of her people or her nation, it would reveal — by inclusion, by omission — priorities and prejudices we don’t share.  But that’s not the only story she could tell.  Just as no experience or event can be captured in a single story, no human being can, either.  Here, in the end, is the funny paradox: it’s refusing to believe in heroes and villains that makes it possible for me to love some people who do.

**editor’s note: for another fascinating bit about the single story, check out Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”**

[photo credits: The Happy Family… “food4horse”! by Maurizio Abbate on flickr; Magic by Fey Ilyas on flickr; Flying Pigs — Michael Sowa by Glennis Tracey on flickr; Negev Desert by Doug Anderson on flickr; Map of Ancient Palestine/Israel by Gabriel on flickr]

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