In November, we were invited to give a talk about our work in storytelling and social justice for the EmpathEAST forum, run by Ideas Factory. Here’s what we talked about.

We’re delighted to be here at EmpathEAST 2019, and excited to be working together over the next few days.

It’s also great to be in the city of Plovdiv and to be getting a sense of the history, the cultural richness and the energy of 2019’s European Capital of Culture.

We are Dr. Hannah Stevens and Dr. Will Buckingham. We’re both writers from the UK, and we are working together on a project called Wind And Bones. We’re interested in the meeting places between writing, social justice and creativity.

Today we’re going to talk about stories. The stories we tell about ourselves and about each other. The stories we tell about the world. And the stories we tell about the future. We’re also going to tell the story of our own work with Wind and Bones, why we set up the project, and why we are so very excited to be here with all of you, trying to imagine new and better futures.

A Universe of Stories

Amitayus Mandala (diagram of the universe), C19th Tibetan. Wikimedia Commons.
Say it.   Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

A universe made of stories, not of atoms? The line comes from Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 poem, ‘The Speed of Darkness’. Ever since we read the poem, we have been enchanted by this idea.

What universe is Rukeyser talking about? Not the universe of things, the universe that physicists try to describe. But a universe that is equally deep, just as complex and as subtle: the universe of experience. It is the universe of our loves and hates, our passions and dreams, our fears and anxieties. This universe is the universe that is made of stories.

We cannot imagine ourselves, imagine each other, or imagine our society without telling and retelling stories. Stories are what our experience is made of. Not just as individuals, but also as collectives.

Together we weave stories about class and gender, culture and sexuality, nations and religions, goodness and badness, what matters and what doesn’t matter. These stories shape our lives, they shape our societies, and they shape our future on this planet that we share.

So it matters what stories we tell.

Say it. Say it. The universe is made of stories.

How Stories Work

‘A Stroll’ by Fujishima Tajeki. Courtesty of Wikimedia Commons.

This is why we need to pay more attention to the stories we tell. It is why we need to develop a deeper understanding of how stories work, and how they shape our lives. It is why we need to be bolder, more courageous, in finding new stories.

Stories are powerful. They can be a force for postive change. But they can also be divisive and destructive. Stories that are told to denigrate and exclude others. To take one example: in much of Europe, storytellers in the media and in power tell tales about the harms of immigration, about how our cultures are at risk from people who come from far off, looking for new lives, or security, or freedom from conflict. Or, to take another example, stories about the nature of men and the nature of women that lock both men and women into a culture that diminishes us all, exluding women from positions of power, limiting the possibilities of human life. And although stories such as these are poorly supported by the evidence, they have the potential to shape and reshape our cultures.

So it matters what stories that we tell. And it matters that we break the hold destructive myths have upon our collective imagination. We need to tell new stories. The responsibility is on us. As Rukeyser asks, at the end of The Speed of Darkness, ‘Who will speak these days / if not I / if not you?’

Will: Rethinking Ethics through Stories

Will and Tiresias the Kitten, taking a break from editing. Image Credit: Hannah Stevens

So we’re going to tell the story of our own work, our small contribution to this big task of imagining and reimagining our world through fashioning new stories.

Will’s background is in philosophy and anthropology. Over a decade ago, he wrote a PhD thesis on the relationship between stories and ethics. At the time, he was running lots of grassroots and community-based writing and philosophy projects. He was interested in bringing philosophy back down to earth, in everyday ethics and everyday stories, and how stories allow us to navigate through the world, even if we cannot agree on questions about right and wrong. He worked in hospitals and schools, in museums and community centres, exploring how stories can change individual lives and worlds.

There’s an idea from the mythological traditions of India that stories are like the sea. Meanwhile, the philosopher Aristotle talks about ethics as being like navigation. Will wanted to bring these two thoughts together, to explore how we can navigate the sea of stories better.

After his PhD, Will taught writing for several years in a university. He wrote books: novels, philosophy books (including Finding Our Sea-Legs, now reissued by Wind&Bones), children’s books about sea voyages. But he was never fully at home in the university. He always believed in a broader social vision for both philosophy and writing. And so, in early 2016, he quit, so that he could better realise this vision.

Hannah: Writing and Activism at the Grassroots

Hannah at Rainbow Hub in Sofia. Image credit: Will Buckingham

Hannah’s background is in creative writing. She has always believed in the importance of writing as a way of bringing to light forgotten, overlooked, hidden, ignored and suppressed voices. As a writer, she works in short stories and nonfiction. Alongside her love of stories and storytelling, for most of her working life, Hannah has been engaged in social justice issues. She worked for a charity that helped community groups find funding for social projects, and this showed her power of community-based, grassroots organisations. She was also actively engaged in working with LGBTQI communities, and in the field of sexual health.

This hunger for hidden and marginalised stories led to a PhD in creative writing. For her PhD research, Hannah worked on a project exploring missing people. She researched real life stories of people in the UK and Ireland who had gone missing. She worked with the police and charities to understand better the complex reasons that people go missing. And then she wrote a collection of short stories that testify to these interrupted lives. After completing her PhD, she wanted to draw together my interests in writing, and in finding ways to make space for stories that are excluded or forgotten.

Wind&Bones: Energy, Rigour and Storytelling

Wind&Bones class in Indonesia

This is how, back at the begining of 2018, we both put our heads together, to see if we could combine our skills and make something new. And so we took a risk and founded Wind&Bones. With Hannah’s long experience of grassroots groups, her activism and advocacy, and with Will’s experience of education, we saw exciting possibilities for telling new stories about writing, creativity and social justice.

We took our name from the sixth century Chinese writer Liu Xie. In his book on the art of writing, Liu says, ‘Cultivate the vigour of the wind, and make the bone robust.’ In other words, make sure there is vitality, the pulse of energy, the winds of change; but pay attention to structure, to mechanics, to how things work. Be idealistic but practical. It is good advice for writing. For activism. For social change. And for life.

Wind&Bones was an experiment. We started by running workshops in the UK with refugee writers, helping them to tell their stories. We came to Bulgaria, on a short residency at the Literature and Translation House in Sofia. And then we were offered two more opportunities: to run a workshop on ethics at the Ubud Writers’ festival in Indonesia, and an eight month residency at a graduate institute in Yangon, Myanmar.

So we took the plunge. Hannah left her job. We packed up our homes. We found foster homes for Will’s cat Bod, and Hannah’s house-rabbit Agatha. We flew to Indonesia. We ran our workshop. We connected with fellow writers and activists. Then we went ont to Yangon where we ran writing courses working with a huge range of people: from journalists to writers, and from activists to former political prisoners. Military rule in Myanmar ended only in 2011, and the country was changing fast. It was still a troubled place. Everybody knows about the oppression of the Rohingya. But not so many people outside Myanmar know about the huge problems with ethnic conflicts throughout the country, and the issues of social justice and inequality. Myanmar was a world that in transition, one where large changes were taking place. In Myanmar we realised how powerfully it was being shaped by stories and storytelling. Over eight months, we taught classes, we worked with social activist organistions, we trained teachers, and we developed educational resources with local grassroots groups.

In all of our work in Myanmar, we worked alongside local organisations to help find ways of opening up spaces for more diverse storytelling, to help those wanted to tell their stories more vividly.

Migrations, Journeys and Strangers

Wind&Bones refugee writing workshop from 2018. Image credit: Will Buckingham

In June, our residency in Yangon came to an end, and we relocated to Greece. We wanted to continue to develop our work with refugee and migrant communities. And we had our own writing projects to pursue. Hannah was finishing her first book-length story collection, and Will wanted to research his forthcoming book, Hello, Stranger: How to Welcome the World, which is coming out from Granta in July 2021. In particular, he was fascinated by stories about how, back in 2015 and 2016, ordinary Greek people opened their homes to migrants and refugees from Syria. We live today in a world where we are increasingly surrounded by strangers; and so the question of how we counter xenophobia, the fear of strangers, and cultivate its opposite, philoxenia, has taken on a renewed urgency.

We continued to run workshops. We worked in Volvi refugee camp, on a project supported by Refugee Trauma Initiative. We worked with young migrants, many of them from Afghanistan, exploring the stories that matter most to them, the stories the media does not tell. But we also made connections regionally, in particular with friends and colleagues in Bulgaria, and with the wonderful Ideas Factory. Now we’re based in Sofia for the coming year, teaching classes, and further developing our work in storytelling for social change.

‘Everyone Has a Story to tell…’ Bulgaria and Beyond

In Plovdiv
Street art in Plovdiv. Image Credit: Will Buckingham.

We have learned that everybody has a story to tell, and that if you make space for them to do so, if you have the patience to listen to people’s stories, then they come alive.

We are in the middle of this story, not at the end. But what have we learned so far?

The first thing, the most important thing, we have learned is this: stories matter. They matter more than we think, more than we believe, perhaps more than we can imagine. We’ve heard so many stories over the past few years. And we have helped many storytellers tell their stories better. It is a privilege to witness somebody else’s story. It is an insight into a different way of being human. These stories have enlarged our world, have given us a sense of new possibilities.

We have learned that everybody has a story to tell, and that if you make space for them to do so, if you have the patience to listen to people’st stories, then they come alive. Discovering and owning your stories, telling and retelling them, finding ways of communicating better — these things all lead to deeper connections. They enrich our collective lives. And they open up paths to new creative action.

What else have we learned? We have learned that when you open yourself up to new stories, your own story changes. The Italian writer Roberto Calasso says ‘stories do not live alone.’ But neither do we. Through telling stories, we shape and reshape ourselves and our relationships, and find ourselves on unexpected trajectories.

So that is the story so far. At the end of this, we believe more strongly than ever that the world is made of stories. And that if we care about the future, as we all do, we need to tell better stories, and we need to tell them better.

Text by Will Buckingham & Hannah Stevens

Images: Will Buckingham, Hannah Stevens, and Wikimedia Commons.

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