My blog, Storytelling for Social Change, is marking six years since its conception. I planned and gave the first storytelling for social change workshop nine years ago, but my path as a storyteller for social change began many years before that.
So, in honor of the sixth or ninth or fifty-sixth birthday, I sat down to write about some of the stops along my journey, which traces the connections between stories and action for social change. It’s made up of family and work, studies, research and contemplation, activism and action. It’s a voyage being written as one moves forward, with many stops still waiting to be discovered.
First stop: “Until lions have their historians”
I was twenty-six, very much pregnant and severely unemployed. A human resources agency sent me to a temp job as an administrative assistant and language editor for Shatil – The New Israel Fund Initiative for Social Change. Hanging on a wall in the office, which then resided in an apartment on Ramban Street in Jerusalem, was a poster that read:
That poster was one of the reasons I stayed on and became a full-fledged staff member for eighteen years. The proverb summarizes in simple words the importance of stories in shaping public perception, and the influence chroniclers of history have on political power dynamics.
When my personal life capsized, tossing me into a pit to wrestle my demons, I learned the significance of stories in the process of healing and empowering oneself. My pain taught that I am not defined by the searing memories, but by the stories I create from them.
Second stop: Fairy tales
I started my Bachelor studies in the mid-eighties. Dropping out of school became a story of failure. I felt like a woman lost in a crowded train station in which everyone is coming and going at a frantic pace like they know exactly where they’re going, and only I was stranded in place. It wasn’t before 2003 that I returned to the Hebrew University to complete my bachelor’s degree in English literature and Interdisciplinary Studies.
I went back to school with the decision to tell a new story, one of completion and coming full circle. One of the first courses I took was in feminist theories on folklore and fairy tales. I immersed myself in ancient tales handed down by oral tradition to alert from danger, prepare for rites of passage and preserve great moments of bravery and wisdom. Many of these stories, whose documentation is often attributed to the brothers Grimm, were told about and by women as part of a tradition of initiation. During my research I found this one from Marina Warner’s book :
“While a poor man’s wife in the village thrives, the Sultana in the palace grows thinner and scrappier by the minute. The Sultan summons the poor man and demands to know the secret of his wife’s happiness. ‘Very simple,’ he replies. ‘I feed her meat of the tongue.’ The Sultan sends out for all the tongues money can buy – ox tongues and lambs’ tongues and larks’ tongues; still his sad Sultana withers away. He orders his litter, makes her change places with the poor man’s wife; she immediately starts to thrive, becoming the picture of health, plumper, rosier, gayer. Meanwhile, in the palace, her replacement languishes, and soon has become as scrawny and miserable as the former queen. For the tongue meats that the poor man feeds the women are not material, of course. They are fairy tales, stories, jokes, songs; he nourishes them on talk, he wraps them in language; he banishes melancholy by refusing silence”.
This story, much like the proverb about the lions and their historians, became formative in my life. To this day, whenever I tell it, I feel it is also about me and my struggle to “refuse silence” . I have a fervent need to believe that healing and change begin when the silence is broken. When we take command of the right to tell our own story, to instill it and then release it so it may subvert the stories told about us without us.
Third stop: The lions’ smile
In 2009, I travelled in my capacity as a consultant to an “Art of Leadership” seminar of the Rockwood Institute for Leadership and Social Change in California. On the first evening, after several introduction rounds, we were asked to stand in a circle and to say, in one sentence, without prior preparation, our statement of purpose. And so, in faraway California, standing in a circle with people I had just met, I heard myself say: “My purpose to tell that which is left untold, to help unheard voices be present and heard.” Those historians-deprived lions, who entered my life some twenty years earlier, must have smiled to themselves a little smile.
In California, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I too, felt mostly out of place. Too big or too small, a stranger to the language and rules of engagement. Different, even to myself. And perhaps it was being so way out of my comfort zone that allowed me to learn so much. When I returned to Israel, I printed out a new business card which said: Storyteller, adviser and group moderator for social change.
Fourth stop: Your voice can change the story
In the lead-up to the elections for the nineteenth Knesset, in 2012, I started Facebook blog called Your Voice, Your Story. The aim was to use social media to call out people to take responsibility and exact their power to influence the course and result of the elections. This time, the inspiration came from Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots: Why People Tell Stories”. Booker’s claim is that any story ever told and any story to be told – from folk tales, through literature and poetry, action films and romantic comedies, classical plays to bedtime stories – is shaped by one (or more) of seven basic plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth.
Each day, I shared one story under the title of one of the seven basic plots. This was a way to create for the readers a connection between their personal stories and the inherent themes of these plots and to the political realities of our lives. The goal was to give a name to their struggles for social change, to expose the deep narratives acting to weaken or dismantle these struggles.
And so Shakespeare’s “Othello” became an example for how the prime minister of Israel operates, and the infamous folk tale “Blue Beard” was a starting point for a discussion on sexual violence and silencing practices. These stories evolved into tools for interpreting and acting within the political realm.
Fifth stop: “Can the Subalterns Speak”
My Master’s’ studies, though they lasted eight whole guilt-ridden years – towards my job, my family, and school itself – were one of the spaces that allowed to explore, discover and merge different types of knowledge.
In those years, I was the Executive Director of the Dafna Fund, the first and only feminist fund in Israel. It is doubtless that the spirit of Prof. Dafna Izraeli, its founder, was with me. Dafna was an activist, a lecturer, a mentor and feminist thinker, one who always believed in the importance of combining the practical with the theoretical. That which is born in the field and that which coalesces in the library. To me, that union was natural and necessary. Twenty-five years of boots-on-the-ground experience in social change gave depth and meaning to critical theories I was exposed to. On the other hand, the theories provided name and context to the power dynamics in our society, and the injustices that stem from them.
But along with the mutual insemination, I was constantly minding the gap between the potential for liberation found in feminist and post-colonial thought, and their accessibility to those out in the field day by day. Stories for Social Change were decanted from me into that gaping space. They were an attempt to build a bridge between the complicated texts of critical theories and the injustices transpiring around us day and night. Thus came about posts such as Were I human and Redirecting the Gaze
Sixth stop: “Nation of poetry” and the commitment to decipher
In recent years, I am researching the political agency of poetry. There are those who would ponder and say, “But poetry has been used a tool for political propaganda and protest for years,” and this is of course true. But my research didn’t deal with “political poetry,” but the possible contribution poetry could have for creating a nuanced, complex, ambivalent and diverse discourse in the toxic political climate of our times, which flattens every discussion into a rhetorical battle and zero-sum game.
Poetry is a form of highly self-aware literary expression, one that urges us to take greater note of the way language operates. It tugs at the hem of our garment and demands we pay attention to words and the meanings they create, each separately and as they stand together. Interestingly, the common language in our political discourse often acts in the exact opposite way, wearing words out so they are paper thin, until they and what they represent lose almost all meaning.
The most important role of poetry is to grant words their profound purpose, to invite us to stop and linger, be mindful, to feel empathy and compassion. To look inward, at the way life in an impossible political reality has eroded us as well, our ability to feel the world around us, and mostly, the belief in the power to act and make a change.
I was born into poetry, to a poet father, Haim Gouri z”l, whose name often comes up along with the expression “national poet,” an expression which symbolizes his stature within the canon of Hebrew poetry, a spokesman for a generation, of an era. But what I saw, beyond the definitions and the titles, was a man who couldn’t help but write. Writing came from a necessity. It was a mission. I was born and raised into “the personal is the political,” as well as the edict to preserve all of my identities, even when they are in internal contradiction and perhaps at war with each other.
Naturally, my wars were different than his and the course of my life included a willful exile into the fringes, into feminist action for social change and the minor analysis of politics through stories for social change. But the deep root at which our political differences always merged was the agreement to strive for the founding of a society committed to include all of the identities that comprise it.
Poetry was always there and it always mattered. I am profoundly thankful to my father and all the poets whose work has stirred and moved me. That made me stop, linger and marvel at words, and the many meanings they hold within.