Telling stories differently (PART 2)

As I began to write these stories into my thesis, I realised that the terms had changed yet again. You see, academic writing often creates a paternalistic structure that excludes the groups of people who are often the topic of discussion.

I did not want to write in a way that excluded them but they knew as well as I did that this thesis would need to be structured for a purpose and for an audience… they were interested in how their stories would be relayed back to the community, not written in a thesis, and not written for the academy. That was a burden I had to carry.

I wanted to do research, to share stories that could exist within the academy, with the hope that they may change the way in which the academy viewed different types of knowledges. These young men gifted me with their stories… but as I began to write their stories in, I felt myself writing their stories out, pulling them apart, and then choosing the pieces that fit best with theory to write back in… I fell into colonial spillage and I could feel myself silencing them and their stories…. so I had to stop writing.

I deleted 15,000 words from my thesis, opened up my research diary and wrote these words “to tell different stories, we must be willing to tell stories differently”.

I wanted to give their stories centre stage. The words of Lorde, hooks, Morrison and many other Black feminist writers rang in my ear and I thought to myself ‘our stories cannot remain at the margins, we must write ourselves in’.

As I began to write more freely, I decided that each young man would be given a chapter in the thesis dedicated solely to his story and I made the decision to not theorise their stories but instead to analyse the broader themes that emerged. I found myself doubting the credibility of what I what I was producing. Surely stories alone cannot have academic rigour, surely they mustn’t stand alone. I found myself re-reading Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  

Spivak discusses “subaltern” or marginalized people as unable to acquire agency or an identity that dominant groups recognize. Their voices cannot be heard since they lack the knowledge of Western thinking. To overcome this, those subaltern must become intimately familiar with the reasoning, language, and philosophies of Western intellectuals… or remain at the margins.

I fought the urge to theorise their experiences, and realised in my hesitation that it was not so much that the subaltern, lacked the ability to speak… but rather Western intellectuals’ lack the ability to hear different stories.

Frantz Fanon (1963), psychologist, scholar and activist states that “decolonization never takes place unnoticed” (p. 36). It makes a spectacle of colonial violence and Indigenous peoples’ resistance to it. In the same vein, the stories we hear command the attention of the academy; and in ways that begin from familiar sites of personal pain and dislocation, to historical and intellectual erasure, and institutional violence.  The stories of these young men could not remain at the margins. They could not be spoken about, only spoken to.

These stories don’t simply ask but demand that we conceptualize decolonization in terms that take on both material and discursive definitions. Honor Ford-Smith (1987) asserts that, “The storytelling tradition contains what is most poetically true about our struggles. The tales are one place where the most subversive elements of our history can be safely lodged…” (p. 3).

While dominant scholarship might push aside methods such as autoethnography or storytelling as not rigorous enough or as ‘identity politics’, the experiences of those who live out decolonization are integral to grounding the decolonial movement to the material realities of the people whose lives bear the scars of colonialism, scars that remain hidden and silenced within the academy.

There is a reason that many of the decolonial movements around the globe have been sustained by poets, musicians, and artists. This extends into the academy where we, as authors and where many of our readers, engage. These knowledges that we share through our stories, subvert and re-create what the Western academy puts forward as valid ways of knowing.

Smith, Burke & Ward (2000) state, “Indigenous societies before Contact were both dynamic and flexible, possessing a creative strand that both then and now repeatedly generates new variants of cultural practices and… transforms the cultural structure itself” (p. 9).

In this way, stories as Indigenous knowledge work to not only regenerate Indigenous traditions and knowledge production, but also work against the colonial epistemic frame to subvert and recreate possibilities and spaces for resistance.

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