The big power of small stories

  • BatyaBricker
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi famously speaks of the “danger of a single story”, in the TED talk by the same name.
by BATYA BRICKER | Nov 29, 2018

The problem, she explains, is that hearing only one kind of narrative restricts us to only one version of possibility. In her case, growing up, she believed that girls in books (which were largely of the Western British and American variety) played in the snow, ate apples, and talked a lot about the weather.

Never mind that she lived in Nigeria, had never left Nigeria. She ate mangoes, not apples, and she never spoke about the weather. Although she acknowledges the magic of worlds opened up for her by these stories, she acknowledges, too, their stifling bonds.

She never imagined that girls like her could exist in books, “girls with chocolate skin and kinky hair that didn’t fit into pony tails”.

It’s not only that hearing certain stories limits our world view, though it is true that we seldom get the “full story” because the same account can change fundamentally depending on the storyteller, the audience, the agenda, or the context. However, when particular stories don’t get told, either because they don’t suit the storyteller or the global narrative, we miss powerful opportunities for connection and identification.

Judith Rosenbaum, the Executive Director of the non-profit Jewish Women’s Archive, concurs. ”Public stories are incomplete, and often leave out the stories of women,” she says. “Whenever we restrict someone to a particular role” – and this is important – “even if it is a celebrated one”, we limit them and us. She uses the example of Serach bat Asher to illustrate.

Serach bat Asher was the daughter of Asher, the son of Jacob, and is unusual in that she is mentioned outside the usual context of the biblical female role of homemaker. Even more unusual is that she is mentioned twice, albeit in passing, in the Tanach. She is mentioned first in Bereishit 46:17 – among the generations who go down from Canaan to Egypt. Then later, she is mentioned in Bamidbar 26:46 – among those who left Egypt and entered the Promised Land hundreds of years later.

The repetition of the name so many generations later catches the rabbis’ attention. How could the same person live so long? Why does some “minor” character get two mentions?

The midrashim explain: through all the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people, it is she who whispers to Jacob that Joseph still lives. It is she who identifies Moshe as the redeemer of the Hebrews. It is she who remembers where Joseph’s bones were hidden, so they can be taken with the Hebrews and buried in Israel. It is only through her that the sweep of Jewish narrative, Jewish history, and legacy is kept alive during the many years of Egyptian enslavement… She is the carrier of communal memory.

Of course, there are big dramatic stories here – 10 plagues, splitting sea – but if Serach were not there, the course of Jewish history could not move forward.

Sometimes, the big story may not be the one that endures, that speaks to generations later, that resonates or provides much-needed perspective on realities yet to be imagined.

Take the story of Chanukah – a story of brave Maccabees in the fight for religious freedom. Big story. One jar of oil that should have provided a day’s worth of light but miraculously lasted for eight days. Big story.

But perhaps the more powerful tale is about the unnamed person, who amid the civil war, religious persecution, homelessness, and bloodshed, had the foresight and faith to hide a small vial of oil, believing that one day it would be needed again…

Perhaps that message of how a small gesture can be heroic might resonate more with a contemporary Jew in a way that the bow and arrow of the Maccabee may not.

We need to be vigilant that the small stories don’t get lost in the noise that is the 21st century. What stories are in danger of being lost today that we should ensure are told? What futures could those small stories make possible?

We need to seek alternative stories, welcome them, even if it may put into question our own. There are multiple perspectives that all contain truths. There are 70 faces to the Torah. The Talmud itself records both majority and minority opinions.

We shouldn’t overlook anything that may enrich our understanding, broaden our perspective, or create new meaning. We need to do our best to include a wide range of perspectives in our storytelling.

In a messy, complicated, complex world, we use stories to impose order on the chaos. It is our way of remembering, connecting, finding meaning in the things that happen to us and around us.

But if the narrative is too simple, too conveniently “good versus evil”, it is unlikely to allow layers of stories beneath the surface of the big headline.

And reading between the lines sometimes reveals the most powerful story of all.

  • Batya Bricker has a degree in architecture, and 20 years’ experience in the book industry as a programme director for various book fairs and a freelance publisher. She is also an adult educator in Jewish education.


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