More than one writer has called herself merely a storyteller. "I just tell stories," we say lifting the weight of "literature" from our books. Seen as a good "story," a narrative can do what it wants--have drawings, jump through time, be told in a peculiar voice. We enchant as storytellers, but also excuse ourselves from a kind of importance that seems to have rules. Breaking rules is a lot more fun--writing endless run-ons, making words up, using irreverent footnotes and parentheticals, inverting time--any number of flips, trips and quips a writer can do.
Since much of my writing up to this point has been memoir of some form (narrative, poetry, plays), and memoir of culture and family, it has ranged from homage to bittersweet performance. There are actual dissertations on my writing, and some of them I read, although most aren't in English. And even though I have written a dissertation, i think i don't really understand them or understand why they are so labored. Many of the writings about my work include words like "hybridity" and "excilic." Grave words to be used for someone telling a story.
Here's a part of my life you may not know about. I teach fitness: body sculpting and spinning, at the local YMCA (I'm in Oakland). Today I subbed a class that I knew would be hard to win over because their teacher is popular and playful, and i am also one of those things, but not the other. The class is usually aerobics, but I was teaching them body sculpting, technique heavy, repetitive aching stuff.
To keep them from bolting when I said, "I want you to grab your heavy weights," was to tell them stories. I started with a piece about one of the small towns i grew up in, Carmichaels Pennsylvania, and how every year the senior girls from the entire region competed to become Miss Bituminous Coal--the princess of Coal. The competition took place in the school auditorium and was pack to the rafters. Girls followed each other out in dance leotards, carrying accordions, balls to juggle. After having won a talent portion and who knows what else, this charming baton-twirling or piano planing miss was placed atop a float, usually covered with pink carnations and driven through the town during the King Coal Parade. She followed the antique cars, several marching bands, ragtag groups of various veterans, a hunting float where a dog barked at a fox in a cage while armed flanneled men stood by, and various groups who for no real reason walked with flags. I think her dutiies ended there.
The purpose of telling this story in my body sculpting class was to instruct the participants to draw the weight from their hip to the opposite shoulder (deltoid row) as if they were tracing their own pageant banner.
From then on the stream would not stop. I continuted with the practice of the All Saints Schools nuns who had us hold up our arms to hang like Jesus on the cross when we were bad. Thirty minutes of hanging, we got off easy, Jesus had to do it for three hours (lateral lifts).
And Ma Hartley, the rotund Geometry teacher who drew isoceles triangles on the board and we never saw what she drew because her flabby arm fluttered like a flag (triceps).
Not surprisingly the class was barely amused, although no one came up and handed me a card to their favorite therapist (although one recommended a hairdresser?)
Besides stunningly strong shoulders i got other things from that five part recitation of my own adventures, that in fact, my story wasn't the poor arab girl struggling with her identity in an all white town that wanted to make her feel like dirt. My story wasn't really sad, or a historic document on race in America, it was funny and my family participated in the absurdity of it all.
Example, one i have been telling lately: Okay, you get that we were not popular in town-- the feelings about us ranged from hate to ridicule, with occassional goodwill thrown in. We had a store in town and lived two blocks down Main Street (Masontown). Please note, Main Street, "Main"--so we lived on a popular route to and from town and school and the coal mines down the hill. We would go through our day, church, school, working in the store, dinner-- in a kind of emotional cocoon that protected us from the forces around us. On summer nights, much like this one, we congregated on the front porch, usually all 9 of us (although my sitti didn't sing) and we sang, acapella, out loud, from my mother's book named "Two Hundred Popular Songs." Please don't imagine the Von Trapp Family, we really can't sing, except for my brother Jean, and we'd do all the verses of "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," and "Comin' Thru the Rye." It was a joyful time, together, some of us on the squeaky glider, others on chairs brought in from the inside; my brothers hanging off the railing of the porch.
Not for one minute did we step back and wonder how our neighbors and the folks going up and down Main Street regarded this activity. Already we were foreign, odd, and often overdressed. Now we took it upon ourselves to serenade everyone on the west side of town. "Misty," "Just in Time," selections from "South Pacific." Our fellow citizens were tucked in the livingrooms of the larger, nicer houses, hynotized by the blue light of Peyton Place and the Twilight Zone. We just didn't care; we wanted to sing and so we did.
When i recall this custom of my family, the picture of the past shifts from the grey mist of pain and prejudice to a glowy kind of orange that makes me think I missed large parts of what actually went on. Understand I am not dismissing the key moments of having my name changed or being harrassed at borders, even before it was common to be harrassed at borders. The stories do not end there. I want more
So now I am mining my life for those moments, the sweet, absurd, funny moments--that don't include hybridity or exile, that probably will never be the focal point of a dissertation or the basis for an invitation to be on a panel called "Crossing Borders." But i have to let it have a place in my history, in my memory and in my insides.
Maybe it's a function of age--to sweeten the memories, to look kindly on the past, but I think it's about time. To kick back, think about my irony, to even look for silliness and to sing an old song, out on the porch.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports