Making Stories Heard

Check out this deeply convincing guest post from Dr. Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D. Full bio follows the post.

I believe in the power of stories.

And I don’t mean 40-watt-light bulb-power or meanest-girl-in-high-school-power or even Mayor-of-new-york-power.  I mean earth shattering, life changing, transformative power.  The kind of power that makes you feel like you can do anything.  Stories have the power to change the world.

I wrote about how stories I read about third world feminist structures changed my world in Click!  The Moment We Knew We Were Feminists, edited by Feministing’s own Courtney Martin.  And I’m not the only one who were politicized/empowered/relieved by the page – Chimamanda Adichie, Sherman Alexie, and my feminist-writer-hero-friend Neesha Meminger have all written about the politics and power of narratives, and the importance of counterstories.  As a career educator and a lifetime bookworm, I am always on the look out for stories to share with current and former students, friends, and youth workers that deal with tough issues like poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia in perceptive, nuanced, and empowering ways. You’d be surprised how many are out there – picture books, young adult novels, hip hop novels, mysteries, even Literature with a capital L.  We still have a lot to fight for, and the publishing/film/art/insert-creative-storytelling-method-here industries are still driven by what will sell (read: appeal to middle class straight white men) and are the aforementioned Literature with a capital L (read: about or written by middle class straight white men).  But self publishing is growing, as is youtube and vimeo, and models like Kickstarter can give even a teensy weensy writer a chance to maybe possibly do something real.  Yup, there’s no doubt about it – stories are out there, ready and waiting to start revolutions and end patriarchy, or at the very least transform you.

That is, if you can find them.

I remember the first time I saw myself on the page.  It was Colonize This!, edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman.  I was so relieved and excited to open a book that had essays about Indian American women and NOT see pages and pages full of weeping women in colorful saris finding themselves through sexual liberation while cardamom/mustardseeds/cumin/curry popped and sizzled on the stove.  And I loved seeing stories by people who look like me nestled cozily between the words of other women of color, women who thought like me and talked like me and spoke truth to power.  But not just any truth to power.  They spoke my truth to my power.

Colonize This!  came out in 2002.

I read it in 2007.

It took me five years to find it.  Five years of moving between communities of writers, activists, teachers, and youth workers who were hungry for words like these.  Five years of wondering if I was the only one who felt this way.  Five years on top of 22 years thinking I was the only brown woman in the world who was hungry for change.

The stories are out there, but they are hard to find.  They are often self-published or published by small presses, and they don’t usually end up on the Colbert Show or the New York Times Book review.  I found out about Colonize This! because my friend and former colleague, writer Pooja Makhijani, brought it to work one day and left it on my desk.  There’s nothing like book recommendations from a friend, but these recommendations often stay within communities, rather than making their way to those searching for their own identities and causes and communities, people who are hungry for narratives that will help them see themselves and the world a little more clearly.

There are lots of reasons for this.  Arts funding is being cut, particularly for small nonprofits that often cater to marginalized populations and that used to organize literary festivals and put out regular publications and generally scream and shout about emerging writers.  Established book festivals listen to established publishers who say they listen to the “market,” which has always been envisioned as being straight middle class white male.  The publishing industry is notoriously white, particularly children’s publishing – only 5% of children’s books published last year were authored by people of color.  And the few books that publishers buy space for on the Barnes and Nobles table that actually tackle heroic transformative themes are the exceptions, not the rule.  As for adding these stories to school system reading lists, forget about it.  Why bring tough, taboo topics into the classroom when kids can learn about it on the streets, or maintain a convenient silence about them?  We wouldn’t want to raise a generation of radicals who actually see that they have a place in the world, now would we?

Well, if the local patriarchy isn’t going to go out of its way to make our stories heard, we just have to do what we always do.

We have to do it ourselves.

And, the truth is, we do.  Despite budget cuts and closing book stores and the impending death of the publishing industry, despite full time jobs and families and skyrocketing gas prices, we bust our asses to make ourselves heard.  On September 23 and 24, for example, the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (a collective that I’m a part of) is organizing a literary festival at Revolution Books in Manhattan themed around the politics of story.  The extremely popular and wonderfully supportive Thrity Umrigar and Tahmima Anam will be our keynotes; you’ve probably seen their books on the aforementioned bookstore tables or reviewed in the big publications.  But we’re also featuring other courageous feminist writers who you may not have heard of, women whose words will make you rethink your universe, and celebrate your own potential for awesomeness.  We have a whole day of them. Our brothers and sisters at organizations like the Asian American Writers Workshop, Cave Canem, Bluestockings, and other independent bookstores and nonprofit groups and volunteer run bookworm gatherings are doing the same.

It’s hard work.  It’s writing grants on a Saturday night instead of going to a bar.  It’s taking a really long lunch break to make a lot of phone calls to make sure the books are arriving at the bookstore.  It’s emailing everyone you know and their mother and asking them to please please please come and to tell all of your friends and by the way do you still know that woman at TimeOut because we could really use a line or two in there and by the way would you mind pitching in for the booze?

It’s exhausting and overwhelming and frustrating and infuriating.

It’s also awesome.

And powerful.

And worth it.

Stories are what sustain us.  Stories are what make us feel real, and what make us imagine an alternative reality.  Stories are revolutionary.

So all you storytellers, please keep telling.  We’re out here listening.  And, with a little work, other people will start listening too.

Dr. Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D. is a senior policy analyst for the policy division of the New York City Council, where she covers education and social services.  Prior to this, she was the assistant vice president in the department of International Education, Research, and Outreach at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces Sesame Street, where she managed the educational aspects of Sesame’s initiatives in Africa, South Asia, and Haiti. Her creative work has appeared in Kahani magazine and the Seal Press anthology Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Her scholarly work has appeared in Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, Current Issues in Comparative Education, and the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures.

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