The Stories That Tell Us Who We Are

One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was a literature class my senior year of high school with an amazing teacher and only one other student. The three of us read aloud, had deep and incredibly meaningful conversations, laughed a lot, cried a bit, and I even passed out once. (There was some conversation about vivisection, I’m pretty squeamish, you get the picture.)

One of the projects we did in that class was identifying the “stories that tell us who we are.” I’ve referenced this idea before, and it continues to haunt me. There’s something interesting about the idea of a story being able to read us into being. The quote that I published just before this suggests that giving people back their stories is ultimate the most humanizing thing we can do. I know that the stories we cherish and the stories we live are not one and the same. But they do matter, and I do believe that they have effects on each other.

Sara Ahmed, in The Promise of Happiness, has stated, “Every writer is first a reader, and what we read matters” (19).* I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. I have been thinking recently about the fact that I have many, many books in the room where I live and do much of my work. These are books that I have made a conscious effort to surround myself with, that I have decided to draw near to myself. Ahmed goes on to qualify her work by stating that she considers herself mostly a reader of queer, feminist, and antiracist books. I, too, choose to surround myself by books–stories–with these qualities (although some of my other work involves finding the ways in which some stories fail to make those claims in one way or another). I choose to make stories part of my politics.

Ahmed has also written elsewhere, in Queer Phenomenology about the ways that the objects we surround ourselves by, that we draw towards ourselves, help us orientate ourselves. I use the books, the (frequently queer, feminist, and antiracist) objects that I have chosen to draw near to myself, to orientate myself. In a way, the stories I choose to keep at hand tell me who I am. Particularly, they orientate me. They tell me who I am in relation to the spaces I find myself in. I keep stories of critical whiteness and queer failures around me, because they tell me how I can occupy the spaces I do. I reach out to “touch” these stories, so that I can also tell my own story and understand it. So I can, to use the words of Francesca Lia Block, be touched and touch others.

I think there’s something to be said here for considering reading in this way. How do “the stories that tell us who we are” orientate us? Why do we choose to draw some stories near to us (figuratively or literally)? Why do some stories affect us more than others? How do we “touch” stories and how do we then use stories to “touch”? Stories matter.

I want to keep asking and answering these questions. I’m thinking this might become a major project (…do I smell a thesis?…): considering reading (especially of children’s literature, but that’s just because that’s where I like to think) from the point of view of affect theory and phenomenology. But to begin with, I want to continue exploring the stories that tell me who I am. I’ve already told you about one: “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” I want to tell you about nine more–ten total. As I choose to focus on children’s literature, and because I can honestly say that most of the “stories that tell me who I am” are books for young people, many of these will be children’s or YA books. But not entirely.

So, stay tuned for installments of the stories that tell me who I am. I want to tell you why I have gathered them toward me–why I am orientated toward them.

I also think this is a fascinating question for anyone. What are the stories that tell you who you are? What stories do you choose to keep at hand? I want to know.

*Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat

I’ve had to spend more time than I usually care to spend justifying myself recently. Why do I care so deeply about literature for young people? Why do I believe that library science is where I belong? How do I reconcile them with my politics that could easily be construed as “radical”?

It’s something I’ve been struggling to articulate lately. I wasn’t sure how to explain how something as inconsequential as The Hunger Games or Winnie-the-Pooh could mean so much to me, especially without appealing to an elitist rhetoric of “cultivating young minds” or “understanding the implications of the text” (which the “common man” can’t do, right?) or even the “power of story” which only “cultured” people “get.” (Of course, those two texts in particular aren’t exactly inconsequential, given their commercial power. Also, I apologize for the use of scare quotes. I like them.)

Then, I finally took the time to revisit some of the things that I loved to read as a young(er) person; in particular, I pulled out a story-poem anthology that contained “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” by Edward Lear.

The owl and the pussy-cat are a perfect example of a queer couple–it’s hard to imagine one queerer. They’re entirely “illegible by dominant narratives” and all that jazz. (Don’t get me wrong. I love academic jargon probably more than the next guy. But I’m trying to link it to the sheer joy of reading a ridiculous poem.) For pete’s sake, they have to sail away “for a year and a day,/ To the land where the Bong-tree grows” in order to get married.

I love the power of this story. This one, beautiful, dangerous, silly, inconsequential story. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. And yet, we see people finding love, enjoying gustatory pleasures, dancing by the light of the moon, and imagining something different. The owl and the pussy-cat look around, see that the world isn’t as it should be, and they say, “Let’s build something different.”

One of my high school English teachers encouraged my literature class to create a list of the stories that “tell us who we are.” Until this moment, I don’t think I would have counted “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” as one of the stories that tell me who I am. But I don’t think I can ever forget what I have learned from it now. This is the reason I have chosen the path I am on. Because I see myself in the owl and the pussy-cat. I see myself getting caught up in love and life and making the world a better place. A place where it’s okay to be joyful and irreverent, even in the midst of a world that’s falling apart at the seams. They work  to make a world that isn’t falling apart. They build something new.

Children’s literature, more than any other cultural artifact, helps us imagine something new. Sometimes, in the case of the YA dystopia, they help us imagine something new that is the frightening result of the things we’re doing in the world now. Sometimes, they help us imagine new ways of being in the world that’s shattered and broken by racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and all of the other icky -isms that cause people to be cruel to each other, that create winners and losers.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” reminds me who I am. It reminds me to dine on mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon. It reminds me that there is hope in a harum-scarum world to dance in the light of the moon with the people you love. It reminds me that though the Child (referencing, of course, Lee Edelman’s polarizing polemic No Future) terrorizes “deviants” and “radicals,” real children–young people with bodies, hopes, minds, and wills–do matter. It reminds me to imagine something irreverent, something beautiful, something different. And I think that’s the best lesson we can learn.