Testimony, truth and narrative
By Andrew Milner
This is Part 3 of a series of blogs linked to the ‘Let’s build peace: here and now’ conversations being organised by the Foundations for Peace (FFP) Network. Through these conversations, the FFP Network and their partners are creating a space to share the stories of peacebuilders who have been closest to the ground. This article focuses on storytelling as a tool in local peacebuilding processes and draws on previous conversations from ‘Let’s build peace: here and now’ and ‘We Contain Multitudes’. However the main focus of this article is on a conversation organised in November 2021 between Kamala Chandrakirana, Indonesian feminist and advocate for peace, human rights, justice, and democracy and Gabi Kent a storytelling practitioner and researcher based in the UK who works in and with conflict-affected communities. They talked about the role of stories, storytelling and memory in building transformative peace.
People remember stories when they forget details because their power and memorial force depends on images, rather than facts. They are a direct communication from one human being to another and they appeal to the imagination first, the intellect second. So they become embedded in the consciousness of people in a way that a straightforward recitation of facts does not because they involve events which happen to people – people who are recognizable individuals, not units clothed in a set of abstractions which makes them ‘other’ – told in a direct and immediate way by the people themselves. Hence their power in human experience and, for the purposes of this article, in the peacebuilding process. From this too comes their ambiguity.
In a recent conversation hosted by Foundations for Peace (FFP), Kamala Chandrakirana who has worked on storytelling as a way to build peace in Indonesia for many years, summed up its force. In her experience, when both victims and perpetrators began ‘to talk at the human level about their experience, it allowed people to move beyond their divisions.’ This recognition has been a constant of FFP’s work. There is a catharsis in telling your experiences even when they are appalling.
In the same FFP conversation, Gabi Kent also noted their power to offer hope. She is working in Northern Ireland on a project with the Open University, in which former combatants in the Northern Ireland conflict who were imprisoned, used their time to study. From this, she says, there sometimes emerge unexpected connections and shared hopes across sectarian divides and she sees in this a constructive role for stories – ‘in illuminating those moments of hope and possibility and human connections that exist.’
Superman is dead
Stories can have a healing effect in post-conflict situations, but what happens in the midst of a conflict? Speaking out is often difficult, not only because of the trauma involved for the storyteller, but because the power of the state is deployed precisely to prevent those stories from being told or to discredit them if they are. This was a point made by two participants in the debate working for an INGO in Myanmar.
Kamala recounted her experience of how, even if political spaces for debate close, cultural ones can sometimes open up. This had happened in Indonesia through music. A band called Superman is Dead (a reference to the overthrow of the dictator) had recorded an album of songs, sung by political prisoners and introduced them, and by implication, the story behind them, to a new audience. Likewise, a group of jazz musicians had worked with a choir comprising the wives or children of victims to record Greetings of Hope, also prison songs. In this way, a different version of events filters into the consciousness of those exposed to the songs.
There are other ways of defying powerful opposition. Gabi spoke of a collective storytelling method, which not only from her experience in Northern Ireland, ‘allows people to talk about topics, like poverty…issues which can carry a stigma,’ but also prevents individuation of the storyteller and therefore other forms of blame or punishment. ‘We had a community conversation, and out of that we wove a narrative that represented the core of people’s stories within that community.’ There are also various ways of telling stories anonymously: ‘We told stories through photographs, and got somebody else to voice that story, so that there was no direct link to the individuals involved.’ Interestingly, though, the people involved finally decided they wanted to be named, they wanted to own their stories.
So stories can find their way through many channels. The crucial thing for her is that ‘there’s no rule to storytelling…..our job is to think about how to do it in a way that protects people as much as possible.’
But stories need to be treated with caution precisely on account of their persuasive force. In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, a bandit allegedly kills a samurai and rapes his wife. In the subsequent trial, all three give different versions of the event (the murdered man speaks through a psychic), leading the audience to think about the ambiguous relationship between truth, perception and narration, especially when self-interest is involved. When people tell stories, they are relating their perception of what they saw or experienced which might be falsified by recollection and coloured by the nature of the experience, especially if it was traumatic which experiences of conflict almost inevitably are.
This happens unconsciously. People are not simply so many mirrors reflecting events without distortion. But it also happens deliberately. The power of stories can be – and is – annexed by both sides in a conflict. The variant readings of events can be ‘weaponized’ as one participant put it and made to serve their own ends. ‘That’s why [storytelling is] an important tool in social transformation.’ Kamala emphasizes. ‘It can push to opposite directions!’ In other words, instead of being a means of reconciliation, they can be a means of entrenching prejudice.
She illustrates this from her own experience in Indonesia: ‘In the official narrative of what happened in 1965/66, developed by the state so that its repression could appear justified, the women of Gerwani [a women’s organization affiliated to the demonized Partai Komunis Indonesia] were depicted as highly sexualized beings. They were not only betrayers of the nation, they were prostitutes. There’s a monument set up by the Indonesian military to commemorate what happened in 1965 and on that monument there’s a relief that shows these women with big breasts and very sexy and open clothes.’ Moreover, the force of stories is that successful versions of events – the dominant narrative – can be both pervasive and long-lasting: ‘this story continued to be told for 30 years and formed the opinions of people at the time and of the next generation and we had to deal with that perception when we were trying to tell their story of what happened.’
The way that story can take deep roots like this is strikingly borne out by something from an earlier conversation in the FFP series. Dawn Shackel, who also works in Northern Ireland for CFNI relates how children who were born following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 23 years ago, particularly in working-class communities most affected by the conflict, never saw the Troubles, but they recount stories that have happened to others as if they were there at the time.’
The audience – participation, resistance and ‘agonism’
Conversations among people who occupy adversarial positions can be stormy and those telling their stories are likely to face hostility from those who have a vested interest in denying them. This was a question raised by a participant from Serbia. The audience, she noted, ‘comes with their own stories, which are often opposed to our narratives, and …we can end up with even deeper antagonisms.’ For Gabi, the way forward is to create ‘respectful places for conversation. People call it agonism – you may not agree on your different experiences or perspectives but you can listen to each other respectfully, and that allows people to hear and hopefully understand a bit more about where the other is coming from.’ This may not produce exactly the intended results – while researching the Recom initiative in Serbia she observed a community deliberation process which was intended to lead to a fact-finding mission and while, as she acknowledged, this may never happen the really important thing is that people who might never have spoken were brought by the process to do so.
There is always opposition to telling stories that don’t accord with commonly-held beliefs, says Kamala– hence the importance of alternative methods of telling them. ‘The form in which storytelling happens necessarily evolves, because there is always a reaction and we’re always adapting to that and finding different ways to tell the stories.’
Diffusion and support
And stories and their tellers also need movements and networks, not just for them to spread but for them to be told in the first place. ‘The underlying foundation for that process of storytelling,’ says Kamala, ‘is this network, this ecosystem of trust, that social movements create and nurture.’ Social media can play an important role here. Rasha Sansur talked of Palestine voices that had not been prioritized before’ but then benefited from the momentum created by mass movements like Black Lives Matter. Kamala speaks of an ‘ecosystem of trust’ which does two things. It creates a safe space, but it also ‘broadens the constituencies of people who feel that their interests are at stake as well.’
There is also the possibility of resistance among the tellers of the stories themselves and, for Kamala, safe spaces play an important role here, too. At the time of her work on the national commission on violence against women, she recalls that many of the women were reluctant to come forward: ‘“Why should I tell this story?” because they knew the dominant narrative was opposed to it, and the stigma was so deep that it was quite possible that, even if they did tell the story, people would not believe them.’
In some situations, too, a sort of story fatigue occurs. In Northern Ireland, says Gabi, communities ‘were tired of people coming in and telling stories about how awful life was, or the trauma or of this and that and the other.’ What she calls ‘purposeful storytelling’ is therefore crucial: ‘there has to be a purpose behind storytelling for them to actually have an effect.’
And whether the stories are told or not, it is important that they be documented. As Kamala says documentation and archiving of the stories ‘also needed to be done because people were getting old, and if we didn’t document their stories, they would be lost forever.’ And that’s important ‘because …we want to know the truth.’ Not all stories are entirely true – perhaps none of them is – but they nevertheless contain important truths and unless they are heard, misconceptions or misrepresentations of the truth will continue to hold sway.
This recalls the idea of the power of juxtaposition, which surfaced in a conversation from last year hosted by Impact Trust in the ‘We Contain Multitudes’ series, between Simuaku Chigudu of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and South African human rights lawyer and activist, Albie Sachs. What’s important, urges Sachs, is not to pull down the symbols that stand for oppression, but to confront them with something that affirms a different set of values.
Other conversations in the peacebuilding series have emphasized the value of stories. For Albie
Sachs, again, the human rights field has been overloaded with ideas – ‘theory, theory, theory’. He wants to tell stories and to listen to them. Martin Macwan holds up their importance as a model for future generations: ‘we must take beautiful stories of change, and make a book for the children across the world.’
As an auditor of these conversations, what strikes me is that storytelling has two important roles to play in the peacebuilding process. One is that the victors in any conflict should not be allowed to dominate the narrative, since they will have a vested interest in suppressing certain parts of it even if they don’t falsify it completely and, if this happens, there is little hope of healing wounds. The other and the most important, takes us back to the start of this article. Storytelling bears witness (and almost equally important, it is the testimony of those who are seldom heard). It allows both victims and perpetrators to see and recognize each other. The value of this is summed up by Kamala when she says that ‘this process of peacebuilding through storytelling is really to make the victims, survivors and the average citizen part of the peacebuilding process.’ She goes on: ‘Peace requires the average citizen and it requires victims and survivors to make it work…[we] believe….that peacebuilding through small acts of storytelling, this humble tool, is really significant in the process of building genuinely transformative peace.’
So far, the emphasis of this article has been on the value of stories in the peacebuilding process but participants in these conversations constantly remind us of the need to return to the larger theme – peacebuilding itself, the subject of the second installment.
Andrew Milner is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor specializing in the areas of philanthropy and civil society. He is a consultant to Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. He is also a regular contributor to and Features editor of Alliance magazine.