Friday, September 30, 2011

The connection lies between stories, across cultures . . .

…and my husband tells the stories; I’m only the scribe. This is what I tell people, anyhow, and the people who know us understand what I mean. It’s not entirely true, of course. I’m more than a scribe. I’m a writer, after all, which means that my work, even when it includes all the stories I’ve heard throughout my life, is still, in aggregate, me. George’s stories are now my stories, too. His extraordinary tales, especially those which fall outside of the frame of reference of my birth culture, are true. This is the spirit in which he tells them and it is the spirit in which I receive them.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez said he couldn’t write his stories until he saw them the way his grandmother saw them, as completely natural. I get this. I straddle a cultural line in my writing and for me, that line is erased by the stories. As soon as my words hit the page, though, I understand that for some people, the line remains and will always remain. Sitting on the edge of it, I sometimes think it’s my job to translate, from one side to the other, but it’s not true. My job is to write across that line as though it’s not there and let others negotiate it as best they can—hoping that for them, too, the line is erased. 

George says the English language is backwards and that the Inupiat, in learning to understand English, had to learn to think backwards. So the impetus for the post is at the end—backwards, perhaps, but I will get there. Read on.

I think of stories, of these astonishing and unbelievable stories and the way George tells them and I am reminded of the character of Edward Bloom, in the movie Big Fish, who lies on his death bed, telling his life story to his son. “Most men will tell you a story straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting, either,” Bloom says. I always cry at that point at the end of the movie, where the characters we had assumed were Bloom’s inventions, all show up at his funeral, to honor him. The power of story.  

George’s stories are like that. A geologist by training, he says the world has seen seven ice ages. His evidence comes from all over the place, from some wild places, in fact, but his primary source is oral history passed on from generation to generation to generation to generation to generation to generation to generation to generation to generation to generation to generation as story. 

It’s where I start my new book, My Name is Not Easy:

The elders say the earth has turned over seven times, pole to pole, north to south.
Freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing,
flipping over and tearing apart.
Changing everything.

We were there.
We were always there.
They say no one survived the ice age but they’re wrong.
There were seven ice ages and we survived.
We survived them all . . .

I think of ice ages and I think of global warming and, from an entirely personal and probably insignificant level, the idea scares me: what will become of the people indigenous to the Arctic when the ice melts? What will become of all the Arctic expertise, contained in the language, when the Arctic is gone? It feels like a death too deep to fathom--but George laughs: it’s happened before and will happen again. The earth turns over, he says, and it takes three days for the migratory animals, the birds, the whales, to make shift. The people who know how to, will survive. The knowledge will transfer.

This, in fact, is the impetus for this post, the place were this small story of mine starts: 

I am scrolling through Facebook and someone has posted a video. It speaks directly to the stories George has always told in that way that makes me catch my breath, makes me sit up and say: yes, all things are connected; I’ve always known it. There is no line to straddle; the lines are all connections and connection is forged through story...

Here's the video, make of it what you will:


  1. What a beautiful post, Debby! I, too, love Bloom's line in BIG FISH that you quoted. It's speaks to everything that matters--in telling our stories the way we live them, too: not clearly, with perfect plans and logical sequence, but in a zig-zagging, backs-to-forwards way that involves growth, compassion, love, and learning. Thanks for your wise words here! Looking forward to reading MY NAME IS NOT EASY!

  2. Thanks, Luke. I was certainly slow to catch this nice comment--I just noticed it.

    I am zig-zagging back and forth between manuscripts, at this point, which feels right. It took a long time to give myself permission to do this, though.