Intercultural perspectives on narrative.
In 4th grade I was taught a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. And a good story has a mountain shape: an introduction, a problem, its resolution and denouement. And the ending must give an emotional satisfactory conclusion to the main character’s struggle and development. So, when I opened up a book of Warlpiri* stories, I was confused—some of these stories weren’t like that at all. Some had no problems. Some didn’t start at the beginning, and finished before the end (for example Valda Napangardi Granites’ Mina Mina Jukurrpa, pictured below). Sometimes the ending seemed to come completely out of left field (for example Christine Napanangka Michaels’ Lappi Lappi Jukurrpa). What was going on?
Come to think of it, in fourth grade, we were also taught to write dialogue with as many strong speech tags as possible. Maybe, just maybe, there’s more to it.
What makes a good story? Goddard and Klapproth analysed Pitjantjatjara* stories in collaboration with local storytellers and found fundamental differences that helped explained what I was experiencing. In contrast to the Western tradition, in general, the stories they studied were not goal-orientated or about problem-solving, nor about a protagonist and antagonist. And this, not in the pages of an experimental literary magazine, but in a collection of public stories. Pitjanjatjara stories tended to be about small groups of people, about avoiding problems. About maintaining balance, about the all-pervasive power of the law, regardless of individual courage or initiative or compassion. The world was a bigger place than the main character and their emotions.
And it turns out, this isn’t just one of those Indigenous/non-Indigenous contrasts: storytelling traditions differ globally, reflecting the worldview of their home culture.
For example, according to Hong Kong-based author and journalist Nury Vittachi, while that 4th grade story structure has been shaping Western stories since Aristotle, Asian stories tend to be shaped differently. Asian stories tend to have multiple characters, living within large family groups, an ambiguous moral lesson, and an episodic structure of narratives that link up with others—like beads on the main story thread of a bracelet.
YangSze Choo, Malaysian author of The Ghost Bride, believes it may be due to the fact that many Asians live in extended family groups with several generations together. She says: ‘The resulting narratives probably are episodic because there are so many characters who have an intertwined impact on stories.’ Indian novels like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy come to mind, as well as Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, and of course older works like A Thousand and One Nights, Journey into the West and The Tale of Genji. Ms Choo goes on to say, ‘In some ways, you could say that it’s a vision of the self, reflected back by family members who are the “world” in Asian stories, vs. the journey of the lone Western hero/heroine who walks towards independence’.
Any author with a similar extended family experience may also reflect that in their work, such as Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels are also episodic and family-centred. In Nicola Lagioia’s recent piece in The New Yorker, she writes of her experiences: ‘The idea that ‘I’ is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with’.
Of course, cultural background(s) is only one of myriad interconnected influences that guide an author when they sit down to write. And with any story, if we lack the assumed frame of reference (be it literary or cultural, comedic or political), we risk missing its impact. But that moment of discomfort is a risk worth taking: it can ignite an urge to find out more, illuminating not only a world of others that we didn’t know about, but focus our view on our own culture—a chance to see and better understand ourselves. Often, too, a rare chance, if we live our lives immersed in only one culture: our own.
*Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara are distinct Australian Indigenous peoples traditionally living in the central deserts to the northwest and southwest of Alice Springs respectively.
Klapproth, D. (2004) Narratives of Social Practice: Anglo–Western and Australian Aboriginal Oral Traditions. Berlin: Monton de Gruyter
Goddard, C. (1994) ‘The Pitjantjatjara story writing contest.’ p. 316-323 in D. Hartman and J. Henderson (eds) Aboriginal Languages in Education. Alice Springs: IAD Press.
Feature image: Christine Napanangka Michaels’ painting “Lappi Lappi Jukurrpa” © Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation
Images used with the kind permission of Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, who retain all rights.
First published on ACT Writers Centre’s blog CAPITAL LETTERS.