Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bear Witness

Biblioburro: The Donkey Library, airing on PBS, is the story of a schoolteacher in Colombia who delivers donated books to impoverished children via donkey. But he also seeks to elicit the children’s accounts of violent traumas, to help them change their destinies. By bearing witness to their stories, he is affirming their experiences and helping them shape their world.

Last week, Alex Kotlowitz spoke at Harold Washington Library as part of the third annual DePaul Summer Writing Conference. I’ve been familiar with Mr. Kotlowitz ever since reading “There Are No Children Here,” the story of two boys growing up in the Henry Horner homes on Chicago’s West side. His talk was titled “Storytelling as Bearing Witness,” and he presented a powerful framework outlining the importance of telling stories. Here’s my attempt at summarizing what he said.

This is the crux of it: Stories inform. Truth is the engine of freedom. The way to truth is bearing witness. You bear witness through story.

Narratives let people find their own way, and the most important narratives are those belonging to the quiet voices that get lost in the noise. The voices that wonder if anybody is on their side. In the documentary film Hot Coffee, you learn the importance of the voice of the woman who was burned by the McDonald’s coffee. (You know who I’m talking about.) Her voice was drowned out by those who had enough money to shout, to frame the narrative—those who did not want her story to be known.

How does this apply to fiction writing? Readers buy into stories that engender empathy. It’s what a really good story does, and it applies to every genre, from the detective procedural to the middle-grade fantasy. The reader has to care, and writers make the reader care by telling the truth. (Much more difficult than it sounds!)

Mr. Kotlowitz’s and Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters premieres in New York later this month. He continues to bear witness to the stories of those whose voices might otherwise be lost.

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