A novel idea: personal narrative as public awareness

by Madelene Nieman / Beacon Staff • October 19, 2016

It’s probably the critique I give the most in my workshop classes: Focus up. Cut down the number of characters. There is nothing more unsatisfying than a five page short story with fourteen characters, but it is a mistake I encounter time and time again. In fiction, we have the luxury to edit personal narratives as we see fit, to alter entire universes to make a story click. Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t be the same novel if it followed every Bennet sister in her quest for love. Instead, it follows the narrative of Elizabeth alone, and for that reason, has become a favorite of lusty teenage girls everywhere.
 
It is odd, then, that so much of nonfiction media focuses on huge groups of people. I cannot tell you how many alerts I receive from my AP news app throughout the day listing tallies of dead and dying. Twelve wounded after shooting in LA. 35 killed in funeral bombing in Baghdad. Hurricane leaves thousands homeless in Haiti.These numbers are essential to factual reporting and journalistic precision, and help to put a crisis into focus. But I am no journalist. After a couple of buzzes, I put my phone in airplane mode.
 
Though we are all implicated in similar crimes of ignorance, it is not because we are heartless monsters. The massive numbers employed by journalists and news outlets assign a numerical value to a life. In an attempt to comprehend, we detach ourselves from the lives that we seek to avenge. Such statistics are incomprehensible.
 
Focus up. Cut down on the number of characters.  
 
I think of the refugee crisis going on right now, and find it very hard to grasp that countless lives have been uprooted. Coming from a very privileged background, I find this sort of situation incomprehensible. And I am not alone.
 
Personal narratives help to humanize struggle, and give faces to movements. Speaking still of refugees, there has been a huge pushback against letting so-called “foreigners” into our borders, for fear that one of them might harbor terrorist intentions. But many minds were changed when images of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian boy, surfaced. The child is dead, lying with his face buried in the sand, his arms limply at his sides. As the icy waters wash over him, the orange soles of his shoes are faceup. This image struck a chord with many people, parents especially, and influenced North Americans’ perception of the severity of this crisis.
 
But what am I to make of an image like this? The death of Kurdi, while heartbreaking, is not something I can personally relate to. I am the youngest of my family, and my only experience with pre-K boys was a terrible nannying job I held for one summer. But for every personal narrative you don’t relate to, there are a hundred other true tales to make you understand. I was struck when reading a piece by New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelman. In his discussion of recent drone footage of Aleppo, he mentioned the lives that refugees can expect.
 
“Refugees spend 17 years on average in camps,” he writes. “I wonder what ‘home’ will ever mean to them.”
 
It is here that I pause. In my 19 years, I have lived in five different states, and already that was difficult. At times, it felt like I was constantly uprooting, leaving a trail of early-abandoned friendships across the country, and never having an easy answer to, “So, where’s home for you?” So this idea of 17 years—17 years without a home, 17 years without settling—was something that I could almost understand.
 
I imagine a teenage girl not too different from me, someone who struggles to make friends and has trouble defining herself, someone who finds refuge in novels and solitude. I imagine, then, what the added toll of living in a limbo must be like—had I been in her shoes, I don’t think I would have survived.
 
I don’t pretend that our situations are comparable, or that this theoretical teenager could relate to me. But imagining the refugee crisis through this lens helps to humanize it, for me at least.
 
Life is like a library, full of stories spanning the globe. But unlike a library, these stories are infinite. And unlike a library, every story is important. When facing a sea of numbers, it can be hard to remember that those numbers represent people with lives as complex as your own. Personal narratives, then, serve as a reminder of this.

My plea is not for some sob story every night on the local news, but for honest sharing of personal accounts, both on the part of individuals and news outlets. We, as media consumers, need to pay more attention to the statistics that journalists faithfully provide, but journalists also need to provide more of an impetus for interest. To tell a story is, in the words of Jane Austen, to “[expose] one to the censure of the world.” But this vulnerability is the only thing that can reach across the borders. By finding the narratives in the numbers, we can find the solutions that we seek.