The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all that we do. – James Baldwin
Over the last year or so I’ve watched as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) rose up on the National Mall. From the outside it felt like an inspired decorative container, monolithic from afar but interwoven and detailed from close up. My impression changed once I stepped inside. Clean lines, curved staircases, and the decorative metalwork of the exterior provided an incredible sense of openness, a constant reminder as I traveled from gallery to gallery that this is a museum embedded in the landscape of the core of Washington D.C.
A foundation. A place to start.
And so in trying to frame my first NMAAHC visit I thought about writing a traditional exhibit review —discussing content, display choices, and interpretive design—but that just didn’t feel quite…right. Rather, my first visit felt incredibly emotional. In some ways indescribable, walking through the museum felt like when you peer through new glasses for the first time. Everything seemed clearer, more in tune, more complete. Continue reading “Still I Rise: The National Museum of African American History and Culture”→
In the first post of this series I wrote of how the miniseries Roots and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky tackled a simple question of individual identity amidst displacement – “Who am I?” But there is a second question that both the show and the book addressed that looks beyond the status quo and the present revealing active identity creation. “Who do I want to be?” is a question that is both aspirational and forward looking.
And so two other art/history pieces I experienced this spring – the Smithsonian’s Crosslinesand the Folger Shakespeare Library’s District Merchants– demonstrate that not everyone wants or chooses to internalize their heritage in the same way. Rather they make it clear that answering the question “Who do I want to be?” is a combination of conscious and unconscious choices we make in the process of forging identities.
“And he, Marin Djivo, younger son of a merchant? What was his life about? Trade? Clever, profitable dealings? He was from a city state that flourished by letting no one hate them enough to do anything disagreeable. Where you are situated in the world, Marin thinks, digging a grave in a Sauradian meadow, shapes how you act in the world.
Then he amends that thought: It is one of the things that does so. Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek might frame it differently. Or the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle might do so. They are all exiles, he thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.”
–Excerpt from Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (emphasis mine)
For those of you that are fans of musical theatre the title of this piece may prompt you to belt out a singular name. A man whose identity at the moment of questioning had long been obscured by a series of numbers.
“In every story that you read / A heroine or hero fills a need.”
At the end of January I finally hit publish on a children’s book three years in the making.
The Heart of the River tells the story of a young explorer who searches for wonder at the heart of the River Idira. Along the way she encounters a fearsome dragon and uncovers her own ability for courage and kindness.
But this isn’t about my accomplishment, as excited as I am to share the news. Rather it’s a conversation on process, about how I wanted to create a world that was inclusive, but also a world where the main character would be the embodiment of all the writing and reading I had done over the past five years on what made a strong female character.
In my acknowledgements I talk of how this story started as a tingle in my fingers and romanticized how it poured out of me with a life of its own.
I have a theory about why we are attracted to epic storytelling. It’s all about the history. However, for many that past is not our past, but rather history created in the minds and imaginations of writers around the world.
For an example we should look no further than the incredible popularity of Game of Thrones. A medieval fantasy filled with political jockeying, power struggles, zombie like ice walkers, and dragons. A story nerds have been following long before it ever hit the small screen. Now others are discovering the show and going back to read the novels and get more out of this world that George R.R.Martin created.
In the middle of last year a friend asked why we as a culture seem to be drawn to epic storytelling. These are stories where grand visions of what a world could be are garnished by the magical, the mystical, and the fantastical, spanning nations and many worlds. Stories where fights for truth and justice are disguised metaphors for what authors and readers see as missing from our current way of life. After months of letting the question circle around in my head I’d like to spend two posts presenting my answer largely based on musings from recent experiences and readings.
We’ll start with epic storytelling of the dystopian sort:
There was a moment in high school over a decade ago when I was tasked with reading post-apocalyptic books of all manner of styles. 1984, On the Beach, Fahrenheit 451 — each with their own set of rules and commentary on privacy, nuclear warfare, and censorship. I realized then that the dystopian fiction I am most attracted to are narratives with something to say beyond death, destruction, and warfare. I am also attracted to post-apocalyptic fiction that provides a commentary on choice. Stories that juxtapose our reality against a world we can barely recognize.
Two weeks ago I finished two books, The Bone Clocks and Station Eleven, that illustrate why some dystopian fiction enthralls me. They reveal how their ability to tell stories on a larger-than-life//larger-than-reality scale really hits home.