Story Kin and Cousin Conversations

This is our first Story Kin and Cousin Conversation. We continue the vision of the Story NOW! interviews by exploring the power of storytelling to transcend divisions and create change. We’ll interview an oral storyteller and a cousin storyteller from a kindred art form.  

 For this conversation we join Sofia Jamall, a graduate student with Sonoma State’s History Department, working on a Master’s thesis on 20th century Karachi, Pakistan, and Colin Urwin, a storyteller, singer, and songwriter from the Glens of Antrim in the northeast of Ireland. 

Vel: Do you mind telling us one favorite storytelling hero you have?

Colin:  I couldn’t possibly mention anyone else other than Liz Weir…She has over the last two or three decades brought storytelling to the fore, certainly in this part of the world, but she’s recognized internationally for that as well.

Sofia: I always come back to my mentors in the history department, specifically Professor Kathleen Noonan. Anyone can teach history as facts and figures…But you get a real sense of the people and what they were like when a talented historian brings them to life.

Vel: If you think of an early memory of being drawn to stories, what made you love a good tale? 

Colin: My earliest memories are of my mother telling family stories which incorporated very often supernatural events and Bean Sidhes and ghosts and this kind of thing, which she wasn’t telling to frighten us. She also wasn’t making it up. They were things that had been passed on to her, things that she had experienced and that she genuinely believed in.

Sofia: The adults would sit around telling stories to each other and we would pick up on them as we were playing around. Now when we get together as a family, it doesn’t stop. And so the reminiscing is sort of our stories. It wasn’t until college that I brought the personal history and the academic interest together, it’s been a  happy melding of interests since. 

Vel: Can you share a story that’s guided you to the work you’re doing now? 

Colin: Very quickly I realized that when you were dealing with kids that they weren’t interested, necessarily, in the minutia of natural history, interesting as it is, so you had to mix it up with a story. For example, I think the first story that I told was the one about Why Owls Are Night Birds…And that’s how I got a lot of natural history across, but in an unnatural story or a supernatural story, if you like.

Sofia:  I’d take all these classes and find out about Rwanda or modern Egypt…Stories I hadn’t heard before…Every kid deserves to grow up hearing  stories and heroes from their own history. If all you hear is: “the Brits showed up and they brought you railroads and built schools and gave you some modern medicine, and maybe they weren’t very nice, but then they very kindly granted you your independence,” what does that do to you as a kid, hearing that instead of  the accomplishments of your own ancestors? I realized people need to hear these stories, and if I didn’t tell them then who?

Vel: How can stories connect us within our communities, and also outside our communities?

Colin: I don’t stick rigidly to tales from where I come from, but almost always my stories come from the Glens of Antrim…Of course stories die out in the cities first, then they die out in the towns, then they die out in the countryside, and the last place they survive are the kind of offshore islands or other remote communities. While I consider my stories to be local in terms of northeast of Ireland, I’m happy to go across to Scotland. You find stories and you think, “That’s an Irish story!” Up until the 1850’s when the Coast Road was built, it was easier for people to trade across twelve miles of water than to travel twelve miles inland. And the stories can inform that history then, you can speak to what actually happened in the past. They’re not being taught that in school, that’s for sure. So I like to explore all that, and  bring all that history out in my stories 

Sofia: When I started on South Asian history,  I was trying to reconnect, because I’d been away so long. As a TA I watched my professors teach, but also watched the reactions of the kids in the class. A lot of the kids, the Mexican kids, the Indigineous kids, the Black kids would light up when somehow they got pulled into a lecture. I know how that feels, like you don’t really have a place in the narrative, and then there you are, and feeling seen that way is incredible. Everyone’s better off when we understand each other, know each other’s stories, relate to each other as people, and admire each other’s historical accomplishments. Imagine if little kids in the States learned about the achievements of  great African empires and not just Alexander the Great. If they learned about the Mayans and Aztecs in as much detail as the Roman Empire. The stories we tell make us who we are…History is not dead and gone, it’s who we are. What it comes down to is, representation matters.

Colin: That’s very interesting Sofia, very interesting indeed. From my perspective  representation is very, very important, but personally representation of everyone is less important in my storytelling than the representation and keeping alive of the old folklore, and the old ways, and disseminating that through  the communities where I live. It’s less vital than what Sofia’s talking about, but it’s very important to me.

Sofia: I don’t think it’s less vital at all. I think not just the facts of  what happened in history, but the stories, the traditions, the cultures matter to who we are going forward, and how people and nations think of themselves. I think they go very well hand in hand together. And I think they’re both vitally important. 

Colin: They certainly go hand in hand.

Vel: Tell us about bringing meaning to the difficult human experiences through storytelling?

Colin: There’s got to be two things that come to the fore in any of that kind of work, and one is  there’s got to be no bitterness, no matter how difficult, or how much the pain has been to one or other, but not shying away from the realities of it either. And you’ve got to have great compassion in your telling and in your art. By compassion I mean, you’ve got to understand where other people are coming from, even if they have been the baddies in the story or in the narrative, you’ve got to  have compassion for them as well. I think if you can carry those two things off, but still really get to the nub of the difficulty or the problem or injustice, you can bring everyone along with you, and it makes them think better. People find it very easy  to switch off from an argument or  conversation or story if they find any bitterness or any lack of compassion. They sit back and fold their arms and just disengage. But if you’ve got those two things in equal measure to the fore, they can’t disengage so easily. 

Sofia: A lot of what we have to learn to do as historians is to walk the line in being very objective and academic, but also recognize and bring out the humanity in our material.What it comes down to is, we’re talking about people. When it comes to painful historical interactions, recognizing the humanity in all the actors is hard especially if somebody is clearly hurting somebody else, but even then they’re people. And there’s the distinction between objectivity and neutrality. You can take a position on an atrocity and our need to recognize it, but  you don’t bring your personal anger and bitterness. You have to be professional, and treat people fairly. There are some things in recent Karachi history I will not touch, because it’s too much, but lesser horrors I handle pretty well. Partly because I’m used to it coming from Karachi, but also because I’ve learned as a scholar to maintain some distance. That’s what you strive for, to be objective, but to find the humanity in what you’re doing. It’s a fine line to walk. 

Colin: Very fine. That’s where the skill comes in…I’d like to ask Sofia this, because I find it intriguing from my own experience: When it comes to telling stories from your culture do you get a better response from the diaspora than you do from people living in Pakistan? 

Sofia: As I said, I didn’t grow up steeped in South Asian culture. I got Hansel and Gretel, I didn’t get Layla and Majnun,  The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, I didn’t get the ancient Persian stories. So I don’t have that cultural background, and it bothers me, because I feel like I was robbed of a cultural heritage growing up, but I do think these things resonate a lot more in the diaspora, because you’re trying that much harder to navigate who you are and where you fit. If you’re in Karachi, in Lahore, in Mumbai, you might  love it, but you don’t  need to cling to it like you do when you’re grasping at cultural  straws when you’re far from home. As a historian I think there’s more of a hunger for our history in American schools. In Karachi we get a lot of British history.

Colin:  Even today, Sofia? 

Sofia: Even today. We teach to the British O-Level system and to pass British tests you have to learn British history. So we’re still bit by bit decolonizing ourselves. A lot of people I grew up with quite frankly don’t care. They want to watch their football games and their horror movies and call it a day. But it matters to enough people that you have wonderful projects like The 1947 Project and The Partition Archive where people are trying desperately to collect stories of people who survived 1947 and ‘48. 

Colin: Certainly my experience has been that an American or even a London Irish audience or an Australian Irish audience engage far better. The diaspora are desperate to get back to that. They think we’re all over here in Ireland telling stories round a fire at night, still smoking clay pipes, which of course we’re not, but they have this in their imagination of the old country, so they buy into it more readily than people who live here would ever consider. That’s not to say it’s not valued here. The Glens of Antrim Storytelling Festival, some of the stories we put up on YouTube, thinking we might get a few hundred views; we’ve got 75,000 and climbing. The diaspora is far more readily accepting of the storytelling and culture. So that must be across the board. From a history teaching point of view that’s probably not comparable, because in Northern Ireland we’ve been partitioned off from the rest of Ireland. So we’re very British, but we’re also very Irish. There’s two different education systems so the people who are supportive of Britain, if you’re a loyalist, if you’re a Protestant, you get one history. The people who are nationalist, Catholic, they get an Irish history, and both are catered for. In my opinion, and we’re slowly edging toward that, the school kids should not be segregated at all, they should go to school together, get both sets of history simultaneously. We’re getting there slowly, slowly, slowly. 

Sofia: It’s a process.

Colin: But storytelling can help in that, because you can tell a story with compassion and without bitterness and get ideas across to young people that they wouldn’t necessarily get in raw history.  Sofia can I ask you another question?  Are there many publications of folktales and folklore from Pakistan? In the local language or even in English? 

Sofia: Not things that are widely available…You’re seeing more and more published. Not particularly extensive collections, certainly not Pakistani stories, because we’re still trying to become Pakistan, if you will. We’re still Punjabis, Balochis and Sindhis. It’s a multicultural mess. So every one of those regions have their own stories. But you see a lot of the classics from the ancient days when you have Persian literature and you know the Indian classics: The Mahabharata and all that. Those are available. I have a little book over there called Legends of the Indus, a collection of maybe a dozen stories from the very northern end of the country and all along the Indus river, which makes its way all the way to the Arabian Sea. So you have little anthologies like that.There may be more collections I’m not aware of because I don’t speak the local languages. There was this wonderful lady, Roshni Rustomji. She taught in Sonoma State in the 1970’s, and she was saying that when she grew up in Karachi she was educated in the classics formally in school. But she’d be taking a taxi somewhere and the guy driving the taxi would reference all these old poems and stories, and she realized there’s this whole oral storytelling tradition she wasn’t at all tuned into, because she got the fairly British education, even though she got Indian classics as well. I don’t know how much is being done to preserve or make it accessible beyond Pakistan. It doesn’t help that we don’t talk to the Indians very much. But you’re seeing a lot of people break down these idiotic colonial divisions in the diaspora. So the process is underway, but it’s a process. Finding them in the West is still tricky. 

Colin: Karachi would probably be the hardest place to pick up folktales, you’d probably have to go out into the more remote regions to get them. Unless you had older relatives and so on. There’s an English storyteller named Peter Chand, he’s absolutely excellent. He’s English but his origins are India and I think maybe Pakistan, he tells a lot of Punjabi stories. And he’s getting a lot of those from his mother and older relatives, but  occasionally, I hear him talking about picking up books and collections and so on. 

Sofia: As I said, I’m not plugged into the story networks at all. I wouldn’t know where to begin, because no one in my family really bothered. You know, we’d tell family stories, but we’d been so thoroughly westernized for generations that we’re not connected to the folk culture at all. In Karachi there’s just not much of the folk culture going on. Up in Lahore there’s quite a bit, it’s a beautiful old city. But Karachi is a new rough and tumble city, and we just don’t have that heritage thing. 

Colin: Well, as I said at the outset the folklore dies out in the cities first then the villages and so on and so forth. People want to be modern. 

Sofia: Oh they do, they do…

Colin: I just acquired a pamphlet from the 1830’s. Of course, the early mid-nineteenth century the British Empire was at its height as we know, and sent relatively junior military officers to various outposts. Of course it was a military role that they had first and foremost, but they also took interest in geography, folklore, literature and so on. So anyway, there’s a young captain, I think he is, and he’s stationed in the Glens of Antrim in the 1830’s, and he makes notes on the geography and communication and trade and economics of the area…But he makes special reference to these ridiculous, silly, outdated, outlandish stories that they tell each other at night of giants and fairies. And all the moral codes contained within those stories and all the wonderful stories of the heroism of Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna have just gone completely over the top of his head. He is trying to be so utterly modern that he hasn’t really taken time to listen to these stories. He just records the fact that they don’t make any sense to him, and it made me smile when I read that.  

Sofia: Is that something  you run into in the modern world, where people are dismissive?

Colin: Of course. And it’s really bizarre, because they’re very dismissive in a general kind of way, but then incorporate all kinds of superstition into their modern life that come from those times, and come from those stories, and that way of living. And they’re not aware of it, it’s just been passed on to them. On one hand, they can be dismissive of, say, a fairytale, when I say “a fairytale” I don’t mean the fairytales of Grimm, Anderson and so on,  I’m talking about the Irish fairies the Sidhe, the Bean Sidhes and so on. They’re dismissive of all that, but they’re still superstitious in certain ways. They wouldn’t cut down a fairy thorn, for example, as Liz Weir always quotes.

Sofia: It’s funny how much gets handed down without us realizing it. 

Colin: Of course we don’t. That also includes all kinds of prejudices and all sorts of things. 

Sofia: Oh yes. Yes. 

Vel: Is there anything you’d like readers  to take away from this conversation?

Colin: I get the impression that anyone who’s reading your NSN newsletter–we’re pretty much preaching to the converted here. But I hope they get a little bit of enjoyment out of it or a snigger or a laugh. I hope it’s inspirational, and I hope people can see the value in tapping into their own culture even if they live on the other side of the world from where their culture is rooted.

Sofia: The heritage is out there, the culture is out there, the stories are out there, the folklore is out there, the history’s out there. If you  want to know it, you just have to go looking for it. You don’t have to be from where I’m from to be interested in Indian history. The history and stories are for everyone. And yes, it’s important to be able to tell our own stories, but not just to each other. It’s out there for everybody. 

Sofia Jamall  is a graduate student with the history department at SSU, working on a master’s thesis on 20th century Karachi, Pakistan. Her motivation for doing what she does is a desire to see underrepresented people’s stories included in the broader historical narrative, not as sideshows but as fully equal participants in all historical currents. She can be reached at fiajamall@hotmail.com, be patient with response times as she completes her thesis. 

To quote  the Belfast telegraph: “Colin Urwin is a singer-songwriter and storyteller who weaves magic and powerful emotion into his performances. He brings the listener with him on a journey from the present and the local into the past and the universal with consummate ease.” For more from Colin go to: www.colinurwin.com

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