This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto. A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities. (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)
Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story of victimisation in multiple voices, drawn from our own ranks at the ISA, and laid bare the systemic problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy. It was the sort of story that had half the audience stunned into silence and the other half nodding in knowing agreement.
In the wake of that story, the discussion took on a life of its own, with a number of audience members calling for solidarity, empathy, and action. Others were shocked and claimed no knowledge that such a world existed under their very noses. Still others shrugged it off, saying that the story lacked an understanding of the complicity of its own narrator (or rather, its narrators) – that it was a kind of call, but one that should not be answered. Sitting in the audience, I said nothing, watched and listened as the tension in the room crested and abated.
Two years earlier, in a similar conference room in San Diego, I had told a story of my own. I hadn’t planned to tell that particular story – in fact, I’d decided months earlier to present a piece I had written for my doctoral thesis that had gotten a warm reception in other settings, which has since appeared here in another form. That was someone else’s story, from my fieldwork in Cuba. But, about two weeks before the start of the ISA, a story of my own came to me all at once and I wrote it in less than an hour. I brought both with me to the roundtable and sat them on the table in front of me, in case I lost the nerve to tell my own story, but somehow I managed it, shaking hands and all.
In the discussion that followed, someone asked if each of us had chosen the stories we had told, or if our stories had chosen us. I answered that mine had chosen me, because it had: it had sprung to life in my mind almost fully formed, and I had made virtually no changes to it afterward. What I couldn’t answer was why I had told it. It was personal, a story of trauma that I had never shared before, and I had doubted my ability to tell it, but nonetheless I had felt compelled.
After the Toronto roundtable, I started to think again about why, and here is what I’ve got after a year. First, for me and the story I chose to tell, it was about claiming back power in a safe (and closed) setting. Sitting behind a table in a panel session is, in some ways, safer than a one-on-one conversation with a friend. Questions, for the most part, focus on the implications of storytelling rather than the particulars of the stories themselves. (And I know it’s jarring to see not one but two stories mentioned here without more than a word or two as to their content, but it’s those implications, what those stories did, that I want to explore here. I hope you understand.) The safety of the podium is not complete – after the San Diego roundtable, I was cornered at a reception by an oblivious colleague who, wine glass in hand, pressed me for further details – but it’s something. Telling the story there, in that room, was a way of owning my story. Those were the personal reasons – and good ones, I think.
Over time, though, I realised that there was another reason that I shared it, or that I felt like I had to share it. It’s about, for lack of a better term, rehearsing vulnerability. On that day in San Diego, I had been a Doctor of Philosophy (whatever that means) for about two months. I had written a thesis – and since then, a book – that trafficked heavily in the personal narratives and experiences of marginalized women of colour living in a state that sought to manage and control them. I had sat at tables in cafes and bars, perched on park benches and on the Malecón in Havana, and sat up long into the night in their bedrooms and living rooms with them. They had shared their experiences of falling in love, being rejected and abandoned, facing incarceration, living through violence, and coping with fear. It was risky for many of them to speak to me: they chanced heightened police scrutiny and even arrest if we were found out. They also opened up about their relationships, histories, and dreams for the future – and agreed to let me write about these very personal aspects of their lives. Telling my own story was about gaining empathy for the people whose stories I tell outside of that room where we hold the roundtable, when I write and when I speak, as a social researcher. In that sense, it isn’t really about these stories; it’s about the chance to feel what it’s like to share intimate, personal experiences with others – something that I certainly asked my informants to do.
Storytelling was and is an ethical practice for me, a form of responsibility and accountability to the Other, to the researched, and an acknowledgement (however cursory and insufficient) of the relationship of power between us. That vulnerability was important to me – and it is why in that moment, at least in that moment, it would have felt disingenuous to share anyone’s story but my own. I’m not saying that personal stories should be free from scrutiny or criticism. But I am saying that critique should show respect for deeply personal testimony. When it comes to stories of violence and trauma, like the one that started the fire in Toronto, calls to admit complicity miss the point and veer too easily into blame. And if we think that there is always an answer to questions like why did you do this? or why didn’t you say that? then we’re missing something about lived experience.
The beauty of stories is that they bring in the complexity and the mess of lived experience. It’s true that there are risks inherent in taking stories at face value, allowing problematic assumptions and ideas to be ushered in under cover of ‘authentic’ lived experience. There’s also a danger that instead of rehearsing vulnerability, we’re actually performing it from our relatively safe position, or vicariously revelling in it as audience members. But to write it off quite so easily seems disingenuous, too. It may not compare to the risks faced by my Cuban informants, but the risks of sharing personal stories in professional spaces are nonetheless not be underestimated.
What I do want to say is that maybe – possibly? hopefully? – storytelling can in this way be an ethical practice that works against some of the navel-gazey-ness of which narrative politics has been accused. Storytelling and narrative writing in international relations have been called a kind of auto-ethnographic therapy, or “caring for international selves”, in this very space, but I think it can be more than that. Or maybe it can be more than that for those of us who have made the lives of our research subjects, those people out there, our bread and butter as scholars.
At the very least, we can take the experience of that vulnerability and that radical openness with us when we leave the roundtable.
Thank you to the Andrews (Priest and Slack) for workshopping this piece with me.