Stories have fascinated me for a long time. Not just the stories themselves, but the way the represent us, the way they are us, the way they are told and the way we use them. This general idea follows me into my work as an historian, where I am most interested in the way we record the things we know and how the ways we tell our stories reflect our cultural values. In my own life, the anthropologist in me is fascinated with the way life events take on formative, even mythical powers. In this case, there are two aspects I’m particularly interested in. First, my inability to determine which events will be formative. Often events or experiences that seem relatively unimportant are the ones that turn out to be most affective, whereas larger upheavals are often absorbed with less shock. Second, I’m interested in the way I find myself telling my own stories – in person, in this blog, in my other creative writing projects – the way details get left out, the way the truth is bolstered by half-truths and conflations that support the ideas I have of myself, even as the details may be suspect from a journalistic point of view: fiction is often more true than fact. I realize this may sound like heresy coming from someone who is an historian by profession. But really, it’s not. It all depends on the way in which the details are exposed. And I know the difference between scholarship and other types of writing.
I have been trying to ignore a half-written short story for a while now. There are other things I should be doing. And yet the mythology of the story is strong and keeps pulling me back. And I have made a commitment to myself to finish it and send it out into the world. It is based on an old tale that examines the idea of personal choice, couched in a black and white system of good and evil. My version turns the value system on its ear (or, at least, I hope it does) and plays off of our inability to determine the ethical route, to recognize good and evil. It’s a very simple story, but as I work on it, I realize that it says more about me and my view of the world than perhaps anything I’ve ever written before. It reflects my experiences, but also my mythology – the stories I know, that I retell to myself in ways that make sense to me given my own set of experiences, the art I have seen, the places I’ve lived, etc.
When I picked up the Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine this week, it immediately resonated with me. The book artfully weaves a story of a Lebanese family with roots in both Christianity and Islam, into myths told and retold. The old stories come from a variety of sources, including, most prominently, The Arabian Nights and The Bible. Some stories are told over and over again by different characters so that you can see how they change as the circumstances of the telling change. As the book progresses, characters cross over between the mythical stories and the contemporary story. Although I’m not finished yet, I am guessing that by the end, we will be left with the question of whether the contemporary story is as much myth as the rest. What is the relationship between stories and truth? And then there is the fact that, of course, the novel is itself a story told by a sort of “Hakawati” – a storyteller.
My book group met last night to discuss this book and the discussion was rather like peeling an onion, drawing back layer upon layer of meaning. The discussion was vibrant and so engaging that I nearly missed my train home because I hadn’t noticed that three hours had elapsed in the beat of eyelash.
And so this morning I am back at my favorite coffee shop table, my laptop fan humming, my coffee half-drunk, half-cold, wondering if this time, this place will be part of my mythology. Is that why I keep coming back to the same table? Ordering the same cup of coffee? What stories will this moment be responsible for? It is nice, though, to sit down to write and be haunted by a book that makes you want to write.