In her recent post, “This is Not My Story,” Deepti Dhir considered the way writers’ personal narratives “reflect a desire to culturally belong.” In the following post, Jono picks up this reflection on Jackie Grutsch McKinney’s work on “grand narratives,” considering how we can help writers share stories that may otherwise remain unwritten.
Many of us, as teachers and writing center consultants, have come across an assignment or statement of purpose that asks an international student to offer his/her personal account of coming to America. Although these stories can be moving and are likely a profound writing experience for the student, many of them participate in a common narrative arc. Are these young writers playing to what the audience (an American audience) expects to hear from an immigrant?
In her book Peripheral Visions for Writing Center, Jackie Grutsch McKinney explores the concept of “grand narratives” or what James Berlin has called “the stories we tell about our experiences that attempt to account for all features of it” (19, qtd in McKinney 11). She argues that we all participate in this narrative shorthand, which tries to capture a complex event or moment in a familiar, manageable story. We might think of these grand narratives (or meta-narratives) as the kind of folklore that exists in families (one in my family is the story of my mother who, as a young girl on a farm in South Dakota, was forced by her mother to kill her first chicken by breaking its neck underneath a two-by-four—a story that attempts to account for a lot: her rough childhood, her scary mother, her resilience, her distaste for chicken, etc.) Or we can think of these grand narratives as historical myths (In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…). But today, for the purposes of this blog, I want to think about the immigration story as grand narrative.
These grand narratives are crucial to our identity, McKinney insists, in that they help us make sense of past and future experiences. They are an attempt to create coherence where there typically is none, to attribute a neat linearity to the messiness of our lives and history. However, these narratives also borrow from institutionalized ideas and often become sites where the tellers “enact culture” by conforming to cultural expectations. McKinney, paraphrasing Jerome Bruner, goes on to suggest: “We wish to present ourselves to others (and to ourselves) as typical or characteristic or ‘culture confirming’ in some way. In other words, narratives reveal how tellers are trying to belong” (16). McKinney also borrows from Nancy Fleckenstein’s ideas on visual and rhetorical habits: “For Fleckenstein,” McKinney writes:
We belong to communities in proportion to the degree in which we can participate in specific visual and rhetorical modes valued by that community: ‘Membership in a culture is predicated on one’s ability to see and speak in the privileged mode. To be a member of a particular culture demands that one develop and deploy that culture’s dominant view of seeing and speaking. (18)
In this way we might come to read my mother’s story as one that perhaps conforms to culturally sanctioned notions of farm life or to the common narratives surrounding rough childhoods. The Columbus poem that we hear as children participates in the grand narrative of discovery and exploration, the antecedent to American ingenuity and wherewithal. But these stories conceal as much as they tell. Most obviously, the Columbus narrative falls apart as we later learn about the near decimation of an entire culture, which is to say that every narrative holds within it several counter-narratives. To quote Hayden White: “Every narrative, however seemingly full, is constructed on the basis of set events that might have been included but were left out: this is as true of imaginary narratives as it is of realistic ones” (10).
If we applied these ideas to our students’ immigration stories, we might better understand how culture can impact the way one writes about the world, and thus sees and experiences the world. So again we should ask: Are these recurring narrative moments—the sad goodbye, the confusing big city, the struggle and miscommunication, the gradual assimilation—inspired by the student’s actual experiences or by the audience’s expectations?
If this question bothers us, McKinney offers a get-out-of-jail-free card. Drawing on Betty Edwards, she suggests that, “Instead of telling a story … on what we imagine is there based on our communal habits of storying … maybe we should study closely what we do see and trace the negative space around that so we get a sense of what [we] are not” (89).
In other words, McKinney reminds us that sometimes our jobs demand more than passing on tools to initiate students into the academic modes of traditional discourse; sometimes we need to access a student’s voice by looking for and pointing to what’s not in that discourse, to teach by way of contradiction. She cites Nancy Fleckenstein on this sense of contradiction:
Contradiction erupts within the visual narrative because any narrative—verbal or visual—is sewn together out of bits and pieces of images…We sift through a bewildering kaleidoscope of images, picking and choosing what to attend to and how to respond to those selected images…However all those bits and pieces we leave out press for attention. They put pressure on the tenuous narrative unity so that disorder and incoherence erupt. (125, qtd in McKinney 87)
Disorder is the aim here only insofar as it challenges the dominant culture and allows, perhaps, for a version of the story that is closer to the truth (albeit, in a constructivist framework, no such truth exists.) Nonetheless, McKinney says we should encourage the counter-narratives, the versions of the story that exist beneath or beyond the grand narrative. Taking up Nancy Grimm’s term, she calls this type of teacher or consultant a “trickster”—one who is always looking to put pressure on “institutional expectations and values.” So the questions on the table are: Should we become this trickster when faced with an immigration story that feels somehow false? And in what other ways can we highlight counter-narratives to provide students with a voice that is not solely the domain of the academy and the dominant culture?
image from https://www.statuecruises.com/#/