The Iliad begins with an invocation of Calliope, Muse of the epic:
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
– Homer, the Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles
Curiously, this invocation is not only a call for inspiration. It suspends the story out of time, elevates it to a realm we can access only through the portal of language. It does not just invoke a goddess; it invokes a mythical past and contemporary audience, binding them together with words. An illustration: the epic recalls an event from the first millennium BC, was composed of disparate oral tales by Homer in the 8th century BC, and has drawn people across time and space into its verbal world ever since.
A key point: storytelling binds our experiences.
The written word has always been my stronger point; with a slightly unsynchronised brain and mouth, I have always articulated better on paper than in mouth-noises. That is not to say I have never paid attention to spoken stories – indeed, I have been blessed with true raconteurs in my life (notably, Pastor Jay of the Indian orphanage and my dear friend Chitra) – but only yesterday did I truly muse on the role of spoken storytelling in our life.
This was catalysed by some curious events the day before. I’m in the process of reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which, despite being apparently satirical, pains me with its rather simplistic discourse. After a couple of unsatisfying hours reading through it (and cursing the editor because, for fuck’s sake, I’ve found two spelling errors in it already, among other Literary Sins), I found myself in a much superior storytelling encounter with three English teachers from my high school.
I have been sworn to secrecy on the details of the encounter but am likely allowed to expatiate on the thoughts on storytelling I had garnered from that experience. When I was alerted to the possibility of that bizarre encounter, my first comment was, “I think it would make a great story”. And it did, in fact. And within the overall narrative of my bewilderment and amused discomfort (fidgeting, twisting hands into the voluminous sleeves of my jumper), even more stories emerged.
It seemed this event was, in many ways, an emotional catharsis in the form of storytelling. In the midst of it, it did not feel like storytelling in a traditional sense (neither pre-historic tribes clustered in reach of a bonfire’s glow, nor toddler drowsing to the soporific tune of a parent’s voice); I only realised afterwards, when I was translating it into the written word, that I could collect certain packages of ranting sentences into stories with hastily-invented genres. In that moment of collation, I truly felt what Homer must have when he wrote the Iliad – a sense of narratives coming together over disparate tales, of audiences coming together over stories, of times coming together over certain words spoken in certain places.
After leaving this event (thoroughly bewildered and a little concerned about the state of my life; I had been cheerfully hazed as a novel, non-teacher addition to the usual crowd), I found myself in another situation of storytelling. Instead of catharsis, this was more reminiscence; my favourite band (New Order, born from the ashes of Joy Division) was having a “conversation” with a friend (Mark Reeder, Mancunian snazzy dresser). Mark was full of fascinating stories about East Berlin and buying 4km of cloth in Shanghai; New Order had hilarious tales about the inspiration of “Bizarre Love Triangle”, Terry the Roadie’s chaotic fuzzy boots, and “certain ex-members of this band”. There was a very apparent sense of mythmaking in the conversation, of weaving together a body of knowledge around a singularity (ha ha). Myths about certain personalities and relationships. Myths about certain works and processes. Myths about certain events. Deconstructing and reworking certain myths.
I suppose, in a more subtle way, the event with the teachers had a similar element of mythmaking.
The process of recording these stories – from the teachers and from New Order – was a desperate attempt to salvage rapidly fading memories. I had to be selective of what I kept and what I omitted, inadvertently carving out new myths. Perhaps I was trying to make sense of the otherwise fragmented experiences by coalescing them into an established narrative (like Yeats. I’m totally Yeats). My particular form of wordsmithing led me to select certain words that could only cast the events from a particular perspective. I couldn’t possibly capture each facet of the live experience. Interestingly, as I spoke little during these events (I like to think of myself as an observer. Mostly, I’m just socially reticent), the writing process allowed me to inject my previously missing voice into the stories. Take this passage, for example:
[Teacher #1] is organising a domestic violence awareness day type thing, and [my high school’s] Women’s Collective must collaborate with [the boys’ school]’s Social Justice Council, comprised mostly of wanky teenage boys who are vying for position of prefect (because honestly, raging misogynists they are why else would any [boy from the boys’ school] commit himself to a feminist cause).
Where I been silent during the account of this event, the written word offered my outsider’s voice prime position, annotating the original tale with the comments I had repressed during the conversation. Here is my derision for the ambitious “wanky teenage boys”. There is the boys’ school’s reputation for being a misogynist sausage-machine (verily, it taketh years before they are reformed – this I have witnessed with mine own eyes).
There. With a smattering of opinions, I have bound a host of other people’s stories into my story.