Tell us a story, daddy, you know, one with us in it, our friends, rock n rollers, fairies, and Og, Gog and Magog. We used to hear this on long car journeys, when I made the mistake of telling a long convoluted story in order to keep the girls occupied. I became the storyteller. It went on, and on. And kids, well they follow the narrative better than you do. “I thought you said Tim Rogers was captured by Justin Bieber”
As we well know, storytelling is important/critical in maintaining knowledge, wisdom, traditions in oral cultures such as our own indigenous nations, or the Icelandic sagas.The importance of building a narrative around disasters cannot be underestimated. As an 18 year old, I indirectly experienced the unfolding and long term events of Ash Wednesday. I watched it all with horror, with my mother saying, well, in 1939 your Grandfather left the home with a wet sack in hand and we didn’t see him for weeks, and didn’t recognise him on return. This was part of our own family narrative.
In 2003, one of the community development officers from East Gippsland, a gentle giant of a man, Brian Blakeman, approached us with a proposal to fund a book of stories. As a relatively green recovery manager, I wasn’t too convinced. Surely they just needed counselling, I thought and probably responded. “They won’t talk to a counsellor, but they do want to tell their story” was Brian’s response. OK, we said, willing to give something “different” a go. And flames across the mountains was born. Years later, I met Brian, who turned out to be the stepfather of a close friend of mine, and on his verandah, he told me how emotional it was but so positive for people, to have their experience validated, and worthy enough of inclusion in something that the community valued.
I used a storytelling approach to the Strathewen Memorial. To get a sense of the place, and what is important to people, I asked people as part of their written responses, and the groups we ran, to tell me the story of Strathewen. From that we built a narrative the community, that then helped inform the memorial design.
Storytelling is an increasingly important tool to convey ideas and messages. Only this week, colleague and friend Ruth Lane, working in Vietnam put me onto a fascinating woman, Tamara Plush who is using digital storytelling in a activist way We are moving towards using stories to convey preparedness messaging. Our rediplan is a conduit for people telling others the things they learn. If only I had, or I’m glad I had. Stories are able to personalise issues into something that people can relate to, sometimes better than facts and figures.
What happens around here, what’s the story of this place ? are two pretty important simple questions for disaster assessors. Along with data, and hard facts, I like people to tell me the story of a place. Speaking to Geoff from Elmhurst last year, told me all about how the place worked, the newbies, the oldies, the pub being central to everything, the festival of the wind, that people just got on and did stuff.
One of the great disaster recovery people, Dr Rob Gordon, is successful because he tells stories from his clinical experience. I have seen others try to do the same thing, and they are engaging people, but they shroud things in statistics, and they lose the audience. People don’t want to be a stat, they want to be in a story. I try to emulate Rob (as hard as that is) in my teaching and training.
We saw after Black Saturday, particularly, a rush to publish various accounts of the day, and the aftermath. I wonder how can anyone make sense and meaning when they rush to publish? To this day I haven’t been able to read any of the accounts Bali or Black Saturday. Maybe it will come one day. I think it’s important to record these stories in a dispassionate way, such as Sophie Cunningham’s Warning . Create the body of knowledge. But as I’ve said previously, we must treat the stories with the complexity they deserve, and tell the story of recovery. I recently read Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo, which was a great fictional story about a couple doing the sea change thing. The penultimate events revolve around a bushfire, and its harrowing and challenging. But we don’t see what comes next, the characters maybe frightened for their lives, waking up in cold sweats or nightmares six, 12 months down the track, or sitting in the corner, staring into space, or blowing up for no reason at the littlest things.
Can we read tonight? My 13 year old still likes to be read to. We are currently on Lord of the Rings, after finishing the Harry Potter Marathon (wait til I do a post on what we can learn from Harry Potter in Disaster Management). Storytelling is powerful, such an intimate and powerful connection between people.