The life of stories

I was sitting in a cafe with friends in Darwin on the weekend, sharing stories about my time in the Mäpuru homelands (in NE Arnhem Land). It had been a while since I last recalled stories of my being with the people and country in Mäpuru; amongst many other things, this time in my life was characterised by deep learning about myself and what it is to be embraced by hosts whilst being a guest and in the cultural minority [1]. My recollections over coffee turned into storytelling and an actor that I have not been with for a while resurfaced from my past – the story about the Basket and the Book. This story describes a critical moment in my life, when the cultural lens through which I perceive the world became glaringly visible. The story also traces my own unraveling as ‘Nia’ and the process through which I was remade through my new connection (gurruṯu/kinship). If a humble basket and book have the potential to unravel and re-make, what about all the other things in our everyday lives?

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So what happens to stories when we ‘put them down’? By placing The Basket and the Book on a website, surely the story has a life other than in my own memory. Verran and Winthereik (2012) offer discussion on ethnographic stories and suggest that they have agency; that they ‘make and work relations’ (p. 1). This idea that ethnographic stories are not just representations of other but actors with interventionist potential is a critical way of disrupting the view that stories are static and inert. But what gives ethnographic stories their interventionist potential? Verran and Winthereik (2012) attribute this potential to their capacity to ‘re-present the world in ways that are generative for the people and practices that the stories are about, as well as for the authors and their academic collective’ (p. 1) and their ability to ‘… ‘dive into’ the everyday, a move towards the inside to show what the everyday is made of’ (p. 2).

Looking around me whilst sitting at my desk, I wonder about all of the things (beyond the basket and the book) which have the agency to unravel and re-make me in this moment… my computer, desk, text books, the light streaming through my west-facing window… Each day I sit amongst these things and perform ‘doing a PhD’, often whilst longing to be amongst the other networks of association that I have performed in through my research (mamara, sand dunes, brolgas, morning star, moon cycles…).

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[1] Anderson (2008) writes about the Mäori ritual of powhiri where the tangata whenua (people of the land/the home people) welcome the manuhiri (the “others”/guests) to country: “ritual performances like powhiri facilitate interaction between groups from near and far in traditional ritual of encounter” (p. 69). The powhiri ritual aims to lift the tapu (sacred/forbidden/unknown/beyond one’s control) “from the manuhiri – the ‘others’ – in order to change their state from tapu to noa, in order to normalize relations between them and the Tangata whenua” (pp. 88-9). Noa is taken to mean secular or normal/known. “The transition between the states of tapu and noa is effected by a series of interactive encounters between tangata whenua and manuhiri. These encounters involve music (waiata), oratory (whaikoreo), and dance (haka)” (p. 85).

I am struck by the potential to re-story people-place connections through welcoming rituals and feel that the Arnhem Weaving workshops with Yolŋu in Mäpuru, the walks up Guluga Mountain with the Yuin people and walking the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail with the Goolarabooloo people are all experiences where I have felt welcomed to country in a generative way, where I have been re-made by the local people-place.

References:

Anderson, HA 2008, ‘A Confluence of Streams: Music and Identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Maryland, <http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/8478?mode=full&submit_simple=Show+full+item+record&gt;.

Verran, H & Winthereik, BR 2012, ‘Ethnographic stories as generalisations that intervene’, Science Studies, vol. 25, no. 1.

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