Storytelling in Daily Life

Storytelling in Daily Life
by Kristin M. Langellier and Eric E. Peterson, 2004
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Storytelling in Daily Life is an important book that has dated little in six years. Co-authored by Kristin M. Langellier and Eric E. Peterson, it is shaped most by a series of oral interviews Langellier conducted with Americans of French-Canadian descent. Although it is written from a communications perspective, it touches heavily on folk content, particularly the issues involved in drawing from oral history and other firsthand sources. It is a worthwhile resource for any creative artist mining folkloristic or other ethnic material and interested in negotiating the barriers of cultural appropriation, other issues touching on racism and gender prejudice, or simply in knowing how families tell their own stories. Langellier’s and Peterson’s book will help a reader understand better where some of the fault lines are, and what to be aware of in writing about these areas. For those with a special interest in the subject matter it is also a pleasure to read.

The first pages of Storytelling in Daily Life are full of the postmodern terminology that was virtually required at the time. This should not put readers in 2010 off the book. At the time of Langellier and Peterson’s writing, the principal sources of insight into the contested nature of storytelling were heavily indebted to postmodernism; the available discourse was that of Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva. Perhaps with the return to moral absolutes on both sides of the political spectrum in the wake of September 11, 2001, some of this perspective has dated; at the same time its key points have taken hold in most considerations of narrative, such that they no longer need to announce allegiance to what might be called “official” postmodernism, as Langellier and Peterson’s book still does. It is no more than an announcement; Storytelling in Daily Life gets down to business pretty quickly.

The heart of the book is in its exploration of storytelling in families, with a focus on Franco-American families of Québéçois or Acadian descent in the state of Maine. It is set in a landscape well known to me. I walked across French Island twice daily when I lived with family in nearby Milford, to get to Old Town and the local bus route, and to go back. Though the Franco-American culture is not the same as the one I grew up in, it has some things in common with the Armenian-American culture into which I married and the Baltic German culture of my parents. All the cultures originating in French Canada share an allegiance to the ideal of la survivance: maintaining a French identity amid the majority Anglophone culture, well before any such concept as multiculturalism existed.

What was passed on was a culture that had already taken on a separate identity from the European French, as in the Americas it would distinguish itself subtly from the Québéçois. Since the French were not going to rewrite the history of the Americas and French immigration to the Americas was severely limited, the French enclaves dedicated themselves to carrying on a culture and a dialect owing much more to the old France they had left than the France of contemporary Europe. France became a modern society after the world wars, but Québec did not begin to enter the modern world until the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s and did so as a society that had missed the French Revolution and largely missed the Enlightenment. In Canada la survivance changed its tune to concern itself with Québéçois identity in the modern world, including political separatism.

This was not an option in the United States and as with other immigrant populations, the questions were those of juggling an American identity with a culturally distinct way of life; here as elsewhere in America la survivance was and remains the work of several generations who each have to ask the question of what exactly must survive. Classically, the triad of elder (often a grandparent), contemporary, and future generations share the burden of sorting the question out.

Langellier’s own way of being a Franco-American feminist is different from the negotiations made by some of those she speaks to, the women in particular. Many live within a more traditional structure than Langellier herself would choose, as in a keynote story told by “Marie”: her parish priest baptized her second child with approval, telling Marie he hoped she would be back next year. Marie told him it was not likely, and when scolded, she told the priest “I want more children, but you’re not going to see me next year if I can help it.” Langellier interprets Marie’s story as a compromise between Franco-American and Québéçois pronatalism and her own autonomy: she will do her duty for la survivance, contributing children to “the revenge of the cradle”–the drive to very large families as a counterbalance to the Anglophone majority–but planning the times. It’s also possible that Marie meant she would have the children but she would stay away from that priest, an interpretation Langellier doesn’t consider. Either way, it’s clear these stories are matters of practice as well as content–how an individual makes peace with her culture and her conscience while ensuring herself the minimum needed for her own survivance. Marie’s tactics and Langellier’s are both different from Charleen Touchette’s in It Stops With Me: Memoir of a Canuck Girl. Touchette found it impossible to remain in contact with her birth family or much about its culture, instead choosing the Jewish culture to which she belonged by marriage and the Native American side of her Métis heritage. She emphasizes that her mother didn’t believe one could be a “Canuck” without being Catholic and was unable to accept Charleen’s conversion to Judaism. In another story told by Langellier, a woman stops practicing her family’s religion but considers herself no less a part of its culture; nor is she cut off from her family in the way described by Charleen Touchette. The key difference may be that Touchette’s family was violent, while “Aimée’s” is imperfect but functional.

Touchette remembers “Foi, langue, et famille” as the cornerstones of French identity in her home town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Langellier turns up a very similar triad of “faith, French, and food” among her interviewees; “family” might not be mentioned as such because most of her subjects remain in viable family settings, and faith, French, and food can all be presumed to be experienced in the context of family. French and food are open to subtly varying interpretations in the same way as faith. The French language as spoken in Québec is older in some ways, having been split off from European French for centuries, and newer-styled in others, containing a far greater number of English borrowings, and is overall as different from standard French as American or Australian variants of English are from British English. One man interviewed by Langellier is proud of the fact that he has learned French again after putting it aside for a while in order to “pass.” (People of French-Canadian descent were treated as inferior in much of New England.) But he notes that it is European French, and recognizes this as one of the compromises he has made with the competing poles of la survivance and assimilation. He notes similar compromises relating to faith and food–he is a churchgoer, but he argues with an anti-abortion demonstrator outside his church; he cooks some Franco specialties, but avoids others as being too high in cholesterol, and it is a change from usual Franco practice that he is the cook rather than his wife. Another interviewee tells a story having to do with food as if it is subversive, while Langellier notes that it shores up male domination in its own way: her husband was used to very plain food in his family and would eat out if he saw that she had used onions in her cooking. So she would use whole onions in her cooking, and remove them before it was time to serve. Her husband finds this funny and now admits “you can’t cook without onions.”

This multivocal identity within the same person or group of people is obviously double-edged. One of the pleasures of Langellier and Peterson’s book is that it does not opt for a simple “subversion” plot in its own narrative of how individuals come to terms with the expectations of community and heritage; nor does it favor an unbelievable plot in which the heroic central character, usually a woman, at once subverts the dominant cultural narrative and patriarchal expectations and rediscovers it, perhaps contrasting the blandness of the assimilationist culture into which she grew up (raised by a mother beholden to both) to the heroic survivance of an ethnic grandmother. As Langellier points out, what this means is often that women simply end up doing everything as always. Langellier doesn’t fall prey to this stereotype, but remains more or less nonjudgmental. More exacting commentators such as Charleen Touchette, or Arlene Voski Avakian among Armenian-Americans, have told versions of the ethnic plot in which the only hope for the individual is to break ties more or less completely, and pursue her own survivance by rejecting both the “ethnic” culture and assimilationist culture; the “happy end” is found through her newfound allegiance to progressive culture, often identified as feminist and sometimes as pan-ethnic (more rarely as American in its own way, though it is). Langellier includes no stories with this ending. Otherwise the variety of options she explores bear a strong resemblance to the experiences of Middle Eastern feminists in the Americas, as explored in Joanna Kadi’s collection Food for Our Grandmothers. (Some parallels are surprisingly precise. The “revenge of the cradle” as practiced by the French in North America has a close cognate among Palestinians, for instance, as among some Orthodox Jews after the Holocaust.)

By contrast, a chapter on blogging is severely dated, though valuable as a historical capsule. It is interesting to note that this chapter, like the following two, depart entirely from the grounding of the first half in a specific community and within the setting of the family. Nor is any effort made to tie the insights of one group of essays with the remaining three. It is somewhat frustrating, because the grounds for doing so are rich. Langellier would be interested in the debates about identity and politics going on among feminist blogs today, including those within the sff community. The other two chapters, one about storytelling in live performance and the other about illness narratives, with a focus on breast cancer, are less dated but also written as if they have nothing to do with Langellier’s insights. One might have wished for more integration with the sensitive and thorough exposition the authors have performed previously, regarding storytelling in families.

Storytelling in families is particularly relevant to the subject of illness narratives. In fact it seems to me one cannot consider one without also incorporating the other. Family storytelling is put to its acid test when it has to incorporate a traumatic event. Likewise illness narratives face many of the same challenges as family narratives: who gets to say what, how, and when; what it means that this particular person is telling the story in his or her way, or else in a way that has been chosen for him or her by other people; whether other people agree with him or her that the story was as he or she tells it; what to do when healing narratives are taken over by others, who may or may not have differing levels of access to the same content and differing degrees of a right to tell their own story about the traumatic event. In an influential work by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, the authors tentatively explored ways in which the experience of listening to a recounted trauma involves the listener in the story as well as the teller. These are also performed stories taking place within a context of intimate relationships, especially in families, where the experience of the person suffering the illness is sometimes hard to separate from that of those around him or her. A person living alone can control the narrative to a significant degree; a person living in a family often cannot or may not. The same goes for other family members affected by the event. As soon as we do share our experience, we impose expectations on the audience as to how they will respond, and will relate to us accordingly. In a family setting this is inevitably affected by the politics of the family and serves to affect them in turn.

Not everyone will be happy with the extension of the illness narrative at least to the intimates of the patient. Kalí Tal referred to Testimony as “an appropriative exercise of stunning dimensions,” and one doesn’t have to go that far to appreciate the awkwardness of “witnessing by adoption” (for example) as a category of experience, as Holocaust-influenced literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman proposed it be. But while listening to a story does not make one a literal witness of a traumatic event, certainly if one has a loving relationship to the person telling the story it will have an effect and more so if the teller experienced the event. Moreover, these listeners are likely to be involved in one way or another in caregiving for the trauma survivor, especially if they are members of the same family; in turn the survivor may find himself or herself caring, sometimes inappropriately, for loved ones traumatized by his or her experience. I find Deborah Spungen’s category of “co-victims” useful here, though “witnesses by adoption” definitely risks appropriation. It is supremely relevant to Langellier’s project of tracing family survival through storytelling, since it is through these secondary categories of experience that a narrative is or is not passed on. The degree to which secondary experience is relevant in general can be argued, but there is no doubt that within a family and/or a small group setting it can become much more relevant than the firsthand experience of the individual. It is often at this point that the fault lines between individual/family and individual/small group are most significant and often the most painful.

But to say this is not entirely a criticism, because if a work like this does what it intends, it cannot possibly be complete; it must leave doors open for further exploration. There is much in the first half of the book that begins to suggest the ways in which family narratives incorporate trauma with the aim of passing on the family’s guiding narratives as proof against most evils, or conversely leave some traumas out because the family may be too vulnerable to awareness of them. Indeed the attitude of the family to the world outside itself bears some resemblance to the role difficult experience plays in the development of most individuals. Langellier acknowledges that families are constructed in part to protect their members from the outside world, but she points out that this role is meaningless if there is no exposure to the outside at all: “The nature of continuity of ethnic groups depends on the maintenance of a boundary through interaction rather than its avoidance.” (p. 127) Likewise the task of la survivance depends on a constant sorting-out between individuals and generations of what is to be kept and what will be allowed to fall away. “Alain,” for instance, tells a story of his rejection of a distinctive family role. It concerns the tradition of bloodstopping, a healing practice among the French that developed in the northern woods when accidents occurred and no medical help was available. The ability to heal depended upon the belief of both the bloodstopper and the victim. Alain’s father was a bloodstopper, well-known and sought out within the French community, and Alain is the son designated to succeed his father in the next generation. However, Alain states:

I never believed in it
and it’s supposed to be passed on to me from my father
my mother used to say I used to have wicked toothaches
she’d say well ask your father
he’d get rid of them
I’d say Mom I don’t believe in that
I’m a young man now
I don’t believe in that
so ah it was never passed on to me

Despite this disclaimer in which he declines the passing of his father’s mantle, Alain offers a gripping story in which his father saves a man’s life after a shooting accident. The historical moment may contribute to Alain’s skepticism: bloodstopping animates the lore of older people and earlier times. Alain is not his father. Still he continues to embrace the place of its roots, living on French Island where he was born.

Alain’s decision represents a loss from the point of view of a single tradition and a single family (presumably a nuclear family: in the extended family, Alain may have siblings and cousins who could have learned bloodstopping). Langellier points out that this is normal: “Families, however, are always in flux, always undergoing internal change through births and deaths, marriages and divorces, new and waning relationships. Put another way, families are always incorporating new members as children are born or adopted and raised, and as new members enter by way of marriage and conjugal relations. Conversely, families are always losing members as children grow up and leave home, as well as through deaths and divorce.” As Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy has shown in her work on trauma narratives, the ordering process of narrative may exactly parallel the work the self needs to do to survive trauma. The danger often comes into play when the ordering of the individual challenges that of the culture too deeply. “At a family dinner, for example, a twelve-year-old child was asked by her mémère, ‘what do you eat at home?’ The granddaughter first distinguished between the before and after of her parents’ divorce, and then what she eats at home with her mother and stepfather, and then with her father and stepmother.” Although the child meant this sensibly, Langellier’s extended interpretation of the answer suggests that it was not acceptable to mémère–perhaps not wrong on the part of the child, but not a survival story that contributed to the survival of the family and the culture as mémère could understand it, coming as she did from a generation in which divorce was rare. The coping and support mechanisms for dealing with the traumas may already be in place (“what she eats at home with her mother and stepfather, and then with her father and stepmother”) without this particular crisis being resolved; it may in fact only become a crisis when it demands telling.

The same can be said for other stresses threatening the identity of the ethnic family as a reproducible whole. As in Charleen Touchette’s case, a member who does not practice the group’s core religion can convert to another religion, a far more threatening event than simply falling away from the religion of birth. Touchette “divorced” her parents after her beloved mother told her Jewish children that “the Jews killed Christ.” The revelation of abuse in families can certainly function in this way. Touchette’s family has tried to remove her memoir from the library in Woonsocket, in a case that is beyond the scope of this article. She will certainly find some sympathy among those who prefer narratives like Charleen Touchette’s in which the “happy end” is that the old, non-viable ethnic family is permanently dislocated in favor of a new progressive family, chosen voluntarily, if with certain elements such as the Native that the individual can accept. But since this answer will itself not be acceptable to everyone it is problematic to make it normative, even if it is equally problematic for survivors in Touchette’s position to know that the old ways go on. To be sure, some feminist or gay family members find it impossible to be themselves and remain a part of the family narrative, though this is slowly changing.

Illness narratives, as an emerging genre, have tended to favor a parallel to the “subversion” model of the family narrative as told by some feminist or otherwise nontraditional tellers: the highly artificial and stressful authoritarian setting of modern medicine is replaced with a personalist, individually centered narrative of what happened to this particular patient. It is significant that Alain’s example involved trauma and medicine: his disinclination to believe in bloodstopping represented one of his most personal choices, and a triumph of sorts though one about which he is ambivalent. If however we take the personalist focus of the illness narrative, with its emphasis on the social and emotional context of illness, we find it inevitably returning us to the web of relationships in which people live and structures that resemble families, whether or not they are birth families. In such a context there can be no “right” way to tell even the most personal story, as Langellier emphasizes repeatedly in telling her Franco stories: when it comes to sticking points of trauma, politics, gender, class, religion, sexuality and increasingly race, sometimes the best we can do is to observe that these things create differences.

As a resource for writers interested in “writing the other,” this book is invaluable. It will make clear to any interested reader that neither peoples nor families are monolithic, and the narratives of individuals within these groups reflect the need to balance individual self-awareness with the demands of a group that is itself not all one thing. The writer’s inhabiting of an “other” voice is less likely to be invasive or appropriative if it recognizes that otherness is multiple, not single, and even more crucially, that it is shared: that the person whose voice one assumes exists in relation to others of his or her own kind and to the rest of the world. Such a person lives in more than one dimension and his or her negotiation of this complexity is not reducible to a few markers of identity: however significant the “French, faith and food” markers of Franco-American cultural identity, each person in Langellier’s sample has made a different set of compromises with them. They also share a need to compromise with folk practices, such as Alain’s father’s bloodstopping, which are the stuff of fantasy literature but were part of real life within the living memory of individuals. The negotiations made with religion and women’s roles–too easily dismissed from mainstream progressivism as antifeminist by definition–will be especially interesting to a culture that has yet to begin to come to terms with Muslim identity, though women are significant among the few sff writers of Middle Eastern descent (such as Ann-Marie MacDonald, Vera Nazarian, JoSelle Vanderhooft and Amal El-Mohtar). This book is not for everyone, being written in clear but densely explanatory prose and superseded in parts, but it is recommended without reservation to folklorists, oral and family historians, researchers into ethnicities, and anyone else with more than a consumer’s interest in storytelling.