Can Storytellers Help Save the World: From Fictional Narrative to Real World Change 

In times of crisis, societies look to their storytellers to understand and process the challenges and to peek around corners to see pathways that purely rational analyses simply can’t fathom. Today, best-sellers in fiction and memoir are setting real-world information about the climate crisis, social justice movements, and migration realities within their narratives. Audiences are ready for these stories, but what about artists? Does the moment dictate the art? In our ancestral past it was the myth-makers who guided their communities through crisis. How do storytellers move in or move out of our current reality? 

Bioneers invited a world-class group of writers from around the world to explore these questions and more. Hosted by Laleh Khadivi, Iranian-born writer and filmmaker, the conversation featured Keenan Norris, novelist, essayist and scholar and Andri Snær Magnason, Icelandic novelist, poet, filmmaker and environmental activist. Their complete bios can be found below. 

Please enjoy this excerpt of their fascinating conversation on the Bioneers stage, as three writers coming from tremendously different backgrounds explore the overlapping themes of mythology, family history, and migration as they weave fictional narratives with real world movements for change.

LALEH KHADIVI: As I was researching the books and the writers we have here today, I realized something that was startling, and it made me want to begin with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Library of Babel: 

“Methodical composition distracts me from the present condition of humanity. The certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal. I know districts in which the young people pros­trate themselves before books and like savages kiss their pages, though they cannot read a letter. Epidemics, heretical discords, pilgrimages that inevita­bly degenerate into brigandage have decimated the population. I believe I mentioned the suicides, which are more and more frequent every year. I am perhaps misled by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species –­ the only species – teeters at the verge of extinction, yet that the Library­ enlightened, solitary, infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret – will endure.”

I’m going to start with something rather uncanny. Both of you begin your most recent books in libraries. Not only that, but you both begin your books holding precious texts. Not only that but you both hold the texts with fear that they will evaporate in your hands. Not only that but you then go on to put the text down and begin interviewing your families, which is another archive unto itself. I’d like to begin the conversation by asking why, when you set out to write about our current moment and the future, do you begin by going backwards?

KEENAN NORRIS: That’s a wonderful question. Why go backwards first? I feel particularly, as a Black person, as a Black American, that the many material barriers to a fuller historical knowledge of my family members heritage and history – let alone my people’s heritage and history – creates really an exceptionally intense desire to go backward, to look backward. To somehow recapture a glimmer of this historical lifelong past that none of us can fully know, to understand that which has come before.

ANDRI SNÆR MAGNASON:  Thinking about a time in the future, like 2100, is strangely culturally meaningless for us. I found that it was easier to connect to the future by first connecting to the past and creating a ballast against that. I was recalling the oldest thing that I had handled. My first summer job was in the archives of the University of Iceland, which have the primal sources of Nordic mythology, like the Edda Manuscripts written around 1200 that contain memories from, well, who knows how old the memory is. We lost all the Viking ships, but we preserved almost all the stories that were in the people’s heads that came to Iceland.

If that single manuscript had been lost, we would know little about Thor, Valhalla, Ragnarök, all these concepts. I was handling this manuscript, this primal source of Nordic mythology, putting it on display every single day. I had nightmares every night where I was dumped down with the manuscript, and I lost it, and suddenly I was in my underwear, and I had lost the manuscript.  

The same summer, I had my first child. I was 23. In my hands I had this slimy little unwritten future and then this 800-year-old wisdom. I was thinking, wow, if he becomes 100, he will be alive in 2100. Meanwhile this manuscript has been around for 800 years. How do you decide to preserve something for 800 more years, to the year 2800? Will the language be here? The Earth has changed more in the past 100 years of the manuscript than it did in the previous 700 before that. I was using the past to understand the future.

LALEH: That’s kind of what I suspected, given the similarity of your books. Keenan was in the Yale archives, and he was holding Richard Wright’s notes, and the beginnings of the manuscripts. Both encounters are with stories that are reaching through time to get us. The stories that you both wrote reach through time to get the people in the future – and they lead you back to your families.

KEENAN: I understand history first through my family. The first histories that I was told were the histories that my father and mother told me about our family, about how we got to California, how on my father’s side they came through Chicago; how on my mother’s they came through Oklahoma via the Central Valley in California, both leaving the South, as part of the Great Migration. For me, history is rooted in the family.

When I went to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where Richard Wright’s archives are kept, a realization that came upon me as I moved through the successive layers of surveillance in this kind of un-layering process – they literally make you disrobe and go through security to make sure you can’t record, take photographs, all that. As I spent time at Beinecke, I realized: Richard Wright isn’t really here. This is where his papers are; this is where his formal archive is, but the Richard Wright who lived and wrote in Memphis and in Chicago and in New York and in Paris isn’t here. I needed to go back to where he had actually written this work, to the extent that I could.

When I was 13 years old, my father gave me James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on a Mountain. He said, “Read this and you’ll know more about who I am.” When I was 14, he gave me Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy, the real title of which is American Hunger, and said, “Read these books and you’ll know more about where I’m from.” Those books became a second way of understanding my own family history.

Again, history is mostly lost to us. It’s mostly lost to us, but I hoped to recover some fragments of these stories that Wright told, which my father had given to me as kind of a second layer of history, to help me understand our family and our family’s journey, that wasn’t to be found in this formal archive. Literature and stories are a way in which we try to make ourselves legible, understandable across generations.

ANDRI: The archives I worked in also contain thousands of hours of recordings that folklorists had been collecting. I was listening to these recordings and learning the stories of the folklorists themselves, the work they did to gather what remained from elders. For example, they heard that an old lady knew a fragment of some lullaby, and they rushed up north to catch her at the elderly home, asking her to sing, but then her voice was broken and she just had a stroke a week before. So they eternally lost this lullaby.

I was listening to thousands of hours of old ladies singing songs that they learned from their grandmothers, that they learned from their grandmothers, that they learned from their grandmothers, and they could trace it maybe 300 years back.

I was thinking about how something goes from being common to becoming rare to becoming precious and then just lost.

I still had two grandmothers and three grandfathers (my grandmother had two husbands – not at the same time). Here I had a direct connection to the Great Depression, to all these stories. I began to interview them, no real structure or goal, just randomly. How was it during the occupation during the war in Iceland? What about Christmas, 1930? I thought that anything I recorded would become precious for my children.

Years later I met this climate scientist in Potsdam, and he asked me why I didn’t write about climate change. I said, “I don’t have authority; I’m not a scientist. Scientists should write about the science.” But he said, “People don’t understand that; they understand stories.”

I started to think about my family’s stories and what stories I could bring to the table, what my contribution to the global understanding of climate change would be. My grandparents were glacial explorers at a time when women were not supposed to go out to glaciers. They went on a glacial honeymoon in 1956, and they were stuck in a tent on a glacier for three days as a storm raged over. I asked them, “Weren’t you cold?” And they said, “Cold? We were just married.” I asked that question first when I was 10 and I didn’t quite understand the answer.  

They were exploring the glaciers and actually naming this tabula rasa, this white infinite 10,000 square kilometer mass, which is the biggest glacier in Iceland, one-tenth of the country. It didn’t even have a name at the time. I knew the person that was exploring and naming the place, but I would also know the person that would be here to see that place lost.

Suddenly my family story started to make sense.

LALEH: I want to stay on family for just one more second. My own fiction is inspired by interviews that were a little more methodical, a little less random. The understanding that formed me as a writer that writes about migration is that it has been in the history of my family forever.

My Kurdish father’s family migrated around the Kurdish mountains for as long as he had record of or could remember. My mother’s family from Esfahan had come from different places to land in Esfahan when they could finally afford it. Then, of course, there is moving to the United States. But looking at the future and seeing the story of human movement in the inevitability of what’s going to come made me able to link that family inheritance with the narrative to come.

Andri, your glacier story is a very good example of how exploring your family story or inheritance gave you the authority to approach writing about science, climate and the future. Keenan, how do your family stories give you the confidence to write into the future?

KEENAN: As I learned more about my family, I saw how their stories, our stories, were really stories of Black American migration, this history of Black American migration in microcosm. When I talked to my great Uncle A.W., and he told me that he was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the spring of 1921, and I asked him, “Did your family leave because of the massacre?” he just nodded at me. I was able to place another brick in this wall of my understanding.

My father told me about growing up in Chicago, and his memories of living 13, 14, 15 people to a two-bedroom apartment. Landlords had taken a full-size apartment, thrown a partition between to create two apartments, and they were charging Black people as much as they had charged the former white residents for half the space. I learned something about our migration and how we became an urban people (and, in part, why our cities are so messed up).

You asked how that informs my writing about the future. I think that I’m really unable to conceive of a future that is not in some way actually bound to this American past. This compelled migration is the root of my writing about what is yet to come.

To learn more about these three incredible authors, please consider purchasing their books via the links below or at your local bookstore.

The Confession of Copeland Cane

Keenan Norris, an Associate Professor at San Jose State University, is a novelist and essayist whose latest novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, won the 2022 Northern California Book Award. His essays have garnered a 2021-22 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award and 2021 Folio: Eddie Award, while his debut novel, Brother and the Dancer, won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. His most recent work is a “biblio-memoir,” Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings

A Good Country

Laleh Khadivi, born in Esfahan, Iran, is a writer of fiction and nonfiction as well as a director, producer and cinematographer of documentary films. Her debut novel, The Age of Orphans, received multiple prestigious awards, and her documentary film, 900 WOMEN, aired on A&E and premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published widely, including in The Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, VQR and The Sun. She was also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and a Pushcart Prize for her story, Wanderlust. Her most recent novel, A Good Country, was published by Bloomsbury Books. 

On Time and Water

Andri Snær Magnason is a leading Icelandic writer and documentary filmmaker. His latest book, On Time and Water, is a search for a new language to explain the climate crisis through science, family stories and mythology. His work ranges from poetry to non-fiction, children’s literature, science fiction, theater and documentary film. Andri has won multiple international awards, the Tiziano Terzani Award in Italy, the Philip K. Dick honorary mention in USA for LoveStar and the Icelandic literary Award in all categories. He ran for president of Iceland in 2016 with environmental issues on the agenda and came in third. 

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