Your Storytelling Correspondent from Warsaw

Sitting on a cozy sofa upstairs in an overheated cafe in Stare Miasto (Old Town) Warsaw, I am sipping passion fruit tea, listening to American pop music and watching the sun slip down the cold blue sky. And I think about my week teaching and lecturing on storytelling, which ends tomorrow.

The words storytelling and narrative are often interchanged; sometimes for good reason. Here’s one difference that sometimes surfaces between them: a narrative is the generic denotation of all specific stories on a certain theme, such as “national narrative” or “master narrative,” while a story is a specific assemblage of character, setting and plot, such as “the story of Warsaw during World War II.”

The master narrative—the guiding, hegemonic type of story—of non-Polish Americans about Poland’s role in the war, as far as I know, is one of complicity and cooperation. What I am told as a visitor here, both directly by my host and slightly less directly by monuments and guidebooks, is the Polish master narrative of that time: Poland as a “brother in blood,” Poland as victim, and Warsaw as the ultimate victim, razed to the ground.

warsawI had no idea before coming here, for instance, that the Nazi officer in charge of Warsaw ordered everyone in the city to be shot, and all the buildings to be destroyed. I had no idea about the Warsaw Uprising that led to that order. All I knew was the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Were there Poles who collaborated and cooperated with the Nazis? Of course. There are weak and evil people in every society. Do I know how I would behave, if I suddenly wandered into their story? I think about it every day here.

I came here to teach and deliver a public lecture at SWPS, a small university in Praga, which turns out to be the bohemian section of the city. (I also lectured at the much larger, more prominent University of Warsaw.) My 45 students came from countries including Ukraine, Italy, China and Vietnam. In one class in particular, I was struck by another example of the diversity of stories here. I had told an African folktale about couples who start off very close and end up warring over a foolish thing. Several of the Ukrainian students knew a similar version of the story, which at first confused them, because their assignment was to transpose the African story into that of another culture. In their story, two brothers fight over a pear tree, and it is finally split in two. It is the avoided conclusion of Solomon and the baby, because in this case, the tree is split and dies. In a beautiful burst of serendipity, I was able to pull from my bag a pear I had saved from breakfast and hand it to the student as her “prize.”

I relate these two examples of cross-cultural storytelling because, for one thing,  I am in an unfamiliar place searching for meaning wherever I can find it. But also because it is, truth be told, everywhere I look.

One last thing: I have been watching Euronews on TV here, along with CNN International and BBC. The station has a short segment called “No Comment.” It simply shows astounding video, such as that of the shooting at the mall in Nairobi or riots in France. I watch it in fascination, but I have to say: Just pointing the camera in a certain direction, just editing the footage, is commentary. It’s all commentary. It’s all storytelling.

Funny thing: That’s what I’ve been teaching all week.

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