Columns

Steinman ’19: How to get away with telling your own story

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

It’s been over two weeks since Viola Davis spoke at Brown, and I have yet to stop thinking about her opening line and message about the power of storytelling. It’s something we should all still be thinking about.

She pronounced, “My name is Viola Davis, and I am a hero” before using the narrative of the hero’s journey — an idea often attributed to Joseph Campbell — to tell her life’s story. It was hard not to agree that the powerful and confident woman on stage was a hero.

Best of all, she had applied the term to herself. She wasn’t bragging — or, at least, not doing so without justification — but rather, placing herself and her story in a narrative tradition. Moses, Jesus and the Buddha all follow the hero’s journey, to take a few ancient examples. But while the story she told was personal, the message has much broader implications about what it means to defy stereotypes and common narratives.

In the face of discrimination and erasure, the most powerful thing a person can do is to tell his or her story. When people overcome adversity and share their tales, it is a call to action for people listening who feel that their voices are not heard.

The formula for hero stories, begins with a call to adventure, away from the ordinary world. Often, heroes respond with some measure of reluctance, unable or unwilling to take on the challenge presented. But soon enough, they embark on the journey, overcoming various trials to eventually return with their ultimate reward — a personal elixir.

Davis’s elixir was learning to live outside the self: “If you are not living a life bigger than yourself, then you’re not living a life at all,” she said. As a case study in heroic tales, Davis makes her most powerful statements through storytelling. Her character  in “How to Get Away with Murder” Annalise Keating, a defense lawyer, does the same thing, using a combination of methodical rigor and impassioned appeals to free her clients and make the world a more just place (with some notable exceptions). Both are heroes who use their narratives — not superpowers or capes — to live lives bigger than themselves.

In her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the dominance of white, middle-class characters in literature and movies, while everyone else is confined to minor, stereotypical roles. These latter characters are victims of the single story; they exist to prove a point and reinforce a preconceived notion based on race, nationality, sexual orientation or some other identifier. They play the nanny, the cop, the sassy best friend — never the hero.

Meanwhile, white people are seen as the default. There were outcries when characters whose races were unspecified in writing — like Rue in “The Hunger Games” and Hermoine in a stage production of “Harry Potter” — were played by African-Americans. The concept of the single story is so pervasive that we’ve come to assume that all stories are told by white people, unless race is explicitly mentioned as a defining feature.

Annalise Keating does not go along with the single story; Viola Davis refuses to. In my view, both the actress and the character are at their most heroic when they take control of their own image, a source of power that women — and black women in particular — have long been denied. The importance of having the agency to speak for oneself helps explain the term “mansplaining” and is just one of many differences between the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” In a world where so much of our lives is on display, refusal to be defined by the dominant narrative takes courage.

In the opening line of Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield,” the titular character wonders if he “shall turn out to be the hero of (his) own life.” Everyone has heroes, but not everyone has the ability to take control of his or her own story — or, to be more dramatic, destiny — and become the hero of his or her own life. These story-shapers end up changing more than their own lives; their stories touch and inspire us, reminding us to go after our own elixir. In doing so, we do more than share our personal truths: We begin to break down tired, formulaic conventions, and, in that way, become heroes.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.