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The power of narratives and representation

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Cover of the book 'brown girl dreaming', depicting a silhouette of a girl holding a book.

Are stories a representation of the world we live in or do the stories we read – and tell – create our reality? Here are some ideas on the power of narrative and the importance of reflecting on what kind of representations stories offer.

We may think there is something natural or essential about who we are and the role we occupy in society. If that is the case, then growing up would mean finding that true essence, hidden deep down inside each one of us, and pursuing the tasks that destiny has laid out for us. But are our personal and collective identities really part of an essence that we all need to discover?

One of the reasons why we find this concept problematic is that it may fix certain social groups in a privileged position and others in a disadvantaged one. Stuart Hall (1932-2014), a Jamaican-born British scholar, edited and contributed to the book Questions of Cultural Identity (1996), which criticizes this essentialist perspective on identity.

Questions of Cultural Identity

Cover of the book 'The Arrival' depicting an illustration of a man with a briefcase, looking down to a white creature.

According to Hall, there is no such thing as a natural or essential identity that unfolds with time. Identities are not defined once and for all; they are never-ending processes that are built within discourses. If we accept this argument, then all cultural expressions, including stories, are discourses that are constantly telling us who we are and who we are not. The lack of representation of certain groups in literature, the over-representation of other groups, and the stereotyped portrayals that many stories present, have a huge impact on the way people perceive themselves and, therefore, the place each individual occupies in society.

As people working to create and distribute narratives, it is important to ask a number of questions. What opportunities of identity formation are we offering our readers? Are these stories setting the same characters in the same positions, and thereby helping to reproduce the same unequal society? Or are we instead offering opportunities to change the social narrative?

In the 1970s quite a few debates arose about the problems of representation in Children's Literature in the UK and the USA. Many scholars criticized books for reflecting a white, male and middle-class gaze. Fortunately, over the last few years we have started to see more and more stories in which different characters are portrayed. We can find narratives where female characters take the lead or where the realities of racialized peoples are represented, while stories that include diverse gender identities are more available than ever. But there is still much to be done.

New Voices, New Perspectives

Cover of the book 'Black Flamingo' depicting a brown man wearing a feathery black scarf and surrounded by pink plumes and flamingos.

A more diverse book sector is not just about including ‘minority characters’. It also means paying attention to how those characters are portrayed in order to avoid stereotyped representations.

In an inspiring Ted Talk, the novelist Chimamanda Adichie addresses the danger of telling a single story. She talks about her childhood memories of growing up in Nigeria and mentions the impact of reading exclusively books by British and American authors, who portrayed the childhoods of white children from the USA and the UK. She could not imagine a literature that included people like her. She also talks about the importance of avoiding stereotyped representations by offering multiple stories. ‘The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not only that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’

Sometimes stereotyped representations result when published writers who come from a privileged position – mostly white, male, middle-class and Western – try to tell the stories of an oppressed social group. They may sometimes be criticized for culturally appropriating elements of an oppressed culture for their own benefit. In recent years, this has produced some interesting debates. Cultural appropriation is understood as the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that fails to respect their original meaning and give credit to their source, or that reinforces stereotypes. Are you a writer looking to widen the perspectives in your writing? Here you will find some interesting reflections: Cultural Appropriation for the Worried Writer: some practical advice.

One of the best ways to include new perspectives and avoid cultural appropriation in the book sector is by publishing work by new authors.

#OwnVoices is a hashtag created by YA author Corinne Duyvis and spread through Twitter as a shorthand book recommendation tool. The intention was to recommend books by authors who openly share an underrepresented identity by using it for a central character. It is important, however, to bear in mind that this initiative had no intention of universalizing a specific representation of a marginalized group. While books identified with this hashtag do justice to the group they represent, they may not make everyone who identifies with that particular group feel included.

A matter of justice

Being critical about the representation that narratives offer, especially of groups that have been oppressed historically and systematically, is not only a matter of recognition but a matter of justice. To conclude, we would like to quote what Adichie has to say about the complexity and importance of what is at stake here:

‘How stories are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story.’

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