Story-beings by Alfonso Diaz

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In many ways, stories are similar to living beings: They seem to have their own interests. They compel us to share them and, once told, they begin to grow and change, often becoming longer, stronger and more elaborate.  Stories find each other, they intermingle, and multiply. 

Stories need our attention to thrive in the world: each time we tell or represent them, we help them pollinate other minds. And it seems that we, as storytelling animals, need them even more, for they give structure to our thoughts and lives: they make it possible for us to have memory, to build meaning on the events that we are living, to be able to imagine the future. Stories determine our relationship with time, and they make it possible for us to communicate in elaborate ways with those around us, far across time and space– to what extent, still remains a mystery.

I believe that for hope to be a possibility, we must play our part in bringing forth stories that harbour the complexity of interconnectedness, difference and change– Stories that break the linear flux of time, stories that are rooted in a deep past and enable us to envision a future where there is space for everyone. 

Stories seem to be among us rather than inside of us. When stories become influential in our lives, they lend us their eyes to see, their ears to hear and their mouths to talk. I often wonder if we think up stories or if we are the ones being thought by stories. 

In my work I find it useful to understand stories as living beings because it enables me to see relationships of reciprocity. As a Narrative Practitioner, I think that a very relevant question is: what practices can we develop in order to play our parts in nurturing and sustaining these story-beings so they may able to survive, flourish and even thrive. 

In the last 13 years, after spending over a year studying Narrative Practices in Australia, since I came back to Mexico and in close collaboration with the people and communities I work with, I have come to understand these practices as practices in:

Listening

Asking questions

Documenting 

Linking lives

Cyclical relationships to time

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Stories convey a special kind of knowledge, a knowledge which cannot come forth in isolation. This sort of knowledge comes only through reciprocal relationships because stories are made of a knowledge which is always collectively constructed. 

Let me start by one that interestingly enough found it’s way from Mexico to Mumbai. 

1. It all started, as many things do, with the practice of listening. 

So picture this: Oaxaca is a beautiful state in southern Mexico that is crisscrossed with many mountain ranges. A number of years ago a group of women from many different Indigenous communities in from the Northern Sierra started coming together. Imagine them traveling from their towns, sometimes for hours to get together and talk. Imagine them bringing food to share with others. Imagine them sitting in a big circle as they talk about many things, among which was the ways in which they were being affected by practices of male violence. They recognized that they shared similar experiences and that they wanted to do something about it. Male violence, they said, had disguised itself as tradition, and they knew that this was not possible, for traditions are what keeps communities alive and this violence was killing their communities. 

Communal life in these places is not just a coercive connection to a territory, but the real and symbolic process of a community exercising its political autonomy. Communal life takes place in a territory considered sacred, composed of people, nature and supernatural forces whose relations are based on myths and other ritually mediated narratives. This way of living stands as resistance against the new cycle of neoliberal capitalist accumulation, and as an alternative to its focus on individuality.

It is important to give this context to understand better the conversations these women were having. 

I’ve learnt that in order to listen we first need to be aware of the preconceptions or stories that we have in order to momentarily put them in pause so as to then be able to open up to curiosity and even surprise. We have learnt that this sort of listening, or to be more precise, I would say witnessing, is in itself a practice of vulnerability. It is the recognition that we are never an “I” but always a “we”. And this is completely opposite to dominant stories today, which insist on individual understandings of identity. 

As we listen, we can also pay attention to the stories that occupy a lot of space, to the stories that are relegated to the margins, or that are considered irrelevant, or which are barely recognizable and we can only perceive hints of them. This takes us to the second practice I believe can contribute to nurture these peculiar creatures. 

2. The practice of asking questions.

Questions that can open up a space in what is known, questions that invite meaning to be made, questions that summon people from a place of knowledge and curiosity.

Laura Latorre, my friend who was a part of these conversations in the mountains, shared some of these stories with me. Together, we thought of a number of possible questions that might make visible these stories that have normalized male violence enabling it to mask itself as a tradition.

Questions such as:

  • How can you recognize violence when it is disguising itself as tradition or as love?
  • What are some of the effects this violence is having on your relationship with yourself? And with others? 
  • If this violence were to continue towards the future, where would it lead you and your community?

But we also thought of questions that could contribute to bring forward the stories that did not have to do with violence– stories that, as the women from the mountains said, made life possible. 

Questions such as:

  • Are there relationships or spaces in which violence is not present?
  • What are the skills you have developed in order to nurture these spaces?
  • How have you been able to stop the effects of violence in your life or the life of others?

Questions that open up space for new meaning to be constructed. Questions that, as Michael White used to say, enable us to move from the known and familiar to the possible-to-know; questions that are informed by curiosity, a deep sense of not-knowing. 

As you can imagine, through these questions, many things were said, and these stories were brought together in a collective document. 

Which takes us to the third narrative practice that contributes to sustain and circulate the stories that we need in this world. 

When we document, we play our part in making it possible for these stories that have been relegated to the margins to circulate more widely. We can contribute for them not to be forgotten, we can make the knowledge they convey accessible and we can play our part in making them influential and visible. 

The shape documenting takes depends on the type of story-being this is, and on what we have been asked to contribute to. Sometimes stories are documented through murals which make them very visible in a particular place. We have made drawings, we have made theatre, dance and song which can contribute to a strong feeling of resonance. We have documented stories in video and they have circulated widely. We have documented stories through radio which can get to the most remote corners of mountain ranges.  

 When we document these stories, we can contribute significantly to their survival, circulation and in helping them travel far away. The document can become a sort of story-vessel. 

Let me briefly share some parts of this document with you :

We don’t want to be footballs

Many times, we are treated as footballs. Similar to footballs, we aren’t part of any team, our opinion isn’t asked, and we are kicked from one side to the other, at the same time we are central to a game that couldn’t be played without us.  We don’t like the sensation of others playing with us. It has us thinking how it’s time to change the game. Sometimes we want to change it so that we can become “bats”, and be able to hit too. Other times we feel like we want to be players, and start kicking. But what many of us are really looking for is to stop playing those sort of games — games in which some people are players at the expense of others being played. We want these games to stop because we know their consequences too well. They takes our voice away, silencing us. They invite guilt to enter our lives, and sadness, and  fear, and  shame, and anger, and sickness, and blame, and exhaustion for having to do everything on our own and take care of everyone without anyone taking care of us. 

This is not ok, because as women we can decide how we want to be and how would we want our own lives to be played. We want to stop being treated as balls; we want no one to be treated as a ball. 

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We prefer to be kites

This comes from the knowledge and tools that others have used before us to be able to survive for centuries. It comes from our desires and hopes that reflect what is important for us. We want what we are as women and what we bring to the world to be recognized as wealth. As women we bring life to the world. When some people say that what we want is power, we respond that, that is exactly what we want, but not the kind power that they believe (the kicking balls power), the power to do things for ourselves, our families and our communities —the power to live a dignified life, the power of the kite. 

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Documents can also contribute to the other practice of narrative that I believe is probably the most relevant and has the most potential to change reality, which is the practice of linking lives. With permission from the women from Oaxaca, we shared this document with women from many different parts of the world, and they all responded.

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A year after the first document was drafted, we were invited to another women’s gathering in the mountains of Oaxaca. In this gathering more than 20 letters were read to the women whose stories travelled to so many different places: First Nations women form Canada, a group of feminist women from Russia, aboriginal women from Australia and Maori women form new Zealand, to mention only a few. As you can imagine, this was a profoundly powerful and moving experience for the women of a remote region of Oaxaca who got an opportunity to see how their stories connect, affect, resonate with the stories of women from around the world. 

Not too long ago, these stories found their way to Bombay, brought here by our dear Maggie Carey, where they grew and changed, becoming longer and more elaborate.  They intermingled and multiplied. They shape-shifted becoming something else. 

These beautiful and powerful stories continue to have effects as they find their ways into others minds and bodies, as they just did with you now.

Listen. 

Ask. 

Document and link. 

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If we are thinking of stories-beings these are the practices to care for them.

And this raises important ethical considerations. Dominant stories in Western culture invite us to continually objectify others; to objectify otherness, which is basically to not recognize the intentions of others. 

When we invert the direction of that metaphor, instead of objectifying we subjectify others. This means we recognize their intentionality. In many of the indigenous communities in which we work, I have learnt that there is a deep knowledge on how to recognize the intentionality of other fellow humans, even if we don’t understand them or they are radically different. But also of other non-human-beings in general. In this way the tree, other animals, the clouds and the mountain all have intentions. This implies that in order to understand reality we need to access all these different subjectivities. In order to learn how to defend a mountain, we need to ask ourselves what the mountain has to say. Sometimes this looks like going to the mountain, walking on much of its surface, being present, and paying attention to the images and ideas that come as we do that, then talking with others about it. 

When we relate to others — to the other — as subjects rather than objects, this brings forward a relationship of reciprocity, in which it is not only our intentions the ones that are relevant, but also the ones of other subjectivities. This changes relationships of control into relationships of reciprocity. 

We have learnt that if we want to relate in reciprocal ways to other subjects, it can be very useful then to access other metaphors of time. 

I believe it was John Berger who said that the first task of any culture is to research, name and establish our relationship to time. 

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A dominant Western story about time is to envision it as a straight line that only goes forward and is indifferent or remains “unrelated” to place. This dominant story tells us that minute in a small village in the mountains and a minute in Bombay is equal, however our subjective experience of time is not at all like that. 

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In order to establish relationships of reciprocity, we can learn from different approaches to understanding time. In many Mesoamerican cultures, time is understood more as a turning wheel rather than the linear movement of an arrow, that is to say, as a rhythm that repeats itself in cycles but also changes, responding to and relating with the particularities of the other rhythms present in each place.

Cyclical time responds to place.

So what does all of this have to do with Narrative Practice?

One of the first things a narrative metaphor enables us is to recognize that people’s identities are multi-storied. 

If we continue with the metaphor of stories as living beings, then we can say that each of us are a multiplicity of subjectivities. I have come to understand the practice of externalizing as a way of rendering visible these subjectivities.  In these conversations, we can understand reality through the subjectivity of a problem story as well as through the subjectivity of preferred stories of identity. 

Everything has a cycle. If we can’t see it, this could mean that the cycle is too long, too short, or that we haven’t been able to link it to a cycle that we already know. If we want to establish relationships of reciprocity to these stories, we need to then pay attention to their cycles. 

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For example, if I want to understand the migration of the humming bird, I can link it to the cycle I already know. The moon journey, for example, implies a cycle so clear that we know always what it will do at any time of the cycle

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So if I want to understand the humming bird, then every new moon I should come to the same place to observe if the humming bird is there. If I do this long enough a pattern will emerge. Each 4th moon there will be humming bird and it will stay for 3 moons. 

It’s important to note that I am not assuming that the moon necessarily influences the migration of the humming bird, but rather that it serves as a precise way of counting which enables me to see the cycle of the bird itself. 

I now know two cycles: the one of the humming bird and the one of the moon, I can then link them to a third event that I want to understand: for example link the migration of the humming bird with the flowering of a certain plant. And so on and so forth. This very simple way of observing reality has been taken to incredible complexity by Indigenous peoples. 

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The Maya for example have been documenting these cycles for many thousands of years, which enables them to see how one event can relate to many others and have pretty accurate predictions of the force of hurricanes as well as the amount of rain in any given year, the migration of many animals and insects as well as the changes in the flowering and fruiting of many plants.

Hurricanes can have very devastating effects, but usually people know with anticipation when a hurricane is coming and you can prepare for them. his ability to predict them makes our relationship to hurricanes different than say that we have with Earthquakes. 

Bringing this back to narrative, I have been using this different relationship to time as a way of paying attention and being able to predict the cycles of different story-beings. 

I have found this particularly useful when working with people that are living the effects of abuse in their lives, that have been diagnosed with chronic depression, or with people that have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and my work with them has taught me a great deal on how to think about cyclical time and use its documentation in my practice. 

By the time they come to therapy with me, people who have been diagnosed with Schizophrenia usually have seen many psychiatrists to try to respond to that experience. One of psychiatry’s dominant metaphors is to wage war on people’s experiences. Its weapons tend to be chemical, and many times at the expense of everything that is valuable in life. 

But what if our relationships with these voices came from a position of radical subjectivity? Rather than objectifying them and eliminating them, we’ve developed strategies to understand them, to try to see their cycles and find and learn to read the signals that let us know that they might be coming.

What if instead of trying to obliterate them, or to disqualify them as madness we actually try to understand reality from the viewpoint of that particular being?

We’ve been doing this firstly by having detailed conversations on what story-being we will be observing. Many narrative practices come into play here such as statement of position maps, as well as re-authoring and remembering conversations, to name a few. But as you all know, all of our practices are present. 

Then I have developed particular ways of journaling the experiences we are trying to understand more profoundly with each person. 

Usually the daily journaling is informed by questions such as:

  • On a scale of one to ten how present would you say this voice was today?
  • Were there things that you recognized happened before it came that might have announced its presence?
  • When it was present where did you feel it in your body?
  • What did the voice say? Or what did it make you think about yourself or others?
  • When did you become aware that this voice was present? Was there anything you did that influenced the voice?
  • Then we link the observations with a cycle that we already know in order to see what pattern might emerge.

Then we name each cycle.

Then we start paying attention to the signs that enable us to see that the voice is going to come

Then we prepare a series of letters to help create a team around the person who is struggling. 

Finally, through observation and documentation we can start predicting when the voices might come… imagine that, to be able to predict and to prepare for them, its like converting earthquakes into hurricanes. 

It has been interesting that many of the people I have conversations with have started making offerings to the voices to acknowledge and welcome them. 

These offerings have changed a relationship of competition or warfare to one of mutual respect, even when the relationships might be fraught or tense. 

To listen

To ask

To document

To link

To Pay attention to cycles

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From a narrative perspective we can continually learn and develop these practices. Practices that can contribute to nurture the story-beings that we so desperately need in these complex times we are going through. Stories that are everywhere. Stories that help us make meaning of the present by going into a deep past in hope for a better future. Stories as antidotes to amnesia. Stories that can enable different relationships with ourselves, with each other, with place. Stories that are informed by disobedient images of the future, that can see beyond despair, futures in which there is a place of dignity for every being, human or non human. Stories that can sustain themselves even though we don’t know what the future will bring. Stories that are antidotes against fear and bigotry.  Stories that can sustain complexity, that change every time they are told, that can help us to not let go of each other. 

Thank you.

This blog post is a key note address written by Alfonso Diaz and was presented at Weaving our voices, 2nd international narrative practices conference held in Mumbai on 1-2Feb 2020.

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Alfonso Díaz is the founder of the Colectivo de Prácticas Narrativas. He works as a community worker, a therapist and a teacher.  In his community work Alfonso has collaboratively developed community projects to generate alternatives to extreme poverty, and to promote autonomy and territory, as well as projects to respond to gender and State violence.

As a teacher he created and coordinates the International Diploma in Narrative Practice, in collaboration with the Universidad Campesina Indígena the Masters in Narrative Practice in Community Work and Education, and in collaboration with the with the Universidad del Medio Ambiente the masters in Narrative Practices in Therapy.

In addition to teaching in Mexico, Alfonso teaches and has lead training teams in Canada, the United States, Chile, Argentina, Sweden, and Spain.

He has been involved in community projects in different parts of Mexico, Canada and the United States.  In Mexico City he does individual, couple and family therapy.

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