Al Franken, Muna Abdulahi, and the potential expansiveness of American identity
Tuesday night, while driving home from a not-very-good public talk about artificial intelligence, radio station KQED was rebroadcasting a City Arts & Lecturesinterview with Senator Al Franken. It touched us, serving as a reminder of the face-to-face decency our country is sometimes capable of achieving. We’re sharing it for that reason: as a hopeful anecdote.
City Arts doesn’t archive its audio, so we’re relying on an excerpt from Franken’s new memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, to share the story with you.Here it is, with Franken narrating in the first person:
An essay on pacing and perspective for the long haul
Yesterday, The Cut published an essay by Lisa Miller, entitled The Ambition Collision, about a loss of career ambition that’s hitting the author’s female, thirty-something friends. Some parts of it resonate with us—we’re both in our mid-thirties—so we’re sharing it with you.
We note that this article is about upper middle-class professional women, i.e. not applicable to a lot of women in the same way Lean In wasn’t a primer for many folks. We’ll also note that our professional paths haven’t been so climbing-the-career-ladder oriented as Miller’s friends’, nor so (apparently) smooth. Still, some of Miller’s essay does touch on thoughts we hear from friends and feelings we’ve experienced about the lack of meaning in white collar jobs.
Local NPR is abuzz with people discussing this weekend’s planned bigot rallies in San Francisco (Saturday) and Berkeley (Sunday), and with counter-protesters’ plans.
In the spirit of thinking about using our agency in the ways that feel possible, here’s a brief essay by Erica Harris DeValve, who graduated college a couple months ago. Her husband, Seth, plays football for the Cleveland Browns. He made headlines this week for kneeling in a prayer circle with his African-American teammates during the national anthem. (Seth DeValve is white).
In another part of my life, I help run a newsletter of social justice events. There’s a joint Jewish-Muslim event coming, and yesterday I received an email that read, in part, “The Palo Alto Police Department recommends not putting it on social media, so we are refraining from that.” My first thought was, “Let’s advertise it! Bring on the white supremacists! Let them show their faces.” I’m not going to do that, but a substantial part of me wants to.
For our first post since vacation, we’re sharing some advice from Katherine Boo, who’s perhaps best known for writing the 2012 National Book Award winner Behind the Beautiful Forevers. We found her list of principles for responsible nonfiction storytelling thought provoking. The original story is here, published by Nieman Storyboard on July 25, 2017 and written by Katia Savchuk. We’ve condensed Boo’s rules below.
Katherine Boo’s 15 rules for narrative nonfiction
It’s not enough to tell the stories of victims. I also need to investigate perps.
I let what I hate give me wing. —It doesn’t matter what pisses you off, she says, as long as you pay attention to that feeling. “Writing against” is a good compass “until you know what you’re writing for,” she said.
I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.
When I’m first settling into a place, I tell myself that strong presumptions will make me miss what’s happening.
Memory sucks. —Boo says she reports out everything she can. She’s found that people sometimes deny their own experiences during the fact-checking process, until she plays back video showing them their own words. After a day of reporting, she also immediately writes an email to her husband capturing the emotion of that time.
I ask myself: “What would really get lost if this story never ran?” —Boo engages in an inner dialogue that keeps her going until she finds a bigger meaning for the story.
Don’t be a whiner. —Nonfiction writers shouldn’t get wrapped up in how much sacrifice the work entails. “My presence isn’t doing them a favor,” she said of her subjects. “They’re doing me a favor.”
I don’t try to find simple characters. —“If you’re searching for a super-virtuous character, you’re denying … the infinite variety of the human condition,” Boo said.
I try never to forget that my “subjects” are really my co-investigators.
Though I seek out the public record maniacally, I don’t assume that it’s accurate. —Government documents and other public records often reflect the interests and perspectives of those in power, Boo noted. So she makes sure to supplement these sources with “hang-out journalism.”
To calibrate my compass as a writer, I share my work widely and not only with journalists. —Her 12-year-old nephew told her he couldn’t smell the slums when he read a draft of her book. Others reported when they started to get bored.
Editors and publishers don’t know what’s going to sell.
Even if I’m telling urgent stories, I can still experiment with form and make it a creative process. —“If your subject, like mine, is one people don’t necessarily want to read about, you have to do that,” Boo said. She encourages journalists to “read above your station.” Her own work has been inspired by the novelists Roberto Bolaño and George Eliot, among others.
When after a lot of effort I can’t pin something down, I force myself to put that uncertainty on the page. —Boo says she fact-checks “like a madwoman.” When she can’t find confirmation for something, she makes that explicit. “Getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care,” she said.
If my work is successful, I don’t go and get high on my own supply. —“You know better than anyone where the essential courage of the enterprise resides—with the people who risk retaliation, share their stories and help journalists build piece by piece a crucial alternative public record of our time,” Boo said.
We’ll be thinking on these in the days to come. We invite you to read the original article here.
An organization at the root of ethical storytelling
Emily Breunig, one of our co-founders, taught community college composition for years, often using a text called the Voice of Witness Reader. So of course Voice of Witness was on her mind when she created Small Stones. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when our other co-founder, Eva Kaye-Zwiebel, attended Voice of Witness’s four-day oral history workshop in San Francisco.
Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of people who have experienced injustice but are largely unheard in the public square. In fact, VOW’s tag line is “amplifying unheard voices.” They describe their mission like this:
“Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand. Through our oral history book series and education program, we amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice, teach ethics-driven storytelling, and partner with human rights advocates.”
If you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, about Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, you might recognize it as part of VOW’s origin story. Eggers’s experience of working with Deng was instrumental to his inspiration to found Voice of Witness, along with Lola Vollen and Mimi Lok. VOW now publishes oral history collections and creates resources to help teachers, activists, and youth create oral history, too.
At this year’s training, Eva and 25 or so classmates participated in discussions, brainstorms, and role-playing with oral history teacher-practitioners. Then, everyone buddied-up to go through the process of telling a personal story and recording a partner’s story. (You can read part of Eva’s story here. VOW’s blog about this year’s workshop is here.) It was a very intimate and emotional experience: there’s a feeling of “nakedness” to sharing a private experience with another person, but also a feeling of strength in seeing that story written down, as well as its impact on others when it’s read aloud.
“…and then some of them took a knee and got out their gas masks, and at this point I was telling some of the policemen, ‘This is not necessary! What are you doing?'”
Here at Small Stones, we define education, and educators, broadly. So often, classrooms appear in the most unexpected places.
As we continue our own work of interviewing some of these educators, we wanted to share with you work from a friend of the blog. Photographer and photojournalist Eze Amos, a Charlottesville, Virginia local, has found himself in the middle of some of the larger protests and counter protests that have taken place since the 2016 election. We are featuring some of his images in this post; there are far more on his Instagram feed.
“Institutions are just habits. They’re nothing. When they’re broken, they’re broken.”
Eva Kaye-Zwiebel is a co-founder of Small Stones. In June she attended a Voice of Witness oral history workshop, where she talked about the 2016 presidential election against the background of her grandmother’s life. She told this story in an interview, which we’ve edited to create a first person narrative.
My brother was at my house on Election Day, November 8, 2016, when a giant box arrived from my Cousin Nancy. I looked at it and thought, “What the heck is this?” As we were opening it, I remembered Nancy had told me she had the steamer trunk Manna used to move from Germany to the United States. I’d said Nancy could send it to me. Manna was my grandmother. Her name was Marianne, German for Mary Ann. When she was little she called herself ‘Manna’ because she couldn’t pronounce her own name, and that became the family variation on grandma.
Before the election my brother and I talked a little. My reputation is as the professional worrier in the family and I didn’t want to dump too much of that on him. He knew I was worried and that I had gone to Nevada to knock on doors because I didn’t have a good feeling about the election. I wanted to be able to say I’d done what I reasonably could.
The box was absolutely empty. It’s an empty wooden crate. I guess I expected a more finished trunk. The wood is raw, like, ‘be careful when you touch it, you might get a splinter.’ It has metal hinges and a place to put a lock on it. It’s maybe three feet by eighteen inches by twenty inches. It’s sturdy. It has Hamburg Line stickers on it and the address she was going to in Harrison, New York.
I laughed when we opened the box because it was too ‘neat’ for it to arrive the day of the election. Manna left Germany in 1935, and this is the trunk. If it happened in a story, you’d get mad and throw the book because it’s too neat.
Manna was a force of nature, and she was grumpy. I think she was like that before her country fell apart and the whole family left. But she left early; she was one of those people. She was in medical school in Switzerland and, if I remember my history right, the Nuremburg laws or some of Hitler’s legislation went into effect in Switzerland before it did in Germany. She had to leave school because she was Jewish. As a result, she looked around and said, “This is not the place for me. This is not going to go well.” And she up and left before the family. She ended up getting her US citizenship the week before Pearl Harbor. Of course then Germans couldn’t get it and my grandfather was an enemy alien in Los Angeles during World War II.
“You don’t know the pain other people have had.” – Joe Biden
Following yesterday’s shooting at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice, and thinking about the oral history training we’re about to attend, we offer this excerpt from an interview by Terry Gross with former Vice President Biden. Biden’s point is not new, but today feels like a good day to remember that we share humanity with our political adversaries, and that where possible, we should foster empathy as well as passionate and principled disagreement. The interview took place earlier this week. Full text and audio here.
Terry Gross: I want to ask a few questions about you and your life. You’ve been touched by death several times. Beginning when you—just before you took the oath of office as senator, your wife died. Your baby daughter died. Your two sons were hospitalized ’cause of a car accident. Your son Beau died not long ago. You were read last rites when you had your aneurysm. Thank God you survived.
The Senate is a place where it’s real hardball. I mean, collegial or not, it’s about politics. It’s about hardball. It’s about power to get your agenda passed and so on. A lot of people are there because they like power, because they really value power and want to have it. So coming from this place where you’ve been exposed to mortality and to, like, the ultimate meaning of life, what was it like to be in the Senate, where it’s not a place where I’d imagine it’s easy to express vulnerability, where you have long, reflective
“I’m definitely one of the people who didn’t realize how fragile everything really was…”
Our third Small Stones interviewee has requested anonymity. She is a civil rights lawyer actively working on what we non-legal minds like to call The Legal Resistance (hey, it sounds cool). We hope this interview will be just her first foray into educating laypeople about what’s going on in government and the implications it may have for our lives.
As you might expect, she’s experienced some pushback, and therefore we’ll be keeping her identity under wraps. Though we can’t tell you who she is, we’re happy to be able to publish our conversation in full below. Read on to find out what keeps her heading into work each morning, despite some very real misgivings about where the system is headed.
Small Stones (SS): How would you define what you do? I’ve been poking around your firm’s site, and it seems like you deal with a lot of good things!
A Lawyer (AL): I say I’m a civil rights lawyer, but I also do workers’ rights and consumer protection. I do a lot of “this looks important and interesting and like I could be useful. I’ll do that for a while.”
SS: That’s actually an excellent segue to my most pressing question. How are things different for you all, day to day, under this administration?
AL: A few ways, I think. First, when everyone thought Hillary would be elected, we had all of these plans about how we would push forward and make the world better, and we still have those, and some of them are still viable. But a lot more of what we do now is trying to protect the status quo.
With Scalia’s death and the new appointment, we were gearing up to try to get a bunch of things before the Supreme Court , and now we’re on the defensive. And that’s true with everything.
SS: As a layperson, it’s been a bit disheartening to see how many governmental norms are really dependent on everyone agreeing that they are norms.
AL: Yeah, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m definitely one of the people who didn’t realize how fragile everything really was—and just how quickly it could change when everyone decides to just stop agreeing.