I’ve been thinking a lot about something Natalie Portman said. In last year’s Variety’s “Power of Women” event, Portman delivered a brilliant speech that had a moment of fame when a snippet of the end of it began trending on social media. The whole speech is incredibly eloquent and memorable, and ever since, I've been ruminating on something she said: “Tell a new story.”
Portman asks the people (mostly women) in the room, “What if we took a year off from violence against women? What if [we] make sure all the entertainment produced [ . . . ] didn’t depict a rape or a murder of a woman?”
This was the last of the steps that Portman offered as ways to do away with the patriarchy and to change the narrative of women in society, away to make life imitate art. And while she spoke mostly to the women in her industry who were in the room, I, a writer dealing with a case of writer’s block by going on social media and watching YouTube videos, felt the responsibility and duty of a storyteller.
I don’t particularly write about violence against anyone, but it made me reflect on what it is I write about and how that impacts the reader. As if finding a topic or story to tell wasn’t already challenging, I suddenly found myself diving deep into what it is I choose to say with my writing.
I’ve mostly been thinking a lot about what Portman’s task means, what it is asking storytellers do, and what it might be able to do for society. What if for that year all projects were not stories depicting harm to women? To children? To members of marginalized communities? To anyone? Would that make us better people? Would that make the world a better place, to paraphrase Friedrich Schiller, by curing its ills with art?
Out of sight, out of mind, goes the proverb, and I imagine the intention of Portman’s challenge is to keep violence out of the sight of people so that it too leaves their minds, and perhaps in this way mitigate the instances of its use. But would telling stories lacking such depictions of violent incidents people suffer truly help eliminate them or, at the very least, mitigate the frequency in which they occur? Or would it just be a misrepresentation of our world—a silencing of people who have found the courage to speak and warn others, or seek justice, or heal? I don’t think Portman’s intention was to silence anyone, but would not telling such stories really make them not be a part of reality?
Are we even capable of telling new stories and by doing so changing the social narrative? I recall the first creative writing workshop that I took in college, where we went around the room trying to give Hemingway’s six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” a backstory. Everyone had a tragedy: miscarriage, infertility, early death by accident or illness, murder, abduction, abortion, etc... No one thought to consider that perhaps the baby was born bigger than usual or born into a rich family that spoiled them so much that they outgrew many pairs of shoes before use. Tragedy is what we all came up with because tragedy is what we knew and what made for a more interesting story.
But does fictional tragedy help or harm our world? Can stories cure us by allowing us to safely purge the dark feelings that we inevitably experience as humans, or does it make the world more ill by reminding us of the evils of the world and, in a way, releasing said evils out into the world.
I believe in the power of words and the power of storytelling to teach the audience empathy. Coincidentally, yesterday when I logged on to the work computer, a BBC article on the front page caught my attention with the headline “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?” The article examines the correlation between readers of fiction and empathy, considering the possibility that perhaps it’s the most empathetic people who are drawn to reading. It discusses a series of tests performed in the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, some of which concluded that there was a spike in altruistic behavior after reading a work of fiction. Fiction might make us more empathetic, compassionate, and likely to behave altruistically because it shows us the inner landscapes of characters and offers us a fuller picture of their lives.
Stories don’t only teach us about other cultures or help us improve our vocabulary. Stories also teach us about ourselves. They tell us how we can see and understand one another, be compassionate, and love each other better. This is Portman’s intention. She dares her industry to change the social narrative by showing stories with different and better possibilities than our current reality.
“Tell a new story,” I hear Natalie Portman saying in my head every time I sit in front of the computer with a blank Word document staring at me. Sometimes it scares me enough that I run away into the arms of social media to idle away. Today, I’m feeling brave enough to try. As Portman then says, “Let’s see how that goes.”
Yajaira (pronounced thx-a-lot-mom-n-dad) Calderon earned a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in French from the University of California, Davis, where she wrote for the student paper The Davis Beat. She is alarmingly obsessed with music and is completely incapable of writing and creating without it. She is eternally grateful to her crushes who have helped prepare her to deal with rejection, which has become invaluable in her pursuit of the title “published author.” Twitter: @wiseyness
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