Who is allowed to tell their story? Who is silenced? And what is lost when stories go untold? As the anthology "We Are Meant to Rise" shows, the impact of untold stories not only constricts the lives of those unheard, but it also allows others to assume that one person's story can represent entire communities.
The More Than A Single Story organization was founded in 2015 by Minnesota writer Carolyn Holbrook as a means to amplify the voices of Minnesota writers of color and Indigenous writers. Its aim is also to combat the stereotypes that emerge when one person's story is seen as "representative" of an entire community.
Holbrook says that the idea for her project came about when a white woman at a public reading was surprised that the varied members of a panel did not share the same viewpoint. It was a shocking moment but it inspired Holbrook to create a forum where polyphonic voices could be heard.
Now Holbrook and David Mura have gathered together nearly three dozen essays and poems that testify to the experiences of storytellers from across the region.
The pieces were written in the past two years, and not surprisingly, COVID-19 casts its shadow on many of the stories, the details of how the daily restrictions that controlling the pandemic necessitated were felt in the BIPOC community. But it is impossible to write about life in Minnesota in 2020 without confronting the murder of George Floyd, how it galvanized protesters, but also how its vibrations echoed in the lives of those who had experienced the insidious ways that prejudice cramps a life.
"We Are Meant to Rise" is a triumph of story-telling, a panoply of experiences drawn from the diverse peoples of Minnesota. But it also raises the fundamental questions that all of us confront as Americans. As Mura writes in his introduction, "Out of so many different voices, out of such diversity, how do we come together to create a society that is truly democratic and truly just, that provides a space and opportunity for all of us to thrive?"
One of my favorite pieces is by Ed Bok Lee, an essay written in list form that probes gently at the edges of isolation, asking how the need to protect the body from contagion cuts us off from the necessary things that sustain a life. "Whatever makes us smile, hug, kiss, share food with beloved strangers, invent songs and sometimes even belly-aching jokes of death, is also contagious. In fact, everything but the physical body dies without this."
Mona Susan Power's memoir of the rich legacy she inherited from her Ihanktunwanna Sioux family, including her mother's admonitions to never admit weakness, is powerfully explored. But as she writes in heartbreaking detail, the complicated legacy of inheriting a survivor's strength prevents her from asking for help for a long time, until she reaches crisis. Her breakdown allows her to heal stronger at the broken places, a way to heal the trauma that has been passed down through generations.
Empathy for others is one way to break down the artificial barriers we construct. But getting to empathy and understanding requires that no single story be taken as the only voice that matters. While the common theme that runs through the pieces is a sort of "how we have lived through the past two years," the range of responses feels like a broadening of the world after so many months of contraction.
Lorraine Berry is a writer and critic in Oregon.
We Are Meant to Rise
Edited by: Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 224 pages, $18.95.
Event: Book launch, 6 p.m. Nov. 29, in person at Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul (COVID protocols), $5, register at https://bit.ly/3obxcpj, or free online via Zoom at https://bit.ly/3EZZ074