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Storytelling in the Heartland
Tell me, what story lives the loudest inside of you?
“A lot of people ask me, ‘what makes a good story?’ It’s not the plot, or the arc, or even how crazy or wild of an experience someone has had in their life. It’s when someone means what they say. It’s when someone’s stoked about what they’re saying. When I work with storytellers, I want to know—what’s most alive for you right now?”
My CultureALL coworker, JJ Singh Kapur, and I often talk about storytelling. As the Community Journalist for our organization, I’m always searching for and telling stories that explore and honor the different cultures throughout our community. I think in stories, in many different forms.
The day JJ said the above quote to me, I was interviewing him about his own relationship to storytelling when we ended up on the topic of…topics. Those intangible entities upon which all works of art rest; the impetus for a story, the message the artist feels a compulsion to share. The thing that I struggle to pinpoint when I sit down to write this column every week. But my conversation with JJ that day—and honestly, most of our conversations—has brought clarity to my understanding of what makes a story necessary.
It’s the storyteller’s holistic, fiery belief in the story’s ability to alter the course of some type of existence, somewhere in the world.
JJ is an AmeriCorps fellow with CultureALL. He was born and raised in West Des Moines, and came back to the area after graduating from Stanford University. His fellowship focuses on tackling a challenge in his hometown. For JJ, that meant helping Des Moines citizens—and more generally, Iowans—to value the many cultures throughout their community (and there’s so many more cultures thriving here than stereotypes would lead you to think).
Since I met him, I’ve been fascinated by JJ’s apparent love for Des Moines and the state of Iowa. I don’t know if I would have returned after college if I were him. He is an Indian man, and a child of immigrants. His family practices Sikhism (he became the first turbaned Sikh person to win a championship at the National Speech and Debate Tournament in 2017). He wears a turban and has a magnificent long beard—he doesn’t often see other people in Iowa that look like him. My gut instinct questions why JJ would ever leave the cultural amalgam of California for a the hegemony of Iowa.
When I’ve asked JJ this question, his answer is simple. Iowa is home, it’s where his family is, and the people who live here have stories that deserve to be told.
He’s helping Iowans share their stories, and learn to listen to one another, through CultureALL’s Open Book program.
Imagine a library. Pages upon pages of worlds line the shelves. The opportunity for a glimpse into a human being’s soul, hearing the story that they could no longer contain. The written word constructed to carry you into a past, present, and future you had no idea you needed. There is no limit to where your mind can wander.
Now imagine instead of picking up a book and turning to page one, you could look that author in their eyes. You could listen to them speak their story, hear their tone and inflection, understand which line of the story causes them to pause or makes them smile. This is Open Book.
“Books” in the Open Book program are people with a story they feel compelled to tell. They share their story with a group of “Readers. They share some terrible moments, some grand moments, some moments of profound growth. When the story ends, the Book is still there, ready to discuss, compare, contrast, wonder, hope, consider alongside the Reader. The Reader seeks understanding; the Book seeks to feel seen.
The Open Book program is modeled after the Denmark program The Human Library. We hold space for honest dialogue. Participants build new connections, they travel bridges they had no clue they built. They synthesize others’ stories with their own; they see the endless bounty of our shared humanity.
The stories shared in Open Book are tremendous, honest, incredibly meaningful. They challenge in the way the best stories are, stories that take your lens and flip it around, turn it upside down, rip it off your face and throw it on the ground, shatter it, and walk away laughing at you for having the audacity to think you had any concept of how the world works.
The story of a 2-year-old JJ on September 11, 2001, unveiling for his family the way their lives were about to change. The story of Romnita, who had to learn how to live again after her daughter’s death. The story of Jill and her family’s efforts to protect and support her transgender child.
These stories could not be contained. These stories have legs of their own. These stories have matured and found new meaning in unexpected spaces, have grown different, complex readers, have supported worlds as they’ve changed for the better. They’re alive for the Books, and they will become alive for you, dear reader, too.
Too often we believe that the stories of the Midwest are not alive. That excitement resides only next to an ocean, and that urbanism is the only complexity that matters. Too often we believe that something awful must have happened to us for our stories to be told, that there is nothing worth learning within stories of love. That stories of growth fall under a narrow definition, or that you can’t find a nobility within wondering about the world. Too often, we believe in a fable with no lesson.
Your story is worth telling. What story is most alive for you right now?
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