Sujatha Fernandes talks about her new book, Curated Stories

https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190618049.001.0001/acprof-9780190618049

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What led you to first start thinking about storytelling and its relationship to political economy?

Sujatha Fernandes: I was doing research about migrant domestic workers in New York and their labor struggles. What was striking to me was that the workers were being asked to tell their stories over and over in legislative campaigns, but they didn’t feel that it made any difference to their situation. I began to look at other sites too, undocumented students, an Afghan women’s project, and I noticed how storytelling had become a key mode of operation in all of these sites. In fact, in some cases the same storytelling manuals and trainings were being used, many of them originating with the election campaign of Barack Obama. There was something about the neoliberal self-making central to the Obama presidency that was driving these storytelling campaigns. So that was how I connected the storytelling to the neoliberal moment.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout Curated Stories, you provide evidence for how the personal narrative has emerged as an important genre for the construction of hegemony in the contemporary neoliberal era. You discuss how the stories of the marginalized, more than those of political elites or dominant classes, are critical to this process (p. 13). Why are the stories of the marginalized so important to “curate”?

Sujatha Fernandes There is much scholarship that focuses on how the dominant narratives of elite intellectual and artistic production have been key in the construction of hegemony – Hollywood films, literature, monuments, museums, political speeches, and so on. I think those are important to study, but the corollary has often been a valorization of the stories of the marginalized as conversely being authentic and getting at the truth of their experience.

That valorization was burst apart by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” where she talks about how the voice of the subaltern is itself composed of dominant myths and tropes. Voice is a construction. In the book, I follow her and others to argue that we have to look to the ways in which the stories of the marginalized are shaped and harnessed, through trainings, workshops, and protocols, in order to understand their import. It is precisely the notion that marginalized stories are uniquely authentic that gives them their hegemonic power.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapters 3, 4, and 5, you describe how neoliberal storytelling projects work to decontextualize and individualize the stories of Afghan women, domestic workers, and undocumented youth, thereby avoiding critiques of broader oppressive political and economic systems that these stories might otherwise imply. Yet, you also describe moments of resistance in each of these cases. What does resistance to neoliberal modes of storytelling look like? As scholars, do we need to look beyond the text to see resistance?

Sujatha Fernandes: In the book, I am looking at the period of the Obama administration, and during this time the resistance to neoliberal storytelling is quite small and momentary. It may involve an Afghan writer going off script to talk about the role of powerful warlords in a post-invasion Afghanistan. It might mean a storytelling trainer who deviates from asking people to tell their stories to re-elect Obama, by contemplating how Obama betrayed the immigrant rights movement by not passing immigration reform. These moments signal a breach in the system but they usually yield to the ordering of the protocol or the training.

We need to learn to read the silences and contradictions in the texts. It is also important to look beyond the text, to employ ethnography to understand how people might be subverting or deviating from the narrative they are being given. The training manuals, protocols, and stories only give us one side of the picture. They don’t show how sometimes those narratives are fiercely contested. For instance, one domestic worker in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign refused to conform to the limited protocols that required her to only talk about working conditions, hours, and pay. She argued with the advocates leading the campaign, and then in her submitted testimony she went off script to talk about labor exploitation and the global conditions of domestic work. She was not allowed to read out her testimony at the hearing. By looking beyond the text, we can see these moments of resistance.

In a Trump era, this resistance looks quite different. Migrant workers and undocumented students in groups like Movimiento Cosecha have bypassed the path of storytelling advocacy in favor of more direct action and confrontational movements that put forward radical demands. We are also seeing a return to modes of storytelling that link personal experiences to forms of structural oppression. So while the Obama campaign stories linked people’s personal lives to vague values such as hope and family, now we are seeing stories that connect the hardships in people lives directly to problems such as poverty, student debt, and medical debt.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 6, you discuss the Misión Cultura program in Venezuela as an example of a storytelling project that challenges neoliberal ideologies by making connections between the personal narratives of individuals and “political and collective registers” (p. 161). To what extent can this project serve as a model for alternative modes of storytelling, ones that challenge neoliberalism?

Sujatha Fernandes: There are aspects of the Misión Cultura program, as well as others such as the Andean Oral History workshop in Bolivia, that could provide some fruitful ideas. These include non-linear modes for writing personal stories, where one’s life is represented in terms of spheres instead of a chronological or temporal order. In this alternative narrative model, the individual is not centered on a unitary subject as in western-style biographies, but is rather located among spheres of people and communities. These stories re-link the personal, political, and collective registers; they are shaped by participants themselves rather than being edited by others or limited by protocols; and they are located in spaces of the barrio and community-based struggles. I think that these projects might provide some generative lines for rethinking how we tell stories and for developing alternative modes of storytelling.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What do you hope scholars and activists interested in storytelling can take away from your book? What is entailed in moving from “curated stories” to “mobilizing stories” (p. 171)?

Sujatha Fernandes: I hope that they might cast a more critical gaze on many of the storytelling platforms that have come to dominate our lives, from Facebook to Ted talks, and the plethora of story coaching agencies, social movement and legislative storytelling models out there. But while many activists themselves have come to reject the dominant storytelling advocacy, I’m hopeful that we might be able to renew a storytelling approach, one that uses art and literary-cultural spaces and methods to convey issues of social injustice. There are strong traditions of this: farm worker movements, Latin American testimonios, and feminist consciousness-raising all used storytelling to great effect as they brought attention to class inequalities, patriarchy, and imperialism. In moving from curated stories to mobilizing stories, it is precisely this attention to the structural conditions of oppression that we must include. And this probably means rethinking the venues where stories are told – away from courtrooms, and the media, and the advocacy organizations where stories can get distorted and compressed for another agenda, toward the small activist circles and the streets where they can change minds and hearts.

 

Gil Hizi flips to page 99 of his dissertation

My dissertation deals with pedagogic programs for self-improvement in a city called Jinan, northeast China. I focus on workshops that cultivate interpersonal “soft” skills, namely emotional expression, communication, and public speaking. Through the work of various state and market actors, these type of pedagogies have expanded in recent years from the middle-class culture of big metropolises to wider urban China. The crux of my work delineates the ideal of the person that is promulgated through these pedagogies and the ways it is enacted in workshop exercises. In short, soft skills in China offer an imagined avenue for self-transformation and social mobility that supposedly traverses more rigid factors such as background, educational credentials, and social capital.

Page 99 concludes a section where I introduce Aisong, 33, who joined interactive workshops offered by a local psychology club. During a short time, Aisong became a dominant participant and a poignant voice of expertise in the club. Despite his lack of prior experience in psychology, he expressed his goal of becoming a “master teacher” (dashi), and complemented his verbal performances with a new appearance: traditional suits, hair gel, a hairband, a Buddhist bracelet, and a fan in his hand. While undertaking this journey, Aisong maintained his blue-collar technician job. Like many other workshop participants I met, he was not pursuing self-improvement as merely a hobby or self-help method, but he was also not undertaking a new profession. I raise this point on page 99:

Unlike the visions of scholars of soft skills and immaterial labour, Aisong’s affinity to soft skills was not a response to direct demands of an enterprise. Yet, being both fascinated by and anxious regarding the potentialities of the market, Aisong was motivated to experiment with new modes of self-assertion while heralding new values.

Many self-improvers in urban China meticulously pursue self-improvement through a vision of entrepreneurship and market success, while also celebrating “doing what I love” and “becoming a better person”. They illustrate an intriguing coalition between a market-driven impetus for self-development and a moral cultivation of the person as a whole.

Anxieties about one’s competence in a changing world lead individuals as Aisong to envision new channels for professional success and social influence (the “master teacher” encompasses both), as well as to experience an untapped potential to become more competent. By practicing soft skills in an interactive workshop where he affects other participants through his speech and gestures, Aisong could achieve these goals ephemerally.

Hizi, Gil. 2018. “The Affective Medium and Ideal Person in Pedagogies of ‘Soft Skills’ in Contemporary China”. Ph.D. Dissertation. Sydney University.

Gil Hizi is a lecturer of Anthropology and an Australian Anthropological Society’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney. Gil’s work focuses on the expansion of person-centred pedagogies in urban China, mostly in regard to changing conceptions of personhood and the affective aspects of contemporary self-cultivation. He has published his research findings in Asian Studies Review, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Asian Anthropology, Continuum, and China: An International Journal. You can reach him by email at gil.hizi@sydney.edu.au.