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Tell the stories that heal, not harm

This article originally appeared on on September 29, 2017 as part of a larger series with 6 Degrees Citizen Space 2017 speakers entitled Walls that need to go: Ideas for a more inclusive world. See full post here.

Every person in the room was either crying or fighting back tears. At a community arts centre in Jakarta, Rey and Yans embraced each other. A moment later, about 30 youngish Indonesian women and men — activists, teachers, social workers, youth group conveners, poets, artists, religious leaders — began to applaud, cheering loudly. They were celebrating the bravery Rey and Yans showed by telling their stories together. Rey and Yans are both mixed heritage — his family is Chinese and hails from Manado in North Sulawesi and Ambon Island, two overlooked regions in Indonesia’s vast archipelago; she is also from Ambon and Manado, but considers herself from the Indigenous people of Ambon Island.

Since moving to Jakarta, Rey and his family have faced racism and prejudice for being Chinese. The recent defeat at the ballot box of Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known by the nickname Ahok, and his jailing on a flimsy blasphemy charge has recently heightened tensions again. A powerful alliance of alt-right Indonesian nationalists and alt-right religious chauvinists has been blamed for the rising intolerance. Rey choked up as he recalled how as a child he had hid under a bridge as nationalist mobs took to the streets. As the Suharto dictatorship collapsed, he tried to convince Muslim Indonesians that the Chinese minority had engineered some kind of coup d’état. He described how he forgave a friend who in recent months had begun sending anti-Chinese messages on social media. It was a difficult choice. To do otherwise, would have been to continue a cycle of misinformation and recrimination.

Yans grew up in a Christian family. She also grew up hating people of Chinese descent — even those who professed her Christian faith. She saw them as stingy, clannish and unsociable. Her life was a contradiction. She was active in social service, yet she kept away from her Chinese and Muslim neighbours. Her assumptions and learning was challenged when in college she faced some intense personal crises. Her Chinese and Muslim classmates came to her aid, surrounding her with love, support and unconditional help. Yans had to eventually confront her elders and her faith community and question the almost institutional suspicion of people — fellow Indonesians, don’t forget — who did not share her cultural background.

Rey and Yans then told a story of “us” — a story of what Indonesia looks like when they are both in the frame. Through telling their story they found common ground — in their shared regional and linguistic heritages, which were obscured by race and ethnicity, and also in a renewed vision of what it means to be Indonesia.

This is vignette from a project that I have co-created in Indonesia (with the Jakarta-based Habibie Center and veteran Canadian-British interfaith and intercultural activist Stephen Shashoua) to combat a rise in violent attacks against religious and ethnic minorities in major urban centres there. We train young changemakers to tell the story of what inspired them to become leaders and activists. We also pair participants from different religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds and give them a chance to tell a new story: the story of a country where they both belong. A country, like ours, that is constantly changing.

It has been a powerful, moving experience. We now have 150 leaders recreating these storytelling circles in five major cities in Java. There are plans to expand this work throughout Indonesia and beyond. We call these gathering Café Cerita — the café of stories.

Our world needs more spaces like Café Cerita. It should be a public policy priority.

As a journalist and an organizer, I work with stories every day. I know the importance of the narratives we tell — how we tell them, to whom we them tell them, the way we tell them. Stories can bind us together and stories can tear us apart. Stories create false mythologies and stories shatter our illusions. Stories can create dangerous enmity and stories can help heal profound trauma. Stories can also become barriers to understanding.

It doesn’t need to be this way. We need to consider what kind of stories we are telling about ourselves and what impact they have on our understanding of one another and “us” — as citizens of cities, nations and the world. If the quality of our stories is poor, our understanding of one another will be equally abysmal. It begins with truth telling and honesty and compassion to hear and take and reflect.

Stories told by us, about us, are like jigsaw pieces. It’s not until we hear others tell their stories that we realize how we connect to them and they to us.

My friend, teacher and activist Mark Gonzales puts it a bit differently: we cannot live in trauma, pain and wound. We must remember that there was a time before trauma. That memory — preserved through stories — allows us to imagine a story after trauma. Tell the story, he says, of that time.

The master storyteller Neil Gaiman says that stories connect us as humans. “Because,” he says, “we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin colour, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.”

It is these divides, these barriers, against which we must harness the best of our stories. Narratives that will push us to have better conversations and find more enduring solidarities in an increasingly divided and violent world.

Abdul-Rehman Malik is an award winning London-based journalist, educator and organizer who works at the intersection of faith, culture and social justice. He is currently a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at Yale University.