When Sense-making and Story-making are One : Engaging Refugees' Narratives (ERN 2016)

An account of the second day of Engaging Refugees' Narratives,  followed by a a brief commentary. By Edoardo Lomi (UCL, BSc Anthropology) 

The second day of "Engaging Refugees’ Narratives" features workshops run in parallel by some of the attending artists and NGOs’ representatives.

I make my way to the UCL Anthropology Department’s internal courtyard, where Helen East’s story-making workshop has just begun.

The small size of the circle of attendees (Helen asked for no more than ten) helps in suffusing the usually empty space with a thrilled air of intimacy. It is however mostly the vision of Helen herself enacting the transformation. Seated on the edge of the chair, the storyteller gestures gently; her white curls match her twinkling blue eyes, moving about with a youthful grin. Following Helen’s lead, the proverbial round of self-introduction turns into a journey past etymological and personal histories. 

The concatenation of story-making activities that make up the workshop unfolds. Overtly “anthropological” themes come to the fore, as Helen speaks of the layers upon layers of meaning defining stories as processes of communication. “Every time you tell a story,” she notes, “you’re adding to something that stands behind and behind and behind you.” No story is borne out of nothing. Even those stories holding seemingly timeless truths (think of Aesop’s fables) are always made and remade through the words of people at particular times. The workshop feels like one such time. 

After the round of presentations, it is with endearingly low voice that Helen unveils a square, wooden instrument with protruding metal sticks. The cacophonous object accompanies Helen in narrating a short story: it's about a little mouse, whose many little collected treasures turn into many colourful story-children. Despite the mouse’s selfish intentions, the story-children eventually break free and into the world.

Helen has often told this story to the refugee children from Syria with whom she worked last. In speaking of her experience, Helen is quick to add, “I like to find things I can tell the three and the one-hundred-thirty year-olds alike.” A story reminding one of the beauties and perhaps even the inevitability of sharing one’s experience does seem to befit all ages. “You have to let your stories grow,” Helen prompts, “Tell your stories!”

Time comes to turn theory in practice and for participants to share their own “stories”. The courtyard buzzes with overlapping attempts at telling, listening, and retelling another’s phenomenological memories of smells, sounds, and places. A final activity consists in each picking a strand of coloured textile representing a place one feel particularly at home in. The strands are then entwined together in an ending ritual. Yet, just like children whom are forced to sleep when still wide-awake and hungry for more bedtime stories, the workshop overruns its allotted time. The circle disbands, but Hellen reassures everyone: it will only be a short while before we may rejoin over lunchtime, for more story-time.


Helen East's story-making workshop (photo by Robert Pinney) 


The morning goes on. I attend Mike Ayvazian’s workshop, which dramatically shakes up the soothing aura of Hellen's figure all around and inside me. Like Helen, Mike has participants engaging with some of the same activities he employs in his work with groups of young refugees. But if Helen gave form to a narrative framework of encompassing tranquility, the kind of individual exploration Mike collectively calls for is a powerfully emotive one, the framework being one of theatrical performance, improvisation, and bodily engagement. 

The anthropology students' Common Room makes for a spacious stage: some stretching exercises and a group-game help the actors familiarise with the space and its dozen or so new faces. Mike then divides a portion of the room into three “emotion zones”- the small crowd first calls for “laughter,” “fear,” and “anger.” This activity plays out like an impassioned tour-de-force: one by one, every participant is supposed to jump from a zone to the next, resting in each for a few seconds during which the corresponding emotion must be acted out in as outward and expressive a way as possible. Otherwise swaying emotions are visited here with a mixture of control and exaggeration, restraint and excess: the extemporised row is to begin and end with impassible, serious composure.

Mike is quick to notice a lack of volunteers ready and willing to embarrass themselves in front of a group of strangers. As a professional clown, Mike knows well the causalities of emotive reactions: “OK. I will do it myself, but I warn you”, he says, “this shouldn’t scare you, it should inspire you!”


Mike Ayvazian's workshop: emotive zones (photo by Robert Pinney)

Things pick up with lively rhythms, as the group turns into a "human-bus” spiraling around the room and collecting new passengers at every round. With each newcomer, new “emotions” are introduced and transmitted throughout the “bus”. Laughter abounds in the Common Room, now elevated to a child’s dreamy park of shared narratives- or understandings. 

Later, the emotions that participants have had a chance to embody are further embodied in more material forms. Mike provides some staples, and in the next ten minutes participants produce two masks with contrasting emotions on the back of two carton plates. A silent hiatus of deep concentration soon reemerges in loud discussion. People spend the next few, hurried minutes coming up and rehearsing a story in groups of three, to be later performed in front of the rest of the group. The one instruction here is for everyone to work on changing his or her “face” at least once during the play.

Mike's workshop: final performance (photo by Robert Pinney) 

Mike's workshop: final performance (photo by Robert Pinney) 

A moment of reflection follows this last activity, as Mike takes questions, comments, and suggestions from the group.

It may seem that, overall, Mike’s and Helen’s workshops both focused rather more around “practice” than “theory”. But what the interdisciplinary nature of the ERN events may allow for is precisely a consideration of practical engagement and theoretical discussion in much needed, critical conjunction.

That is, at least, in theory. In practice, many are the obstacles for establishing fruitful dialogue between academic anthropologists and non-academic artists. Such obstacles haven’t been absent from the ERN events. It is nevertheless the viable possibility for such dialogue to take place that has enabled something like ERN to happen. One of the greatest successes of these few days' events may lie in revealing how differently anthropologists, NGOs, and performers, approach their respective work with refugees living in comparable structural conditions.

Admitting and locating gaps in communication opens the difficult but rewarding path towards bridging them. How else may we follow Helen’ s advice to “let our stories grow” and grow ourselves with them, if not by approaching those, stories, story-tellers, and means of retelling, that we have hitherto ignored, or dismissed?

It obviously takes significantly more for academia to escape from itself and to make an innovative return, than placing diverse people in the same room, talking in different languages at different times. Exposure to such difference is a necessary first step. The organisers of ERN are surely aware of this. In the afternoon, two formal presentations are given, one by journalist and novelist Caroline Brothers, and one by photojournalist Robert Pinney, both on their own research in refugee camps. Later, time is devoted to thinking back on the events that took place these past two days, and look forward to future possibilities for interdisciplinary collaborations. 

As I find myself reflecting on the round of etymological and personal histories that initiated Helen’s workshops, the term “hi-stories” comes to mind. Stories sustain collective historical memories; narrative styles and imageries are in turn historically and culturally constructed in particular ways. So may "story-making" and "sense-making,” be seen as two highly interrelated processes.

With them, the walks of story-making artists and story-translating anthropologists may come to interact in interesting ways. ERN spurs us to pursue such direction, and hold dear the potential value of all “stories,” be they allegorical, fictional, scientific, or simply accounts of everyday life, for making sense of the worlds we live in.

I will end with some more thoughts. Let’s consider that our attitudes, both our perceptions as well as the practice they motivate, of things of the world we live in (e.g., broadly, the condition of refugees in Calais’s “jungle”; a particular economic mode of production; the social relations these afford), are largely conditioned and defined through socially constructed and promoted understandings, or “stories.” As such, to effectively analyse and tell “stories” about those very “things” whose existence we tend to so dangerously (re: ideologically) take for granted, opens possibilities for engaging them in practically transformative ways (re: changing them). Hopefully, the idealist overtone in this comment does not prevent one from realising the often-covert power of stories.  Evoking and directing such “power” requires that the narratives and narrative tools explored during the ERN events work together. The name “storytelling anthropology”, as opposed to “anthropology and storytelling”, is suggestive.

If my second day at the "Engaging Refugees’ Narratives" began calmly, took off lively, and ended reflexively, looking forward to new beginnings- it was nothing short than one narrative-pyramid of a day.