When the pages of history fail to tell our stories, we find other ways to communicate our sacred heritage. From oral traditions and story circles to recipe books and social media, Emma Johnson considers the ways we make our voices heard…
“As humans, our sense of self is inextricably linked to our stories. The stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we carry with us in our minds,
our hearts and our bodies, form the bedrock of our identity”
Gemma Brady, Sister Stories
We all have a story. An account of our journey through this world, of the generations that came before us, the cultural heritage that defines us, the roots our ancestors put down, and what’s happening to us right now.
These stories hold the clues to who we are. They are linked to our identity; they speak to our sense of self. And yet, in the whitewash of privilege and patriarchy, the stories of women – and marginalised groups – got lost.
While men were telling the tales of their lives, we had to find other ways to share the truths about who we are and where we come from. We turned to what we knew, had access to. Stories were told in women-only groups, in circles around the fire or the kitchen table, sung while we were working, sewn into tapestries, written in letters, and passed down from mother to daughter as bedtime tales or beloved family recipes.
‘The truth is…we have been gathering for thousands of years,’ writes Anoushka Florence in her book The Women’s Circle: How to Gather with Meaning, Intention and Purpose. ‘Within the Women’s Circle is where we feel safe; safe to explore the depths of ourselves, safe to be seen, heard and held. We share our stories, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, for it is in this space we remember our power.’
Florence runs The Goddess Space, hosting women’s story circles and training those who wish to run their own. She is passionate about creating spaces for women to be heard and to connect with who they are, and she says there is no safer space for women than in a story circle: ‘A space for you to remember who you really are – and, in remembering who you really are, you let go of who they told you to be.’
Gemma Brady, founder of Sister Stories, agrees that telling our stories creates possibilities for the women around us: ‘Together, we are creating a world in which the healing power of storytelling can create deep shifts at an individual, community and collective level.’
Brady holds regular circles throughout the UK, and she too trains those wishing to hold their own. In this way, like Florence, she hands down knowledge and protects the future of women’s narratives. ‘Stories surround us, empower us, comfort us and deepen our sense of compassion and connection,’ she says. ‘The act of telling stories is one of the most life-affirming experiences we can enjoy together.’
Previously a documentary filmmaker, Brady was inspired to start Sister Stories by witnessing the profound healing that arises when people are simply given a space to share. After an experimental gathering of a few women in London, she has brought together hundreds – from ages seventeen to seventy – in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, Europe and the Philippines.
‘There is a cathartic effect [for] the person who has shared their story,’ she says, ‘but also for the person listening, who has played the precious role of witness. The more we hear others being open and candid, the more compassion we have for ourselves and for others.’
In 2020, Brady took the circle concept into the corporate world. Google Women guided more than 5,000 women in Europe, Africa and the Middle East to discover more about themselves and their colleagues in an environment that showed how the stories of who we are can bring us together. ‘It was a powerful storytelling experience,’ she explains, ‘that connected them to their ancestry and the stories of their colleagues.’
And no matter where the circle gathers or how these stories are passed down, the tradition of the circle remains; not in a written form, but in our innate desire to come together, to be seen and to be heard. ‘We each hold a sacred thread that runs through our female lineage,’ says Florence. ‘A thread that, if we go deep enough, will lead us back to the time when our ancestors sat in a sacred circle.’
These threads are some of the most powerful connections we have to ourselves, and they help us find our voices. ‘It wasn’t just generational trauma that got stored in our blood and passed along, but our resilience » and language too,’ says Daunis Fontaine, the main character in Angeline Boulley’s semiautobiographical novel Firekeeper’s Daughter. Seeking to redress an imbalance in novels featuring Native American voices, Boulley says, ‘There simply are too few stories told by and about indigenous girls and women, especially from a contemporary viewpoint. I have been shaped by a network of strong Anishinaabe Kwewag [Native American women]. My father is a traditional firekeeper, who strikes ceremonial fires at spiritual activities in the tribal community… while providing cultural teachings through stories told around the fire. He is one of my greatest teachers.’
In Boulley’s book, Daunis – who, like the author, is the daughter of a firekeeper – learns that her greatest strength is her Ojibwe culture and community, and their strong history of storytelling. By learning about her tribe’s past, Daunis comes to understand herself better, and learns the importance of passing on these stories. ‘Our elders,’ she says, ‘are our greatest resource, embodying culture, and community. Their stories connect us to our language, medicines, land, clans, songs and traditions. They are a bridge between the before and the now, guiding those of us who will carry on in the future.’
With Firekeeper’s Daughter, Boulley reminds us of the myriad ways there are to tell our stories and says that we must keep finding ways to share the truth of who we are. ‘We exist and have dynamic experiences to share beyond history books or stories set long ago.’
As Boulley shows in her novel, many of these stories are shared in groups, around a fire: powerful tales told by elders to younger generations. They are told over and over again, and each time the story feeds into the bigger picture of the culture: a larger narrative that holds the identity of a tribe, and its people, within.
Brady also acknowledges how this ancestral way of sharing stories translates now. ‘Telling our stories in a community setting, as our ancestors once did, is a matter of urgency; particularly for women. It feels incredibly important to have spaces where we can engage in storytelling as a way of reconnecting to and preserving the essence of our identity.’
While many share and witness stories and legends around a fire, other women find that other places offer the quietude needed to hand down knowledge. ‘History sinks into a kitchen the way fish odours sink into your hands… it settles into a kitchen and launches spores into generations of other kitchens,’ writes Nora Seton in her memoir The Kitchen Congregation, which tells ‘tales from the kitchen, the place where women congregate, particularly mothers and daughters’, and describes favourite recipes as ‘coded love messages handed down through the generations’.
Through recipe books and cooking together, women have, for centuries, found ways to tell the stories of their lives through what they cook and share. Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novel The Cure for Death by Lightning uses recipes and remedies that the author’s grandmother passed on to her; while Laura Esquivel’s novel and recipe book Like Water for Chocolate is sold in both the cookery and fiction sections of bookshops. The novel comprises twelve chapters, each dedicated to a month of the year and featuring a seasonal recipe that is cooked or created at a key moment in central character Tita’s life. At the end of the novel, the family ranch burns down, leaving only the cookbook behind – a tangible way for Tita’s children to learn her story. ‘Tita will go on living,’ Esquivel writes, ‘as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes.’
Mothers are an enduring force in the world of recipes, kept alive through knowledge passed down to daughters. In Through the Kitchen Window, author Sharon L. Jansen suggests that her mother’s recipes, infused with her own story, were an attempt to reinvent traditional discourse: ‘I realised that they were more than ingredients and directions. They were the rich and varied compositions of a writer who had chosen her own form…my mother is a terrific writer.’
Recipes and story circles are powerful ways to connect with our past, and share and preserve our ‘herstories’. But we also need to find new ways to access and protect stories that history mutes and forgets, and to keep our voices raised above the patriarchal din. The more we stay quiet, the less power we have.
The silencing of women’s voices, says Amanda Hirsch, founder of storytelling company Mighty Forces, ‘[is] an insidious tool that the patriarchy uses to keep us down. We have no alternative. We must make it our business to overcome our fear of expressing ourselves.’
Mighty Forces helps female leaders and organisations – such as Melinda French Gates’s Pivotal Ventures and the Malala Fund – to tell their stories in impactful ways. And, says Hirsch, modern technology is a valuable tool. On Evoke.org, a site hosted by French Gates, she explains how we can use the current trend of social platforms and self-promotion to create a new literary space for ourselves: ‘I call upon you to begin sharing your voice in intentional and powerful ways online. Your platform might include social media activity, a personal website, maybe even a newsletter. Once you have a platform, you can use it to lift up other women’s voices.’
The #MeToo movement is a perfect example of a powerful online narrative of women’s voices. A shortform story, which built a sense of collective strength and allowed the sharing of personal stories. Writes Lynn Abrams, chair in modern history at the University of Glasgow: ‘The confessional culture that has grown up around varieties of life story-telling – from the chat show interview to the magazine feature and more recently via social media – normalises the practice of narrating a life story in the public domain. Women are at the fore in this confessional revolution, writing autobiographies, engaging in social media and consuming life narratives in all their forms.’
Gemma Brady agrees, but urges caution in using just this medium. ‘ The opportunity to express our stories through the internet and social media… is a great liberation,’ she says. ‘And yet, there are systematic forces still at play which make it unsafe to tell stories publically. I’m interested in the act of having spaces to share stories… but in spaces which are confidential. There is a sense of safety there that feels crucial.’
Essentially, the stories we tell matter more than the medium. We must continue to share our narratives, because they define us and will shape the lives of those who come after us.
For Hirsch, who describes herself as a ‘storyteller’ amongst other things, telling our stories is really about being unafraid of our own voices: ‘We need more women leaders in this world, and to get there, we need more authentic stories about women who are already leading. This means more women finding the courage to step up to the plate and declare who they are – on LinkedIn, at dinner parties, and everywhere in between. When a woman declares who she is – who she really, truly is – it’s magnetic.’