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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Story power

Sovanna Soeung
I am very taken with the mother's storytelling at the beginning of this Washington Post article (reprinted by the Independent in the UK) by the accomplished Cambodian-born SreyRam Kuy. The real life salvation by story is like a piece of the Arabian Night, or a fairy story. If you don't believe that stories have power, this one just might convert you. (How a folk tale saved is one of those accounts Richard Dawkins, famous as a foe of fairy tales, would probably call "statistically improbable.") It's a wonderful proof that even death and hatred can be stayed by a nimble imagination. In this one case, story and wisdom overcame the desire to destroy all education and knowledge. The end result is what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the turn in a story that yields escape from an only-too-likely doom.

The essay itself is also a powerful tale that suggests issues of citizenship, faith, and living a life that matters. Four stories are braided together inside it--the story of Sovanna Soeung, the story of her mother's sacrifice to educate her, and the stories of her two children.

Why do foreign-born children often do so well, striving in ways that seem inconceivable to many native-born people who don't do so well? This account suggests some answers, but I'll just say that in all times and in all places, such drive and persistence are rare, precious commodities. I've always been proud of my father for beginning life as a deprived Depression-era sharecropper's child, and yet having the inner firepower and motivation to join the Army Air Corps at 17 (World War II B-17 tail gunner, also serving during the Korean War) and afterward rise to become a professor of analytical chemistry. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I'm married to a man who started life in a family where no one had been to college but who had the steam to become a physician, chief resident, Fellow, and then an academic doc. A story with an upward, aspiring arc calls out to us and says we can become. It proclaims that any of us can be transformed.

Who can't love inspiring stories like these? SreyRam Kuy's story of her mother and and her mother's two children contains indomitable drive and imaginative quickness in the effort to survive and triumph. First, she achieved as a child and young woman in a setting where it was not approved. She lost all and fought to find a new place in the world. The idea that Sovanna Soeung then returns to help others in the land where she was born is a testament to goodness, strength, and boldness. And behind these, faith. World history will look back at our time as one when Christians in the Middle East were being murdered at an astonishing rate, when "social" Christianity died, and when toleration for Christians decreased radically in the West. But a story like this one gives courage and tells a better tale of a woman living out a life that plainly says, "Love one another." Hers is a life that matters. No doubt there are many such tales, lost and forgotten in the great river of lives.

I haven't been to all that many countries in this big world, but I have been to Cambodia and Thailand, so I felt even more drawn to these words about both, having talked with Cambodians in Siem Reap and elsewhere about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge and their problems today. A visitor sees very few elderly people in that country. And on meeting one, she probably can't help wondering about story--how she or he survived, whether blood or sacrifice or grief is in those hands. In the case of Sovanna Soeung, such questions have painful, beautiful answers.


  1. Yes, there is a profoundly simple reason people tell stories. Consider the reason, for example, in Jesus' parables. Some will understand. Some will not understand. I don't understand enough but wish I could understand more. That becomes the paradoxical magic of life-saving story-telling. So, take that, Dawkins!

    Now, Marly, I am off to visit your linked story. And, of course, thank you for sharing.

    I am also off this weekend on a "leap of faith sabbatical" via highways and stories. The explanation is at Beyond Eastrod.

    1. Shall come by... About nine hours of mine yesterday were spent going to and attending a distant track meet, so I am behind, behind, behind.

  2. Interesting. I just wrote a blog post for Writing About Writing in which I pointed out that IMO, writing to fit a style (like a sonnet or a mystery) can hone creativity, but writing to please a critic ignores the most important thing a writer does: tell a story. And here you are, with sonnets and stories. If we aren't telling stories, as writers, what are we doing? That is worthwhile, I mean.

    1. Not everything has to be a story (particularly in poetry, in which what you get may be the merest flicker of a story, or none at all), but narrative is foundational, for sure. Yes, I want to get lost and found inside a story.

  3. I read the linked article - now there is a story with all the elements of love, hate, fear, strength! It's the story of so many people in history.

    1. Yes, it has a wonderful mythic pattern that others have shared... or else foundered in the course of events.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.