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    Kiran Sirah

August 31, 2014

The Storyteller’s Art – Bringing Ancient Wisdom and the Philosophy of Ubuntu to Life

An Interview with Kiran Singh Sirah – Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center

Kiran Singh Sirah began his career as an artist and teacher, which led him to establish a number of award winning peace and conflict resolution programs in museums and cultural centers in the UK. These initiatives address sectarian, ethnic and religious conflict, poverty, and gang violence. Kiran went on to develop arts-led projects exploring modern slavery violations, war, and issues facing socially marginalized peoples. Kiran is a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellow program and a folklorist interested in the power of human creativity, arts and social justice, and the notion of a truly multicultural society. Kiran currently lives in Jonesborough, TN.  He was selected as Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center in 2013.

I had the opportunity to talk with him recently about the power of storytelling to unite people across different cultures and belief systems.

Rebecca Popham:      The 42nd Annual National Storytelling Festival for 2014 is rapidly approaching. This is already your second annual Festival.  Your selection as the new Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough, TN, last year came just as the 2013 Festival was ramping up—kind of a “baptism by fire.”  Tell us a little bit about why the position of Executive Director of the ISC appealed to you.

Kiran Sirah:      A baptism by fire indeed! But a great one. To some extent it was like being placed in the middle of story! I still have to pinch myself everyday for this wonderful and unique opportunity. I love my job and I am grateful for the people that support storytelling. To be in this position gives me the chance to work with storytellers of all kinds, to draw from all my experiences and my education in the storytelling arts, folklore, and peace-building and global networks to contribute to our international and regional storytelling communities. What attracted me initially to this job was the chance to promote and develop our ancient art of storytelling, to bring it to new heights and to expand the role that storytelling has to enrich people’s lives here and across the world and make a real difference to people’s lives.

RP:     As a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellowship program can you describe the connection between storytelling and working toward global peace?

KS:     Storytelling is a powerful social force. Telling stories opens doors to help bind and form communities and find important connections to the entire human family. In essence it helps us to holds up mirrors to ours and other cultures and establishes a sense of a global identity. Storytelling is what forms relationships with others, it is the powerful expressive realm in all its dimensions that gives voice to who we are and where we are going. Used wisely it may also be the one of greatest conflict prevention tools the world might ever know. As a Rotary Peace fellow I have had opportunities to learn not only techniques to building peace but also how complex, multifaceted and diverse our peace community is. My main thrust in peace work has been to encourage intercultural dialogue and therefore Storytelling offers what I believe is the greatest way we can do that to help us all work towards a peaceful world.

RP:     Did the ISC have a history of including the concept of nonviolence and the philosophy of Ubuntu in presentations at the annual festival, or is this a new dimension that you are adding to the spectrum of human behavior already covered in stories told by the Master Storytellers who perform at the ISC Annual Festival?

KS:      The tellers that have performed over the 42 history have come from all over the world and from a diverse spectrum of storytelling traditions. Many tellers draw from family, humor, local, and global traditions as well as personal narrative and experience. There is often ancient wisdom that one can hear in the stories they tell. It is not a new idea introduced by me, but something I think storytellers have been doing ever since people started telling stories around campfires or from the time when humans etched visual pictographs onto cave walls to today when NASA scientists use visual storytelling inscribed space probe and send them out into the universe. Storytelling has always connects us to indigenous ways of life. I guess what I am doing here is expanding the way we can translate the Ubuntu concept into new disciplines and arenas, to invite partnerships and collaborations, so that we can share ways as an organization to live up to this great concept of Ubuntu.  By sharing ourselves with others and vice versa being open to learning from others we can ignite the belief in Ubuntu in really creative ways.

RP:  
 On Thursday, August 21, you appeared on NPR’s Religion in Life program.  What is your primary message to that audience about the role of storytelling in our culture? (Hear Kiran’s NPR interview via podcast at http://religionforlife.podomatic.com/)

KS:      I have great respect for Reverend Shuck who hosts the NPR series Religion for Life, so it was honor to be interviewed by him. My primary message was that by sharing my own stories of my upbringing and how storytelling changes my life, I hope others may also think about how storytelling can play a part in their lives. Across the world the voices of young people need to be heard, and so the message was for us to think about how we can help to nurture the next generation. Certain stories may belong to different people or different groups and cultures, but the Art of Storytelling as an art form is something that belongs to us all.

RP:     What projects are you working on at ISC, in addition to the annual Festival, for 2015 and beyond?

KS:      Our story at ISC is constantly evolving. As the world’s oldest public storytelling festival, we are at a great time right now in our 42 year history. Right now we are developing a number of new initiatives connecting storytelling programs and establishing international storytelling programs as well as regional and national programs. We have a number of digital programs under development to reach youth, new learning programs, and we also have a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian Institution which we are continually developing. We are also developing new strands to our key event, the annual National Storytelling Festival as well as to our Storyteller-in-Residence series that takes place between April and November. Beyond that we have some exciting work with organizations including the global Masterpeace Project and the United Nations to invite storytellers to tell their stories of peace and change.

Here at the ISC we are reigniting and discovering new ways to bring the broader Art of Live Storytelling to even more arenas and audiences. Not only is this my personal passion, it is my life’s dream to elevate this great art form to a position where it is seen as an effective tool in helping to establish intercultural dialogue.  Such a dialogue would celebrate diversity and respect for life and difference, which I see as the key components for creating a more peaceful world. Part of our mission is to connect emerging Storytellers and new audiences to the great Master Storytellers who already offer so much to the world. Ultimately, everything we do here at ISC, and my life from here on in, is about the Art of Storytelling contributing to building a better world. Storytelling for all!

RP:      Thank you, Kiran, for giving us more insight into the role of storytelling in the pursuit of peace.  Clearly, it is a critical part of any effort to true understanding among cultures within nations, and among all of the nations of the world.  And we can’t forget that Ubuntu really starts within the family unit and also between just two people.  Stories are at the very root of our human experience.

April 29, 2014

Storytelling—How every culture expresses “Ubuntu—I am because we are.”

As far as we know, storytelling is a part of every culture. The familiar perception of storytelling as an essential survival mechanism in the limited toolbox of ancient cultures, long since overtaken by the written word and relegated to a form of entertainment in most of the world, belies the truth of storytelling as our ever-present anchor in communicating with each other all day, every day, nearly everywhere.

We are all storytellers from the time we start interacting with the first storytellers in our lives (parents, grandparents, siblings, and so on), picking up the way to get the attention of others and our points across.  But some people seem to be born as truly gifted “tellers.”

On May 6th, many of those gifted storytellers will begin arriving in the historic town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, over the next five months with a full slate of performances leading up to the Autumn 42nd annual, world-renowned International Storytelling Festival.  Attendees from around the world will also begin arriving to celebrate what storytelling means in their own lives, and hear how beautiful and powerful stories can be when told by “tellers” who have honed their art to perfection. The seemingly sweet simplicity of a story told by a master of the art of storytelling can definitely “pack a punch” full of meaning you will remember for a long time—if not forever.

The lead in to the Autumn festival opens in less than one week with the Storytelling Live! series, a part of the festival that joined the line-up of events 13 years ago, and this year will showcase 26 storytellers known nationally and internationally.  These 26 extraordinary “tellers” will  serve as “Tellers in Residence” leading up to the 42nd  International Storytelling Festival on October 3-5, 2014.

We are very fortunate that Master Storyteller Donald Davis, whose performances are always a huge draw at the Festival, graciously agreed be interviewed for our site. Kiran Sirah, Executive Director of the National Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, describes Donald Davis as, “…one of the most respected Storytellers in the country—probably one of the best in the world. He does around 44 festivals a year… and does amazing work in youth education across the country.”  Kiran also recounted former Vice President Al Gore’s attendance at the International Storytelling Festival one year which inspired the former Vice President to develop a project about storytelling as a tool for peace, a project in which Donald participated.

So, now let’s hear from Master Storyteller, Donald Davis, as he describes his art as a “Teller.” It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Master Storyteller Donald Davis.

Rebecca: As a Master Storyteller, do you have a single theme into which all of the stories you tell must fit?

Donald: All of the stories that I tell are true and are my own original stories.  While there is no prescriptive theme, a descriptive inventory would find my stories to center around  family dynamics of common trouble.  Sometimes these dynamics extend to community and beyond.  I look for the common, not the weird, so that listeners can feel that they have also been there.

Rebecca: What is the difference between the “Art of Storytelling” and the kind of stories people tell each other in everyday conversation?

Donald: In everyday conversation, people mostly make oral reports.  That is, they simply recall what happened on a certain occasion without giving it reflective layers of meaning.  It becomes a story when it is told so that strangers can understand it and the story does not stop with the events but goes on to capture the learning realizations that make the retold events worth living through and warrant repeated retelling.

Rebecca: At the church I attended with my family as a child, we were handed a printed program at the church door upon arrival.  Before we even got to our seats, I was already reading the program, looking hopefully to see if our Assistant Minister was going to be giving the sermon that morning. His sermons were so colorful and exciting that they swept you up and kept you enthralled for the whole time.  The senior minister was a wonderful person, but I never could get the message I knew I was supposed to be getting from his sermons because my mind would wander so much…and time did seem to really crawl.  In your experience as a minister, did you approach delivering sermons with the same—or similar—style as you use when telling a story at, for example, a festival?

Donald: In preaching, I was and am always story centered.  I typically retell a biblical story and then place it aside a true contemporary story so that people can see that they are truly parables to each other.  If that works, people can then add their own third story beside my two and they have applied the biblical lesson very personally.

Rebecca: How do you select a story?  Do you take whole stories that are among those in a very large repertoire and then craft them to your own style?

Donald: I do not make use of stories other than my own in festival performance.  When I start with biblical stories in preaching, I work from the common lectionary and then match my story to the one prescribed in one of those texts.  Aside from that, I do not make use of stories outside my own canon.

Rebecca: Do you build stories around your observations of the way people behave in certain familiar situations like, for example, trying to explain an idea or belief to someone who is skeptical?

Donald: I do not put performance stories together with an agenda.  They are simply stories that  come out of my work at reflecting on how my experiences set forth the human common agenda.  I can’t use a story to try to bend someone else’s ideas and it is important to me to always honor the listener’s integrity as final interpreter of the story.  Sometimes a  story it “just right for the time and place,” and my trust is that stories do their own teaching work. 

Rebecca: Do you retell stories that you heard in your early life, but update some elements to make the story relevant for listeners today?

Donald: Every time I tell a story it is matched to the audience.  The same stories are told  differently to children and adults. And, yes, stories that I have told for years have gradually evolved as time has passed.  I never actually give this an active thought as there are no “scripts.”  My stories are carried visually in memory so they always are  being tailored to the listeners at hand.                  

Rebecca: Are there “classic” stories in the world of storytelling that are sacrosanct, never to be changed just to appeal to a new generation?

Donald: There are great classic stories…the Odyssey is the greatest of all.  I retread it every year as it deeply informs all that I do as a storyteller.  There are always needs for new translations to keep us current and lively (the one I read now is the Robert Fagles), but the story itself never changes.  The great stories are windows into the culture from which they came and the peculiarities of the human dilemma…this cannot be changed!  

Rebecca: How to do you craft a story and does the way in which you tell a story evolve over time with each telling?

Donald: How I craft stories is a semester long question!  I work on the story orally (always with a listener) until the story finds its way and is moving pretty much the same way each time I tell it.  Then it is ready to come out to the larger audience.  After many more tellings it  is ready to record…in recording you have to explain more than with a live audience.  Last of all comes the written story for publication…it is much fuller as the readers can ask no questions and all must be anticipated then settled in the written version.  The written story is usually too “fat” to tell.  You know by now that all of my stories are in evolution throughout my lifetime.

Rebecca: How can storytelling help us make sense of the tragedies we encounter in life, both at the personal level and at the larger societal level?

Donald: Stories enable us to live through every dilemma, positive or negative, of the human experience without having to take on those same dilemmas ourselves.  In this sense stories can have a strong prophylactic function in protecting us from stumbling…if we give living attention to them.  When we are in trouble ourselves, the stories of how  others came through the same travails can show us that survival is possible, even if our way through is different from the protagonist’s journey.

Rebecca: Please add any other comments that you think could help us all appreciate the important place storytelling holds in our efforts to communicate with each other successfully.

Donald: My deepest belief about story is that story is the vehicle that carries our identity.  Tell children all the stories of the people from whom they have some and they will never lack an answer to the “who am I” question.  Without our own stories, we are lost!

Rebecca: Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information with us and educating us about the invaluable role stories play in lives.  And within your answers, we can truly see the philosophy of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.”

Donald: Peace and joy always!

It seems that the art of storytelling has been rediscovered in applications we haven’t traditionally thought about such as business.

Jonathan Gottschall, PhD, author of the bestselling book published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt entitled The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, is an excellent resource for exploring more about the way storytelling is woven into the fabric of being human. He tells us,

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
                                                            ~Jonathan Gottschall

October 13, 2012

Art as a Social Force for Change – a Folklorist for Peace Relates the Stories of Life

What were you doing this summer? It was by complete chance that I ended up living in Washington, DC, and met Mike Synder. Mike, it just so happened, is a past American Rotary Ambassadorial Fellow who studied in my home of Scotland a few years back. When he returned to the US, Mike started his own filmmaking company to highlight environmental issues within Appalachian communities. He is a talented, passionate filmmaker dedicated to his art and to making the world a better place. Mike and I found a connection in our passion for the arts, so it seemed natural to combine a folklorist’s interest in the stories of life with film. Together we produced a slam poetry film that explores art as a social force for change.

“No Such Thing as Fair Trade Cocaine” features a slam poem I wrote a few years ago while working with people affected by conflict in Colombia. While in Colombia, I met people living in refugee camps, internally displaced by a conflict that has plagued the country for years. According to the UN refugee agency, Colombia has around three million internally displaced persons (IDPs)—the second highest number in the world after Sudan.


There is No Such Thing as Fair Trade Cocaine – Kiran Sirah

On my return to Scotland, many people, I among them, attended music festivals regularly such as Glastonbury. At one of these music festivals, set in a lush green field covered by a sea of multicolored tents, I saw people sipping fair trade tea and coffee. They talked about the greatness of our nation with a population so supportive of the “fair trade” concept as a way to help producers around the world—they chatted about fair trade even as many did lines of cocaine. People seemed oblivious to the fact they were fueling a war thousands of miles away.

Although I had not thought of the connections before, after being in Colombia and making so many friends there, I was inspired to write the poem “No Such Thing as Fair Trade Cocaine.” The theme of the poem is the idea that each line of cocaine connects to stories of destruction in another part of the world. Despite worldwide perceptions of Colombia as a country of violence, I found it to be a place of beauty and determination with a passion for life. Colombia is a country where, regardless of their living situations, people take you into their hearts. Nowhere in the world have I been and felt more accepted and welcomed than in Colombia.

This poem is a response to the unfair ways Colombians have been blamed for the trade in cocaine. My poem emphasizes the idea that we embrace fair trade while remaining ignorant about how some of our other choices negatively impact social justice. Today, the primary demand for cocaine continues to come from the UK and the US. Through this film, we hope to raise awareness about how western cocaine consumption continues to fuel conflicts, destroy families, and ruin lives.

What I discovered this summer is that when we look for and listen more closely to the stories of life, we find artistic connections, new friendships, and inspiration for powerful artistic ventures that can make the world a better place for all.