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Ben Brown (Photo: Mark Beatty)
Ben Brown (Photo: Mark Beatty)

BooksJanuary 29, 2023

When storytellers ruled the world – and how stories rule us

Ben Brown (Photo: Mark Beatty)
Ben Brown (Photo: Mark Beatty)

An excerpt from a keynote speech delivered in November last year to mark Ben Brown’s time as Te Awhi Rito New Zealand Reading Ambassador.

We imagine ourselves into existence and a universe comes with us. This is the first and most important function of language, revealed to us ideally by mothers who love and fathers who fear but never admit it, or even nannas who blitz us with chocolate and sugars and then give us back to their own with a cackle thinking, “it’s your turn now”, but really, they love us more than life. Here within these origin stories and formative narratives our dawning comprehension sieves and filters to divine, if we have been so equipped, conceiving the limit of our perception and the extent of our horizon. We take on form and substance here. We may not always obey. We will certainly not always know. Again, it will depend on the story. 

Wherever we stand he tangata, he tangata, he tangata; whatever our arrangement might be with the world around us as we navigate the terrain, and within this great iwi ko Ngāti Humanity where human engagement is the most valuable currency of all  except when it’s the most destructive force that we can muster – whether we regard ourselves a Superman, a citizen, a cog in a great big machine or just another bland consumer; it serves us well to understand that a constantly evolving narrative attends each one of us. Our stories write themselves in the minds of others and our own as we progress. In many ways these narratives will steer or even predict our experiences. We will accumulate something approaching knowledge, ideally, built of an expanding anthology that gives us an ever deeper, richer, more expansive meaning as a frame of reference. We come to know ourselves in the process. And the quality of that self acquaintance will be in every way comparable to the depth and scope of our particular unfolding narrative. In knowing ourselves we begin to assess, compare and further engage with “others”. We become a measure made of our own particular meaning. 

I wonder though, have we come to forget the deeply formative place of story in our lives? Have we relegated the glory and splendour of language to markings of bland utility in a techniverse that can render a million realities – calling every one of them virtual without even a hint of irony; or sit itself quite comfortably in the convenient accommodation of artifice with intelligence. Have we forgotten the source of our enlightenment, assuming a divinity in the machines that don’t even know what the fuss is about, or even that there is a fuss in the first place. Machines don’t know anything. They’re great at doing stuff. But there’s a difference. The machine doesn’t know it’s doing it. The machine has no idea. 

I don’t remember a time in my life when I couldn’t read or write. I guess that makes me one of the lucky ones. Lucky in the sense that my parents ensured that all their children started school knowing the alphabet, how to count to ten, how to write their own name and in the process, a few other words as well; house, farm, mum, dad, dog, cat, yes, no. Words that began to give me a sense of place and meaning.

The author Ben Brown, on the day of his keynote, November 24 2022. (Photo: Mark Beatty)

I also started school with a love of stories. Both my parents told stories as a matter of course. My father who grew up in the vastness of the Outback; a red heart South Australian who cut his teeth in the territory, as he called the North; where the self taught young man devoured books to create for himself an even more expansive horizon. My Wahine Taniwha mother; Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Paoa – Kingitanga hard whose universe was revealed and elaborated to her in kōrero and Pūrākau, that she could extend to her children in the two tongues of this land. Everything, it seemed to me, was explained as a story.

If only school did things that way. I started primary school the same week pounds, shillings and pence became dollars and cents so at least the maths required to work out how rich I wasn’t would prove easier in the future, but “reading” as it was taught to me from July 1967 seemed, for the most part, pretty uninspiring. 

The saving grace would be story time where teachers read aloud from chosen books and we drifted away in our heads to cause mayhem with Thing 1 and Thing 2 or had a party with Max and his army of beasts and then let the Wild Things clean up the mess. Sadly, it seemed that the older you got, the less important story time seemed to become. Like imagination all of a sudden has to make way for – what? Buggered if I know. What could be more important to a reasonably cognitive mind than imagination? 

The memorable exceptions; the teacher who was also the strapper. But he loved reading stories as much as we loved listening to them. And watching them as he lunged and parried his way round the classroom, wielding his hickory golf shaft named the great persuader like it was an epee or a sabre – and he was a drunk Musketeer; “Un pour tous et tous pour un!” from France no less. Or sometimes; a relieving teacher there for just a day or two, or better yet, an afternoon. But savvy enough to know the easiest route through an otherwise testing ordeal with a bunch of feral country kids on the cusp of puberty was to pull out a book of sufficient adventure with a villainous narrator who brooked neither rudeness nor interruption. And all would be well for the duration. 

There was a time of course, when storytellers ruled the world because they were the ones who made sense of it, defined it, gave it shape and place in the universe, peopled it with heroes, villains immortals, gods and monsters that kept the stars in their place and gave everything a purpose, a cause and a reason. The storytellers told us how it was and why. They told us where we were meant to fit within all of it. And they told us what would happen if we didn’t – or chose not to. 

It seems likely our ancestors were telling stories before there were even words to fill in the details, to tease and intrigue with analogy, metaphor and irony, to add layers of beauty to pathos and tragedy or wisdom and depth to the comedies of life. To communicate knowledge. There would have been the dance, the enactment, the gesture, filled out with the primal grunts and utterances of emotion; fear, rage, happiness, confusion, utter bewilderment, deep despair, rejoice at overcoming. But words in their time would give the storyteller infinite elaboration. A picture of the hunt on a cave wall may indeed paint a thousand words. But a thousand words from the storytellers’ mouth might tell you Everything. 

If there is one constant to existence, to what it means to be; from the quantum minuteness of quarks and electrons to the spiral of galaxies and universes; it is, I believe, the impetus to communicate. The mass of a great celestial body communicates with similar mass through gravity, exerting influence, affecting outcomes over eons and epochs and unimaginable distances. Electrons communicate with electrons through the spookiness of entanglement. We communicate with reality simply by observing it, engaging with it, making it, therefore, so. The flower talks to the bee. The bee obliges. A bird gives thanks to the vastness of the sky and ends up being eaten by a cat that cannot fly. The cat in turn will thank the Sky for not being edible to birds. In this way Life and Death take turns in an eternal dialogue. But nothing tells the story, quite like a human. What we don’t know, we make up. What we make up becomes real simply by saying it, on occasions . . . such as this . . . 

We who presume to be writers follow this legacy, telling picturesque lies that carry the gravitas of a truth, laying new legends to follow the old and out of date and better explain ourselves to ourselves or otherwise confuse, amuse, confide or confound; whatever our predispositions allow and our readerships tolerate. The last bloody thing we need is a diminishing pool of readers. 

Nominations are open for Te Awhi Rito New Zealand Reading Ambassador for 2023–2025. The role is focused on encouraging reading for children and young people. Nominations close on Tuesday 31 January 2023. More information and nomination forms are online here.

A Fish in the Swim of the World by Ben Brown (Penguin, $30) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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