A note from prose editor Melissa Swantkowski:
I first came across Narrative 4 not because of its goals of social change, but because its founders had collected over one hundred stories online—all with the same title—from so many of my favorite writers. But to say that learning of the venture’s loftier ambitions was merely a bonus isn’t accurate either. It’s encouraging, even thrilling, to think of storytelling as our most universal currency and the exchange of experience as an action with real power to change the way we view and exist in the world.
Via “Fearless Hope through Radical Empathy,” a phrase coined to describe the transformative nature of sharing stories and creating a space for diverse stories to be told, worldwide, Narrative 4 is a committed group of authors and activists devoted to social change through the exchange of stories. The website goes further to explain that “The key to transformation lies in the sharing; when you hear someone else’s story deeply enough to inhabit it and re-tell it as if you have lived it, you become “the other” and see the world through her eyes.”
I had the pleasure of emailing with co-founder and chair Colum McCann to learn more about the narrative of Narrative 4—the origins of this collaborative venture, who it’s for, where it’s going, and how exactly they got 106 writers to write and donate a story with the title “How to Be a Man.”
In addition to this interview, I’m excited to present the full text of Colum McCann’s version of “How to Be a Man.” For access to the rest of the project and 105 more stories, please visit http://www.narrative4.com/
Bodega: What was the inspiration for Narrative 4? Was there one specific incident, or something you encountered that made you think this was a community the world needed?
Colum McCann: I’ve always wanted to do something beyond the words on the page. To use the writing to engage more on a ground level. To be an activist, I suppose. I’ve been involved in a number of literary ventures down through the years, great organizations like PEN and Fighting Words, but I also wanted to be at the core of something new.
I was never quite sure what that might be, until June of 2012, when a group of literary minds and social justice advocates got together—under the guidance of Lisa Consiglio—for five days in Colorado. There was Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams, Reza Aslan, Andy Sean Greer, Dave Wroblewski, Assaf Gavron, Darrell Bourque, Toby Wolff, Firoozeh Dumas, Ron Rash, Ishmael Beah and others. I tell you, it was an unprecedented meeting. Lisa had been working in non-profit in Aspen for many years, but her vision was bigger than Aspen alone. The group got around a big table. I was a bit of a curmudgeon to be honest. I didn’t want to talk about stories … I wanted to create stories. I didn’t quite know why I was there, even though I was supposed to be chairing the board. But bit by bit this incredible group reeled me in. Amazing. We stirred up a stew of ideas about stories and story-telling, and how we use stories to change the world. Big questions. “What is the highest aim of story-telling?” “How can we harness that energy to transform our society?” “What capacity does literature have to articulate and sustain a vision of enlightened leadership?” We had in the back of our minds an idea of story-exchange for youngsters, but we weren’t sure what shape that would take.
Together, we became a community of inquirers. We encouraged each other to think more deeply and broadly about the challenges we face as writers and activists. It was an adventure in the imagination: it took place over a week but we are all still together almost a year later—and we have an incredible non-profit to prove it. The week together allowed us to consider the human predicament. And also to acquire new ways to think about our work.
The result was Narrative 4. Our desire to create a narrative for social change is based on the belief that we must see the world, and ourselves, differently through the exchange of stories, primarily for young people. Kids from Belfast, kids from Chicago. Get them together. Let them walk in one another’s shoes—almost literally. By telling the stories, not of themselves, but of others. The core philosophy is: You step into my shoes, I step into yours. You take responsibility for my life, I take precious care of yours. Stories are the engine of who we are. They are a mighty weapon. Like kids, we must treat them with respect.
We have a wonderful system in place to help kids through this process —it’s intimate and literary and personal all at once. And we have a way in which we go about it, quietly and with great respect. Eventually we would like to have the idea of “radical empathy” working in the school system. We’re already working on a really carefully thought-out curriculum.
Bodega: Who is Narrative 4 created for? Writers? Readers? Teenagers that attend the story exchanges? All of the above? The casual reader who clicks a link on your twitter feed, or a kid in rural North Dakota who finds a story that matches his experience?
Colum McCann: Everyone. There is not a person who might not, potentially, benefit from the ability to exchange her story. That’s a bold statement but I think it’s true. The rich kid on the hill. The poor kid on the street corner. The vet that just got home. The politician who sent the vet to war. The executive who pays the wages and the guy cleaning the kitchen. It isn’t just about “conflict resolution” or people who have been marginalized. I’d like to see Jewish kids hanging out with Haitian kids and exchanging their stories. Or kids from Gaza going to the wealthy suburbs of Dublin. And starting a sort of global awareness for the need for peace. To step into the shoes of others in order to be able to step back into our own. We need organizations like N4 to help us toward that peace we so desire. I have enormous admiration for all these literary organisations that are doing things in the world—like 826 Valencia for instance. Dave Eggers. There’s nobody quite like him. We hope to learn and champion that sort of work.
Bodega: What does the 4 mean?
Colum McCann: Well “Narrative For” isn’t as catchy, and N4 caught on faster than we expected. Narrative for Peace. Narrative for Change. Narrative for Chicago. Narrative for Gaza. Lisa Consiglio came up with the name, and it took off. It’s an organization “for” everyone and the N4 works well—for me it’s especially good, since the N4 road runs from Dublin out to the west of Ireland, so it brings me home. The idea is that our story is “for” everyone. And the world “narrative” is a bit more sophisticated and ancient than “story.” It’s more than the story. It’s the life behind the story and how it fits into a global narrative, for everyone else to share.
Bodega: Where did the theme “How to Be a Man” come from? Did you find it challenging to write for your own prompt?
Colum McCann: It’s amazing what sounds easy after a few jars. Tyler Cabot from Esquire magazine suggested it one night when we were talking about where we could take Narrative 4. He had an upcoming issue themed “How to Be a Man.” We thought we could get a few writers to donate a story to the cause, but somehow that wasn’t bold enough. We decided we wanted 80 writers to donate an original piece of fiction in honor of Esquire’s 80th anniversary. Absurd. Then we started to ask. And a few weeks later we had stories from Ian McEwan, Edna O’Brien, Ben Fountain, Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Roddy Doyle, Geoff Dyer, Rawi Hage, Etgar Keret, Joe O’Connor, Ron Rash, Monique Truong, Tiphanie Yanique, Adam Haslett, Rabih Alameddine, Sasha Hemon, Joe Henry and countless others…some of the stories were eighty words long, some were 800 and it ended up being the most exciting literary venture of the year, or in fact any year.
Esquire stepped up to the plate and they built a website for us. They got us off the ground. They helped us connect with writers around the globe. It was a nod to the fact that we are all in this together .. that we all want to see this work…a step towards global empathy and decency. The centerpiece of the launch of Narrative 4 ended up being the website, a clean, cool site where we sold a total of 106—106!!—stories for $5. We ended up making thousands of dollars. Esquire ran a sizeable excerpt in their June issue to promote the website and Narrative 4. The only catch was that each story had to be titled HOW TO BE A MAN, which was the theme for Esquire’s June issue. The authors could run with that title as far as they wanted and in whatever direction they chose. (And yes, we hope to do an anthology called HOW TO BE A WOMAN with a different partner magazine next year.)
Bodega: Have you experienced anything new or unexpected in regards to storytelling (either the process or the value or even just a confirmation of the way that sharing stories deeply connects us as human beings) in the founding of Narrative 4?
Colum McCann: In early 2013, I got a letter that shook my soul out. Lee Keylock, a teacher at Sandy Hook High School, wrote and asked if I would mind if he used “Let the Great World Spin” to talk to the kids about grief, recovery, trauma and healing. He was searching for a novel that would touch on these things in the aftermath of the massacre that had occurred in the school just down the road. These were the brother and sisters and neighbours of the kids that had been killed. It was one of the most deeply felt moments of my life. It seemed to validate so much of what I have been hearing and saying about literature for years: that we can use stories to make sense of beauty and grief both.
So I visited the school this April and sat with those kids. And they said things: “My brother was killed”, and “I used to babysit for the six year-old who was shot”—all these incredible things. I was terrified to talk, because what could I say? What could I teach them? But in the end I didn’t teach them anything at all—they taught me. They were the ones who talked about morality. They were the ones who talked about light. They were the ones who talked about trying to find a little bit of brightness in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available to open up the world is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career. It was a difficult experience, but profoundly touching.
And we know there’s plenty of other areas where that same grief is apparent. The south side of Chicago. West Belfast. Bradford. Bethlehem. What happens when these kids know the grief of others? The world expands. We grow more deeply empathetic.
Bodega: As part of the mission of understanding “the other” there is a great paragraph on the blog explaining “Radical Empathy”:
If I can hear your story deeply enough to retell that story—and you can do the same for me—then we see the world through each other’s eyes. We inhabit each other’s vision and are forever changed.
This made me curious about the possible link between the mission of Narrative 4 and your own work which often hinges on historical occurrences and explores overlapping perspectives, deepening our understanding of history by humanizing it. Were you drawn to the mission of spreading Radical Empathy because of your creative work?
Colum McCann: “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.” That’s a John Berger quote I learned long ago and I’ve said now a million times over. The ability to see from a variety of angles is crucial to the modern experience. We cannot understand “otherness” if we don’t make an attempt to step into someone else’s shoes. The more we choose to see, the more we will see.
And also, what is truth? It can’t be singular. It is far more complicated and necessary than that. Truth must, in essence, be made up from a variety of truths. We put them together and weigh them up. And so stories are our greatest democracy. Our most original one. Our most necessary one. Can’t live without them. The world is impossible without our stories about it.
Bodega: New online literary journals get flak for being, well, just that—new online literary journals that are trying to stand out when the world is saturated with similarly-intended publications. What’s your honest opinion about them? What purpose do you think they serve, and is it a necessary one?
Colum McCann: Another voice. Why not? If I get through to one person … if one person gives a few bob to Narrative 4, or gets involved, through this interview, then that’s good enough isn’t it?
Just like another literary magazine, people could roll their eyes at Narrative 4 and say ‘Oh God, another nonprofit that wants to change the world. Here we go again.” But we know we have something special here and it’s becoming a movement, not “just” another organisation. I suppose I should throw the question right back—what’s wrong with trying to stand out when the world is saturated with this that and the other? Clearly the world is ready for a better this that and the other. So if BODEGA is the thing that makes us sit up a little straighter and pay more attention to literature and the world in general, I’m in. Go for it. It isn’t up to me to say it’s necessary. And if I tell you that Narrative 4 is necessary, that will only go so far. It’s up to us to prove the necessity of what we do. To make it part of the fabric. To show that it all unravels without us.
Bodega: What’s next for Narrative 4? Are there any opportunities for other people in the literary world to get involved and help your mission? Colum McCann: We’re building from the ground up now. It will take about a year or so for us to really know where we’re going, but we have all sorts of people on our side.
Everyone’s welcome. It may take some time but we’d like to see kids getting together from all over the world—a million stories exchanged between kids from a hundred countries, why not? There’s no reason to think we can’t do it along with all the people who are willing to get onboard. This organization knows no boundaries. We acknowledge history and geography and politics and race and religion but more than anything we acknowledge our stories and our ability for empathy. And everyone has a story. So everyone belongs and we are building a global volunteer database that is borderless. We are on the ground in Chicago right now but soon we will be all over the world and yes, we need you. And your story. Go to our website. Narrative4.com. Just sign on. I think eventually this will become a powerful community of intent.
Read Colum McCann’s story “How to Be a Man,” originally published in Narrative 4, by clicking here.
Thanks to Lisa Consiglio for her help in getting this interview together. Lisa Consiglio is executive director and cofounder of Narrative 4.