Narrators and Listeners

Narrators and Listeners, Shavera Seneviratne (’13)

One of the most frequent questions English majors receive is ‘Well, what are you going to do with that major?” It is also usually accompanied with a look of bemused concern, no doubt wondering why in the world we didn’t major in a field that is bound to earn more money, or have more job openings. As someone who is deeply in love with her major, I can say that this question gets very old, very fast.

This post will be the first in a series I hope to write about how I believe we English majors will not join a dreaded endangered species upon graduation. My peers and predecessors, not only at Carleton but globally, are a versatile group of people and the skills we have mastered as English majors are a large contributor to this fact. Which means that instead of being constrained into a limited area with few skills, we are able to easily fit into a number of different fields. Our options are not being narrowed down. On the contrary they are being greatly broadened.

The mistake that most people make and the reason behind why English is considered to be a major with the hardest prospective jobs is because it is assumed that the only area we can fit into is ones that require a knowledge of the content that we study. While there are certainly fields that require a knowledge of specific authors, genres and eras, what is often forgotten is the critical and interpretive thinking, the persuasive writing, the ability to intelligently debate a point and the analytical skills that we gain while studying literature. We learn how to express ourselves in the most effective and creative of ways, thus allowing us to touch various people and different ways.

This very ability was demonstrated by two members of our Carleton English department. Ben Mirin ‘10 and Halah Mohammed ‘14 were both selected to speak at Carleton’s TedX conference on the 12th of October. Both of their talks centered on our roles as narrators and listeners.

Opening the conference with a piece titled ‘Just talk’, Halah spoke about how we all have it within ourselves to be storytellers, to take the mundane of our lives and breathe life into it simply by making it known, by just talking. We each have our own individual ways of expression, of how we choose to communicate to the world and in Halah’s case, it is her poetry. At this moment she was the storyteller, giving us a peek into where she was from and sharing sounds, sights, smells and tastes of everything that came together to make up her story. Her poem spoke of the minute observations she made of details that she:

in my laughing lines and worry headers,
tales I like to spin out,
sit down,
to write them down,
then spin them out and around
like the string on a manilla envelope–
These are the words–
I spoke to you
My story…”

At the same time she spoke of the importance of listening and sharing so that the stories we hear and partake in can be heard by others. She ended her talk by thanking us for listening to her, intrinsically linking us to her story and allowing us to be drawn into the dialogue that she was creating.

While poetry is Halah’s way of sharing her stories, Ben’s chosen method is beatboxing. Stemming from a “swath of other noisy habits” he said he developed through childhood, beatboxing has connected him with people and places all over the country and the world. An avid lover of different cultures, Ben said that his love for this art form “relates to my own love of storytelling, which also shapes how I approach beatboxing–by trying to understand how others came into the art and in some cases found enough inspiration to stick with it.” In his talk, Ben shared with us his experience of collaborating with fellow beatboxers in Japan and the Maasai people in Tanzania. What particularly interested me was Ben’s explanation of how not always knowing the language of each person he meets never mattered as they found a common language in beatboxing. This notion was reflected in the title of Ben’s talk “Culture Beatbox as a Universal Language”.

Both Ben’s and Halah’s messages resonated with me as it made me think of the specific skills I had picked up during my four years of taking English classes. Their stories spoke of how they each saw themselves as narrators and urged us to do the same. Part of my experience as an English major was learning how to identify narratives in whatever shape or form they may appear and to then critically interpret these narratives so as to better understand the people and places they spoke of. In our classes we analyze poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, experimental narrative and lyric forms, attempting to understand what another storyteller is conveying to us. Through this we are contributing to the act of bridging time and space. In turn, we share our own interpretations of what we learn and our own stories of experiencing them in class, in papers and to our friends and peers. Eventually our understanding of the world is slightly altered each time we are storytellers and each time we are listeners. At the beginning of Ben’s talk, he taught sections of the crowd different simple beats and had us all say them simultaneously. Suddenly we were all beatboxing and communicating in this language that we didn’t even know we could speak.

If Ben and Halah demonstrated anything at all (other than how amazingly talented they both are!) it is how we can all be successful storytellers whether it is through poetry, music, art or a simple conversation. As students of literature, we are extraordinarily privileged to be exposed to so many stories — and I certainly don’t mean ‘stories’ in only the traditional sense– and to constantly be acquiring abilities that will allow us to be unique narrators in our own right. Being English majors practically guarantees us with limitless opportunities to do so. We only have to put it into practice.

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