For as long as I can remember I have known one thing about myself to be true in the most absolute of ways; that I am meant to take part in the telling of meaningful stories.
I learned to read at a very early age, earlier than most children, and before long I lived my life with my nose permanently buried in a book. The unwavering truth of my life, the one thing about my personality that has never changed, is my love for stories and the art of story-telling. I’m not so great at using my physical voice, and writing helps me get my words out. I also gained the often unhealthy ability to completely lose myself in novels, television shows, movies – you name it. The world was loud, and unfair, and harsh, and I preferred to live a lot of my life a few steps removed.
In my teen years I began to understand exactly how impactful stories can be, and how they can be powerful tools that do the opposite of what I used them for as a child. Stories can connect you to the world. More importantly, stories can connect you to worlds that are normally closed off to you. I found strength in reading about characters whose worst moments were similar to mine, in characters who didn’t have perfect families, characters with estranged siblings, characters with parents in unstable relationships. I found pieces of myself in characters with mental illnesses, in characters who were struggling with parts of themselves that might not be accepted by the people closest to them.
I found a sense of community in stories. A hand reached out across the words and told me that I belonged, that I could exist and that what I felt wasn’t weird or wrong. Other people understood! They had written about it, they were reading about it, they were watching it play out on a screen and crying tears at a newfound sense of being understood just like I was.
This is also when I realized that diversity in mainstream media is lacking, and so-called representation is often irresponsibly handled. For every story that accurately portrays a marginalized group in a realistic light, there are always a dozen more riddled with negative stereotypes, with lies, with a startling lack of care. It’s been a source of a lot of unease these last few years that most stories about LGBT+ women end in death, and they’re not the only ones who don’t get their due treatment as active members of a media-consuming culture. Where are the accurate and varied representations of people of colour in mainstream media? Disabled people? Mentally-ill people? Women over 50? Etc.
In my experience it is hard to feel connected to the larger world when you can’t see yourself in it.
This is why I want to work in publishing or advertising. I want to help bring diverse stories into the world. I want to eventually be in a position where I can raise the voices of people who don’t normally get a voice. I want to have a part in stories that make people feel like they belong to a community, even if they don’t have access to that community in their day-to-day lives. I always call this thing that I’m striving for “Media Representation” but that description falls short. It’s about more than representation, and I don’t think people get what I’m trying to say when I use those words.
I want people to feel seen, and loved, and important, and if I can’t do that directly I want to do it through stories. In one of my classes (with the amazing Professor Maya Chacaby, who not one, not two, but three eAmbassadors have written about: here, here, and here.) we were discussing the Anishinaabe idea of community and how often communities and traditions have been ripped away from indigenous peoples. So many people don’t have a single physical space where they feel they belong. Maybe I can’t give people back communities they’ve lost, or create spaces for them where there aren’t any, but I can help them feel less alone if they see themselves in the stories they’re surrounded by, and that’s exactly what I want to do. Whether that takes the form of preserving languages, making already existing stories more accessible, or creating new, creative, and diverse stories, doesn’t particularly matter to me.
Stories breed compassion. They’ve helped me understand and relate to the experiences of people who are nothing like me on the surface. How can we expect individuals to behave with empathy towards marginalized groups when all they’ve been exposed to are unflattering stereotypes in the stories they consume? Or in some cases, haven’t even been exposed to just a stereotype, but rather nothing at all. Good storytelling combats ignorance. Just ask Laverne Cox, the actress who plays a transgender woman in the popular show Orange is the New Black. She has stated that she gets letter after letter from people saying her character opened their minds.
The discussions we have in the class I mentioned only prove this. The level of ignorance even the best, most compassionate people have when it comes to indigenous peoples in Canada is tragic. Most high school English programs require us to read To Kill a Mockingbird, a story of that explores part of the history of race relations in the United States (from the perspective of white people, which is problematic on it’s own) but where are the mandatory readings about the horrors of residential schools and assimilation that indigenous people faced locally during the same time period? The amount of Canadian media one can find featuring indigenous people vs. the amount of people in Canada who identify as indigenous is incredibly uneven.
In the end what I am trying to say is that I believe stories have power, and that if one person out there reads a story I’ve written, -or that I helped to get published, or run an ad campaign for, or whatever my involvement is-, and feels less alone, or more connected, or more valued, then I will have fulfilled my role in life. I never want to forget the importance of preserving and creating communities and values through stories.