Modes of Storytelling

This month’s mentor is one I like so much I actually wrote about him for my MA thesis.  Since I don’t want to let all that dense academic jargon go to waste, I’m going to be pulling bits from my thesis to help me talk about Rabih Alameddine.

First, let’s talk a little about The Hakawati (translation: The Storyteller).  It’s a novel that’s not quite a novel.  When we talk about novels, we usually talk about plot structure, arcs, one cohesive line that takes us from the first chapter to the last.  Some authors mix it up and give us something unexpected.  Alameddine is one of them.  In his book, he’s giving us a more literal representation of a traditional oral storyteller by structuring The Hakawati in a different way.

The book Orality and Literacy, by Walter J. Ong focuses on the different characteristics between written and oral culture. Among those differences is the structure of narrative, which he explicates in the chapter titled “Oral Memory, the Story and Characterization.” The inherent difference between “orality” and literacy lies within relying on either memory or text, between listening to the story or reading it:

What made a good epic poet was, among other things of course, first, tacit acceptance of the fact that episodic structure was the only way and the totally natural way of imagining and handling lengthy narrative, and, second, possession of supreme skill in managing flashbacks and other episodic techniques… If we take the climactic linear plot as the paradigm of plot, the epic has no plot. Strict plot for lengthy narrative comes with writing. 141
Alameddine’s book combines the physical text of literary tradition, with the episodic techniques of oral tradition to create a book which belongs to both, thus making it wholly neither, but instead a third form born of the hybridization.

When I read The Hakawati, suddenly 1,001 Arabian Nights made sense.  Based on the layered storytelling structure, I realized how Scheherazade could maintain enough suspense to buy herself another night, and another, and another.  It’s not just that she stopped in the middle of a story at dawn, it’s that she stopped in the middle of a story, which was really part of another story, and even when she finished the story in the story, she was still nowhere finished with the first story.  It’s like the best TV series where in each episode they conclude one complication, just to reveal that Complication A affects Complication B, which triggers Complication C.  For every thread they tie up, they unravel one or two more.  That’s what keeps us eagerly anticipating the next episode.  In a way, we have oral storytelling structure to thank for that.

Whew.  I promise the next post will be more concise.  It will also have at least one picture.  Stay tuned!

One thought on “Modes of Storytelling

  1. Cool! I feel smarter already.

    I love oral storytelling. The really good ones seem to go in an oval. They start out with one thing, segue into another and another and, lo and behold you didn't see this coming but they're connecting that last thing, and therefore all the things in between, to where they started.

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