Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Kiran Singh Sirah of the International Storytelling Center

"When we bring people together to share stories, we create community. And that's what happens at festivals, and that's what I'm really interested in. It's not the idea that when you come to a festival you listen to culture or that culture is static, but more the idea that people participate in shaping culture."--Kiran Singh Sirah

This week more than 12,000 people from all over the United States and the world will arrive in the small, historic town of Jonesborough, Tennessee. They are gathering to celebrate the 42nd annual National Storytelling Festival, which takes place this weekend from October 3-5 at the International Storytelling Center. The Festival features hundreds of events, ranging from a Ghost Story Concert underneath the stars to a Story Slam competition, and brings together more than 25 featured tellers, including 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Anita Norman. For the first time ever, the festival will be live-streamed from one of its performance tents on Friday, October 3, so you can catch Norman and many other performers live from the festival.

As with any large, public event, the festival takes a great deal of tenacity, expertise, and hard work to pull off, and the visionary behind this year's festival is the International Storytelling Center Executive Director Kiran Singh Sirah. In addition to running the storytelling center, Sirah is a folklorist, peace and human rights activist, poet, and teacher. I had the privilege of speaking with him about his life as an artist as well as his passion for building community, empowering youth voices, and sharing culture through the art of storytelling. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

NEA What was your very first arts experience?

KIRAN SINGH SIRAH: For me, art always began at home. I was born into a very artistic family. I'm not saying that my family members were qualified, trained, university-educated artists, but I grew up in a family that was rich in artistic traditions. My first artistic teacher was my mom. We did everything together from cooking--I was my mom’s food taster when we’d make Indian food from scratch--to embroidery to drawing and painting. As a child, I was also involved in making Rangoli patterns, decorating houses for weddings, and doing henna painting. It's part of our heritage, our religious and cultural practices, to be immersed in the arts. I remember having those experiences growing up; everything from Diwali to Vaisakhi to Holi--celebrating color, dance, the visual arts, and the full breath of storytelling arts. It was all very much a part of our everyday lives.

It's hard to pinpoint one museum or gallery visit, so I'd say that my first artistic experience was just in the home. And I would go as far as to say that my mom and I were artistic partners. She gave me my first sketchbook when I was six, and we spent three months in India together. She encouraged me to not be afraid, to embrace humanity, to go out explore the world, and to draw. When I was young, she suffered from mental health issues, and so I spent a lot of time as a child visiting psychiatric hospitals. All the children of the patients and the children of the nurses and doctors would spend our summers in the hospital, and we would all attend art classes together. I remember my mom made a clay dragon, and I could pick out which one she had made from a hundred. Art was our connection and was always such a spiritual experience for us. My mom passed away about 18 years ago, and I actually drew her in my sketchbook, while I spent time with her alone when she was in the morgue. Every time we were together we were talking about art. We were always embracing and practicing art together, right up until the day she was cremated. I was so fortunate to have had that experience.

NEA: What was the first story that you remember hearing?

SIRAH: There were many, many stories. I grew up in a family setting where I had about 200 close family members.  When we got together--we had literally hundreds of people--all the kids used to sleep on the floor, any space you could find. But then through the night there would be singing and dancing and all forms of storytelling. Our elders would swap jokes and talk while us kids were running about. So there were a lot of stories being told, stories about our traditions as Punjabi Indians, about our more recent experiences coming from East Africa as refugees. But growing up in Britain,when my grandmother told stories, I remember that she would always sit on the highest point. She would sit either on the couch, or if we were in a park or in the backyard, on a chair and all of us would sit on the floor out of respect for her, and she would tell us stories. These stories were about our family history, stories from our religious and political history. In essence, these were stories about who we were and where we came from.

When I was in elementary school, I was really sort of quite a difficult kid; I was always getting into trouble, always fidgeting. Once I tried to organize a mass protest when I was nine years old.

NEA: How did that go down?

SIRAH: It didn't go down, but my parents said go for it if you want to do it. So, I was always trying to create and instigate; I was a bit rebellious as a kid. But, I had this amazing head teacher called Mr. [Len] George. He was my head teacher in my elementary school growing up in South England, and I remember him telling this story about a man who goes on a journey and gives up most of his worldly possessions. The man took just two things with him: one was his toothbrush and one was a cup. And when he was looking out into the world, he saw someone drink water from the cup of his hands, then he threw his cup away. Then he saw someone take a branch of a tree and chew it to brush his teeth. Then he threw his toothbrush away. So he realized that all you really need in the world is its natural resources; you don't need material possessions. Mr. George told me that story when I was about seven years old, and that stayed with me. He kept telling these types of stories, one about a man called Nelson Mandela, and other stories he drew from his own life. And for a rebellious kid who found it very hard to stay still in a classroom, he had this way of just making me stay still, making me listen through the power of his storytelling. Those stories stuck with me. I remember going on a date once as an adult, and the girl asked me to tell her a story, and I told those stories; they worked!

NEA: You are a poet, a storyteller, a folklorist, a peace activist, and an executive director for a major nonprofit. How do you balance your life as an artist with your work at the International Storytelling Center; do you see those roles as two separate identities?

SIRAH: For me, art and everyday life are 100 percent entwined. Everything that I do is an artistic experience. As an artist, when you want to make great art, especially if it's an installation art piece, you know that to get to that final, finished stage, it takes a lot of administrative work. For instance, an artist must sometimes negotiate with the police or town council members on logistics for an installation piece. They also have to write grants, and they do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. I see all of the work that I'm doing as a step towards the final piece, the final outcome. Whether I am writing a grant report or doing a lot of the administration, the goal is getting more than 12,000 people together embracing and sharing the arts and listening to stories; that is the final piece for me. So, it's not separate from my everyday work at all.

What I didn't realize, now living in the mountains of East Tennessee, is that I have a house where it's quiet outside. When I come home, I sit on my front porch, and I just have time to think and to write. I have less distractions I guess so I'm spending more time practicing my own art. I don't do it for money or anything; I can just enjoy and do it for myself and for the people around me. I am an artist, whether that's photography, painting, performing arts, or spoken word slam, or poetry. I can bring all that, all those experiences, into the way I interact with other people. I can embrace that in every aspect of the work that I'm doing. So I don't see them as separate; it's very much integrated into the same thing. For me, life is just one fascinating artistic journey.

NEA: This is the 42nd National Storytelling Festival. Can you talk a bit about the festival's history?

SIRAH: The festival has a long history. It began in 1973, and it was started by Jimmy Neil Smith, my predecessor. He always had a vision of calling it the National Storytelling Festival. At that first festival in 1973, there were about 80 people. They sat on hay bales and some storytellers gathered. Jimmy Neil Smith brought an Appalachian mountain man storyteller named Ray Hicks who became the face of the festival in its early days. The word spread, and people started coming together and realizing that this was an art form that could be embraced. People had always been telling stories but not in an organized fashion. Those early years were really formative and were what ignited the storytelling revival in the U.S. The festival also brought people together to share and connect with ideas, and it gave birth to the concept of a professional storyteller.

So from 80 people, it grew to a festival where we have around 10,000 to 12,000 people in attendance each year. It offers a home for storytelling. Many people have performed and been invited to perform at the festival. People such as Pete Seeger, Doc McConnell, and Alex Haley, the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, who once said that “without storytelling there would be no roots." We now invite around 26 world renowned storytellers, but we also offer a place for emerging talent, storytellers that are either new to the field or are finding their way on to the national stage. There's already an audience here in Jonesborough that really appreciates the art of storytelling, from all different ages and all different backgrounds. People also come from all 50 states and across the world to participate in three days of live storytelling from intimate, studio spaces to big marquis tents that accommodate around 1,500 people. There are also other opportunities where people can tell their stories, on the swapping ground for example, and that goes back to its original days when people came and anyone could swap a story. Over the years, the festival has become a benchmark for other storytelling festivals that have emerged around the U.S. and around the world. There are now probably 400 or 500 different types of storytelling festivals all around the country, big and small. We want to continue to branch out internationally, and also learn from our international partners and friends. So now we offer digital access; through live streaming and through online lesson plans, we can engage with people across the world and work together to shape new ways for storytelling to enrich lives.

The festival is now looking at trying to incorporate younger voices, to help to nurture the next generation of storytellers and also to include all different types of storytellers, from spoken word poetry to comedy to entertainment to thought-provoking issues that are important to address. The festival is also a community enterprise. Meaning, that when we bring 12,000 people together from all different backgrounds and experiences, something very special happens. Within those three or four days, a new community is formed. People listen to stories, and they share stories; they share a common space and cultural arena. This is incredibly unique and valuable.  

NEA: How exactly does storytelling build community and/or create a shared ritual?

SIRAH: When we bring people together to share stories, we create community. And that's what happens at festivals, and that's what I'm really interested in. It's not the idea that when you come to a festival you listen to culture or that culture is static, but more the idea that people participate in shaping culture. And so what happens at the festival is something very powerful because people’s minds work in a certain way when they are contributing to different ways of thinking about the world. Not only do you share your perspective, but you listen to other people’s perspectives. This is the space in which culture becomes redefined  and reshaped. So, I see the storytelling festival as part of this growing movement in helping us contribute to kind of reshaping and re-exploring what culture means to different people and how it has an impact on creating personal and national identities.

This kind of goes into theory, but I really like the idea of flexing your identity. You, as an individual, belong to so many types of groups and so many types of identities. And your personal identity's always flexing, you're in one state, you move to another state, you travel, you go from one place to another, or you form connections with other people, then your identity is always changing. Through storytelling, what happens is that we find all these overlaps of all our different identities and through that process we can find some common identity. It’s helped me as a newcomer to this country to become connected to people here. It's something that's really powerful, and I think that's why people really enjoy the storytelling experience. It's art at its most raw, there's no props, there's no costumes, no theatrical space, just raw storytelling. It's coming from the mind and from the imagination, and it's going straight to the heart.

NEA: Do you have a favorite memory from last year’s festival?

SIRAH: As people started entering the town, you could see that many had been coming to the festival for years. But there was one particular gentleman--and we never spoke throughout the whole festival, but we kind of just looked at each other and smiled--he was this kind of old-time festival goer, and he wore this elaborate costume with a hat. And he had all the swatches attached to him from all the years that he had attended the festival. It was, you know, his special event for the year. Around that same time, I'd met someone in the local cafe that I go to for breakfast; a little girl called Katana, and she's about 10 years old and the daughter of one of the waitresses. During the festival last year, Katana and I were sitting out on the steps of the cafe, and she told me a story about her cat dying.  Then she looked at my swatch that I was wearing and she said, "Where can I get one of those?" And I said, "Well, you can have mine." Last year was her first festival, and she really enjoyed it. She put last year's swatch on the cafe wall, and no one's allowed to touch it; she's now a fan of storytelling. So this year, she's going to be my guest at the festival, and she' s going to get another swatch. So that was a really nice moment for me, especially seeing someone carry their first swatch, and then seeing someone coming back after 40 years; young and old fully engaged in storytelling in the same space.

NEA: New for the festival this year, you’ll be featuring the 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion, Anita Norman. Can you tell me why you decided to include Anita in the festival program?

SIRAH: First of all, I was just really, really impressed with her performance [at the Tennessee Poetry Out Loud finals]. She is a phenomenal artist and has an incredible ability to tell a story on stage, but also off stage, when she talked about why she loves the art form and why she wants to be a storyteller. It was really interesting to see her on stage; she was tiny, and she came out barefoot. But she captured the audience in this magical moment where she totally owned the stage. And when she spoke, I felt that she spoke through the wisdom of an ancient storyteller as if she embodied the soul of an old wise woman from Africa or a griot storyteller. She spoke with real wisdom and power, and it was just amazing to see and experience. She had, I’d say, a storyteller’s presence, something you see in the way master storytellers perform. She really understands the words she speaks, and she knows how to command those words. She knows how to convey meaning and content to the audience.

She was an absolutely worthy winner of the Poetry Out Loud National Finals, and that's why we've invited her to perform at the National Storytelling Festival. She should be standing equally alongside these world renowned storytellers because she is worthy of that. She's not only a great artist, but she's inspiring so many people to become performance artists. Whether that's poetry recitation, or spoken word, or storytelling, or any form of art, what she does is inspire people; she just has that gift. I think she's going to make a great contribution to what we do at the festival. She might be one of the youngest performing artists in the history of the festival, but she stands in a long line of storytellers that have shared those sacred stages and there will be many more to come. She's definitely someone that I think a lot of people have their eyes on because I know she's going to go great places. She's now part of the family, so she's welcome to come back anytime.

NEA: Storytelling matters because…

SIRAH: Storytelling matters because it's something that belongs to everybody. It matters because it's an art form that is highly accessible, but at the same time, we all have the potential to learn how to be great storytellers too and to be masters of our own voice. Everyone can engage in the art form; it's something that we're born with and something that we use every day but don't often recognize. When we acknowledge that the way we tell stories is art itself, then we will become artists, and we'll become storytellers, and we'll start to learn about the power of language and the spoken word.

Storytelling also matters because it's a binding force that brings people together and makes us think differently. Really, my purpose in being an artist is to learn the different perspectives of the way everyone sees the world, to see life through their eyes, and storytelling does that for me in such an accessible and powerful way. It allows my imagination, my mind, and my soul to go on these beautiful journeys with other people.

If you're interested in storytelling, you might like our two-part podcast with master storyteller and folk singer Sheila Kay Adams. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here

 

 

 

 

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