Kiran Singh Sirah

Folklorist, Poet, and President of the International Storytelling Center
Headshot of a man.
Photo courtesy of Kiran Singh Sirah.

Music Credit: “St. Anne’s Reel” traditional, performed by Sheila Kay Adams.

Kiran Singh Sirah: The closest distance between two people is a story. I love the fact and when I look at the festival I see somebody with an NRA cap next to somebody with a Bernie T-shirt on. And that's very important to me. I want that always that our festival will be an inclusive space. That we come together and we create a community. That community over three days that we are engaged in something. We're listening to these stories about the world, about shared moments, about these stories that connect us to what it means, that goes beyond the labels of Republican, of Democrat, of politics. But goes way deeper.

Jo Reed: That’s Kiran Singh Sirah—he’s president of the International Storytelling Center which organizes the National Storytelling Festival. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Every October, the mountains of Tennessee are alive with the sounds of stories—well, the sounds of music too, but mostly stories. For 46 years, the town of Jonesborough has played host to the annual National Storytelling Festival. It is the first festival in the world devoted to the art of storytelling. Within two years of that beginning, the thirst for storytelling for so strong that what would become the International Storytelling Center was formed to provide support to people world-wide so they can give voice to their own stories and to organize the storytelling festival. Kiran Singh Sirah is widely recognized for his work that advances storytelling as a tool that builds empathy and intercultural understanding. He’s developed programs and spoken about this throughout the world, including UNESCO in Scotland, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Library of Congress. He’s been at the International Storytelling Center since 2013—but he hardly came as a stranger to the festival. Although he was born after the festival began.

Kiran Singh Sirah: I was born in 1976. The festival began in 1973 in Jonesborough, Tennessee. And that really began with my predecessor Jimmy Neil Smith. Jimmy Neil approached the town of Jonesborough which is a small mountain town in the Appalachian Mountains and proposed this idea about creating a storytelling festival and it happened. They boldly called it the National Storytelling Festival. I say bold because there was about 80 people that came and there were some hay bales, and a mountain storyteller called Ray Hicks. He came from Beech Mountain North Carolina.

Jo Reed: With the launch of that festival, storytelling began to undergo a renaissance: Ray Hicks would be named a 1983 NEA Heritage fellow. And the National Storytelling Festival lived up to its name—drawing crowds of some 10,000 plus people all coming to hear stories.

Kiran Singh Sirah: They come from all 50 states. They come from seven countries around the world. Say 10,500 to 11,000 people—storytelling enthusiasts—for three days in the Appalachian Mountains and in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The size of our town actually doubles in size. And we turn this town, this beautiful town in the mountains into this kind of mini storytelling city. But we also livestream the festival. We've been doing that for about three years. And we looked at the Google analytics and there’s about 33 countries that were tuning in live at the same time from across the world to this small mountain town called Jonesborough, Tennessee. So people connect in many different ways. They connect in person. They connect by attending all three days of the festival. Or they may come to one single event. And, also, now digitally and virtually.

Jo Reed: If I were to go to Jonesborough and attend the festival, what would I be likely to hear or see?

Kiran Singh Sirah: You would have the opportunity to listen to about 18 featured storytellers each of whom would probably tell around four hours of original material throughout those three days of the festival. We have big marquee tents, but sometimes we do these very intimate sessions in our studio. Sometimes we have these story slams. We have a midnight cabaret. If you stay up into the evening, we have these ghost stories. So it can really, really vary. You can have stand-up comedy, funny. You can have serious. You can have the stories from the Gullah tradition. You can have stories from the Native American tradition, African-American traditions, the white diaspora traditions. You present the National Poetry out Loud champions. There are all different types of ways in which I believe—there’s no one single story that makes up this nation or the world. So here's an experience where you listen to stories from different moments and different places, different times, that are different ways that we look at these important moments that make up who we are. They’re not read from pieces of paper. They are told live within the oral tradition. What happens when we come together and we share a story with one another and then we listen to a story about that intimate story exchange that can happen between two people, two communities, or two different types of groups.

Jo Reed: What makes a good story, Kiran?

Kiran Singh Sirah: Oh, now that's a difficult question. I get asked a lot to deliver workshops. And I think people are wanting to learn how to tell the most compelling story. But they want to do it in a very short period of time and learn these techniques in a workshop. And I always say “When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel he didn't learn to paint in a one-hour workshop on how to mix red and blue and mix purple. What he did was learn the techniques to painting and then learn to break the rules and then learn to apply his soul to the artwork. And it's the same with storytelling.” What makes a good story is unpacking it. It's hard work. You have to unpack your experiences. Sometimes you have to unpack your suffering, your joy, your lived experiences, to maybe unpacking where you come from. And then you practice. Like anything, you practice telling. And, I think all those storytellers that are on the stage, they just practice. You practice. You practice in your families, your communities, when you get the opportunity to practice on stage or to a public audience. It's understanding yourself. Understanding who you are and where you come from, what you might be part of. And I think, for me, the stories that might be most compelling is if somehow I can relate to it or I can see some relevance or I see meaning in that story in some way. Or it challenges me to think differently. And like any great work of art we understand, the world differently through the eyes of an artist and that's what an artist helps us to do. And so it's the same with a storyteller and the stories that they tell.

Jo Reed: One renowned musician and story teller who’s been a featured guest at the festival is 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams. Sheila Kay made her first appearance at the festival in 1997—and she swears that's where she learned how to tell stories in public. She’s returned to the festival many times over the years. One of the stories that she tells and that only gets better in the telling is “Little Betty and Amos” I first heard it on her front porch back in 2013.

Sheila Kay Adams: “Little Betty and Amos.” He was a great, big feller. He's about 6'6" and weighed probably 400 pounds and he got real sick one winter and got double pneumonia and Daddy used to say, “Amos Lundy is older than God's dog," and that's why he passed on. So he was an older fellow and he did pass up in the spring and back then they had the setting-ups as they called them at home and so the undertaker would come and get the body and take him off down to Marshall and fix him up in whatever clothes you sent with him. Well, Daddy used to say all Baptist over at home and he would tick off all the Baptists, the Free Will and the Hard Shell and the regular and the Southern and the Primitive and Progressive Primitive and foot washing and the holy rolling and then he'd get to the buzzard Baptists and I would always bust out laughing because I'd say, "What's a buzzard Baptist, Daddy?" and he's say, "They're Baptist that only go to church when there's a funeral, so I call them the buzzard Baptists," and he said every time he cut down a tree, they'd have a big swarm in some Baptist church over at home and they'd go down the road wherever they cut that tree down and build a new hive like bees swarming all. So they'd had a big swarm and the people that were left in the church—and I think it was the regular Baptists that Amos and Little Betty belonged to—but they had had a swarm and part of them had gone off down the road and built them a church. So the ones left in the church took up money, bought Amos a suit. He had never owned a suit all his life. I'd only seen him in overalls and then the swarm down the road were not going to be outdone, so they bought Amos another suit, a different color. So there was Amos at his death with two suits. Bless his heart. He never owned one his whole life. So Little Betty decided on the green suit because he was green-eyed. Now I don't know why she would think—that's kind of odd if you study on it that she was going to pick out a suit to match his eyes after he had passed. So anyhow, they brought him back to the house, undertaker did, and set him up there in the front room for the setting-up. That was the wake and people would bring food and they'd have three or four tables set up and the weight of the food would just have them tables swagging. So she was getting ready, preparing for the setting-up and the first person to show up was Vine and that was Little Betty's sister. Well, they got into a conversation about how he didn't look natural. His hair weren't parted on the right side, so they fixed that. Then Little Betty got to looking at him and said, "Well you know I never thought about the fact that his eyes would be closed. That green suit don't look near as good as that blue suit would look, so I believe we ought to change his clothes." Now he was in his coffin up on those stands and somehow them two women wallowed him out of that coffin, got him jerked up onto the side, the lip of it, and it's sort of narrow up there and so Amos, you know gravity works and he fell on the end of the floor and then they changed his clothes and then they couldn't pick him up, get him back over in the coffin. So Little Betty came up the house to get Daddy and Daddy is watching a baseball game, totally engrossed in the ballgame. He loved baseball, Lord, Lord. He was a Yankees fan right up until Atlanta came along, but he was a Yankees fan and I was about eight years old sitting on the couch watching Daddy because he was a lot more fun to watch and listen to than Howard Cosell or whoever it was on the radio, whatever announcer was announcing that day, and all of a sudden the door swings open and there's Little Betty hanging onto the doorknob, breathing hard because she's walked up the hill from down at her house. She said, "Irving, you've got to come down to the house and help us get Amos back in his coffin," and I'll never ever forget the look on Daddy's face. It was just like this "Huh?" and he looked over at her and said, "Well, where in the world is he, Little Betty? I thought he was dead," and Little Betty said, "Irving, you fool. He is dead. Me and Vine got him out of the coffin to change his clothes and we can't pick him up off of the floor to get him back over in his coffin. He's laying there on the floor and people will talk," and Daddy said, "Little Betty, damned if you didn't worry him to death the whole time he was living and you're still after him." So, but anyhow, Daddy being the kind of person he was, he stood up and Daddy had a little devil man in him, but so did I. Eight years old, I stood up. I wasn't going to miss that. I mean have Amos laying out on the floor that way down there. I had to tell all 72 of my first cousins. So down the road we went and we got down there and sure enough there laid Amos on the floor, Vine a keeping watch. I don't know where she thought he was going, but she was watching him just like he might ooch [ph?] off at any minute and Daddy and Little Betty and Vine couldn't pick him up. Daddy finally went down to the store where there was a crowd of men watching the ballgame, had ganged up down there to watch the ballgame, and he come back with a carload of men and that was back when they had running boards on the side of cars and there was men standing on the running board. There was three or four on the running boards and they all came in the house and between all of the men and Vine and Little Betty, they kind of picked him, scooped him up off the floor and pressed him back down in his coffin, shuffled over there and pressed him back down in it and then they stepped back and started talking about the ballgame just like nothing had happened, left me and Vine and Little Betty standing there looking over in the coffin and I'll be dipped if Little Betty didn't straighten his tie up, smooth his hair down, and then looked at Vine, her sister, and said, "Well, now that I look at him laying there, I believe I did like him better in that other suit," but now they left him in the blue one. They didn't change his clothes anymore. I thought everybody lived that same way. I thought that same stuff happened to everybody and I found out when I went to Mars Hill College that I was wrong. Not everybody did grow up like I did in Sodom.

Jo Reed: That was NEA Heritage fellow Storyteller Sheila Kay Adams. We just heard her tell "Little Betty and Amos."

It strikes me that the flipside of storytelling is the ability to listen, which isn't taught but maybe it should be.

Kiran Singh Sirah: There's so much in that because I think when people come to the festival— here's an audience of people that have been coming for 46 years. They know automatically they turn off their phones and they go and they engage in concert-like storytelling. They listen. And they love the art form. So they're there to listen. I think what storytelling can help us to do, and especially great storytelling is encourage us to listen. They can encourage us to kind of see different perspectives and understand different ways of life and different ways of thinking. There is also this desire to understand and connect and to find out the truth for ourselves. And perhaps that's the role where storytelling comes into that.

Jo Reed: And I wonder if the great success of the festival, and as you say, in The Moth and StoryCorps, et cetera, is, in fact, a reaction to things being so fast and so fleeting. People want to take the time.

Kiran Singh Sirah: Absolutely. Yeah. I had a conversation only about maybe a year ago with George Dawes, who is the founder of The Moth. And he came to our region. And we sat down and had a beer together in one of the local bars. And he told me the origins of why he created The Moth. And he's originally from Georgia. And he was living in D.C. And it was such a fast pace of life. He said he wanted to bring people back to this time when he was a child listening to stories from his grandmother sitting on the front porch. So yeah, I think people are—storytelling for me is a force. It can be used both in the digital realm, in the 4.0 era. But it can also be used something that happens around a campfire.

Jo Reed: Yes. I think that's exactly true. If I have to think about what makes us human, what separates us from other animals I would say it's storytelling. We are the creatures who tell the stories.

Kiran Singh Sirah: Absolutely. I think someone was telling me the other day about this book called The Sapien I think it was Sapien. And I haven't read it. But in it he was revealing how when we were just creatures roaming around the planet it was story that binded us into a human species. And it's stories that really binds us into nationalities and to nations and gives us an identity. And some of that can be dangerous too, as you know. But some of it can actually be very empowering.

Jo Reed: We’re so psychologically wired to tell stories.

Kiran Singh Sirah: Yeah, I think you're right. Steve Zeitlin—folklorist Steve Zeitlin talks about storytelling as the unfolding of the universe. I find myself thinking of events in my own life. And the more I tell the stories, I feel like I can't put my story into a three minutes or five minutes. And people ask me how you tell a compelling elevator speech. And I say don't. It's like your stories are worth so much more than that. Don't pack it into five minutes. And when someone tells you a story, what's your story? You can say which one? I have thousands I can draw from. And there's thousands of ways I can tell them. And we don't want to pack our story into a five-minute pitch because storytelling is a sacred art and it's so much more than that, when we value it, understand it. And I always feel I want to tell the full breadth of that story from beginning, middle, and potentially an end. I don't want to pack it into five minutes.

Jo Reed: Did you like hearing stories when you were a kid?

Kiran Singh Sirah: I loved hearing stories when I was a kid. I grew up in South England. I was born in 1976. My parents came to Britain in 1972. They were expelled from their homeland at the time which was in East Africa, Uganda. And they came to Britain as refugees. They literally came with the shirts on their back and no material possessions. They didn't have—they left all of their houses and objects behind. They got robbed on the way to the airport. But what I grew up in was a very rich household of stories being told every day, all the time. And these were stories from our traditions, from our personal narrative stories about Africa, stories that had been passed on to them from my ancestors, my grandparents, in India during the freedom era, when my grandparents helped to bring independence to India in 1947. You know, my grandma used to sit on the couch and she would tell these stories in her own way, at her own pace. And our job was to listen. When we have family gatherings we’d have maybe 200 people gathering in a house and all sleep on the floor. And everyone would stay up all night and they might tell their stories and joke form which is a mini form—it’s still storytelling. Or singing songs or folk and traditional songs. So I grew up in a kind of household where this was going on all the time. And it was kind of all around us. So I had that. I also, as a brown kid, growing up in a primarily all white community, my older brother bought me a Bob Marley record. And we used to have these vinyls. And I would read the lyrics on the back of the album before I’d go to school. And I’m probably about eight or nine years old. But then I realize this is a form of storytelling, too. And I started— those lyrics were connecting me to something bigger, something about the world, something about justice and equality and the fight for justice. So I saw that as a form of storytelling. And I think people are kind of looking for our best outlet or way in which we can tell our stories, whether we decorate our front porches, we follow a certain type of tradition or a ritual or we embrace this oral tradition and we tell it from the stages.

Jo Reed: Kiran believes there’s a special kind of magic that happens when stories are told from the stage at the National Storytelling Festival. That the act of sharing a story with an audience—however fleeting that might be—nonetheless creates a wider community.

Kiran Singh Sirah: I see the stage as a sacred. I think there’s a kind of responsibility because you’re standing in front of other people. They've given their time to listen to what you have to say. So it's like—when I say community, I say, I think because what it does it creates a binding moment. And I love the fact—and when I look at the festival I see somebody with an NRA cap next to somebody with a Bernie T-shirt on. And that's very important to me. I want that always that our festival will be an inclusive space. That we come together and we create a community. That community over three days that we are engaged in something. We're listening to these stories about the world, about shared moments, about these stories that connect us to what it means, that goes beyond the labels of Republican, of Democrat, of politics. But goes way deeper, deeper inside about what it means to be human. That we all suffer. We all experience joy. We all want to search for a sense of home. We want home. We want a sense of belonging. These are fundamentally the things that make us human. And so when storytelling is being heard in that format, in that space under these tents it's creating this kind of—this moment, a moment that can never ever be repeated. I was there, in that moment, in that place at that time. And we leave this tent now but we've experienced something together. And an experience that has unraveled some emotions about who we are. And hopefully, a great understanding of who we are. Storytellers know this. I think many of the great storytellers know this. And I think those are very, very good at it that they have this intention that they are trying to create that sort of space. In 2013, I remember Elizabeth Ellis telling a story from the stage and it was the last story that she told. And it was about mothers of Confederate soldiers were laying the flowered wreaths at their fallen sons’ gravestones. And then they looked over and they saw all of these Union gravestones. And they made these wreaths and laid flowers at those gravestones, too, because they were so far away from their mothers. And that act of empathy reminds us that, that storyteller is reminding us no matter what is going on out there in the world, remember what makes us connected. So I think it's very much that. But it's very also the community can be two men, sitting at a bar, one’s a construction worker. One’s a banker. And they sit at the bar. They don't talk in facts. They talk in stories. They form a bonding. That can happen between two people sitting at a bar, imagine what can happen between two nations when we learn to share our stories in that way. The closest distance between two people is a story. It's hard to hate your enemy when you know their story. It builds empathy.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I completely agree. It does build empathy. You have to be empathetic to pretty much engage in any form of art or particularly storytelling, literature, to read a novel, or to hear somebody else's story, you have to be able at least for that moment to put yourself in their shoes. You imagine yourself as them. You see it run through the movie in your mind as you're listening to it.

Kiran Singh Sirah: That's correct. Yeah. Absolutely. Poetry can do that, too. Poetry. It's like I see all different types of art forms, just different ways in which we’re telling our stories. You know, Bill Harley, he’s a great storyteller, and he talks about storytelling as a seed art. It's this thing that's a seed that exists in all of the different art forms whether it's done in music or dance or performing arts, whether it’s done silent or aloud. So it's within all of these different types of art forms. I think what the storytelling helps us to do, sometimes helps me to do is remind me of my own experiences. And when I'm designing programs now, specifically programs on youth justice, for young people and helping to design these programs that can help them to rewire the story that they tell themselves, I go back to my early childhood and there's feelings that I remember of the sense of isolation, the sense of feeling different, feeling marginalized. And I keep that is my empathy bubble. So when I'm designing these programs or talking about it or even asking for money from donors I bring that in because I want people to understand why this stuff matters. When I'm talking to young people and teaching I bring out that so they can understand the story behind me and where I come from and why this stuff matters to me. So I use that in that way to kind of find those connections, give them a sense of why this stuff is important.

Jo Reed: Kiran and the festival are deeply committed to making sure the voices of young people are heard on the stages in Jonesborough—including the voices of the National Champions from Poetry Out Loud—the national recitation competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. This began back in 2014, with the Tennessee champion who went on to win the National competition, Anita Norman.

Kiran Singh Sirah: It started with Anita because it was very organic. And I was asked to be one of the state judges for Poetry Out Loud in Nashville. And I got to meet Anita and she came out on stage and she came out barefoot and she just was phenomenal. Her performance came from the heart. She had an incredible talent. And I just met her. And we got on an immediate rapport. And I kind of already said at that moment I wanted to invite the state champion and then the national champion. And I watched the live streaming of her performance in D.C. of all the states when they had the final competition. Anita Norman performed and then she won. And she became both the state champion and the national champion. And so she came to Jonesborough. She performed on the stages. But I also asked her if she would perform one of her original pieces. And that was the piece that got her the standing ovation and really was a really incredible special piece. And she talked about home. She talked about Memphis. She talked about her grandmother in that piece. And since then she wrote this personal essay about her first storytelling experience. We published her essay a few months later. Anita went to submit her essay for a college application and it landed her a place at Yale University. And she's graduating, now, I think. And we're still in touch. And since then because it worked so well, we present the Poetry Out Loud Champions, there was Anita Norman 2014. And then there was Maeva Ordaz from Alaska, then Ahkei Togun from Virginia, Samara Huggins from Georgia last year, actually.

Jo Reed: Kiran does more than present Poetry Out Loud Champions at the National Storytelling Festival—he also mentors them and brings them into the storytelling community.

Kiran Singh Sirah: I'm happy and I want to support POL champions in any way. Whether it's just guidance on what to wear or how they can capture this fame and used it for their best advantage. Or how to manage the media. When they come to the festival as my special guest then storytellers, the community know that they’re my special guest. So they get treated really well. And the storytelling community is such a supportive community that when they get introduced, many of these veteran storytellers, will give them these little tips and ideas and kind of really a warm embrace and a welcome into the community which is kind of very uplifting. It's not just me, but the whole storytelling community really becomes the mentor. And they present themselves, their stories on stage. And I always think I don't want to young people at the fringes of culture. They need to be in the front stages alongside these great storytellers shaping culture. And it's very important when we livestream into schools across the nation, about 45,000 kids that are tuning in is that they can see themselves on the main stages. Perhaps it inspires them to think about the performing arts, poetry or storytelling and that perhaps they could harness the potential to tell their story and come to the national one day.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a good place to end it. Kiran, thank you. I so enjoyed speaking with you about this.

Kiran Singh Sirah: You too. Very much. Thank you for the questions and the opportunity. Thank you.

<banjo music>

Jo Reed: That was Kiran Singh Sirah. He’s president of the international Story Center which presents the National Storytelling Festival. The festival runs from October fifth to the seventh. You can go to for more information. We also heard a story from 2013 National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams. And that's also Sheila Kay playing the banjo. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts—so please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

That's beautiful.

Sheila Kay Adams: Thank you.

Folklorist, poet and president of the International Storytelling Center, Kiran Singh Sirah is passionate about the power of stories.  He heads the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee—the oldest festival of its kind in the world and a driving force behind the renaissance in storytelling.  Kiran talks about creating community through stories, the ability of story to transcend petty politics and connect us to what is essential.  His own story is pretty interesting: born in England to parents who had been expelled from their home in Uganda and grandparents who were part of the liberation movement in India.  He understands first-hand the ability of stories to translate cultures to each other.  We also hear a story from NEA National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams who can spin a tale with the best of them.