Storytelling has proliferated today, from TED Talks and Humans of New York to a plethora of story-coaching agencies and consultants. These narratives are typically heartbreaking accounts of poverty, mistreatment, and struggle that often move us deeply. But what do they move us to? And what are the stakes in the crafting and use of storytelling?
In Curated Stories, Sujatha Fernandes considers the rise of storytelling alongside the broader shift to neoliberal, free-market economies. She argues that stories have been reconfigured to promote entrepreneurial self-making and restructured as easily digestible soundbites mobilized toward utilitarian ends. Fernandes roams the globe and returns with stories from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the domestic worker and undocumented student legislative campaigns in the United States, and the Misión Cultura project in Venezuela. She shows how the conditions under which stories are told, the tropes through which they are narrated, and the ways in which they are responded to may actually disguise the deeper contexts of global inequality. Curated stories shift the focus away from structural problems and defuse the confrontational politics of social movements.
Not just a critical examination of contemporary use of narrative and its wider impact on our collective understanding of pressing social issues, Curated Stories also explores how storytelling might be reclaimed to allow for the complexity of experience to be expressed in pursuit of transformative social change.
Five questions about Curated Stories on The Oral History Review blog series
“In a world in which telling stories has become a mark of activist practice, Sujatha Fernandes demands we consider the unanticipated consequences of narrative. In her remarkable, frame-breaking work, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Fernandes reminds us that even those tales designed to be challenging can support a neoliberal status quo, placing personal experience before collective action. Based on rich and diverse case studies from New York to Venezuela to Afghanistan, Fernandes demonstrates that the narrative turn can produce discomforting outcomes unless the position of the oppressed community is carefully considered. This is a rare work that through its powerful logic and dramatic examples has changed forever how I will listen to stories.” —Gary Alan Fine, James E. Johnson Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University, author of Talking Art: The Culture of Practice and the Practice of Culture in MFA Education
“In a well thought out, brilliantly written book, Sujatha Fernandes engages readers in conversation about domestic labor, undocumented migrants, and other important issues. The hard work of devising strategy and forming coalitions forces us to ask: Whose movement is it? Who gets to frame and shape the narrative? Fernandes reminds us that the answers matter greatly to achieving real social change.” —Christine Lewis, Secretary/Cultural Outreach Coordinator of Domestic Workers United
“Sujatha Fernandes develops a compelling political economy of storytelling in this book. Richly constituted by careful attention to the instrumental importance and uses of stories of marginalized peoples, Curated Stories is at once immersed in the critical literature on stories and storytelling, globalization, and social history; it is in this sense a model of the best of interdisciplinary scholarship.” —Kandice Chuh, Professor of English and American Studies, Graduate Center, CUNY
“What is the relationship between oral history and storytelling? How can oral history be used to further social justice? Curated Stories…is a crucial work for oral historians thinking about these challenging questions… Fernandes’s excellent book shows how crucial the methodological and ethical tools of oral history are as we strive to develop storytelling tools that can support movements to challenge power at its deepest levels and allow us to imagine and create a different, and more just, world.” – Amy Starecheski, The Oral History Review
“Fernandes’s study provides ample suggestive evidence with rich contextual details to support her argument that personal stories used in many social movements can subvert a group’s larger goals by fostering an individualistic neoliberal subject…Readers will find an engaging and insightful exploration that is highly suggestive of the impact that neoliberalism has on social movement claims making and the subversive impact that making claims in these ways can have for social movements, their members, and their constituents.” – Timothy B Gongaware, American Journal of Sociology
“By interspersing the organizational conditions producing these narratives and the close readings of stories’ form and content, the book ambitiously investigates the thorny issue of how to coordinate collective action.” – Katherine Chen, Social Forces
“Curated Stories is a remarkable entry point for critical discussions that probably all of us should have who ‘do’ communication and/for development. Critical engagement with the storytelling discourse goes far beyond an authentic organizational blog or the limitations of hashtag activism. Fernandes provokes us to think beyond the instrumental, often time-consuming, practices of ‘innovative’ approaches to development and communication that easily get ‘stuck’ once they reach formal social, political or economic spaces. The book also asks challenging questions about ‘our’ work from and in the global North and how storytelling can move beyond the comfort zone of mediatized development work…This is a concise and accessible academic book that should be on your reading list, discussed in the office and shared with students and partners around the globe!” – Tobias Denskus, Aidnography: Communicating Development