Lessons in Storytelling: Bridging Cultures and Communities
Kiran Singh Sirah is no stranger to the many mispronunciations of his name. In fact, he enjoys hearing the innumerable iterations of “Kiran,” a Sanskrit name that translates to “light from the sun” or “ray of sunshine.” Among his favorites is “Kiron,” a Gaelic term that means a “small, dark-skinned prince.”
Raised in Eastbourne, England, and now the president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, Sirah is one of three presenters in the panel discussion “What We Bring: Immigrant Gifts” at the 2017 Folklife Festival’s On the Move program. As part of the session, Sirah will reflect on his work mining stories—from folktales and family recipes to war stories and deep-seated memories—to arrive at the truths that bind us.
In his 2016 TED Talk, “Storytelling: A Peaceful Power,” Sirah lucidly examines the power of stories and makes the case to embrace them, especially in times of discord and divisiveness.
“Regardless of what is going on out there in the world, what truly matters is our humanity,” Sirah explains. “Stories help us understand one another on a human level.”
Among the images he conjures up in his talk is that of his parents: Indian immigrants forced to flee to England from their home in Uganda.
“As Ugandan refugees, my parents stood out in my home community,” he recalls. “My father wore a bright red turban and a colorful African shirt and my mother an even brighter red sari.”
“Later my dad told me about overhearing this kid tell her mom after seeing my dad, ‘Look, mum! Aliens!’”
It was in Eastbourne, that a young Sirah was forced to confront similar bigotry, but he found solace in the enveloping wonder of stories. One of his favorite pastimes as a child was staying up late into the night to listen to the myriad tales his aunts and uncles would tell. More exciting still were those of his elementary school head teacher, Mr. George.
Sirah recalls one of his favorite folk tales from his beloved teacher.
“It was about a prince who gave up all his worldly riches, and went out to explore the world. He took two objects with him: a cup and a toothbrush. One day he looked out to see a man breaking a twig from a tree and chewing it to release juices that would clean his teeth. And he realized he didn’t need his toothbrush, so he threw it away. Another day he saw someone bent down over a river, and cupping their hands together like a bowl in order to drink the water. So he threw away his cup, realizing he did not need that either.”
“That story turned my fear to hope,” Sirah said. “And it helped me to see my own family’s difficult situation—my parents showing up in an unfamiliar country with nothing but the clothes on their backs—in a new way.”
Armed with a new and nuanced worldview, Sirah was awarded an international scholarship to study social justice folklore and storytelling at the University of North Carolina and later joined the International Storytelling Center as president. In the years since, he has shaped new ways to experience the organization’s National Storytelling Festival, a festival established before he was born. In his workshops he strives to empower individuals to tell the “stories that matter,” as he puts it, revealing a layered, honest portrait of their lives in the process.
Recalling a training he recently ran for high school students in Charleston, South Carolina, Sirah was moved by the stories that emerged from the discussion. Among them, one participant still stands out in his mind.
“One soft-spoken student, Chanquaisha Drayton, decided to tell her story as a sort of response to the way she sees black people portrayed on the news,” Sirah explained. “She wanted to tell her story so other people would understand her through her own words, instead of somebody else’s.”
To arrive at these stories—the tales that move and embolden us—Sirah asks those in his workshops a series of probing questions, among them: What stories made you the person you are today? What stories changed the way you see the world?
How stories shift an individual’s worldview has long interested Sirah. In fact, one of his favorite proverbs is that of St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
“But I would add that if you can’t travel, stories can take you there.”
When he is not telling stories, Sirah is cooking for his friends in Jonesborough. “Every meal tells a story,” he likes to say. Among his favorite dishes to prepare is Mountain Masala, a curry he created which fuses a traditional family recipe with local Appalachian ingredients—a fittingly sundry meal for a “small, dark-skinned prince.”
Angelica Aboulhosn is the public affairs specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.