The Humanity of Stories with Kiran Singh Sirah
The stage is empty. A folding chair stands on the ground in front of it, level with the audience. From there, Kiran Singh Sirah has been leading a conversation about the nature of storytelling at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Kitchen Table stage. For the first time in the past half-hour, he stands, and reads a folktale:
There was an old woman, her back bent by the weight of time, who came to a village. She went to the first house and knocked on the door. It cracked open, just wide enough to see a man standing on the threshold.
“Do you have any food that I could eat?” the old woman asked.
“I’m sorry, times are tough, and we barely have enough to feed our family,” the man replied.
“Do you have a place where I could sleep?” the old woman asked.
“I’m sorry, but we barely have enough room to fit our family,” the man replied, then slammed the door shut.
The old woman went to the next house, and the next, and the next, and the one after that until she had been refused by all the houses in the village. She spotted a tree standing on a hill not too far away and made her way up. Once there, she spread her meager belongings on her cloak and settled in for the night.
Right before she fell asleep, she saw a stranger enter the village. He was a young, handsome man, and he knocked on the door of the first house. The old woman watched as he was let in. She fell asleep, and in the morning as she gathered her things, she saw the stranger exit the house.
“Wait!” she called to the stranger, hurting to catch up to him. “What is your secret? I have begged to enter each house and been denied, yet you were let in on the first try. How?”
The stranger looked at her and, seeing that she was aging and had lived a hard life, said, “To them you are a reminder of the future, of what time will make of them. When they look at me, they see the life they want to have.”
The old woman looked up at the stranger and saw that he was beautiful.
“I have an idea,” the stranger said. “We should travel together, and I will knock on village doors. You will be hidden under my cloak, and we will both be let in.”
The old woman agreed, then said, “I still don’t know your name.”
“My name is Story,” the young man said. “What is yours?”
The old woman replied, “Truth.”
Stories as Universal Human Experiences
Every culture, every nation, every person has woven their histories into narratives. It’s a habit of humanity so old that no one knows when it began. A common theory is that the concept of “story” emerged the first time people sat down around a fire and told each other about their days. Sirah, a folklorist, artist, and former president of the International Storytelling Center, thinks it goes back even farther.
“I think that stories started the first time someone looked up at the sky, at the stars, and began to imagine what could be out there.”
Understanding stories as a fundamental piece of humanity extends to modern-day life. As Sirah explained, “If you were to pay attention to how many times a day you hear a story, then you realize how integral it is to our lives. We go to work, we go to school, we come home, ‘Hey, how was your day?’ ‘Well, this happened, that happened.’”
Stories, through this lens, are told whenever a person describes their experiences to others. We don’t simply relate facts to the people we’re talking to. We include some of our inner thoughts in the same way we read the thoughts of a character in a novel. We talk about events in ways that fit how we feel about them, making us unreliable narrators. And so, just as in fictional storytelling, the only way to get close to the truth is to include multiple perspectives, multiple stories.
Human interaction is so important to storytelling that Sirah believes you cannot have one without the other.
“Storytelling is like the wings of a bird. You need to have two wings: one is the storyteller, one is the listener, and you need both wings to fly.”
Stories as Peacemakers and Manipulators
To build bridges between people, Sirah uses the universal qualities of stories, believing that listening to other people’s stories is an act that leads one to greater truths. “A personal narrative is a personal testimony. Therefore, it holds emotional truth.”
But the same event, when described by different people, can hold very different truths. The narratives created from those different perspectives help the storytellers form deeper connections. As one listens to more and more perspectives, they get closer and closer to the truth.
Sirah credits his faith with shaping his narrative approach to conflict resolution. As a practicing Sikh, he feels the most important part of his religion is equality. It affects little decisions he makes throughout the day, such as sitting eye-level with his audience at the Folklife Festival rather than on the raised stage.
“There’s a concept called seva which is considered one of the highest forms of prayer,” he explained in an interview after his Festival session. “Part of seva is the communal meal. When you eat and you cook for someone, as a community, and you serve food to them, we sit on the floor together. We sit as equals. Literally breaking bread together is prayer for us.”
Sirah’s approach has had a real-life impact, as demonstrated by the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act. In 2016, one week after the presidential election, Sirah’s peacebuilding initiative was tasked with garnering bipartisan support for the bill. If passed, the bill would provide funding to the U.S. State Department to provide training for ways to respond to and prevent genocide and war crimes. Sirah remembers being put on the spot to bring Democrats and Republicans together, and he began by using a story circle: going around the room, he asked everyone to share a story about a time when their outlook on the world changed. As more people told stories, they began forming connections. Two years later, Sirah’s efforts paid off, and Congress passed the act into law in 2018.
Sirah considers humankind’s ability to imagine different worlds the greatest force we possess. But it is just that: a force. Stories take on the morals of the people telling them and alter in meaning based on how they are used on others. So, some develop narratives to spread lies; they create a false but emotional story in order to sway audiences. Stories can also sometimes cloak bigotry and prejudiced worldviews.
Sirah’s main concerns about this kind of “unethical” storytelling are its use by companies and its rise in abundance due to social media. As he sees it, when corporations use narratives to sell their products, they are manipulating the audience through storytelling. Advertisements push forward a story, then try to convince the audience that their product is connected to the heart of that story.
Social media is a different case. Sirah doesn’t believe that every user strives to obscure the truth—the inherent word or time limit of social media posts does this naturally. Stories depend on having the space to breathe for their truth to be represented, but scrolling through posts on social media means that we are never truly listening to any one story. We are already moving on to the next, not pausing to consider what we’ve encountered. Content creators themselves cut corners to fit their main point into a short-form post, most often at the expense of context.
What We Carry with Us
“Storytelling allows people to dive deeply back into their past using memory,” Sirah claimed in the interview. “When we do this, we get a better sense of who we are.”
Through self-reflection, people can gain the understanding necessary to tell stories that help them build the world they want to see. This concept is what Sirah calls “the bigger story, the story that’s yet to be told.” It’s a way for people to try to answer the question: “What do we want to take forward?”
Sirah’s vision for the future is one of perseverance. “It’s the story of our humanity—that we’ve overcome war, persecution, inequality, to create a fair world.”
These imagined futures are the most basic ties that storytelling has to social justice: we need stories to imagine a better world and to motivate us to achieve that vision. Stories can empower people to believe that change can happen.
“We can do it in our lifetime,” Sirah insisted. “We have to believe that we can do it in our lifetime.”
In the end, we all become stories. The stories of our lives and our cultures are our legacy. “Sharing that with others gives people agency to talk about their own stories.” It has the power to broaden minds, build relationships, and reclaim narratives.
Sirah’s whole Kitchen Table discussion can be captured in his simple mission statement: “I believe storytelling is the greatest force, and it has the potential to save us.”
Eileen Jones is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a junior at George Washington University where she studies creative writing and American studies.