The Power of a Story

Experimental College course tries to change the world through the telling of personal tales
Watch as Arismer Angeles, A18, tells of a fateful Halloween night in an apartment building in the Bronx, New York. Video: Anna Miller
May 23, 2017

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It was finals time in StorySlam!, a storytelling class at the Experimental College this spring, and Matthew Wilson, A18, had something unexpected to share with his classmates. Inside this proud black student who admires Chance the Rapper lies the heart of a Bollywood matinee idol.

With microphone in hand, Wilson explained how some Indian-American friends in his high school outside Miami introduced him to Bollywood movies. “The songs are so catchy and so beautiful; the voices are so elegant,” he said. He would spend hours on the internet trying to phonetically memorize the foreign lyrics. Then he came to the crux of the story, when his school’s Indian Student Association held auditions for its annual show, but he was too self-conscious—about his singing and his race—to try out.

Matthew Wilson shares his story with the class. Photo: Alonso Nichols“I’m closeted in love with Bollywood music,” he remembered thinking. “I’ve never sung in front of people before, and on top of that, I’m not even Indian, I’m black as hell. No one is going to accept me.”

And with that show of vulnerability, he had his classmates rooting for him.

“The beats of storytelling—pity, fear and catharsis—have been there for thousands of years,” said Javed Rezayee, A10, who created and taught the StorySlam! course. “We are hardwired to respond very attentively to them. It’s perspective, it’s experience, it’s warning. It’s a very primitive structure built into us.”

Rezayee believes in the power of live storytelling to break down the walls that divide us. He sees it in the reactions of his class, when a half-black/half-Asian student tells a story about her shock at finding out her white boyfriend voted for Trump, and her shifting emotions as they worked through it. Or when a student describes her struggle to break out of the gender role prescribed by her traditional Indian parents and become an engineer.

“Humans are trying to see through each other and understand who we are, how we are different, how we are similar,” Rezayee said. “Storytelling helps with that.”

By the end of the semester, the class had heard enough stories to know and support each other. When one student lost her place in her story and froze, her classmates cheered her on and encouraged her to start over.

“This type of storytelling is true and personal,” said Rezayee. “It’s not fiction, it’s not about a third person—it’s you and your story. That is why it is valuable.”

The oral tradition may seem quaint, but it is pervasive. It’s a tool that politicians, marketers and even parents use to get attention, Rezayee said. “They all start with a story.”

A New Life

“The beats of storytelling—pity, fear and catharsis—have been there for thousands of years,” said Javed Rezayee, A10. Photo: Alonso NicholsRezayee’s own life story has been filled with joy and with loss. Born in Afghanistan, he and his family moved to Pakistan to escape the internal wars and the Taliban, but returned after the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. “We thought that Afghanistan was now free, and that we could do anything we wished to do. With that kind of ambition and inspiration, we began to do a lot of things,” he said.

One of his sisters, for example, learned judo and became one of the first two Afghan women ever to compete in the Olympics in 2004. Another sister became the host of an MTV-style television show. Rezayee, for his part, started working for the United Nations, eventually becoming a regional manager for its voluntary disarmament operations in Kunduz in northeastern Afghanistan.

Then a tragedy struck his family. Although he has recounted the story many times, when he told it to his class on the final day of the semester, it was still painful to say the words, which he asked not to be repeated here. “Retelling a story is reliving it,” Rezayee said.

His family returned to Pakistan, once again refugees. But instead of retreating into despair, Rezayee decided to expand himself. With the help of Ned Colt, an NBC journalist who later worked for the International Rescue Committee and the U.N., Rezayee applied to colleges in the United States. He received a scholarship from Tufts and came to Medford in 2006.

Undergraduate Associate Dean Jean Herbert came to know Rezayee through her role director of the Resumed Education for Adult Learners (R.E.A.L.) Program at Tufts, which supports undergraduate students over the age of 24. She said she has always admired his determination.

“He had to overcome a lot to find his way here,” she said. “He was working for the U.N. and interrupted that to come and get his education. He’s a brave soul, to make those changes.” 

After graduating with a degree in political science, Rezayee moved to New York and got a job at the Open Society Foundations, focusing on human rights and civil society in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also began to write, finishing a novel and beginning another. Meanwhile, seeking a break from his writerly seclusion, he started attending events held by The Moth, an organization dedicated to storytelling. He couldn’t get enough. “I would stand in a line two blocks long to get in,” he said. “I was so obsessed.”

Eager to share the energy he had found, he organized an after-hours storytelling time for his work colleagues. He saw how sharing stories can actually change a corporate culture. “It brought people together,” he said. “Departments that only spoke when they needed to, I saw them having lunch together.”

After he left New York, Open Society Foundations hired him to organize a storytelling workshop and event in Sri Lanka. Previously, he had led similar events in Turkey, Nepal and Morocco, focusing on diversity and inclusion. Rezayee finds it much more effective than the usual diversity training, where an expert is called in to give a lecture over a brown bag lunch.

“It’s preaching and people don’t respond to it,” he said. “But if you face discrimination somewhere, and you share that in a true and personal way, other people hearing that will understand that. There will be a connection.”

Still, simply relating a sequence of events does not make a story, said Rezayee. There must be a catharsis, for one. For Matthew Wilson’s story, it came when he did get a role in that Bollywood show. He told how he took the stage dressed in traditional Indian clothes, the audience uncertain what to expect.

“And then I started singing, and the whole crowd erupted in applause,” he said. “It really taught me to believe in myself. . . . I hold that close to my heart. I still watch those movies to this day; I still sing those songs to this day.”

His StorySlam! classmates echoed that applause with their own. Then they coaxed him for proof of his Bollywood chops. He complied, capping his performance with several mellifluous bars of a Hindi love song.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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