Allison – Small Stories

According to the social theory derived from Foucault’s Panopticon, “power and knowledge comes from observing others…The power comes from the knowledge the observer has accumulated from his observations of actions in a circular fashion, with knowledge and power reinforcing each other. “ In Foucault’s own words, “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process.”

As privileged members of Western society studying abroad in what we’ve been taught to call “the developing world,” we are the observers who hold the power/knowledge that Foucault describes. Reading about the Panopticon in conjunction with an excerpt of Said’s Orientalism equipped us with some heavy theory that has accompanied and steered my thoughts and observations here in Gashora. And I am so grateful for that theory. For, as we are all constantly analyzing and journaling and crafting creative pieces for class about the people and places we experience each day, we assume a huge power in our ability to convey “the observed” from our own perspectives. And thus, I realize that we have all taken on a great responsibility: to avoid using that power to reinforce messages that are self-serving to the image of Western privilege and destructive to the image of life that we are observing around us.

This is why writing small stories is so important. When we analyze and write with a grandiose vision already in mind, we prime ourselves to see and think what we have already expected to see and think; we reinforce the knowledge that we have gained from the privileged and oppressive perspectives of society. Basically, as Wainaina would say, we “treat Africa as if it were one country,” and we focus on poverty and desperation and blood-red sunsets (because “readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa”).

But what is a small story? In this context, the concept of small stories stems from the questions Lee asked us in class one morning: how do we reject Orientalism? How do we reject the reinforcement of our own power/knowledge? As writers, we can start with our senses. We can start with images, the snapshots and smells and sounds that are strong in our minds after a day of experiences, and write simply to describe as clearly and accurately possible. And thus, we write what are called small stories, stories that are not based on some previous knowledge and biases but on daily scenes and interactions. We write without vision to remove the power structure of us versus them, of observers versus the observed. We pay attention to who has the voice in our pieces – are we the only ones speaking? Who holds the gaze? Are we the center of our stories? How have we conveyed the people in our stories?

For me, this kind of thinking has resulted in a draft of a short story about a fifteen-minute scene in which I attempted to help a man transport bricks on a bicycle to a kitchen garden site we were working at. I took images and reflections straight from my journal. I focused on the conflict between myself and the bicycle, the conflict of my insecurities and the man’s attitude, and the way a good laugh eased the frustration and defensiveness I felt seeing myself as a useless muzungu.

Besides the obvious locators in this piece (such as mentioning my lack of Kinyarwanda skills), this draft could be about any place in the world – it just so happens to take place in Rwanda, but it certainly isn’t symbolic of Rwanda or Africa, nor is it symbolic of Rwandans or Africans as “a people.” It is about me and Emmanuel, two people workin’ it out over a load of bricks. Whatever significance is present in that is up to the reader, who hopefully will see it as I try to present it, as simply a small story, indicative of nothing beyond the people and setting within it, except maybe the nature of being human that is present within all of humanity.

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