[This essay was originally published on the Penguin India blog.]
‘It was only some twenty years ago that I finally returned here to my ancestral lands, called back by the need to remember, to gather up the fragments, to reconstruct the cracked vessel of my life and pour from it my own story. I don’t know if any good will come from this exercise, whether there’s any wisdom to be had from it, but I feel compelled to put down my tale. Who knows why one feels this human urge to preserve and perpetuate ourselves, our visions and desires? Who knows why this need for art, this brazen denial of death and emptiness?’ ~ Shanti, The Legend of Virinara, page 5
Like Shanti, the primary narrator of The Legend of Virinara, most of us have moments when we reflect upon our own lives. We reckon with our choices, good or bad, to understand how we became the person we are today. We look for a coherent thread of cause and effect, of consistency in our own personality, of personal growth running through the events in our memories like beads. Perhaps we need to understand our own drives or desires—or explain to others why we’ve done what we’ve done. We might wonder what it all means—the sum of our life, thus far—or whether we can draw any lessons from it to teach others, to do better ourselves, or to build our sense of connection with others.
So we each tell ourselves the story of our own life. We do it in large ways and small. It may be a boy marvelling that he survived a war in which his parents perished. Or a mother wondering at her decision to take a job that brought her overseas and made her children’s lives unrecognizable from her own. It may be a young graduate trying to understand why she didn’t get that job or promotion she was surely qualified for. But however great or small or even petty our questions loom, compelled by a need for connection, continuity and meaning within the vagaries of life, we may tell ourselves almost anything to create a story that suits our needs, up to and including the grandiloquent and absurd; we even invoke the supernatural.
Consider two famous historical examples: Joan d’Arc was a French girl who led an army into battle against the British in 1429. As a teenager, she presented herself to the king of France, saying she’d been in conversation with several Christian saints since childhood and now god instructed her to lead an army; the king believed her. But soon after her battles, Joan’s story became less convincing to others; she was burned at the stake for heresy. Later, her version of events was re-evaluated and deemed sensible, so she was labelled a martyr and a saint. Similarly, in 1881 a lawyer, Charles J. Guiteau, assassinated the American President James Garfield, a champion of equal rights for the former slaves. Guiteau said that god told him he must get rid of this President to change the course of national politics and so—he insisted at his trial—what he’d done wasn’t murder. But Guiteau was hanged for his crime. His version of events was discounted as a symptom of an undetermined illness.
However else we might characterize the accounts d’Arc and Guiteau gave of their own actions, we must also recognize that their self-narratives gave them courage, absolved them of guilt, and helped them sift through or bind together their understanding of themselves in the world. As such, they remain testaments to our common human need to impose story upon our individual experience. And while theirs may differ vastly from our own self-narratives in details and biases or maps of belief, perhaps they are less different in their richness and force, in their essential creative impulse to find meaning and purpose.
We are inventive with our personal narratives: We build chronology, connecting the dots of cause and effect, usually reasonably, but not always. We imbue actions and outcomes with meaning. We select which facts and feelings to include. Our fears and egos shape our perceptions. We embellish facts to make ourselves feel good. Or to make ourselves feel bad. We disregard information that doesn’t fit our biases. We forget or misremember what makes us uncomfortable. We bridge the unknown with presumption, deduction or imagination, even fabricating details or whole events, adjusting the story to our needs.
It is in this very shadowland between ‘truth’ and imagination, a realm of uncertain borders, where each of us actually lives, alone. It’s here, among the shadows and flickers of our incomplete understanding and our desires, that we fashion narratives of our lives and our world, hoping to communicate it to those around us. We come up with stories that are always part ‘fact’ and part ‘fiction’. So every one of us is actually a storyteller, a world-builder, whether or not we’re aware of our own powers or how we wield them. And this innate storytelling impulse, which we use to bind together our inner and outer lives, is a seed of general human creativity.
As a novelist, I try to excavate this, to understand how we use storytelling, how it works for us, how it works against us—for it provides a broad and ever-astonishing view into what it means to be human. The power of storytelling serves as a theme in The Legend of Virinara, which depicts, in part, how stories are used to create realities. But understanding the foundations of our self-narratives can also enrich the creation of intentional fiction. Some of the richest characters and most deeply moving novels seem to stick close to the writer’s own emotional life, applying the same perceptive and imaginative facility they’ve surely used to shape their own life stories in order to imagine the lives of others.
One example that jumps immediately to mind is V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, with its heartbreakingly wry pathos. Though the details of the story are altered, one feels acutely that Naipaul is writing a paean to his own father, his struggles and triumphs, through the lens of a loving but troubled son. Something similar is discernible in Harper Lee’s late-published first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which, despite all its flaws, reveals her tormented struggle to understand the corruption of those whom she dearly loved and admired as a child. At moments, the distinction between young Lee, the author, and Jean Louise, her character, seems to disappear.
As readers, too, we bring our own sense of story to make sense of a creative work. The novels we often enjoy the most are those we recognize as uncannily ‘true’ and familiar through the questions, metaphors or feelings they generate, perhaps mapping in some way onto our own shadowlands. Jane Austen confined her writing to the very small world of British landed gentry of the late eighteenth century; none of us readers have lived in her time and place, yet she was able to mine the dissatisfactions and pleasures of the heart in a way that’s almost universally relatable. Arundhati Roy pulled up something similarly universal about the vulnerabilities of childhood in her first novel, The God of Small Things.
As Chinua Achebe said, ‘Art is and was always in the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose.’ Storytelling is, above all, the art of social beings. A novelist’s greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that she has connected with a reader, touched another human heart or mind and illuminated a patch of their world, in resonance with her own.