Digital Storytelling Essay – Listening, Love, and Identity

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As we transitioned from discussing documentary and ethnography to digital storytelling I found myself connecting these two types of media via my own experience creating my family-focused mini-documentary. When I made my documentary I expressed that I was not looking to capture any objective truths or teach my audience anything. Rather, I set out to create a family artifact that said “we were here”. While I was working on my piece, I asked my mother if there was anything she wished she had done to preserve her Italian-American heritage, and she said that she wished she had interviewed her own parents as I had interviewed her. I told her I wished she had too. Most of my grandparents passed away when I was very young, and I would love to hear their voices and their stories even though they are gone. This sentiment is echoed by StoryCorps founder David Isay in an introductory video about the program. He shares a memory of one Thanksgiving when he interviewed his grandparents and two great aunts, only to lose the tape. Even years later, he still looks for this tape because “it would make me so happy to hear those voices again”. Like my mini-documentary and Isay’s lost interview, digital stories, specifically those about families, are a way to say “we were here” and to preserve the memories of loved ones. I wanted to explore what else might result from the storytelling process. Apart from a finished digital piece that can be shared with future generations, what else is there to gain from telling our family stories?

I have chosen to examine four stories from the StoryCorps website, all of which focus specifically on family.  StoryCorps’ stated mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations”. Both implicit and explicit in this mission statement is the understanding that the process of creating these stories – in the case of the Story Corps model this is done through interview sessions – is as important as the final product. In particular the focus on the value of listening reinforces this.

The theme of the importance of listening and being heard can be seen throughout writing on the subject of digital storytelling. In Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community, Joe Lambert points out that “…listening is the hallmark quality of positive social engagement. Listening, making space for the silenced…makes us dignified”. Marie Crook identifies the story circle, the mechanism through which workshop participants bond and create a safe and supportive atmosphere in which to workshop pieces, as an essential component of a successful digital storytelling program. David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, explains in a video introducing the organization that people love to be listened to “because it tells them how much their lives matter”, and in 2013 StoryCorps produced a 20 minute animated video combining multiple stories entitled “Listening is an Act of Love”. Jean Burgess suggests that “Digital storytelling as a ‘movement’ is explicitly designed to amplify the ordinary voice” (2006). Digital storytelling has the potential to create and strengthen human connection because it creates opportunities for storytellers to be listened to, to feel valued and important.

As I examine these stories, I will look at how the loving act of listening is at play in the creation of each story. I will also examine the visuals of each story for the ways in which they communicate family members’ relationships, dynamics, and perceptions of one another. All of these stories are about family in some way, and all of them have been animated by the same team of artists.

In the story No More Questions! Kay Wang is brought to a StoryCorps booth by her son Cheng and granddaughter Chen to be interviewed about her life. Kay expresses impatience throughout the interview, but Cheng and Chen’s laughter suggests that her annoyance is not entirely sincere. Kay does not appear angered by their laughter at all, and it sounds as though she is smiling despite her impatient comments, making her seem more good-natured than perhaps she wishes to portray. This seems to be confirmed in the latter part of the video. A few weeks after the first recording, Kay passed away and Cheng and Chen returned to StoryCorps to remember her. Cheng describes her as stubborn, and Chen says that her grandma complained about many things but that she “didn’t really mind” doing them. Both of them seem to want to confirm that Kay had a soft side that she preferred not to show. Cheng says he thinks his mother only agreed to do the interview with them because she knew she didn’t have very much time left. He feels like it was her gift to them. In this way, No More Questions! is an example of the loving act of listening going both ways. Not only do Cheng and his daughter show love to Kay by listening to her talk about her life, Kay shows them love by listening to their questions. Kay validates her son’s and granddaughter’s desire to connect with her by agreeing to share her memories with them. The making of this digital story provided these family members with a chance to connect with one another, as well as with an artifact to remember one of them by after her death.

In the visuals for this piece, the three family members are depicted sitting inside a StoryCorps booth, arranged at a table with microphones on it. Kay sits opposite her son and granddaughter. The backdrop is a warm orangey red. This is then interspersed with scenes from the stories Kay tells, of herself as a little girl fighting with her mother, sneaking out of school, meeting her future husband, and working as an in-store detective at Bloomingdales. In the vignettes, Kay is depicted with a scowling expression that conveys a kind of mischievousness in childhood and stubbornness in adulthood. But when she meets her husband her expression eventually softens into a smile. In the scenes around the table, Cheng and Chen are animated with smiles on their faces, matching the sound of their laughter in the audio. Though the animation is simple, there is a sense of tenderness in their expressions, especially Cheng’s, as he listens to his mother speak. Cheng’s figure is also leaning forward slightly, towards his mother, with his hands on the table. Kay’s figure is expressive, gesturing broadly, her expression back and forth between a scowl and a smile as she is prodded to share. We see how much Cheng and Chen are enjoying being there with Kay, how much they are enjoying hearing her speak. We also see that despite her prickly demeanor, Kay seems pleased to be listened to. The overall effect of the visuals of the first part of the video communicate both Cheng and Chen’s perceptions of Kay’s personality, and the warmth and affection they feel for her. Later in the video Cheng and Chen are depicted at a table sharing either coffee or tea, with a picture of Kay and her husband hanging above them. The background is now blue and gray. They still smile as they talk about her, though Cheng’s posture is now a bit more hunched. The photo of Kay and her husband becomes animated for a moment, and we watch her tie his scarf with a scowl as Chen describes how she took care of him, then she smiles as Chen remembers “she would do it even though she complained”. This latter part of the video visualizes for us the sense of loss now that Kay is gone. The animation in No More Questions! conveys Cheng and Chen’s affection towards Kay, as well as their perception of her as a stubborn person with a softer side.

The digital story A Good Man shows us a conversation between brothers Bryan and Mike, two of eight siblings brought up in a strict religious household. Bryan, the oldest, describes to Mike what happened when their father kicked him out of the house for being gay, and how important it was for him to reconnect with each of his siblings as they left home. Bryan describes what it was like to rebuild his relationship with Mike, who at first because of the homophobia at home was reluctant to interact with him. He also recounts the story of connecting with their youngest brother Luke Henry who was born after Bryan left the house. Luke turned to Bryan to help him get to college, and Bryan remembers how happy it made him feel when Luke said “I love you” as they parted. Mike credits Bryan with bringing the siblings back together to become a family again. At the end of the story Bryan tells Mike “I just want you to know how much it means to me that you’ve loved me like this. And for that I will be forever grateful”. Mike responds, “You’re a good man”. The process of telling this story allows these two brothers to reflect on how their relationship became what it is, and gives Bryan an opportunity to express how grateful he his for that connection in the context of their past. As Bryan is given the chance to be listened to, he is also given the chance to listen to the validation that Mike gives to him. Again, though one family member is telling the bulk of the story, the act of listening goes both ways and both brothers have a chance to listen and to be heard.

The story opens visually with Bryan being kicked out of the house, we see him abandoned by the side of the road, curled in a blanket beside a fire on his first night alone. Back at the house, his siblings cower together in a corner after their father catches Mike on the phone with Bryan. Their father is only ever depicted as a clenched fist or a menacing shadow. He is a faceless, threatening figure. Later, we watch Bryan seek out Mike, who has run away, and try to rekindle their relationship. Mike shrinks away from him at first, while Bryan’s body language stays open. Compared to the image of their father’s clenched fists, Bryan lays a gentle hand on his brother’s arm. Eventually, we see Bryan as an adult in the center of the frame and as he names each sibling they pop into the frame, creating a kind of family photo with Bryan at the center. Then, the frame pans to Luke Henry calling Bryan on the phone, who is then shown helping Luke get settled on his college campus. Bryan is implicitly a parental figure in this scene: paying for Luke’s plane ticket, helping him set up his dorm room, hugging him goodbye. We are shown the expression of joy on Bryan’s face when Luke says I love you. At the end of the video, present day Bryan and Mike are seated at a cafe table together. Mirroring their first meeting after leaving their parents’ home, Mike puts a gentle hand on his big brother’s arm. The animation for A Good Man shows Bryan’s journey from isolation to connection, and depicts him as a stark contrast to, maybe even replacement for, the siblings’ father as a loving and supportive figure within the family.

In A Family Man, Edda interviews her husband, Samuel, about his father, John. He describes how his father worked long hours maintaining the boiler at the public school, and how Samuel and his siblings dreaded being asked to rub their father’s feet at the end of the day. Samuel remarks that, looking back, his father must have been in so much pain after a hard day of work and “he was being soothed by his little boys”. Edda prompts Samuel about what John was like as a disciplinarian and he shares the story of a time when his father caught him stealing. Samuel had been collecting pop bottles to turn in for change so that he could by a snack at the store. When he came up short, he stole an already-returned bottle from the bin and tried to pass it off as his own. He describes how his father caught him. Only after John passed away did Samuel learn that his family had credit at that store, and how his actions could have ruined that arrangement. Unlike the other stories, there is little interaction between the storyteller and the person interviewing them. In this case, the act of listening seems to be going only one way; Edda is creating space for her husband Samuel to be heard as he remembers his deceased father. This storytelling process also allows Samuel to capture how his appreciation for his father changed as he grew older and learned more about him.

This story begins with the image of John tending to the boiler far underground. At home where he lies on the bed exhausted, one of his feet is as big as Samuel’s whole body. The camera pans from a green cloud of odor rising from John’s sock as Samuel takes it off and starts to rub his toes up to John’s face and his small, grateful smile. Though huge, John is a quiet figure in Samuel’s memory, quieting his noisy children with just a look. As in A Good Man, John is sometimes portrayed as a shadow or looming figure with his face out of frame. But unlike the father in A Good Man, John’s figure is merely stern and never menacing. At the end of the story, we watch John carry home a bag of groceries, ending at last on an image of the family gathered into a room with John at the center illuminated by an overhead light as he puts down the food. His wife and children are smiling. These visuals show John as a larger than life figure in Samuel’s life. As he came to know and appreciate John’s sacrifices and dedication to providing for his family, he is visualized as a heroic presence in Samuel’s memory.

The Icing on the Cake is a story in which Connie talks with her mother, Blanca, about the family’s early years in America. Blanca describes the struggles she and her husband went through at first to provide for their children, and expresses the fear that she didn’t give Connie enough time and attention because she was too busy working and going to school. In contrast, Connie’s account of the same situations are free from her mother’s worries, and she recalls some of them with a certain fondness. When Blanca and her husband had to bring the children with them to clean officers during a night shift, Connie remembers having fun playing in her pajamas, eating candy out of candy dishes on desks, having a snack from the vending machine, and being put to bed on an office sofa before being carried to the car when the work was done. When Connie remembers eating the same thing for dinner every night, Blanca reveals that they were too poor to afford anything else, and that she tried to shield Connie and her brother from that knowledge. Where Blanca is afraid that she neglected her daughter, Connie reveals that she found her mother’s hard work her greatest inspiration to go to college. In the process of telling this story together, Connie and Blanca gain new insight to and understanding of each other through the loving act of listening. Connie comes to understand her mother’s experiences more fully as she opens up and shares worries and fears with her. Blanca receives reassurance about those fears when she learns that she not only met her child’s needs but inspired her to greater achievement. The Icing on the Cake provided an opportunity for greater closeness between mother and daughter.

This animation takes us back and forth from Connie and Blanca talking together at a table and flashbacks of the memories they share. We watch Connie and her brother playing in an office in their pajamas, Blanca’s sorrowful expression as she feeds her children a meager meal, little Connie cuddled up to her mother as Blanca does schoolwork, and finally mother and daughter smiling together on Connie’s own graduation day. Throughout the video, Connie and Blanca are almost always shown in frame together. Their figures are always close to each other, moving towards each other, or touching. In the flashbacks, Blanca is almost always smiling at her daughter, only revealing worry on her face when Connie is not looking at her. The visuals for Icing on the Cake emphasize the closeness between mother and daughter, as well as hinting at the new things they learn about each other through the storytelling process.

What is the value of digital storytelling for families? It allows us to preserve the stories and voices of family members so that they can be shared even after those people have died. It provides us with an artifact that can do more than a still photo. Combining sound and visuals (whether those are live videos, animations, or a series of still images) allows a digital story to speak to us in a way that a photograph cannot. The digital stories themselves become precious artifacts to pass on to future generations, fostering a sense of connection across time. But the process of creating the stories themselves has perhaps an even greater benefit that can be felt immediately.

Kellas asserts that “…family stories affect and reflect family culture by communicating who a family is – its norms, its values, its goals, its identity” (2003). Therefore, the process of digital storytelling as a family activity, especially through the interview model used by StoryCorps, provides a space in which family members can share, explore, and reaffirm family culture and identity. This is fairly apparent in some of the stories I viewed. In A Good Man, Mike and Bryan are able to reaffirm their family’s unity, and Bryan’s place as someone who is accepted by the family is also reaffirmed. In A Family Man, Samuel reflects on the values that his father imparted to him and how they defined John’s identity, appreciating and understanding them more fully as an adult than he did as a child. I also have found this to be true of my own experience. As I work to document my own family’s stories, I find that the process is just as self-reflective as if I were telling a story alone. In interviewing my parents about their lives and their perceptions of our family and heritage, I could not help but think about those questions myself. As in the StoryCorps stories the process of interviewing my parents allowed an opportunity for them to feel listened to, for me to learn something new about them, and for me to feel listened to in my curiosity about them. That back and forth listening process, combined with the self-reflection as I asked myself some of the same questions, became a experience of re-affirming my identity as strongly influenced by my place within my family and its history. Digital storytelling as a collaborative process allows family members to connect emotionally, to reaffirm family identity, and to preserve family culture for future generations.

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