By Cecilia Nowell '16
In the film The Lives of Others, there is a scene where an East German artist plays “Sonata for a Good Man” for his wife while a Stasi secret police captain listens in through a surveillance system. After finishing the piece, the artist ponders aloud, “could art have the power to make people good?” The implication is that listening to the “Sonata for a Good Man” might not only have made the artist a better person, but also the eavesdropping German spy. After watching The Lives of Others, I found myself entranced by this question—could art make people good?—and couldn’t help but wonder if art might have other powers as well. Could art make people kinder, stronger, more resilient, maybe even braver?
As the daughter of a musician, I grew up listening to lots of music and stories about music. One of my mother’s most beloved musicians is the Russian composer Shostakovich, whose creativity allowed him to produce artwork that was critical of the Russian government but that could still pass censorship during the oppressive Stalin regime. I distinctly remember my mother describing to me how Shostakovich would craft the rhythm and timing of his pieces to transform traditional Russian themes of strength and valor into feelings of frenzy, such as in his Symphony No. 7. Years later, when I watched The Lives of Others, I pieced my memory of Shostakovich together with the film, and discovered my fascination for the ways artists can resist oppression and inspire bravery through strategic creativity.
As a writer, I’ve always found bravery in art. If you’ve read any of my past work in Counterpoint, you’ll know that I think you can “Write Your Own Adventure” and “Boldly Go” to new places with fiction. I believe that writing allows us to imagine different versions of ourselves and our societies in a way nothing else does. It lets us foresee worlds better than our current one, worlds where people might be kinder or wiser, more accepting of diversity or more open to challenges. When I was a kid, I looked to characters in my favorite books and imagined that I might someday be as strong as them. Today, I face a new challenge: imagining myself as one of the brave storytellers who have shared their remarkable stories with Counterpoint.
As a literature student, I can’t help but turn to some literary theory to answer this question. I’m in love with ancient literature—biblical texts, mythologies, creation myths—the old stories that stand at the core of humanity. So many of these stories, incredibly, begin with the act of storytelling itself. God creates humanity as He speaks the world into existence in Genesis, Ts’its’tsi’nako—or Thought-Woman—creates the world as a web of stories in Laguna tradition, and Allah creates a Pen and Tablet in Muslim tradition to begin writing the world. Centuries later, literary critics proclaimed that authors had supplanted gods in their role of creator. Human storytellers created worlds just as vivid and complex as the physical universe. It’s a powerful idea: the thought that each of us might hold some true creative power. That our words and imagination might bring unique worlds and hopes to life.
Beyond literary theory, other academic fields have acknowledged the power of stories. My sophomore year, in Professor Nadya Hajj’s “Politics of the Middle East and North Africa” class, I discovered that social scientists care about stories, too. My class had been discussing theories of development and read an excerpt of Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East, which argued that traditional societies develop into modern, democratic ones through urbanization, literacy, and the growth of mass media. According to Lerner, individuals benefit from living in cities near people from different backgrounds and consuming media written by and about diverse people—becoming more aware of other ways of life. In turn, this awareness and ensuing empathy prompts people to be more critical of their own social conditions and political system, and thus more politically active. In a single class period, I gained the words to capture something that I had intuitively understood before: somehow, hearing others’ life stories encourages us to change our own.
But all of this academic jargon boils down to one key conviction: I deeply believe that stories—whether the fictional books we grow up with or the true stories we share as we grow older—have a very real ability to make people feel whole. Knowing what others, those like us and those different from us, have faced and survived offers readers a sense of place and so much hope. It also offers writers an invaluable catharsis.
When Counterpoint began its monthly Mental Health feature back in 2014, we were astounded by the outpouring of voices. So many of you wanted to share your stories with us. In recent months, that desire, that need, for story-telling has grown. We’ve heard your stories about class, race, sexuality, gender identity— and we want to hear more. We’ve seen you start to become authors of your own stories, creators of your own futures. We’ve seen you want to coexist and understand each other more deeply. I am so indescribably grateful for the courage which has led authors to send in their work and share it with our community.
So here’s my charge to you (I get to do this because I’m a sentimental senior): use your publications. They’re a space for catharsis, for healing, for sharing, for understanding. They’re a space to make yourself feel braver, to help others understand your circumstances. A space to let your guard down, and be amazed by the good that might come of it. Tell us about your fears, your hopes, your joys, your sorrows. Know that you’re not alone—others like you have shared their stories and you may even have found comfort in their words, just like others will find comfort in yours. This is your space for dialogue, for dissent, for community discussion. This is your space to write yourself as the hero of your own story. To imagine and create a world where you’re not alone. Where others can gather around and relate to your story. Where our community can engage in debate and camaraderie.
This is our space to be brave.
From May 2016 Issue