Storytelling can outlive any pandemic

Sanjhee Gianchandani

The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically altered the way we relate to the world around us. We have been separated from the rest of humanity through social distancing, but we are still co-existing in a zone of ‘collective uncertainties’ as none of us can predict the turn of events caused by this deadly virus. Nonetheless, it has also changed our perspectives of life and helped us associate with our fellow beings at new levels of empathy, mutual understanding, and teamwork as communities and people have come together to provide extraordinary essential services.

The sociologist Arthur W Frank famously described illness as a ‘call for stories.’ Consequently, a global pandemic perhaps calls for stories on an unprecedented scale. Storytelling is a medium by which families, cultures, communities share information, values and beliefs. Today, we are able to understand shared human histories of surviving through wars and disasters only because of the stories that people left behind for us; and we ought to do the same for our children when they pull their hair out, 40 years later, trying to make sense of the convoluted pieces garnished with several contradictory viewpoints centering around the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has been harsh on everyone, but it has had most impact on the minds of children. Not being able to go to school or play with friends, seeing their working parents always at home or quarantined in hospitals has rendered children traumatized and helpless. “Every age group is processing the events in a different way,” said Dr Soonu Udani from SRCC Children’s Hospital, that has treated over 45 minors with COVID-19 over the past weeks. She said that children below 10 years don’t know much and are picking up tiny bits from the television and family conversations, while those above 10 years have more fear of death as they try to comprehend the severity of the infection. “Many of these children have grandparents in the hospital, others have lost their grandparents to the infection. This sets in the fear,” she said. Social and emotional isolation coupled with disruption in daily activities has taken a toll on the psyche of children and is detrimental in the long run.

Their responses to the pandemic are a direct reflection to the way their parents respond to it. Adults, on the other hand, are frustrated with the scattered pieces of information coming their way through tailored internet posts, random news updates splattered with COVID related numbers augmenting each day and incoherent messages circulating on social media.

These gaps can be bridged with the help of stories which are a powerful means to teach, inspire, and change the way we think. They help transport children to a safer world where they encounter familiar characters, imbibe positive moral traits, and develop respect and appreciation for other cultures. At the same time, older children should also be encouraged to journal their experiences of the pandemic in order to express themselves more meaningfully, alleviate stress, and also to preserve this incredible experience for future retellings as everyone around the world is experiencing the same worries.

During this time, reading other narratives can help children think about their stories and writing things down is powerful believes Dr Amy Shriver, a general paediatrician in Iowa who has two daughters aged nine and twelve. Her older daughter is reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” she said, and talked about feeling trapped. She was clearly able to relate her experiences with those of Anne Frank and thus cathartically heal her fraying mind without even realizing it.

Storytelling is a part of curricula in both Hindi and English in almost all schools across the country which includes reading aloud stimulating children’s literature, recounting stories, and providing children the space to create their own stories. But with schools being forced to shut down indefinitely, children are noticeably feeling this void and the entire burden has shifted to the shoulders of parents who are already dealing with increased workload both at home and at work, managing the financial crunch and dealing with the ramifications of the virus.

‘Parents are feeling the pressure in having to engage their children in meaningful activities while balancing work, leaving them with very little ‘me time’,’ says Dipna Daryanani, educator and co-founder of the children’s clothing brand Love the World Today. So, she decided to use storytelling to help out parents by doing online storytelling sessions for kids.

It is a wonderful medium to educate children about the ongoing crisis and to help them respond to it in a more positive and productive manner. Parents and teachers can narrate stories to explain the difficult terminology surrounding COVID-19 in ways that children comprehend. One of the best coping strategies that parents, teachers, and caretakers can offer during this vulnerable time is teaching children the new norms through stories, providing age-appropriate information, and explaining to them about the many people who are working to fight this disease. Children should be made to realize that they too become heroes when they take care of themselves and help curb the spread of the infection. ‘My Hero is You’, a fictional take on the pandemic designed especially for children by UNICEF can be a good starting point for equipping children with an accurate version of sensitive information.

The pandemic has been apocalyptic and has upturned our lives like we had never imagined. Therefore, it is strident for the literary world to narrate it in a manner that can be registered and initiate lines of conversation that can be crucial in the days to come. Many of us will have been fortunate to avoid the worst inflictions of this time. But the long slog has darkened everyone’s mental horizons, in ways that are palpable, even if difficult to articulate. Herein lies the power of the narrativization which would presumably glorify belligerence towards the microbe and the concurrent human toil towards fortification of healthcare systems and saving the economy from collapsing. However, what should be critically included is compassion toward the suffering, humility in the face of uncertainty, and a proper respect for sickness and death, which are so much a part of the human condition.

This is especially true for children’s writing. The universal, human perspective which the pandemic has gestured towards us ought not be ignored. Instead, it should be nourished and should inform storytelling about these times. This nuance has been perfectly captured by the comforting words and colourful illustrations by Beth Bacon and Kary Lee in their book ‘Covid 19 Helpers’ which reassures children that many people, including children themselves, are working together to fight the virus.

‘As we go through this pandemic together as well as in our own specific ways, my hope is that the power of storytelling will keep us entertained, provide us comfort, help us understand our experiences, and allow us to process our feelings as we continue to hold onto our vision of better days to come,’ says Shu-Chen Jenny Yen, associate professor at California State University. Her book titled ‘Something Strange Happened in My City: A Social Story about the Coronavirus Pandemic for Children’ addresses the emotional and psychological impact of the virus on the minds of children.

When we read the accounts of how other people cope or struggle with the crisis, we begin to appreciate the diversity and recognize people with very different experiences and circumstances. These differences exist in normal times, but when there is a crisis, we become more interested in how others are affected, perhaps because we want to understand the problem better so that we can be better prepared ourselves. Unfortunately, it has taken us a pandemic to realize our interconnectedness, but this revelation can certainly be concretized in the story format. Providing children with safe, stable and consistent associations is crucial for them to feel connected. Storytelling sessions fortify the relationship between parents and children as well as call for a creative outpouring which assures children of a comfort and predictability even if it is in their make-believe world.

As the fragile minds of children try to wrap themselves around the pandemic, it becomes pertinent to let stories unleash their restorative powers. For instance, in the book titled Together: Living Life During COVID-19 written by Kevin Poplawski, a young girl named Olivia learns what the coronavirus is, how to protect herself and others from catching it, and why her life changed so dramatically seemingly overnight. What is interesting about this read is both Poplawski and his wife are healthcare providers themselves so the handling of the topic is extremely fastidious, and the information presented is medically sound. Such snippets of lived histories are wonderful fodder for great stories as they carry a huge emotional resonance for readers being socially and politically relevant.

Only stories can anchor in any semblance of sanity as we all ride together on this unsteady boat of anxiety. Be it in any language, storytelling must be included in the daily routine of every child to smoothen out his or her process of healing and coping and also to make sure that their time is spent constructively rather than exposing them to screens all the time. Some Indian storytelling platforms which parents and teachers can explore are Katha India, Story Truck, and Pratilipi. Some of these have interesting features such as narration in grandmothers’ voices, parental customization options, animation, subtitles, and pre, while, and post listening exercises for extra engagement.

The relationship between history, memory and storytelling is often complicated. Nonetheless, the reconstructive and therapeutic phenomenon must continue to thrive during and beyond this pandemic. In his book The Origins of Creativity, Edward O. Wilson writes, “Our old people long ago had a government, and it was an ember from the fire where we last lived which we used to light the fire at the new place we were going.” They passed along their stories like torches that might light the way to a better future. Similarly, we must allow the unifying power of storytelling to lead the way back to normalcy in the world.

Other Podcasts

Once Upon A Book – collaboration of Momspresso and Penguin books which goes live every Monday with India’s most loved children’s writers such as Ruskin Bond, Paro Anand, etc.
Talking Tales – Tullika Books
Storyweaver – Pratham Books
Around the Story Tree – Interactive online storytelling sessions for kids
Baalgatha / Myths, Legends and Fairytales of India – available on iTunes, Bookmyshow, Saavn
Storynory – A show for stories, myths, poems, classic fairytales, adventures and romance. Narrated by Natasha Gostwick

References
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/bengulureans-switch-to-digital-storytelling-for-wider-reach/articleshow/60460309.cms
https://www.southwales.ac.uk/research/usw-research-podcasts/podcast-emily-underwood-lee/
https://www.naeyc.org/resources/blog/power-storytelling-helping-children-process-crisis
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/well/family/children-coronavirus-stories.html
https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/coronavirus-lockdown-covid-19-taking-an-emotional-toll-on-children/article31822539.ece

The author holds a Master’s degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. As an English language assessment specialist, she has extensively worked on developing content for various English language assessments offered by Cambridge Assessment English. Her love for publishing brought her to her current job as an ELT editor wherein she developed an entire English Grammar series for classes 1-8. She loves to fill in the crevices in her day by writing about the changing trends in education. She can be reached at [email protected].

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