PGS Prizegiving Address by Professor Elleke Boehmer

The following address was given at Portsmouth Grammar School Prizegiving on 23 September 2021 by Professor Elleke Boehmer (University of Oxford)


Our stories are shaped by our history, but we also have a lot of autonomy and power around how we draw from the roots of that history. [ … ] The bricks we use to build the future belong to the present and the past. The future is not removed from the now. (Siphokazi Jonas, ‘Narrative and Adolescence’ workshop, 1 March 2020).

 It’s wonderful to be among all of you today, at so positive and celebratory an event as a prizegiving, at a great school like this one. I’ve really enjoyed meeting the prize-winners, though I’m sorry we couldn’t shake hands this year, and I’d like to congratulate all of you on your achievements, especially in what was a very challenging year.

I’m a writer and novelist, and so a storyteller, and am hoping to talk to you a bit about the inspirations of storytelling and the power of telling our own stories, today.

I especially want to talk to you about how storytelling in different capacities has driven me in my work. And why it has done so. I want to touch on how we can open potential and possibility in our lives through storytelling, in all kinds of media. And how through storytelling, telling our own stories, we can build the future even when the future seems dark. The idea of ‘telling our own stories’ asks us to think about and tap into the promise and the strength and inner resources that each and every one of us has—the kind we are celebrating here at this Prizegiving.

The South African activist and medical doctor Steve Biko (1946-77) once said, storytelling enables us to speak from where we stand, wherever in the world we find ourselves. Steve Biko taught me and many others to see the future not as something disconnected from now due to a sense of overwhelming obstacles, or due to discrimination or situations of inequality, but something that we can build from here, this moment, as Siphokazi Jonas said in the quotation I began with.

I first discovered Biko’s work in anti-racism when I was around the age some of you are now, sixteen or seventeen, and it spoke to me powerfully for a very simple reason. It spoke to me because it validated all human experience, all disciplines, all skills. It gave permission to all of us, no matter how peripheral, small, or ‘minor’ we might seem or feel. From his Black Consciousness perspective, Biko articulated the idea that everyone whoever they are – poor people the world over, young people the world over, refugees in war zones, migrant in small boats – everyone has the right not only to tell their story, but also for their story to be heard. In fact, it is by telling our story that we can begin to find ways of being heard. It’s how we shape our sense of self in the world. How we stand strong in ourselves, within the conditions of our lives. It’s how, Biko also said, we wage a ‘mental fight’ against the negative ideas people may wish to project on us, through no fault of our own. I should add that I speak here as a feminist, who grew up at a time when women’s rights and voices were not as well-respected as they are today. (Though much yet remains to be done in the area of women’s rights!)

As Biko put it, we need to learn to speak from our own contexts, to say how it strikes us. Storytelling – storytelling in many different forms, writing, song, performance, poetry, drawing, music, number work, programming, blogging, and so on – can assist us in doing so. As the singer BeyoncĂ© says, in a neat amplification of Biko’s ideas: ‘when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of … the richness of soul that is not told in our history books" (quoted in Respers 2020).

Many people in situations of inequality understandably have the idea that self-affirming stories belong to elites and the well-off in rich countries far away. They don’t see the dominant or influential stories as relating to them. When I say dominant stories, I mean rags-to-riches and celebrity stories, or even stories from influential and ‘right-on’ Hollywood films.

The idea of storytelling that inspires me directly confronts and challenges that sense of inferiority. It points out that any and every human story is valuable, wherever we may come from. No storytelling tradition is excluded here. We’re thinking here of stories from various oral traditions. Stories from the big storytelling troves of different cultures. The Arabian Nights. The Western Classical tradition that some of you here study. The Ramayana. And so on. But here we also don’t exclude what we might call ‘small’ stories, including social media stories. Stories about making it through and surviving even though you come from an out-of-the-way place or an overlooked part of the world. Research on the impact of the COVID pandemic on young people worldwide, shows that storytelling and related creative activities including on social media have provided powerful forms of relief and release during lockdowns, especially perhaps for those in deprived and isolated situations.

I currently work on a project called the Accelerate Hub based in a number of African countries including South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe (2019–22). In the project, we try to identify interventions that have the potential to improve young people’s lives in sustainable ways, according to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and we work with governments and other service providers to roll out these services. Some of these services include cash transfers, better access to education, and parenting programmes. But we have found that storytelling and facilities to encourage people to tell their stories definitely also make up one of these services. Currently we are busy showing that storytelling can work in effective ways alongside and, importantly, in tandem with the other interventions.  

Wherever we have held storytelling and performance workshops for young people as part of the Hub project, we have noticed how valuable these understandings about storytelling can be. We have seen how individuals feel encouraged and empowered by having access not just to a range of stories, but also to storytelling facilities and storytelling platforms, including something as seemingly basic as a mobile phone. So there is a strong case for policy makers, governments, charity workers and researchers to make not only more stories available, but also to open up storytelling infrastructures and facilities like schools, libraries, and books for young people to access. Not forgetting also equipment like chalk, paper, paint, pens, computers. Even contact with professional storytellers, actors and poets can help to give confidence in telling your story. But the prerequisite is always, first, to create a situation where there is respect for everyone’s stories, and, second, for everyone to have access to a range of possible stories. The benefits to community integration, and to individuals’ mental health, are incalculable.

Now some of you may well be thinking, it’s all very well to speak of storytelling in abstract, but what about the actual practical application of these ideas? Storytelling as a concept sounds brilliant, but how does this work on the ground? I’d like to end, briefly, then, by referring to two concrete examples that have demonstrated at least to me how effective storytelling as a practice can be.

First, there is the ‘Stories in Transit’ project based in Palermo, Sicily. Here, story practitioners work with young people from refugee and migrant communities to exchange and dramatize stories. It is interesting that these are often not the young people’s own stories, as these may be legally sensitive, but stories from ancient epics like the Gilgamesh story. According to reports, the enjoyment and release generated by these story workshops have had significant positive effects on these often displaced young people and their communities.

In my second example, storytellers involved in the Accelerate Hub project I already mentioned, have used traditional oral tales such as trickster, Anansi and hyena stories to encourage and support various kinds of reconciliation and coming together. Telling these stories, people have sometimes been able to objectify problems they may have been having with certain members of their community but without pointing fingers, shielded by the device or the displacement of the storytelling. They’ve also been able to feel that their perspective counts. And they have enjoyed the pure activity of immersion in the world of the story, as we also find in reading or watching a play or a film.

So, finally, whatever your situation might be, think about the stories and the models that motivate you, and notice what it is in those stories that give you affirmation and pleasure. And try to build on these experiences of enjoying, sharing and facilitating storytelling. Notice that everyone of us tends to be the main protagonist in their chosen stories, or at least identifies with a hero or a protagonist who shares their perspective or interests. And notice, to speak very concretely, that storytelling structures, take us from an opening through an arc or trajectory, and then on to the next thing – to an ending, to the future, to tomorrow. Putting these two things together, the hero and the arc, notice finally that main protagonist is the one who builds from here, and now, wherever that is, through the arc of their story, whatever that is. And so, as Siphokazi Jonas was saying at the start, they move forward into the future.