Why stories matter

Posted at 06/23/14 11:20 PM

Big words, facts, and figures don’t mean jack if you want to impart lasting lessons to anyone, about anything

On a balmy night in August 2011, in between rums and beers and whisky, good friend Red Constantino, executive director of Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, said we should do a book on climate change from the perspective of writers and poets. Their work would accompany that of Jose Enrique Soriano, a retired photojournalist who recently mounted an exhibit in the Senate that helped push the People's Survival Fund bill.

“Sure!” I said, not knowing what I was signing up for. “Let’s do it.” Then we went back to drinking.

We would have the first official meeting for the book exactly two years later. Palanca award-winner Nori de Dios was to be project manager. I was still in a haze, which peeled away as the months wore on and made me realize, "Teka teka, di lang pala ‘to usapang lasing…parang totoo na ‘to ah."

Ten months later, this is what we have. A groundbreaking book entitled "Agam," a collection of creative narratives from 25 artists (the photographer included), writers, journalists, and poets.

Groundbreaking because you have stuff by Merlinda Bobis, Arnold Molina Azurin, Merlie Alunan, Ramon Sunico, Hermie Beltran, Michael Tan and other Filipino literary and intellectual figures talking about one subject, in their own ways, all in one place. Groundbreaking because it features eight languages (with English translations) and three local literary forms.

“Period-defining,” says Red, because Agam takes a sideways approach and is different and risky. It takes an issue “that threatens the very viability of our country,” as he likes to say, and brings it to a level that can be understood and appreciated by the majority.

Putting together the book was agonizing, ovaries-in-throat work, but it had to be done. The timing of its message, and what it means as a teaching and learning tool represents everything I believe every parent and teacher should think hard about:

It is through stories that we best learn and remember things and events by, especially when those stories are about you and me.

That’s something we’ve forgotten in our impatience, wanting to win the next pissing contest, and the overly-huge importance we place on impressing others.

We’ve been missing that in the way we teach our children, and ourselves, about the way to live, and in the way we think we learn.

We pound our kids to memorize facts and figures to test-to-pass. We believe fear is the best teacher, that conformity is good because it is safe and risk-free, that success is measured by rank and bank accounts, that questioning the status quo will lead to embarrassment and humiliation, the being different is unacceptable.

And “climate change”—what a buzzword. Mention that and you’re bound to sound relevant. You’re also bound to put others to sleep.

It’s become our punching bag and scapegoat, our ticket to sounding knowledgeable—even if we don’t know jack. Yolanda: climate change. A farmer’s crop gets inundated in the unlikely month of June: nako, climate change. Your tan fades earlier than expected, but you can’t hit the beach because it’s raining in Bora: wow, hasselhoff-naman-hashtag-climate-change.

Precipitation. Salinity. Acidification. Carbon emissions. Big wonky, words that can be memorized and, said the right way in the right company, will make you seem very, very smart and socially-aware indeed.

But what does the scientific data and constipated NGO-speak really mean? What does it matter to you and me, to our children? Why should we even care?

Great and lasting lessons have always been taught and received through good narratives. We’ve all always known this, but we just forgot.

Agam—also an old Filipino word that means foreboding, uncertainty, and remembrance of a memory—will make you remember. Hopefully, the book will also make you want to pass on knowledge—about climate change, the environment, our literary culture—in a way that matters.

Each of us has a story to tell, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, in verse or prose, in song or in photographs.

“Literature and narratives help teach concepts,” says another very good friend, Zeena Pañares, education director of Blended Learning Center, which is taking the equally-bold approach of teaching the usual subjects (including Math and Science) via stories and literature. “It has been proven that if facts are put into a logical sequence and given context, a person is better able to remember and evaluate information.”

If we want people—not just children—to discover and understand things better, we should learn how to present those facts and issues as a narrative, and in their own language. In their own context. One of my sons, for example, is an origami enthusiast. He tunes out if you try to teach him math the traditional way, but if you bring up mathematical concepts in grids and tessellations, the context he is enthusiastic about, his eyes light up and he becomes actively involved in the learning process.

Narration is also not mere reporting, it is not using words and images to shock and stir pity to ask for relief goods. Words and images can do more. Stories can inspire you to think, they can get under your skin and shape how you act and move.

Maybe they will even make you care.

Regina Abuyuan is executive editor of "Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change." She is also executive director of Blended Learning Services, Inc., which runs Blended Learning Center, and edits Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section.

Agam is published by Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (www.ejeepney.org), the pioneering group behind the e-jeepney. It launches today, June 24, 2014 and will soon be available in major and independent bookstores nationwide.