Grandma’s Story: Trinh T. Minh-Ha on Storytelling and Truth

Grandma’s Story is the final chapter of Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. My favourite chapter I confess because it opened up horizons, and also sang with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko among others, whose words I have always loved.

It is written beautifully, interspersed with stills from film, the language difficult, rewarding. It works to overflow, expand, burst open the limits of Western intellectual thought the way that stories do without trying.

Why this battle for truth and on behalf of truth? I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. (120)

It is a language of possibility, of what is still unknown (and there is so much we don’t know).

If we rely on history to tell us what happened in a specific time and place, we can rely on the story to tell us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place. (120)

It is a language of the interstices, freed from boundaries.

On the one hand, each society has its own politics of truth; on the other hand, being truthful is being in the in-between of all regimes of truth. Outside specific time, outside specialized space. (121)

And it is bigger than we are.

Truth does not make sense; it exceeds meaning and exceeds measure. It exceeds all regimes of truth. (123)

Above all, it is not ours, but builds on and also builds our communities and our connections.

Storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community, constitutes a rich oral legacy, whose values have regained all importance recently, especially in the context of writings by women of color. (148)

And so we repeat our stories, tell them as fragments of the whole and as the whole itself, always changing as living things change, depending on circumstances, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, depending on many things that cannot be separated out. It is this unity in flux, this complex fluidity that can embrace the world and our place in it in multiple different ways that renders useless so many conventions of western fiction separated so starkly from western academic work or philosophizing.

But it is particularly difficult for a dualistic or dualistically trained mind to recognize that “looking for the structure of their narratives” already involves the separation of the structure from the narratives, of the structure from that which is structured, of the narrative from the narrated, and so on. It is, once more, as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if a structure can only function as a standard mold within the old determinist schema of cause and product. (141)

This chapter struck me so forcibly after reading Barbara Fields on race and ideology, which forced me once again to confront the ability of people — most problematically white people — to maintain widely contradictory beliefs about others, often completely at odds with lived experience. This embodies the power of certain narratives shoring up power and privilege, as well as the inability of dualistic thinking to really grapple with them, the need to look in many places for a way of communicating that can build the world we hope to see.

Minh-ha also describes a very different way of working within the wider community, of relating to others. Imagine how much more powerful the kind of story embodied by theorising could be if this were true, as it should be true of all those who are in the struggle to transform the world:

I memorize, recognize, and name my source(s), not to validate my voice through the voice of authority…but to evoke her and sing. (122)

And transform the world we will.

Each woman, like each people, has her own way of unrolling the ties that bind. (148)

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