Back in the late 1840s and 50s, mankind had hit the jackpot. Gold was discovered on the West coast of the United States, creating a frenzied migration movement as many desired wealth. Some were lucky: they had found gold after digging for a while. Others…not so much. They, on the other hand, had to invest in underground mining after the surface gold was depleted. These men felt that gold was important and tried to dig deeper and deeper into the Earth to find this precious metal. In a similar manner, I myself dig deeper into stories, to search for the important “what” that makes stories matter.
Growing up, I had gone through countless stories, whether having encountered it online, within a book, or heard it retold aloud by my family. So what? Everyone has probably gone through the same experience in their childhood. But back then, I only knew stories for their superficial value: entertainment. Oh, that was a great story, I liked it because it passed the time. I enjoyed the plots, the characters, the conflicts that were resolved. However, now, I see stories for their interior and worth: I believe stories matter because of the life lessons they teach, and their attempts at opening up a relationship with readers.
In her book, The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros embeds countless of experiences that her protagonist hurdles through, which can serve as life lessons or attempts at connection with readers. The protagonist of this novel, Esperanza, illustrates her experiences as she comes of age, learning and becoming exposed to the world and reality. Surely many readers will be able to relate to her, as a childhood is something we all must go through before becoming adults.
Esperanza recalls one event that left her as a confused little girl:
“The baptism party…[has] dancing and tamales and everyone’s kids running all over the place.
Mama dances, laughs, dances. All of a sudden, Mama is sick…Too many tamales, but Uncle Nacho says too many of this and tilts his thumb to his lips.
Everybody [laughs] except me…” (Cisneros, 46-47).
While attending a baptism party with her extended family, she encounters a situation never seen before: her mom seems sick, but everyone is amused by this, rather than responding typically with worry. The older generation in her family is, what I like to call, “adulting,” (doing grown-up activities such as drinking). And of course Esperanza doesn’t understand this, she’s too young! Many people can be exposed to their parents or a relative drinking during festive times or holiday celebrations, and such an event is one of the ways Esperanza attempts to forge that connection with the reader.
Furthermore, Esperanza reaches out to a section of her audience who has younger siblings. She has a younger sister, Nenny, for whom she is responsible for. Often, Nenny tags along and joins Esperanza and her friends in games or outings. Esperanza’s feelings towards Nenny can be identified clearly:
“Not that old song, I say. You gotta use your own song. Make it up, you know?…The rope turning, turning, turning.
I can tell Lucy and Rachel are disgusted, but they don’t say anything because she’s my sister. Nenny. Going. Going” (Cisneros, 52)
From personal experience with my younger sister, I sometimes have felt annoyed when she doesn’t listen to me, wandering off to do whatever she’s interested in, not what my friends and I want to do. At the same time, I can’t help but feel protected over her. If my friends ever dissed my sister, I would be ready to rumble, tumble, fight, you name it. Only I can be (slightly) mean to my sister because of the understanding that we have for each other’s personality and quirks. Here, not only does Esperanza tried to forge that connection with the reader, but there is also a life lesson taught: blood is thicker than water. While Lucy and Rachel may be Esperanza’s friends for the moment, who is to say that their friendship is guaranteed to last? As for Esperanza and Nenny, they have developed a strong bond of family from the moment they met each other. Family sticks up for each other.
Also, Esperanza is going through puberty, another relatable topic, as demonstrated in her nighttime pondering:
“Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt. Not this way, every evening talking to the trees, leaning out my window, imagining what I can’t see,” (Cisneros, 73).
Many teenage girls can identify with Esperanza. As females grow up, they begin to change, not just physically, but mentally too. The boys from the past don’t seem as gross or “cootie-infected,” but they become, dare I say, attractive? Esperanza feels left out of this phenomenon labelled puberty, as she is stuck “talking to the trees…[while] everything is waiting to explode like Christmas.”
Despite these warm-hearted childhood connections, there are moments where Esperanza does not demonstrate a life lesson, but rather, a vice. Once, she asked her mother to “write a note to the principal so [she] could eat in the canteen,” (Cisneros, 43). Once in the principal’s office, Sister Superior made her identify her house, and Esperanza pointed at a whole different building, “even though [she] knew that wasn’t [her] house and started to cry,” (Cisneros, 45). In this situation, Esperanza seems to justify vices such as envy of the kids who eat at the canteen daily and lying, which complicates how stories are important because of the life lessons they teach.
Though I accept that not all stories mean to emphasize vices over virtues, I still cannot help but feel that such stories should be reserved for yourself, rather than publicizing and making your misdemeanors known. Why not just acknowledge your faults privately and move on? Why dwell on it?
Apart from Sandra Cisneros, other authors and writers also support the idea of stories being meant to build connections with the reader and teach life lessons. Shannon Turlington’s ‘Why are stories so important?‘ expresses the ideas of learning through storytelling quite well. She emphasizes on how “one of the most basic functions of the story is to teach.” Quite simply, she is doing so through her own article: empowering the world to be knowledgeable in the more than one way that stories hold value. In addition, part of the foundation to her ideas here rely upon a connection to parent readers.
“Human cultures have always reinforced societal norms via storytelling. Through stories we communicate to our children (and to outsiders) how to act toward one another, what we value and what is possible. Stories preserve our own history and culture, passing it along in a form that’s easy to remember to the next generation.”
Turlington is not the only writer on board with my opinions, but also Britta Neumann, a marketing executive from Funnelback. Through her piece, ‘Brand Storytelling: why stories matter,’ I was able to experience the same point of view, but through a business lens this time. While businesses tell stories with the side objective of attracting customers, they are also focused on the true importance of stories as well.
“Ultimately your story needs to be real, relevant and relatable. If these elements are overlooked your story is unlikely to engage your audience,”
Neumann focuses on building connections with the audience, not only to enrapture the target audience, but also to keep the story “genuine.” If the story isn’t relatable and seems like a “tall tale,” who would take notice?
Lastly, while stories do hold importance, not all stories hold substance. For example, I tell someone a story. That story is retold by various people, sources, changing in detail, length, medium of communication.
As the story is being told, sometimes details are lost and the story becomes summarized. Without that detail, emotion, original medium of communication, the story loses its worth. It becomes a story that doesn’t matter to people anymore because the attention is lost. “Storytelling has [crossed] into cliche…the market is saturated with storytellers…feeds are inundated,” as described by Melissa Rodier in her article ‘Storytelling is a Meaningless Trope.’
The question changes. It’s not ‘What makes stories matter?” but “At what point does a story loses its matter?” I understand what Rodier is trying to convey, but simultaneously, I must disagree. Even as stories of the Parables from the Bible or fairy tales such as “Hansel and Gretel” are passed down through history, they have never lost their touch as their stories are still retold today. While versions may vary, people can still grasp the main point or the lesson being taught, and that’s what truly matters. Can the message still be conveyed?
Even now, I still read stories for entertainment. There are times where it feels relaxing to sit back and dive into a story that invites feelings of happiness, anger, worry, and much more to be expressed in your face as the plot of the story thickens. You don’t have to think about the life lesson that you should be portraying because some stories are fictional and may not be meant to apply to reality. Still, for those stories that can apply to you, it’s comforting to know that somewhere out there, someone else knows what you are going through. It’s satisfying to learn a skill or find advice that can help you to survive in life. Because of those reasons, they hold a lot of sentimental value. And I believe after all those years of searching, I’ve struck gold.