Future-forming interdisciplinary research

White Paper: Storytelling and Global Futures – with Qaisra Shahraz, Graham Mort and Emily Spiers


The Global Futures events aim to integrate students, academics and the local community for engaging interdisciplinary discussions on big global challenges. The most recent event in this white paper series was the first of its kind, as the speakers addressed global futures through their backgrounds in literature and the arts. Qaisra Shahraz, Graham Mort and Emily Spiers shared their unique perspective and provoked an enlightening and wide ranging discussion on the importance of storytelling in global futures.

By Kate Fearnyough

First, we heard from Qaisra Shahraz; a critically acclaimed novelist and scriptwriter recognised as number one of the fifty most influential women in Manchester. Qaisra described how her fiction writing began at the young age of 26, with her novels set in rural Pakistan focussing on multiple identities, cultural clashes and ‘other worlds’ as a Pakistani writer in Britain. After the events of September 11th 2001, Qaisra’s life as a Muslim living in Britain was affected significantly. She struggled for three years to cope with the rise of hatred and Islamophobia, but was then encouraged by friends to use her position as an established writer as a platform to change perceptions.

This change marked a shift in Qaisra’s identity from a ‘writer’ to a ‘Muslim writer’. When her short story A Pair of Jeans was taught as part of the German ‘Abitur’ exam after being selected by Dr Liesl Hermes, she used her subsequent talks across German schools to talk about her stories in a proactive way. Through discussing her literature and its overarching themes, Qaisra aimed to build cultural bridges and challenge stereotyping and hatred towards Muslims, highlighting that no faith teaches violence and it is the ideology of a small group of people that have ‘hijacked’ her faith as extremists.

Qaisra emphasised how all of us read and understand literary works through our own cultural framework and norms, making individual interpretations as we read. She highlighted the importance of ‘getting out of our boxes’ by learning and respecting cultures different from our own, reflecting on two examples of her own experiences spending time with an Incan community and a visit to a Sikh Gurdwara. Through her literature and other work, such as the Muslim Arts and Culture Festival in Manchester, Qaisra aims to promote better relationships between people of different faiths and of none, to hold intercultural dialogue and to encourage integration rather than assimilation. Using her peace banners ‘We Stand Together’ and ‘Spread Hummus Not Hate’ she stresses that everyone is different, but that these differences should be embraced and celebrated, rather than dismissing another world because it is different from our own.

Next Graham Mort, Professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University, spoke about a project with his previous PhD student Muli Amaye to recoup the stories of Kurdish women who had lived through the Al Anfal genocide in the late 20th century. Graham described how Kurdish nation building since this event has celebrated the role of women as fighters and a force of resistance against the Iraqis, but that Muli Amaye was interested in the narrative of survival from the women who weren’t fighting. Together they developed a research project which started as an ethnographic study, by training Kurdish speaking researchers to conduct semi-structured interviews with women who had lived through the Al Anfal genocide.

Whilst conducting the research, Graham identified a strong intergenerational dynamic. The women that had lived through the genocide felt repressed in the sense that their own families weren’t aware of the stories they had to tell, as at the time of the research young Kurdish people were living in a comparatively prosperous society. Girls had access to education and income from oil revenues was allowing the country to develop; the women felt that their stories could be lost to future generations. However, by the end of the two years of research this growing prosperity was arrested dramatically as the region was alienated from the Iraqi administration in Baghdad, who cut off funding and triggered an alarming regression to previous conditions. Furthermore, the encroachment of ISIS on the outskirts of Erbil caused serious concern that the women would be endangered due to their exposure through the project. Despite this, each woman insisted on their story being told.

The women’s stories were disseminated through the Lancaster University Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research website, with the stories published in both Kurdish and English after a lengthy translation process. Patterns existed in the narratives, with women recounting unsentimentally day-to-day memories from their difficult early lives as subsistence farmers, before inevitably discussing the genocide which transformed their future into something they had never imagined. Graham explained how he took the experience further than simply publishing the stories as an ethnographic dataset; as a creative writer he wrote twenty sonnets interrogating what he describes as a transformative experience as westerners working in a cross-cultural environment.

With all these stories as ‘data’, the team looked for a way to compress the stories, and decided to build a performance piece. They came together in Bergerac, France, with a Stanley knife and some coloured pens to begin the process of identifying narrative patterns and thematic links through a close reading of all stories, ultimately reconstituting them into a performance poem with hardly a word changed from the stories themselves. The poem was performed at an academic conference in South Africa with African actresses; five women who would cross-cut and interrupt each other as if they were talking. By engaging with the women’s memories, displaced futures and cultural history the poem was used as an incredibly effective means of communicating research data through performance.

Finally, Emily Spiers, lecturer in Creative Futures at Lancaster University, offered a completely different angle on the topic of storytelling and global futures; discussing how we as humans engage with stories from a neurological perspective. Stories are fundamental to the human brain’s understanding of ourselves, the world around us and other people, and narrative is the basic organising principle of memory. Emily explained how the brain remembers pictures first, then emotional context, then language – demonstrating it is not information that makes things memorable, and the wide availability of facts makes each one less valuable. In contrast, when the brain detects an emotionally charged event, dopamine is released into the system which aids memory and information processing; meaning that as researcher Daniel Pink stated; “stories are easier to remember because they are how we remember”. The brain responds to storytelling not only by comprehending and processing language, but by activating areas that correspond to actions that are being recounted in the narrative, for example processing sounds, scents, movement, colours and shapes. Furthermore, the cognitive function of mirroring means that the brain activity of people who are telling and listening to a story synchronises as they experience the story together. This, combined with neural coupling, which allows the listener to interpret the story through their own ideas and experiences, means that stories enable an empathic relationship with the differences we encounter through the narrative.

The research of Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, uncovered the chemical basis for this empathic relationship to the difference we may encounter in stories. Oxytocin is the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation – being transported into someone else’s consciousness/experience when listening to a story. Zak dubbed oxytocin the ‘moral molecule’ after his experiments demonstrated that when the brain synthesises this chemical people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable and compassionate. Emily stressed, however, that it would be naïve to generalise about the universal morality of stories and engagement with fiction. Stories don’t exclusively foster ethical action and empathic identification in the face of difference; conversely ideologically driven social narratives can stimulate fear, revulsion and hatred.

Emily’s own research aims to harness the power of storytelling by devising positive future realities that work with empathy rather than fear. She believes storytelling could be a useful way to communicate complex scientific research that shows the need to make substantive changes in behaviour. Emily touched on a common theme of the Global Futures lectures, climate change, as an example of a global challenge that, despite overwhelming evidence, has not triggered required changes in human behaviour to combat the dangers it presents. She suggested that if the potential transformative power of storytelling were taken seriously, with new and innovative ways involving a variety of stakeholders, change could perhaps be affected where it is desperately needed.

Question and Answer Session:

These varied and insightful talks provoked extensive discussion on various topics. A brief summary of some of the questions asked is presented here.

  • As a group of people at the university are stories being written, or are you commissioning people to write stories, especially for children?

Emily recounted how a recent visit to a bookshop gave her a palpable sense that children’s stories with important narratives are out there. In her own work, she is not just thinking about how a story can be entertaining, relaxing and potentially transformative in introducing gradual shifts in perspective in broader society, but instead how storytelling could be used proactively. She wants to investigate if storytelling could be a useful tool in sectors such as business, government and education to address challenging topics in specific areas.

  • Going back to the issue of climate change, how would you use stories to transform behaviour?

Emily discussed holding storytelling workshops with different stakeholders, for example consumers, policy makers, businesspeople, transport workers and farmers. She is interested in how the process of collaborative development of a story with groups of different stakeholders, that are non-writers, might change the way that we think about the problem.

For Graham as a creative writer, the idea of engineering stories alarmed him. He argued that good stories are those with contradictions that run against the grain of what people are supposed to think. He highlighted his doubts about instilling an orthodoxy or agenda in storytelling and shaping stories to mean a certain thing.

  • I believe there was a tension at the heart of all of your talks between the individual and society, powerless and powerful, and whose voices we are talking about when we discuss about voices and narrative. Do you think stories can be socially transformative without power as a concept or is it at the heart of answering global questions?

Graham believed that power goes to the heart of the whole process. The women that he worked with felt that their silence was akin to a symbolic disabling of their agency, and when they heard other people telling their stories everything picked up momentum. Graham spoke about how to narrate is, in a sense, to be fully alive, and to deny that ability, capacity or legitimacy is a deeply oppressive act.

Qaisra discussed how her power as an established novelist and scriptwriter is essential to allow her to get her message out to the masses, and to raise awareness of the issues she is feels passionately about to try and affect change.

  • What do we lose or gain through the translation process?

Qaisra talked about the issues she has had with translating her novels into different languages, and emphasised that when works are translated the full picture cannot be captured in exactly the same way.

Graham discussed that when reading the poem he produced from the Kurdish women’s stories it is clear that the poem originated in a language other than English due to cultural signifiers in the text. He described how it was a painstaking and problematic task to get the poem to work in English, but that the process itself forged a transcultural connection with the people they were working with and took them deeper into the narratives. A translation has its own vitality and life with echoes of the original, and the accuracy of the translation of specific words doesn’t worry Graham as much as the veracity of the emotions conveyed by the women.

  • Do you have any reflections on how to get stories out of people from a journalism perspective, without ‘putting your box’ on other people’s stories?

Graham advised starting on a tangent, using an example of interviewing farmers about the foot-and-mouth outbreak; a very sensitive and distressing issue which could be difficult to talk about. Instead of directly asking them about foot-and-mouth, Graham asked the farmers how they came into the land, and in the course of that narrative every farmer ended up bringing up foot-and-mouth. By asking a broad question you learn a lot about people’s culture and values and what really matters to them.


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