February 17, 2003

Finding our stories

Anton DiSclafani is a senior majoring in creative writing.

I spent last summer traveling across the southwestern United States and Canada, interviewing Native American authors. I spoke with members of the Anishnaabe, Cherokee, Acoma Pueblo and Dogrib tribes. I asked questions, all kinds, and then I listened.

I wanted to understand what it meant to tie oneself to a particular tribe, to a specific heritage, to a singular way of living. Most of all, I wanted to understand what it meant to belong to a community.

I belong to this community, to the Emory community. When I left my home, almost four years ago, I noticed so much absence. My mother’s coffee, my dog, the way I could see the stars at night, and all the daily routines to which, over a period of 18 years, I had become accustomed.

I left a house I shared with my mother and father and sister and moved to a dorm that I shared with hundreds of strangers. I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar people, a participant in unfamiliar traditions—Songfest, the vaguely scary skeleton, Dooley, convocation. I went to class and felt myself swept away by the rhythm of lectures on themes I hadn’t ever considered—new wave cinema, Third Wave feminism.

I have tried to identify the exact moment that Emory became the place I wanted to return to, instead of leave. I’ve found that I can’t. But perhaps my inability to pinpoint this moment makes an odd sort of sense. Enveloping oneself within a community is a process, not an instant. I’m finding it difficult to articulate all the million subtleties and complexities this process entails.

Honestly, I didn’t pay attention to any of them. I just noticed one day, somewhere in the middle of my first semester, that I felt as if I belonged: You’re running to a Student Programming Council meeting in the Dobbs Center, and you’ve stopped to check your e-mail for the 700th time that day. You’re sitting across from your professor in his office, discussing why your paper about Middlemarch isn’t nearly clear enough. You’re walking across the Quad, and you remember that your freshman seminar was right there, on the basement floor of Bowden Hall. And you know, in these moments, that you have occupied this place long enough to call it home.

But maybe it isn’t simply a question of length, or of time. How exactly do we fold ourselves into a community? Though we might be compelled by instinct to integrate ourselves into a group, how do we choose which one? How do we know the one we have chosen is the right one?

These must seem like rhetorical questions. Of course, we have all incorporated ourselves into Emory—what other choice did we have? Emory’s community was the only community available to us when we first came, whether as freshmen or faculty, staff or graduate students. But then we stayed, and therein lies the choice. Every one of us could have gone elsewhere. But instead we chose to stay.

I know the answer to only one of the questions I posed. How can we ever be sure that the community we have chosen will be the right one? The answer is that we can’t. Committing oneself to a group, to any group, is an enormous risk. We can never know the terms of our acceptance; instead, we hedge our bets and leap in. I image all of us here tonight have cashed in in multiple ways on our original bets.

At this point, you might be wondering how I am going to unite my introduction, regarding Native American authors, to the body of this essay. It is a reasonable question. What could I, a person who until this summer had never met a Native Ameri-can, have to say about Native American literature that could be relevant? Every community—the Emory community, the Atlanta community, the literary community within Emory—locates itself within the framework of a story. We know where we stand by the stories we tell. Our collective identities are both secured and developed within the medium of a story. So, naturally, my answer lies within a story.

I interviewed Gordon Henry, an Anishnaabe author, under the cover of an old sweat lodge, during a reprieve from his preparation for the annual Thirsty Dance. As we spoke, we watched dozens of people construct the frame of this year’s lodge.

In that moment, community became tangible. I observed the solidarity among the Native and non-Native people who convened in order to participate in a ceremony that engenders individual cleansing in the presence of relatives and friends. The same basic precept—that communal interaction begets individual growth and stimulation—motivates me to gather the Emory community every spring for Arts Week. I’m convinced this principle motivates every person in this room. We participate—in the Black Student Alliance, in Residence Life, in iMovie Fest, in Theater Emory, in Emory Read—because we know of no other way to express ourselves as individuals. But let me rephrase that: We know of no better way to express ourselves as individuals than through the harmony that results from a common goal.

A community is a delicate interaction of one voice, then another, and another, until the ensuing chorus becomes more satisfying and fulfilling than the single voice. I found a way to understand this unity through Native American literature. It seems strange, doesn’t it? That a minority literature could compel me to think about my own community. But it isn’t a question of suspending belief; it’s a question of listening. I learned about another culture, a culture I had previously disregarded, by listening to its stories. And I understand more now of Emory’s stories, because I know how to listen to them.

And what do we hear when we listen? Any number of things. Our personal stories, first. How the strangers in my dorm became my closest friends; how spending weekly office hours with my favorite professor has turned into a lifelong friendship; how I, once a tiny bit afraid of Dooley, have become one of his protectors, a Dooley’s Guard.

And then there are other stories, Emory’s stories, that were here when we came and will remain after we have left. Eighty-eight years have passed since DeKalb county granted a charter for the establishment of Emory University. Could the people who signed that charter ever have imagined that, 88 years later, we would gather here, in this room, to celebrate that day? I would like to think that yes, they could have foreseen that people would celebrate this day far beyond their own lives, for years to come.

Whenever I am on the third floor of the Dobbs Center, I take an extra minute or two and stand before the black and white photos that line the wall next to Harland Cinema. There are dancing couples at Dooley’s frolics, boys in a science lab, the Quad. I don’t know any of the people in those pictures. I don’t even know their names. But I feel a certain kinship toward them, because I know they have loved this place as I have. And that’s just it—we belong to the same community. We have heard the same stories. And we have woven ourselves into the same narrative.

This essay was adapted from an address DiSclafani delivered at the Jan. 27, 2003 Charter Day banquet.







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