The Case for Storytelling and Anger

The Case for Storytelling and Anger

By Matan Arad-Neeman '21

During the summer of 2018, I frequently found myself crying on the subway on the way to work as I listened to reporting about family separation happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. Hearing the voices of migrant parents and children left me heartbroken. It brought to mind stories of my own ancestors who were separated from their families by pogroms, persecution, and the Holocaust. I felt sad and hopeless, unsure what I could do as an individual in the face of our government mobilizing to cause mass harm to migrants. Nearly three years later, I began working closely with transcripts of interviews of migrants who had returned from the U.S. to Mexico, as a result of a variety of reasons, including deportation or taking care of sick relatives in Mexico. I found myself once again moved as I listened to the tapes of interviews. Alongside the same heartbreak I felt back in 2018, I felt a new emotion: anger. Anger at the cruelty of our immigration system, anger at the politicians who dragged their feet on meaningful reform, anger at the simplistic narratives on the news. Something else was different, too. These stories were complex, they were the narratives of people living their lives, doing good, and making mistakes. It wasn’t the simple bite-sized soundbytes I heard on the news.

In 2018, I had just begun organizing (primarily on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) and still had our aversion to anger ingrained in me. I had been taught that anger was an emotion that did not lead anywhere. So, when I learned of things that upset me, whether it was Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank or the U.S.’s separation of migrant children from their parents, I instinctively turned to sadness. Most of the reporting I consumed at the time fueled this, feeding me individual stories of heartbreak rather than engaging with the structural issues that caused them. In the reporting at the time, most of those interviewed were treated like two-dimensional characters whose entire lives were contained in their decision to migrate and their interactions with the U.S. immigration system. I knew something was wrong with how I, and many others around the country, were reacting to what was happening at the border.

In the intervening years, as I delved deeper into community organizing, my framework for understanding the relationship between stories, emotions, and anger fundamentally shifted. I’ll never forget the t-chart I saw at a community organizing training later that year that delineated action-inhibiting and action-motivating emotions.[1] On the left there were emotions like “apathy” and “inertia” and on the right there were emotions like “anger” and “hope”. The trainers told stories of how they were immobilized by sadness, but once they found themselves able to channel anger and hope through public narratives, they were able to organize their peers to demand change. What I learned in a relatively casual student organizing training has been complicated in academia. Francesca Polletta writes that stories can both serve as a call to action but can also disempower those who are already marginalized.[2] Furthermore, she suggests that narratives are best suited to more complicated situations than straightforward ones. Stories like the ones I heard on the news were represented as quite simple–migrant families were being separated and they had migrated either for financial reasons or because of violence in their home countries. It was a tragic story, if quite simplified.

When I began working with the Migration Encounters transcripts, I found far more complex stories than the ones presented to me on the news in 2018. These weren’t the cut-and-dry stories that were easy to tell in the thirty seconds allotted by news producers. I remember spending a few hours with the transcript of a man who had come to the U.S. as a young kid, had learned to love horticulture because of a caring high school teacher. He had then gone on to find a good job and would tutor students in Algebra in his free time. After getting into a fight, he was arrested and struck a plea deal with the prosecutor. Because of a mismatch between federal and state laws, ICE detained and deported him, leaving him separated from his siblings and nieces and nephews in the U.S. His full story, which takes up a sixteen-page transcript would not fit into a radio or TV segment or a couple of inches in a newspaper. He doesn’t fit the mold of a “perfect” citizen who never does any wrong, but neither does he fit into the “crimmigrant” narrative peddled by many conservatives. The real complexity of people’s lives doesn’t fit the simplistic superlative narratives that we’re comfortable with. That’s why sitting with his story made me even angrier. I was angry in general about the cruelty of separation inherent to our immigration system. But I was perhaps even angrier about the fact that he would be dismissed by many as deserving of that cruelty because he had simply existed as a person who makes mistakes, just like the rest of us.

Our class had the opportunity to speak over Zoom with a number of returned migrant storytellers. Right before she left, one storyteller asked us to not read her story of her separation from a parent and ultimate return to Mexico with pity. Our pity and sadness doesn’t do anything to undo the harm caused by the U.S. immigration system on her and her family. She asked us to be angry with her and to do what we can to change it. That has stayed with me since then. As I have continued to work through transcripts, I find myself absorbing the complexity of each individual’s story, and letting it fuel my anger at both the obvious violent structures of our immigration system but also at the stories that flatten the experiences and lives of migrants. I invite anyone who reads this, and especially those who have not experienced migration themselves, to engage with the stories on the Migration Encounters website in all their complexity and ambiguity. Take note of what emotions you feel as you read and listen. If it’s sadness, I urge you to dig deeper for action-motivating emotions. Take those stories and emotions forward to fight for change, whatever that looks like in your context.

[1] This chart was inspired by materials developed by community organizer Marshall Ganz. For a version of those materials adapted by Serena Zhang & Voop de Vulpillieres, see:

[2] Polletta, Francesca. It Was Like a Fever : Storytelling in Protest and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Accessed May 1, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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