For as long as I can remember I have believed in the power of stories – to connect us, to challenge us, to open up experiences of other worlds and other lives. As humans, we are storytelling creatures. We can’t listen to another person’s story and not get involved. And to hear another person’s story, on some level, is to understand them. I became a writer because I wanted to be part of this magic. I have always believed that writers, and readers, can be a force for good in the world.
But gradually, as I grew older, I began to understand that stories are not so simple. Sometimes, stories can be stereotypes. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken powerfully of ‘the danger of a single story’. What happens when some stories get heard, and others get forgotten? I was reminded of this question when a debate began last week, in my native UK, about harmful stereotypes in charity videos. Too often, the story we get of other people’s lives, even in reputable published books and media accounts, is just that – a single story – a picture that divides us rather than bringing us closer together. It was for this reason that, two years ago, I decided to begin working in my spare time as writing advisor to a not-for-profit project called VOICE.
The aim of Project VOICE is simple: to collect the stories of those who work in humanitarian, social, health, peace-building and development fields, in their own countries or regions. Although the idea is straightforward, I am willing to guess that you have never read any such stories before. As a reader, I certainly hadn’t. Too often, the only accounts we can access in the West about certain countries, or about international development, come from foreign aid workers, while the stories of those working for change every day in their own communities continue to go unheard. The first writer whose work I read, Sheila, had firm ideas about the dangers of a single story. ‘We are famously known in the western world for poverty, disease, corruption and war,’ she wrote, in her moving account of working with disabled children in her native country, Kenya. ‘The truth is, we are more than that and there is our side of the story that is often not told.’ As soon as I read her work, I knew I had to get involved in the project. In my day job I’m a full-time novelist, not a development worker, but luckily the project needed a writing advisor, and I promptly signed up.
At the beginning we were a team of two or three, with just two writers. One at a time, we began to gather more stories like Sheila’s. Writers came to us from all over the world: from Bolivia to China, Cameroon to India. Over the following two years, we grew into a team of ten people speaking six different languages, with fifteen writers spread across four continents. This meant, of course, that we faced challenges. One Cameroonian writer’s internet was cut off for months by the government internet ban in English-speaking areas. One South Sudanese writer took up a new job in a refugee camp mid-story, and for a while we weren’t able to reach her and were worried for her safety. We had to overcome language barriers, intercontinental Skype problems, time differences, and – sometimes – just lack of time. All of us, the team and writers, are volunteers with other day jobs. But for us, the project was never about making money by publishing these stories, but about making sure the stories, somehow, got told.
As I worked with the writers, I got to know them as individuals. I read about crossing the Mediterranean by boat as a refugee to train as a doctor in Germany; about working in an all-male prison in Bolivia as a female medic; about travelling to five separate natural disasters in Asia in as many years to work in emergency response; about watching businesswomen in South Sudan and their families begin to thrive, through farming projects and microloans. As I read the writers’ stories, I grew to know and respect them as individuals. In the end, my role was a very secondary one, because the writers – some of whom had never been asked to write about their experiences before – had so much to say. Eventually, we decided their work needed to be heard by a wider audience, and that it should be published as a book.
In February 2017, we began discussing ideas for publishing. How could we make sure the writers found readers who were interested? How could we support their wish to give their profits to charity, and make sure that they could write exactly what they wanted? At last, we decided to approach the crowdfunding publisher Unbound. Crowdfunding, to me, was a new way of publishing. The way it works is simple: the publisher takes pre-orders from readers for a proposed book. If enough readers are interested, the book gets made. If not, the book doesn’t happen. It’s challenging, but it suits books like ours because the writers get to keep complete control of their writing. And Unbound had recently published diverse essay collections like ours with great success – clearly there were readers out there who wanted to read new kinds of story. All summer we were going back and forth with the writers making tiny edits to the manuscript, adding graphics, trying to stop pictures floating off the page in Word, and preparing the book to perfection. At last, in July, it was sent off, and around the world we and our writers sat down to wait.
So when we heard our project had been accepted for crowdfunding, in September, it was an international celebration. Now all we have to do, as a team, is make sure that readers hear about the book and pledge to support it. As a fitting epilogue to the story, our writers have decided to donate all their profits to PEN International. Their hope, if the book gets funded, is that it will not only challenge the danger of a single story, but also help other diverse voices like theirs to finally be heard.
(c) Catherine Banner
About A Definition of Snow:
Fifteen voices of social, humanitarian, development and peace workers working in their native country or region.
Project VOICE has been working tirelessly to collect the stories of individuals from all over the world working or volunteering in social, humanitarian, development or peace-related fields in their home country or region. Our writers come from all corners of the earth and many different fields – from doctors in Bolivia to humanitarian and peace workers in South Sudan and Kenya, from an education worker in India to a Ghanaian UN peacekeeper in Liberia, from an International Red Cross Medical Delegate in Asia to an Eritrean refugee in Germany, our writers have very different stories to tell, very different experiences to share, and very difficult challenges to tackle. A Definition of Snow brings their voices together. Their stories are all different, but they are all thought-provoking, honest, touching, inspiring and encouraging. They challenge the reader to pause and think, and to question their own and others´ perceptions in a uniquely powerful way.
These stories are highly important – and they should be told by those who experienced them and continue to experience them on a daily basis. With foreign aid workers´ stories usually being the only narrative available, the voices of individuals from the country or region are mostly unheard. A Definition of Snow gives a previously unavailable alternative or supplement to the narratives of the media or general publications.
Our contributors are not professional writers –- many of them have never written a story before. They are people who dedicate their lives to working in their field every day, and they tell a story that no-one else could tell. They write about the challenges of being a female medic in rural areas fighting against rape, domestic violence and patients’ inability to afford any treatment. They write about fighting for education, for women´s and children´s rights, for children with disabilities. About overcoming the traumatic experience of fleeing their country and their wish to return and rebuild. About trying to improve the lives of those around them. About overcoming challenges and about their hopes for the future. And they need to be heard.
Read more about the project and read how you can help here.