Dilemmas of Storytelling: Violence and the Narrative Responsibilities it Creates

by Roxanne Krystalli


In the preface to his book Evil Men, in which he discusses the paradoxes of storytelling in situations of mass atrocities, James Dawes writes:

Storytelling is not only the most basic work of human rights advocacy, it is also the most basic work of human empathy. But do the stories we tell make a difference? What kind of difference? When we look at violently invasive and traumatic events, is it really possible to do so with respect and care rather than sensational curiosity?

Dawes’ questions resonated with me, so when I was invited to give a TEDx talk in Guatemala last fall, I chose to discuss the narrative responsibilities that arise when sharing stories of violence. What is it about stories that activate our empathy? How do we tell stories about people’s experiences of violence with compassion and accuracy, without sacrificing one for the other?

There remains a tension at the heart of my TEDx talk: being foreign to many of the environments in which I work, most stories of violence that come into my life are not my own. As such, I am not the best person to narrate them, as any listener should ideally be hearing directly from the people whose experiences of violence define the narrative arc of armed conflict.

Risks abound when storytelling. For example, we can, unwittingly, drown out the voices of the affected through our own narration. Our identity, privilege, and power can overwhelm the narratives that ought to be at the center. Yet these are not automatic reasons to not narrate as outsiders. I believe there is still an important role for storytelling—not as a substitute for direct testimony, but as a complement that allows that direct testimony to be heard when the survivors themselves are absent from a particular forum. Rather, these risks are invitations to think harder and more compassionately about our narrative responsibilities and weigh the benefit of storytelling against the cost of silence.

What, then, does narrative responsibility consist of? First, it involves an honest conversation about our motivations and our interlocutors. Which questions are we asking and why? Whom do the questions serve? Second, it requires carving out room for surprise for the narratives of conflict that do not conform to our expectations. To that end, we need to consider the narrative responsibilities we impose on others. Could it be, as many researchers have found, that we tend to ask women about having experienced sexual violence, but not men, because we associate that type of victimization with women and its perpetration with men? How do we make narrative space for the types of experiences of violence that reshuffle our sense of who is a victim, who is a perpetrator, and how blurry the line between those identities can be?

Third, we need to be conscious of conflict voyeurism. There is a market for “war stories,” a seemingly incessant penchant for heroism and battle scars. If we accept that stories are powerful, then we must also acknowledge that they have the power to do harm. How can we narrate the full texture and spectrum of violence without creating what Chimamanda Adichie calls “a single story” about a place, a people, or a conflict? Relatedly, discrepancies in power and access affect whose stories we donot listen to. Conflicts have dominant narratives, and the narratives at the margin are not coincidentally quieter.

If I were to add a final reflection to the concept of narrative responsibility, it would be inspired by Michael Wessells’ remarks at the recent Unlearning Violence conference by the World Peace Foundation. Wessells posited that, despite our best intentions, all workers in the humanitarian sector cause some type of harm. Rather than denying it, it would be best to admit to it, document it, and learn from it. His reflections apply to narratives too. Storytelling is messy. Reflecting on our narrative responsibilities may help us fulfill them and, in doing so, prevent us from doing harm.

And yet, as Wessells noted, our “do no harm” frameworks and intentions are imperfect. Through narration, we may exaggerate, misrepresent, diminish someone’s agency, hurt, or conform to stereotypes. Being honest about the failures of our storytelling is an integral component of narrating stories of violence more responsibly. This also entails being reflective about when not to narrate. Inquisitive outsiders, indirect witnesses, researchers, and journalists can all serve an important function by leveraging their access to elevate narratives that may have otherwise been unheard. One of the most critical decisions they can make is to step aside and provide room for individuals and communities to make their narrative decisions themselves.

About the Author

Roxanne Krystalli is a researcher and humanitarian practitioner who works at the intersection of gender and armed conflict. She is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School.

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