Storying Sheffield

Valuing stories: The space of unknowing

This guest blog is by Kate Pahl. Kate works at the University of Sheffield in the School of Education where she teaches the MA Working with Communities. She does a lot of projects with the School of English including, most recently, a project based in Rawmarsh called Language as Talisman.

I first met Steve in Cannon Hall in Barnsley and Steve challenged me about the vases on display that I thought were worthless. He said we should value the vases, which were kitsch and colourful. He said I had outdated notions of worth and value based on external monetary value and needed to listen to people’s stories about them. He then made a paddle and paddled it down the river Don.
I became interested in everyday objects and stories and did an exhibition with an artist, Zahir Rafiq, on the importance of objects and stories in British Asian family life which can be seen here. What struck me about that exhibition was that the objects the family members wanted to put in the exhibition were indeed, in the most part, not worth anything in monetary value – a brass peacock picked up at a school fair or a pair of gold sprayed elephants. These elephants were polystyrene and basically worthless but they meant a lot as they came with a story about gold and its enduring value.
Stories are valuable. On Thursday I went to Rawmarsh youth centre, in Rosehill Park to plan a session on collaborative ethnography with my youth worker friend Marcus. We sat in the office, which we thought was probably haunted as a ghost had banged on the ceiling the week before. Marcus asked us to tell a story. At the beginning we knew nothing about the story we were going to tell. We didn’t know if the person was a girl or boy, how old the person was, who the person’s friend was and so on. By the end, the person had a life, a friend, and they breathed life into our world in the youth centre.
Stories give life to spaces. I have been creating a story with a group of girls from Rawmarsh, called Reunion. It is about loss, and the second world war in Sheffield and about the ways in which ghosts from the past come back to haunt you. Two twins playing out in Sheffield run into an abandoned warehouse and get killed in a bombing raid. Their ghosts come back to haunt the warehouse, and they are found, seventy years later, by a young girl, who reunites them with their mother. Like Storying Sheffield’s In the Tracks of Memory film I that saw this afternoon, it is a tale of ghosts and of special experiences – watching the bombs fall on Sheffield from Rotherham in the second world war, losing everything, being lost.
Stories always come new into the world and we always know them afresh. Lalitha Vasudevan writes that,

Stories do not merely begin and end; they are spaces we inhabit, in which we dwell and seek solace, find comfort and peace and sometimes provocation. (2011).

The person telling the story has the knowledge and the understanding of what they are telling and why. They own the story and the knowledge about the story. Lalitha writes that when we listen to a story, which is a work of art, it can change us, and it is in that process of change that we experience unknowing, which for me is the best space to be in.

You can follow Kate on Twitter here: @KatePahl