I live in a lovely, pungent and adventurous district of Ho Chi Minh City. My favorite café ) strews birdseed outside the café on the “sidewalk.” I say “sidewalk” in quotes because the sidewalk is so small, so crowded with motorbikes and food stands, that it’s really more of a slightly-raised shoulder than a sidewalk.

But the sidewalk in front of my café is covered with birdseed, and so it shines a wholesome yellow in the sun, and when the rains roll back the birds fly in, little brown ones happily pecking away. When I walk through them, they rush up right in front of my face. This is probably the favorite part of my day.

Not My Favorite Coffee Shop

Oh, silly me! This isn't my favorite coffee shop, its a sign of the apocalypse.

When I sit here, drinking strong, strong coffee and lotus tea, I think of the only thing that could make this scene more perfect: storytelling. But I have no idea where to go to hear a good story.

Where do you go to hear stories nowadays?

Seriously, where? I’m asking the question in earnest. Back home I know of a bookstore that hosts a folklore night once a week…but I believe it’s more devoted to scholarly pursuits than actual storytelling. When I was a kid, the public library held storytelling hour. I can still remember being about four years old, watching two teenage girls with red and blue streamers acting out a myth about fire and water.

But I honestly don’t know where people go to hear stories nowadays, or if this is even something people “do.”

I know that I can hear “stories” from my friends, though this is actually a dying art. When telling you of an event in their lives, people will often be at a loss as to where to begin, how to tell the story, how to make sense of an event in their lives. At least I find this to be the case. Hearing a real “story” from a friend – even if it’s just a story from their life – is a rare occurrence.

Stories still live in cafés…maybe. There are things like open mic night, and sometimes café patrons will tell stories that are loud and gregarious enough so that they’re meant for others to hear. But the overwhelming majority of cafés are filled with music, snazzy tables, and people minding their own business.

It used to be that cafés were the heart of the storytelling universe. In the Enlightenment, people – and by people I mean white men – would run to cafés to hobknob with men from other social classes that they’d never even met. According to
Juergen Habermas, this was where class boundaries broke down. The menfolk would swap news, stories, and smokes, and create public discourse while they were at it. However, this doesn’t usually happen so much at your local Starbucks, the domain of awkward coffee dates, personal assistants juggling dozens of coffee mugs on take-away trays, and isolated hipsters hooked up to their iPods.

It doesn’t exactly fit with, well, this:

“Literature had to legitimate itself in these coffee houses. […] Thus critical debate ignited by works of art and literature was soon extended to include economic and social disputes. […] The coffee house not merely made access to the relevant circles less formal and easier; it embraced the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shop-keepers.” The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere p. 33

In the same book, Habermas declared that “the coffee houses were considered seedbeds of political unrest.” Gack! Unrest! Literature! Stories! Shop-Keepers!

Not at Starbucks.

I’ve actually always heard the most stories in religious contexts; whenever I went to my college’s Jewish Center back home, or whenever I go to the Beit Chabad here in HCMC now, there are stories being told. Some of them are traditional aggadot or folk-stories, gleaned from the Talmud and elsewhere. Some are more pedestrian fare, stories of people the storytellers know, or their own stories. I think that maybe the narrative art thrives here more because stories are more interwoven into the fabric of daily life; the Torah portions are read aloud every Saturday, study of Biblical texts is common, and people are constantly trying to glean meaning from life, make sense of it in a larger context. And they are trying to do this in the context of their community.

I think that this might be one of the reasons why oral storytelling has been dying out. Sure, there are other factors. Rising literacy, for one thing, and TV, for another; books and TV shows are the more typical sources for stories in our everyday lives. But then again, one of the main reasons that people tell stories to one another is ritualistic. In the context of Orthodox Judaism, stories are used to connect us to something larger. They are used in the weekly d’var Torah (explanation of the week’s Torah portion) to make the portion relevant to daily life. They are the link between experience and theoretical framework for experience, the Torah.

And most importantly, this experience is essentially communal. Everyone in the room has something in common – in this case, the wish (no matter how strong or faint) to become closer to the Torah. Any story told is therefore related to some shared experience, speaking to each individual in some basic way.

It’s difficult to pull this off in modern society. For one thing, community has become…I won’t say weaker, but rather differently conceptualized. Nowadays, communities are focused around internal, often biological identities. I’m a woman and a queer, so this automatically makes me a member of certain sectors of society. People with whom I have something in common. Judaism is like that, too, except that belief doesn’t automatically come with biology. It’s the belief that starts the stories.

This is not to say that I think everyone should go out and get some religion in order to hear stories. This post is more of a quick musing on where public storytelling is gone. I don’t have any of the answers, just some fragmented questions.

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