Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival Gathers Tales From Around the World

In Performing Arts by Jacob Sharbelleave a COMMENT

Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center

Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center

The 43rd annual National Storytelling Festival, Oct. 2-4 in Jonesborough, Tenn., attracts a diverse cast of characters from all different backgrounds, fitting an entire universe of stories into this small East Tennessee town that is known as the Storytelling Capital of the World.

The festival has become an Appalachian tradition, a mainstay of the mountains that gathers tellers of folk tales, poems, personal narratives, and ghosts stories from around the world. Many of them are professional tellers, beloved artists of the genre who believe in the transcendent power of the old-fashioned story.

Kiran Singh Sirah knows just how powerful storytelling can be. Sirah is a folklorist and the president of the International Storytelling Center, which puts on the festival each year. He says the festival expects over 11,000 attendees this year, and those who cannot actually come to the event can still watch it live online by going to the festival’s website.

“Schools are tuning in from all across the nation,” Sirah says. “Young people, families, community groups, hospital patients. The idea is … ‘Let’s have a national dialogue using social media while listening to live, performance-based storytelling at the same time.’ So it’s kind of like combining the old with the new, the ancient with the contemporary, and the traditional with the revival—the resurgence—in the storytelling genre itself.”

By encouraging people to share their stories with one another, Sirah says he has worked for peace in Europe, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Born in the U.K. to refugee parents who had fled the Ugandan dictatorship of Idi Amin, he says his family’s stories have allowed him to understand what the refugees of today’s conflicts go through when they flee their own countries due to oppression or war. When they arrive in a new country seeking asylum, they usually have nothing left—no possessions and very little hope. But they do have one thing, he says, because it’s the one thing that connects all humans to one another: They have their stories.

Storytelling can be a powerful force for peace and reconciliation because it brings diverse people together into a shared space and helps “create a sense of community,” Sirah says. “What storytelling helps us do is envision a world that is possible. It gives us hope. It contains a picture for the future, and it can also connect us to our past, and it helps us to inform where we are in the present.”

The craft of storytelling can empower people by allowing them to present themselves to the world in ways that they choose, he says. Sirah remembers using storytelling “as a young boy, as a person of color growing up in England, to help me shape a sense of my own identity, who I wanted to be, and what story I wanted to tell the world.” Encouraging young people to tell their own stories is a way of inspiring them. “Not to tell them how to tell a story,” he says, “but to inspire them to find their own story, to find their own voice.”

Storytelling is an accessible form of art, which is a big part of its enduring appeal. Unlike other art forms that require props, costumes, and paintbrushes, with storytelling you only need your voice and your experiences, Sirah says. “When we bring these master tellers [to the festival] who are world-renowned and at the top of their art form, at the top of their profession, then it inspires other people. Other people can learn how to craft their own stories too.”

The storytellers and attendees think of the festival as a homecoming. “They are coming back to rekindle those friendships, to make new friends and engage in something they love and are passionate about,” he says. “We’re now having visitors coming from Australia, from South Africa, from England, from France and Germany.”

A slam poet will be telling stories he’s collected from a Syrian refugee camp; and during a live storytelling chat on Friday, the Alaskan winner of the national Poetry Out Loud competition will be performing her work, which will be streamed online. Meanwhile, storytellers are coming from South Africa to work with the International Storytelling Center to set up their own festival back home.

“Last year we had visitors come all the way from Japan, just to come straight to Jonesborough, Tenn., to tell a story at the Swappin’ Grounds,” he says. “I thought that was just amazing. They’re coming from all parts of the world to these Tennessee mountains.”

For more about the National Storytelling Festival, check out their website. You can also read more about some of the individual storytellers in the October issue of Dish Magazine.

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