Counter Narrative History Essay

Having written recently about the “danger of narrative”—how stories can distract us from thinking critically to make harmfully distorted representations seem natural and true—I thought it insufficient, if not irresponsible, not to make room for that other equally important possibility: narrative’s positive power.

In her well-known TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues for the importance of a multiplicity of stories, voices, and perspectives in order to do justice to the fullest range of experience and explode reductive stereotypes of people and places. “Stories matter,” she says. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

As individual writers contributing our own stories to this multiplicity we might ask ourselves which stories, of the ones we can tell, need to be told. But no matter which stories we end up telling, we must attend to the ways craft itself can create opportunities for constructive and responsible representation. Many misrepresentations, for example, speak to lazy characterization. Characters, after all, are people as far as we’re concerned, and so we must work to ensure our characters, our people, have the richness and complexity readers require in order to care about, inhabit, and empathize with them. I’ve always found inspiration in the way Tobias Wolff puts it in his Paris Review interview:

And the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being. Self-absorbed as we are, self-imprisoned even, we don’t feel that often enough. Most of the spiritualities we’ve evolved are designed to deliver us from that lockup, and art is another way out. Good stories slip past our defenses—we all want to know what happens next—and then slow time down, and compel our interest and belief in other lives than our own, so that we feel ourselves in another presence. It’s a kind of awakening, a deliverance, it cracks our shell and opens us up to the truth and singularity of others—to their very being. Writers who can make others, even our enemies, real to us have achieved a profound political end, whether or not they would call it that.

Note how Wolff suggests that what can make narrative dangerous—its ability to “slip past our defenses”—is the very same thing that can make it positively powerful. Instead of blunting our critical faculties, stories can disarm us of our misconceptions, biases, and fears.


What about writers and stories who keep us both thinking critically and, at the same time or by turns, drawn in empathetically? Consider John Keene’s recent and deeply rewarding collection out from New Directions, Counternarratives.

The book’s title already asserts the power of some stories to push back, challenge, or yes, counter the harm done by other stories. Keene’s “Counternarratives” (and “Encounternarratives,” accounting for about half of the collection) themselves are often about competing, stratified orders—Portuguese and Dutch imperialists, indigenous inhabitants of the “new world,” slaves abducted from Africa, to draw only a few examples from the beginning of the book, which proceeds chronologically—and are set during times of political and personal upheaval. But rather than simply retell the history of the Americas that has already been handed to us by our school books, in a feat of defamiliarization Keene’s work strives to offer us new perspectives, new versions, new voices. Not only new, but needed: these stories help restore agency, depth, and dignity to figures formerly denied full representation—Jim from Huckleberry Finn (“Rivers”), say, or the acrobat silent and frozen in Edgar Degas’s famous painting (“Acrobatique”)—as well as to the anonymous victims of white systems of oppression and control.

In “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” for example, we follow the sinuous trajectory of the life of Zion, a chronically escaping slave in Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution. To call Zion’s story “An Outtake” is to draw attention to the “counter” stance of this narrative against the received narrative of our history (the title also references a Pulitzer prize-winning history book)—it’s the aspect of the story edited out, suppressed, silenced. But returning agency to Zion by telling his story isn’t quite enough for Keene; the story he tells also serves to disrupt the comforting and simplifying assumptions we might be tempted to make about a character like this. To represent any character, even one who has been historically mis- or underrepresented, as perfect or infallible is to deny that character full complex humanity. So in “An Outtake,” Keene allows Zion’s relationship to our sympathies to be just as slippery as his relationship to his owners—just as they literally cannot hold him in place, we cannot force him to be simply either good or bad. In one paragraph we admire his cunning and determination:

… Zion charmed a Dutch whore strolling by to untie his bindings, whereupon he set off to find the first loosely hitched horse. As he ran he proclaimed himself free. Under duress one’s actions assume a dream-like clarity. An unattended nag stood outside a tavern, and off Zion strode.

And in the next we recoil at his depravity:

After a spree which stretched from the city of Boston west to the edges of Middlesex County, the slave played his worst hand when he committed lascivious acts just across the county line on the person of a sleeping widow, Mary Shaftesbone, near Shrewsbury. Having broken into her home and reportedly taken violent liberties with her, unaccountably Zion did not flee the town, but entered a nearby tavern and began a round of popular songs, to the delight of the crowd and the horror of the violated woman.

For each different counternarrative, Keene pushes himself to find a form appropriate to his subject. While these formal experiments are part of the joy of the book—“What can he do next?”—they also help highlight the themes basic both to this specific project and, at the end of the day, to all fiction and storytelling.

In “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras,” we start with the image of a recent newspaper staff report on a corpse found in a São Paulo favela. From here Keene travels back to the early fifteenth-century to bring us slowly back to the found corpse, demonstrating how an awareness of the past can deepen our understanding of the present and suggesting the shortcomings of the officially sanctioned narrative (the newspaper text). In “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” the story of a priest sent to reform the wayward House of the Second Order of the Discalced Brothers of the Holy Ghost takes on increasingly charged meaning as we realize who, unexpectedly, is telling the story (that is, writing the letter).

John Keene

Perhaps my favorite of Keene’s counternarratives is “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Like “On Brazil” or “A Letter,” this novella draws our attention to the fact of its written-ness in a way that prompts us to think about who gets to tell what story, who is granted voice.

Formally, “Gloss” is an eighty-page footnote. An “outtake” of sorts, just as we’re acclimating to the dry, dense terrain of the title’s first “History,” in a subversive inversion the footnote interrupts and takes over to tell the story of Carmel, “the lone child among the handful of bondspeople” remaining on a Haitian coffee plantation in 1803. Carmel’s story carries her from Haiti to a convent in Kentucky, where she serves a demanding white teenage girl. At first Carmel is mute—a silenced voice, perhaps, someone marginalized to the point of near invisibility or at least inhumanity: “Up until this point [her owner] had not really noted her presence, considering her no more extensively than one might remember an extra utensil in a large hand-me-down table service.” Instead of communicating verbally, Carmel draws; her drawings, as well as her silence, are subject to unfair projection and interpretation by other people, though she herself, like many writers, doesn’t fully understand what she creates.

As “Gloss” goes on to cover a series of strange and harrowing events at the Kentucky convent, Carmel gradually gains agency; as she gains agency, her voice takes over the narration, first as a series of diary entries in a kind of pidgin shorthand, then as a more straightforward first-person narrative in Standard English. Towards the end of the novella, she even takes on supernatural powers of the kind projected onto her earlier mysterious silence. Like a writer manipulating his characters, Carmel brings what I think we could justify calling her Künstlerroman to a climax by employing her newly developed ability to physically move people through space, compelling them to do what she wants with her mind—all from a place, again authorial, of literal self-willed invisibility. At the end of “Gloss” we see Carmel retelling her story to a group of fellow escaped servants.

In this way Keene’s Counternarratives both demonstrate and enact the power of narrative. They not only use important stories to assert the dignity of misrepresented characters and invite our empathy, but they also ask us to think critically about how stories wield their power.

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Tagged with:book review, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, counternarrative, Fiction, john keene, narrative, short stories, Storytelling, Tobias Wolff

Writing Narrative History


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What is Narrative?

  • The Telling of a Story. Simple. You do it everyday. In fact, this is one of those things on which you can try too hard. Don't make it harder than it is.
  • Narrative is not a chronicle. Sometimes budding historians think of narrative history as a sequenced listing of things that happen. Nope. That is a chronicle. That is different than narrative. Much more boring. Narrative does not list events, it tells their story.
  • Narratives are accounts. Giving accounts of events is standard communicative behavior and narratives are nothing but accounts refined and designed.

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How to write a narrative?

I highly recommend the following steps:

  1. Just sit down and put the story on paper. Let it flow. You give accounts all the time. Don't worry about sophistication or scholarlyness. Just tell the story.
  2. Go back over your notes and knowledge of the events. See what you have left out that you think needs to be part of the story. Rewrite your narrative to include these things. Notice that there is a sequence between 1 and 2. Don't let your need to include the right things and everything muck up your narrative flow in 1. Do it in 2.
  3. Work to achieve artistic quality in your narrative. Now it is time to use the advice below. Rewrite your narrative to the specifications below.

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Locating the Narrator

  • Whose voice will perform the narrative? Normally in a rhetorical study of narrative, the voice will be yours, using the 3rd person to describe the events leading up to and through the communication event. But think of other options as well. For example, perhaps you are writing the narrative as a first person account of the communication event - you are the person delivering the discourse or experiencing the discourse (Kent Ono's account of a letter to his mother). Perhaps you use the 1st person to describe your search for a historical fact (Wilbur Samuel Howell's search for Jefferson's logic in the Declaration of Independence). Perhaps you want to write the account of a member of an audience experiencing a great speech (Gore Vidal's account of Lincoln's First Inaugural).
  • What will you let him/her see? The author is always in control of the narrator. You will determine what the narrator sees. All that happens will not be in the narrator's account. That is because as a scholar you are always seeing from multiple perspectives and performing sophisticated reasoning that places some elements of observation in context and dismissing others as errors. So, you need to think about what you will let the narrator report and how you will let him/her craft the story.

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The Plot

  • Basically the sequence of events and/or choices that make up the action of the narrative. The plot is more than a chronicle or list of the events, however. It asserts connections. It provides structure to the unfolding of the events.
  • A plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Decisions must be made about where to begin telling the story and where to end the telling.
  • The shaping of a plot entails a series of decisions by the author. Among these are:
    • Entailed in the choice of beginning and end is a basic decision on scope and circumference. That is, where will the circle be drawn - in time and in influences - in telling the story. One can confine the telling of the story of a speech to the day of the speech. Or one can begin the story at the decision to deliver such a speech and end the story at the limit of the effect of the speech. Or one can begin telling the story at the point where the speaker acquires her training as a speaker. Or one could begin telling the story somewhere else. The point is that stories begin in different places depending on the connections that one draws. How broadly to draw those connections is a fundamental decision of plot.
    • Plots are shaped by decisions about what will be the driving force of the plot. For example, one might tell the story of a speech by focusing on the speaker, on the speaker's training, on the situation to which the speaker responds, on the demands of the genre of the speech, and so forth. Burke's Pentad may be helpful here. It is one scheme that can frame a decision about the driving force. Will the plot be driven by the character of the speaker (agent-centered)? by the choice of what the speaker wants to accomplish (purpose-centered)? by the circumstances of the speech (scene-centered)? by the selected theory of speaking (agency-centered)? or by the unfolding events in which the speaker finds herself (act-centered)?
    • What to include in the story. Decisions about which choices and events are important to telling the story are important decisions in constructing the plot. They should be driven not by their sheer occurrence, but by their importance to the unfolding storyline.
    • Pace. Time is a manageable dimension of storytelling. Sometimes you cover a lot of time in a sentence or two. Sometimes you slow down time to gaze at a particular moment and take it apart to show influences. Do so consciously. And do so from the point of view of the narrator. In other words, even though you may know a lot about a moment of choice, it may be a moment that went by amazingly quickly for the speaker. So, your point of view may dictate that your writing style produce rapidly passing events clashing into each other and leaving the speaker carried along by the events.
  • There are standard plotlines that may be appropriate to structuring stories. Particularly useful in accounts of communication events are:
    • Quest. This plotline features a search for some object or outcome. (See Howell on the Declaration of Independence).
    • Agonistic Conflict. This plotline places the communication event within the framework of a struggle between two powerful forces in which the outcome is in doubt.
    • Climax. This plotline portrays the building of demands on the speaker or speech, and reaches its pivotal point at the communication event. The key to the writing is giving the sense of building demands followed by the relief of the building tension following the speech.

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Moments of Action

  • Narratives are built around accounts of moments of action. Actions give a plotline its movement; they are moments along the plotline.
  • Accounts of communicative events tend to be constructed of four kinds of moments: a moment of choice by a communicator, the moment of performance of the message, the moment of interaction with the audience, or the moment of effect from the communication. Other kinds of moments become relevant as the plotline incorporates them.
  • Moments of action are the places where the elements of the story gather. Elements of influence flow into the moment of action, and effects flow from it.
  • Write your accounts of moments so that there is unity of action. You my think about this in terms of Burke's pentad. "Any complete statement of motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)" (Kenneth Burke, Grammar of Motives [1945; Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1969], xv). Not only should all elements be present in a well rounded description of a moment, but the qualities of each should be consistent with the action.

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  • A good narrative also takes its quality from the character of the people who inhabit the plotline. Because communication is a human action, the character of the communicator is often a central element of the accounts of communicative events.
  • Identify the people that are central to your plotline. Decide how the character of each will be communicated in your narrative.
  • Character is developed from:
    • Value choices. Develop the forces on all sides of choice which define the moment of choice. Show the communicator responding to those forces with their choice. Describe the reasons for the choices as well as the choices that are made.
    • A pattern of choices. Construct the narrative around the series of choices that mark the action. The character of those involved come from the texture of repeated choice.
    • Set character in relationship to the times. The tensions between the person and his/her times is a major component of character. How does the person fulfill the character of his/her times and how does s/he resist?

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Narrative and Proof

  • Narrative is not merely a writing form, but in history must respond to questions of veracity. You have an obligation to seek out the factual implications of your account and do the historical work to check them against facts.
  • Walter Fisher indicates that the credibility of your narrative will revolve around two dimensions:
    • Coherence. That is, an account must be rich enough and consistent in its form so that it has a solid feeling of reality.
    • Fidelity. That is, an account must ring true with the experience of the reader. Narratives of human behavior achieve their credibility through their plausibility.

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A final checklist of key qualities in good narrative

  • Concentrate on the becoming, not on what it became. That is, what is interesting in narrative is the unfolding of the events. So put your emphasis on development of the events.
  • Provide dynamism. Choices are paths taken, and paths not taken. Communicate the implications of choice. Let the reader see the implications of the choice.
  • Resist clocks and calendars and geography. Do not be bound by the pacing of the clock or the calendar. You will create time and space as you write a narrative. You will control time through pacing and geography through scope and circumference. Manage these in the service of your narrative.
  • Leave your reader with the experience, not just understanding. In reading your narrative, the reader should be able to be there, to experience the time and place.
  • Develop vivid characters. Be sure that you have enough moments of choice to communicate the character of the people communicating in your account.

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Burke's Pentad

The five terms of the pentad are:

  • Act. What happened?
  • Agent. Who was involved. This can, of course, be more complex. There can be co-agents that work together to facilitate the act or counter-agents whose struggle defines the action.
  • Scene. The background in which the action is set. Many things can be a part of your description of the scene. You simply need to figure out what happened in the context that shapes the act.
  • Agency. Roughly how the events are shaped. This is the structural element: how the agents go about doing the action. It enters into accounts of communication events often because various theories of communication may give a communication act its character.
  • Purpose. Why the agent performed the act? Also key in communication acts because the dominant theory of communication pictures messages as purposive.

The pentad is a way of thinking through the shape of your account. Burke urges at least two uses:

  • Locate the central term. An account of an event will feature one of these terms as its key shaping force. For example, an historian may tell how the character of the speaker (agent) is the primary force shaping a speech. Or, he may picture the speaker as constrained in her response by the situation (scene) in which she finds herself (Bitzer's Rhetorical Situation). Or, he may describe a eulogy in which the careful requirements of the form (agency) dictate the character of the speech.
  • Using the ratios track the influences of the terms. The ratios are the relationships between any two terms. Thus, the agent-act ratio stresses how the act takes its character from the character of the agent; The scene-agent ratio locates the formative force of the character of the agent in the character of the scene. In general, you want the qualities of all the various terms to coincide so that you have a consistent portrayal of character of the narrative. But other options are possible. You might want to project the character of the agent by showing how she successfully resists the forces that she encounters in the scene.

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