One of my primary interests, both in writing and in life, is overlooked, untold stories.
I suppose I hadn’t thought much about how I go about finding these stories; looking for them has been my pastime for years, so I’d never articulated a process or strategy. It’s just my default position.
But when David Miller straight-up asked me “what are the things you look for when uncovering the stories that aren’t being told?” in response to a comment I left after reading his article, “14 Ways of Looking at Place,” I decided to sit down and think about how I’d answer this question, and how I might teach other writers to begin expanding their topical and narrative frames.
In order to ground the lessons in a useful way, I’m going to contextualize each strategy by linking it to a specific story I’ve told or am in the process of telling. I’d love to hear whether you find these strategies useful, and whether you have any you’d like to add.
1. Start with a question.
Setting: Barrio Chino (Chinatown), Havana, Cuba.
Context/Strategy: My husband’s son and I are walking around Havana; it’s getting late, and we’re hungry. He guides me down a side street, “un cuchillo,” really, and into Havana’s Barrio Chino. At the time (2007), I’m clueless about the history of Chinese people in Latin America and the Caribbean, so my story starts with the very basic question: Why is there a Chinatown in Havana?
Resulting Story: Ni hao, companera
2. Listen to who’s talking…. then go listen to the people who aren’t talking.
Setting: Mexico City, Mexico.
Context/Strategy: I have just moved to Mexico City. I read the newspaper every day in an effort to learn more about my new home. The op-ed page is full of complaints about campesinos who have come to the city and are protesting on Reforma, one of the city’s largest, most important thoroughfares. These people snarl up traffic, their makeshift tent cities are an eyesore, they should go back to where they came from. But where is their voice? Why is no one talking to them? I head straight out to the protest and start talking with the men who have come from the country. I learn why they’re there and I get another part of the story–the part that has been silenced.
Resulting Story: When All You Have Is Your Body
3. Look who’s having fun, who occupies center stage. Then, look for the people on the sidelines.
Setting: Carnaval, Brazil.
Context/Strategy: As I stand above the crowd, I have an unobstructed view of the Carnaval revelers. The people dancing, the ones drinking beer and wearing the expensive shirts that have given them access to this event, are mostly white and they’re mostly young. They’re smiling, happy, ecstatic, even. On the sidelines, the people are mostly dark skinned. I don’t see any smiles. Their shirts are dirty and they’re working. I want to know what that’s about.
Resulting Story: Carnaval. Darkness.
4. Look at the map.
Setting: Guanica, Puerto Rico.
Context/Strategy: I am showing my mom the route we’re going to drive from Ponce to La Parguera. My finger traces along the map and stops at Guanica; I mention that the US entered Puerto Rico from Guanica’s bay in the Spanish-American War. It’s as I’m explaining this that I happen to notice a note: “Ruins of Hacienda Santa Rita.” And in parentheses: “Fatima Convent.” I’ve seen the Fatima Convent sign every single time I’ve driven this route, but I’ve never stopped. This time, we take a five minute detour and end up talking with Sor Ana about the convent, about the decrepit hacienda, about a pilgrimage from Sabana Grande to Guanica. Could we come back to document the event?
Resulting Story: in progress…
5. Visit the places beyond view. Places no one wants you to see. Places that we’d like to wish away.
Setting: Perote, Mexico.
Context/Strategy: People who have an official voice don’t want us to see certain places. Places like prisons, court rooms, crack dens, any place that reveals flaws or suggests culpability. I’ve visited all of these places, one being the old prison in Perote, Mexico. I walked into cells that felt as if people had just abandoned them: blankets were still on concrete bed frames; magazine pictures of naked and near-naked women were pasted on walls, surrounded by bible phrases, hash marks for the number of days inside, and drawings of monsters and of Jesus. I happened to run into a man who’d grown up in the prison and he talked about his time there– that far from being terrifying, it was actually comforting.
Resulting Story: Growing up in a Penal Colony
6. Go to places so mundane as to be of little or no interest to anyone else. Observe situations so quotidian that other people wouldn’t bother writing about them.
Setting: My mother-in-law’s house; Havana, Cuba; Conversation over a pedicure in South Carolina; A street party in Havana.
Resulting Stories: Various