In this interview, Lyralen Kaye talks about storytelling, bias and empathy. Lyralen Kaye is a LGBTQ actor & writer focused on social justice and equality.
Christophe Bruchansky: You’ve created a project called Your story Matters. Could you tell us what it is about?
Lyralen Kaye: There has been a fairly popular movement in the United States that was made popular by the Moth, which is part of national national public radio. It’s composed of story slams where people tell personal stories about their life and then they’re scored and someone wins. They don’t win anything, they just win.
When the pandemic started, I thought that I could do something that I’d wanted to do for a long time, which was to create a forum where people could hear life stories from people, you know, that are like them and very different from them, in a form where there is no scoring. The purpose of it is just to increase connection and understanding.
What do you mean by different from them?
Any differences. So typically there’s, you know, there’s gender, there’s race, there’s identity, there’s ability. And there’s class and financial differences in terms of background. But the differences are even within. If someone is for example white privileged, even within just that group, there is a great amount of diversity in terms of the experiences people have had. Some people grew up poor and they talk about that and some people grew up wealthy and they talk about that, but they get to hear the specifics of life.
Let’s talk a bit more about storytelling. How does it promote pluralism?
By going deeply into a single story on a topic, which usually is about a moment in a person’s life. You come to understand how different everyone is and that it is possible nevertheless, to empathize with someone who is completely different than you.
Did you have any idea of the sort of differences you wanted to explore with this project? Has it been different from what you were expecting?
Yes. I specifically reached out to as many different types of people originally. I was reaching out to minorities because my experience has been that unless you specifically reach out minorities, they don’t come. What I think is disappointing is that we started out with a lot of people of color and then they fell off and now there are one or two people of color, and specifically considering what’s happening in the United States right now, none of the African American members of the group are coming. The Latin people are coming, the Asian people are coming. But not very many. That means more work on my part if I want to include more diversity in terms of race.
What I didn’t anticipate is that there would be European people who would show up and, and that they came, even though the original group was at one in the morning, their time. And seeing this, I opened up a second session so that people in other parts of the world could come. So instead of it being just the United States and Canada, it became the United States, Canada, and then Europe. A lot of people I don’t know have joined the group, it has this mushroom thing effect.
What do you believe is preventing people from telling their own stories on a day to day basis?
The words that occur to me are shame and also fear. I think people anticipate rejection and judgment. And so you, you need to, in general, in human relationships come to a level of trust. First of all, trust that the person is a good person. And second, you have to trust that they’re going to be interested in your story. And those are hurdles to cross that take a long time. So I think people tell their stories to the people they’re closest to, but you know, on a day to day basis, they may not see those people.
My partner has heard all my stories, you know, we’ve been together for 33 years. Then there are the usual things of, we don’t think of it, you know, it’s get up, go to work, do your routine, have some fun, go to bed. The storytelling sessions are really unique in that you’re given a topic to think about, seeing areas of your life that you might not have thought of for a while. I’ve told like 25 stories in the past three months and some of them are things I never think to talk about. And I noticed that’s true for other people as well. So there’s things that you just don’t think of telling people that have happened at some point in your life and the storytelling session will help you to do that.
Do you have any tips on how to encourage people to open up their minds and their creativity?
I’ve been a teacher in the arts for like my entire life. And so I learned that if you state upfront what people can expect that helps them to feel safe. What we say is right at the beginning, all stories are welcome. All stories matter. Some stories are harder to hear. We’re committed to hearing you, no matter what you say, you will not be criticized. You will not be asked to do it better. You know, so it’s this wide open field. And then they also get the opportunity to say, Mmm, I don’t want any feedback at all. I don’t even want positive feedback. So it puts so much agency in the storytellers that they don’t even have to hear feedback if they don’t want to. They have to come to trust me that I will hold those boundaries. So if someone says something critical, it’s my job, as the facilitator, to say we don’t do that here. This isn’t a workshop. This isn’t a place where you’re learning how to tell a better story.
Do you believe that in some cases, some people might be in a situation where they cannot express any of their stories?
Any group kind of finds its own level. And part of finding its own level is what the members of the group can tolerate. So, you know, I read this thing at every group, all stories matter. We’re committed to hearing your story, whether it’s funny, silly, strong, but there are people who just cannot go there. I’m thinking of one person in particular that just will always start to tell the story and almost always end up in the most mundane details. And that seems to be an inner thing. There are people who seem to carry an environment inside of them that says: I don’t want to be seen, don’t look at me, don’t listen to me.
What do you believe has led them to this situation?
They must believe that no matter what they do, they’re not going to be heard. So why even try. Why ask yourself to be vulnerable if you’ve given up already that anyone will ever hear you. The second thing is experiencing some kind of hurt when you express yourself: being shamed, you know being threatened. It all has to do with the consequences for speaking truth and, and speaking truth to power. Like the first power is your parents, or if you don’t have parents, your caretaker, right. If you’re in foster care, if you’re in a group home. Even from the time you’re a baby, if people don’t respond to you, you might give up that they ever will.
What are other public forums that give a voice to people?
There are all kinds of places that try to do this. They vary in their intent, meaning like I’m a member of the Unitarian church. And the Unitarian church I belong to is very secular. It’s not based in religion, but that church has a commitment to hearing underrepresented voices. So they bring in people that are members of minority communities to speak. There are political organizations that do that. There are arts organizations that do that. There are places that hold panels, you know, where representatives speak for a community. I think when you let every individual tell a story and you don’t have to be a representative and you don’t have to be important or seen as important, then it’s community groups, meetup groups. There’s a lot of meetup groups right now that are talking about everything from politics to personal healing. Those places are eliciting stories.
How do you avoid social bias when selecting a storytelling topic?
I think there’s no way to avoid that. That’s within the group, they’re going to pick topics that come from their bias and that lead toward a bias. If you’re a person who really doesn’t want to go there, a topic like secrets is going to be very scary for you. Because secrets automatically ask that you delve deep into something that you haven’t necessarily said.
I was competing in Massachusetts in what is called a mass Moth and the topic was travel. A woman got up, a black woman got up and she said my people mostly don’t have money to travel. And so she told a story that was a challenge to the topic itself. Now immediately, you’re starting with a generalization. I have a friend who’s black who resents the hell out of people assuming that she grew up without privilege and education, because she did. So no matter what, you’re going to come up against assumptions and bias, but I do really love when someone takes the topic and challenges the bias that’s underneath.
Have you also seen people challenging topics in Your Story Matters?
I do see people challenging the topics. It’s interesting because we have a Facebook page and people will say “I can’t think of anything on this topic”. And I will answer them and say, morph the topic into whatever you want. It’s more important that we hear your story. The Boston story slam has a lot more diversity, specifically, a lot more people of color who are telling stories, just like poetry slams, which I think were the precursor to story slams. The whole purpose in a way is to undermine the mainstream and to undermine the narrative that feels like oppression. So the more minority people you have, the more they’re going to consciously undermine the mainstream narrative. And one way to do that is by saying: okay, I’m going to make this topic mean something no one thought it could mean.
Your Story Matters is a gentle and open enough space because it’s not about a competition. It’s not about winning. People find their way to challenge what they need to challenge, without calling attention to itself, people just do it.
What are the next things you have in mind for Your Story Matters?
I really am hoping to do a recording of some of the stories and put it out there to let people know that we exist and that everyone is welcome. I think there’s a big attraction in hearing the stories of other normal people with, you know, with whatever their lives are, not professional actors, not in the arts, just people telling stories. Once you hear a story told with real vulnerability and authenticity, you want to do it yourself. You want that opportunity to be seen and heard. And you also want the opportunity to see and hear.
The other thing I have been asking myself whether there should be an LGBTQ storytelling session, whether there should be a storytelling session for people of color, because I do think that there are LGBTQ people who will like to go. I think that there was something about the storytelling sessions or something about the time period that we’re living in, that the African American storytellers dropped out. And so I always want to investigate how to take Your Story Matters to these communities, because I think especially minority communities need this kind of environment. And if a mixed environment is too much, maybe the right thing is to do one that’s exclusive. Of course I can’t lead it if I don’t belong to the community, but I can start it and get someone to lead it.
Thank you very much for answering these questions.
You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.