In both fictional or autobiographical/biographical writing, there are certain topics that are difficult to address. Abuse, violence, severe poverty or childhood traumas… They are certainly challenging, but also quite compelling, which explains their popularity in several genres. For instance, the Swedish film Det nya landet (‘The new land’, 2000) is a fantastic example of how migration-related vulnerabilities can be told in a humorous manner by focusing on relations with the locals.

Image: Det Nya Landet (svtplay.se)

It is a very insightful story of a teenage boy and a middle-aged man going underground after losing hope that their asylum applications will be approved. The plot follows their journey, and even though it is very challenging to grasp all the complex feelings of hostility, anger, disappointment, hope, love, and jealousy, the film manages it flawlessly. The successful storytelling in such a film brings to my mind the value of writing traumatic experiences: journalistic storytelling is at least as complicated and also has its own obstacles when it comes to dealing with scarring experiences of the past.

Too narrow a gate, too real to relate

I have been interviewing people on issues related to migration, identity and marginalisation since 2014. The overwhelming burden of sensitive information and the responsibility of presenting these insights in a relatable manner have been a great challenge. Do you remember reading your first literary texts as a child? Empathy back then mostly worked as identifying with the characters, regardless of their position in the plot. Loving the prince meant dreaming of being one, and worshiping the superhero or the rebel meant seeing yourself as reaching goals through powers like theirs.

Empathy in a more grown-up sense came into our lives through young adult readings and gained power not by putting us in someone else’s shoes but by adapting someone’s entire being. Thanks to classics such as Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or Les Misérables, this new kind of empathy was intriguing and almost addictive for a young reader. However, as someone who read these texts breathlessly, I could still not feel the same commitment that I felt when reading non-fiction books representing similar emotions and vulnerabilities. Despite the literary quality of such texts, somehow knowing that this particular real-life murderer took someone’s life and that they had quite reasonable reasons for doing so was much more difficult to tolerate than reading about Raskolnikov’s reasoning, actions and subsequent anxiety. In other words, it was much more disturbing and unbearable to read about someone’s real-life suffering in a memoir rather than in a novel. Ironically, knowing that there are such evils in our real world, along with the authenticity of the plot, lend such power to the narrative that it is painful to develop empathy for the character or incident: this time, the bare reality of adapting that person’s entire being can be quite painful.

Image: ‘Raskolnikov’, illustration by Mikhail Shemyakin to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1964)

Listening to people’s stories about being bullied or pushed to the edge of society based on ethnicity or class was equally painful – it was even scary to relate to. I remember leaving many interviews with a lump in my throat and a frozen gaze. And the question arose: why do I even have to relate to this? It is a one-page story in a magazine or newspaper, not a novel that people read for pleasure or education. The first answer to that question must be that being drawn into the story is necessary for reaching the best insights. Writers must relate to the traumatic experience they dive into and that is where the second answer to the same question comes in: the oral material must be put into writing so that the story is made relatable for the readers. For them, the story should offer neither the potentially repelling rough facts, nor less authenticity than it actually has. Then how should it be done? After years of struggling with this dilemma, I found my solution on a rooftop in the city Mardin.

Image: The city Mardin (hurriyet.com)

Facing a joke

I was working in Mardin in 2017 as part of the outreach team of an international refugee response NGO. Because of their cultural and linguistic capital, many of my colleagues were Syrians. The outreach team would do the initial assessment and then refer suitable individuals to the case management team. The case workers would conduct comprehensive assessments and create action plans based on each unique case so that some would be sorted within that team and some would be referred elsewhere, to psycho-social support, physical therapy or a child-friendly space, for instance.

Therefore, the whole team of fifty people were involved, due to this structure of the organisation, with the same families’ very difficult
recent past experiences in one way or another. The only easy part for me was that at least I didn’t have to write about them; this would soon change, dramatically and voluntarily.

I belonged to the minority of people who had no recent experience of being a refugee, but I started to note the chats of colleagues’ in the lunch room, in the car or during after-work beers. Contrary to the heart-breaking stories we heard during work hours, this kind of exchange of stories was based on common practices or observations and their sarcastic interpretation. For instance, a colleague who had to sleep in barns and caves during a three day-long walk to Turkey kept referring to those places whenever there was a mess in the common areas at work. She would use a sarcastic tone and make fun of the situation: “I did not walk for three days and sleep in caves with mice to see the same mess at work!”

Similar jokes were an inseparable part of daily life, so I realised that some people refuse to see themselves as victims, no matter how terrible the things they experienced. They decided to adjust their memory and its echo to their present perception, although they had experienced extreme situations as the consequences of war and forced migration. As if to be seen as ‘a victim’ or ‘unusual’ is based on willpower only, and not on actual destiny! Soon, the realisation of such a possibility of self-positioning in migration narratives encouraged me to search for humorous stories. The idea of talking to informants through comic incidents seemed not only to provide me with a solid lead as a research-based writer; this lead could also offer fresh and relatable insights to readers. The harsh situation of a vulnerable and exposed self during forced migration is not easy to place oneself in, and general audiences mostly engage with a migrant storyworld projected in national or international media – a storyworld in which migrants are powerless, victimised and demanding. In this way, refugees and migrants become people who experienced unspeakable things and their stories are not relatable for anyone who does not share that experience.

After moving on with this idea and starting to conduct the first batch of interviews in 2017, I found even more advantages of this approach, in addition to the main point of making migration narrative less epic and more relatable. I realised that humour can lift the heavy mood of the room during an interview by comforting both sides in different ways. It was refreshing for me as an interviewer discussing big traumatic events during migration, because I could acknowledge what happened but focus on some other incidents. This could create the ultimate indirect angle for me, but it could also provide the space and opportunity for both parties to grasp or ignore dramatic experiences. I could note that especially that, by the end of interviews or when the informants read the final pieces, the humour-based migration narrative was also refreshing for informants. After having written several columns with the same focus, I received similar reactions: informants tell the specific comic story with a lot of mostly sad digressions and actually really enjoy sharing that once-upon-a-time challenging experience. They find comfort and joy in telling an overall complicated and sad situation from a funny angle. In addition, when it is all over and the story is published there is another relief, this time in being able to reach out to others, who otherwise would not know about this reality.

New times, old story

For instance, an informant told a story from his childhood, knowing that the town he grew up in was demolished. Remembering the Kobane of the early 1990s made him nostalgic, of course, but it did not stop him from laughing at the childish essence of the anecdote around which I built my story. He grew up in a village near Turkey’s border with Syria and enjoyed being outside with other kids on long summer days. He told me the ache of being a teenage boy and how he and his friends did not know what to do with their sexual impulses as they grew older in that isolated town. Until one of the boys figured out that the soldiers on the border, which was the source of fear for all of their lives, had something that interested them very much: porn. He narrated how the village boys collected money and invested in a monthly magazine, how they tricked the soldier into selling them and how they shared the magazine for years. Tens of childish fights to share the pages, or finding that cooperation didn’t work or some other issue… He said, “We were just kids”, and added how he could see their vacant home, visible even today, from the Turkish side of the border.

As my column developed, I started to include migration stories not only from the Syrian-Turkish sphere, but also from other nationalities and countries. Ciwan (who is a PhD engineer in Berlin) shared the story of how English-speaking Turkish men in his circles lie about their nationality while dating. He told several stories of him or his friends lying about who they are, covering for each other, putting themselves in difficult positions by mistake or on purpose, and laughing about it afterwards.  They lie about where they live with the intention of hiding the name of migrant-populated districts, or they lie about where they come from with the intention of tackling long-experienced racism and discrimination when the truth is exposed.

Image: The column with Birgitte’s story (February 2021, otdergi.com)

The other month, Birgitte (a university teacher in Istanbul) told me the story of how she was being objectified and found herself in similar situations over and over. Even though she was quite established with very close local friends, dating men resulted in a lot of questions about marriage and the migration regulations of Denmark. However, the focus of her story was about something else: how her local friends guided her through social norms and avoiding harassment thanks to a self-made map of safe streets to walk after midnight. Unfortunately, once she did not follow the map, which resulted in an assault. Her local friends were terribly upset when hearing about it the day after – so upset that she had to comfort them through a re-enactment of the incident in the real-life location, which ended with many laughs and loving hugs.

Old ache, new narrative

What these stories have in common is the organic interplay of friendship, foreign lands, identity, external threats, safe spaces and defence mechanisms as demonstrated in humorous narratives. Despite the fact that these types of stories are more difficult to spot, they are truly fulfilling for a journalist to track, comparatively smooth for informants to share, and hopefully more easily relatable for the audience.

A humorous angle on migration narratives may sound harsh. But as I have tried to show here, it offers the opportunity for people who experienced the trauma of being a refugee to tell others their story and still laugh at its absurd aspects – a kind of self-healing laughter. At the same time, looking at sad memories with a new set of eyes can help create a storyworld in which the audience can empathize with the storyteller.

Alev Karaduman

is a research-based writer and cultural consultant from Istanbul who works mostly within the area of diverse communities and identity issues.
She is currently based in Malmö and writes a column (in Turkish - https://otdergi.com) about humourist human situations related to migration.

Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen follows the generous saint from Anatolia, across seas and rooftops, into a narrative rabbit hole.

On 2 November 2021, the rebuilt Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox church at Ground Zero in New York was opened. The old church was completely destroyed during the terrorist attacks on World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

 

Image: Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church under construction in May 2021. Photo: Jim Henderson, CC BY 4.0; Source: Wikipedia

A new choral piece was commissioned to celebrate the occasion of the opening. The world-famous Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, composed a choral work set to a medieval Greek hymn on St Nicholas of Myra. The hymn was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on October 31 and November 1, 2021 by the choir Artefact Ensemble under the direction of the conductor Benedict Sheehan. In this way, the late antique bishop who was eventually transformed into modern-day Santa Claus, has indeed come back to town.

I will not dwell on Santa Claus and the morphology of the bishop of Myra. That story has been told several times elsewhere (see, for instance). Instead, I want to focus on the ‘long eleventh century’– the period in which St Nicholas of Myra rises from one among many saints of Asia Minor to become one of the most popular saints, elevated to the level of the Apostles.

Last year, a reading group organized within the frame of the Retracing Connections research programme studied some Byzantine hymns and Lives of saints during the Covid lockdown. We chose to translate a hymn on St Nicholas attributed to Romanos the Melodist (c. 485-560 CE). The hymn had previously only been translated into Italian, so we decided to polish the translation and publish it. The final version was made by Thomas Arentzen and myself, with the collaboration of Christian Høgel.

The translation was published in Patristica Nordica Annuaria 35, 2020 in February this year. Since today, December 6, is the feast day of St Nicholas (in the Gregorian calendar), I found it suitable to present a few observations we made when translating and commenting the hymn on St Nicholas.

The hymn is a kontakion, a lengthy liturgical song, in no less than 25 stanzas in addition to an opening prelude-stanza. Despite the name of Romanos the Melodist appearing in the manuscripts, even the first, 19th-century editor of Byzantine hymns, J. B. Pitra did not think he was the actual author.
 
Most likely, the hymn was written in the first half of the 10th century. It testifies to the general interest in saints in the period after the Iconoclasm. The 10th century saw the advent of the Synaxarion of Constantinople and the Menologion by Symeon Metaphrastes, both huge undertakings in creating collections of saints’ Lives according to the church calendar.
 

The kontakion was probably the work of a poet connected to the Stoudios monastery. Several monks, most notably Joseph the Hymnographer (ca. 816-886 CE), wrote many hymns dedicated to the saints. Joseph seems to have been responsible for the promotion and elevation of St Nicholas of Myra. According to Joseph’s Life, St Nicholas visited him when he was imprisoned in Crete. The bishop of Myra set him free from prison. Although this episode in the Life probably is a later hagiographer’s invention, it still testifies to Joseph being closely connected with St Nicholas.

This close connection is visible in the manuscript tradition: Joseph was in charge of creating the New Oktoechos, a liturgical book with hymns and prayers used in the period from Pentecost until Lent. In this book, St Nicholas is celebrated each Thursday along with the Apostles. St Nicholas had now become isapostolos: equal to an apostle. The kontakion we translated also reflects this new status of the saint in stanza 17:

You became the apostles’ truthful companion,
most esteemed one,

and dedicated yourself to their way of life,
father Nicholas, wise hierarch.

 

With this emphasis on the saint’s apostle-like position, it seems highly likely that the kontakion on St Nicholas emerged in an environment such as the Stoudius Monastery. However, many hymns were written in the same period to celebrate St Nicholas. No less than three more kontakia were written in his honour as well as several kanones, the other type of lengthy liturgical songs of which the monks at the Stoudios monastery produced a great many. Joseph the Hymnographer is said to have written 466 kanones, of which 385 are considered genuine.

 

We also find short hymns consisting of only one stanza dedicated to St Nicholas. One of these hymns, called a troparion, is sung on December 6 according to the Menaion, a book that Joseph the Hymnographer was also responsible for producing a version of. It contains hymns and prayers for each day of each month. It is this troparion that Arvo Pärt set to music to celebrate the rededication of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in New York. The troparion reads:

 

A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicholas, intercede before Christ the God that our souls may be saved.

It is striking that this troparion as well as many of the hymns (including the kontakion by pseudo-Romanos) on the saint, do not at all tell the story that would later transform the bishop of Myra into Santa Claus. This is the famous story about how Nicholas secretly threw a bag of money through the window of a poor family’s house. They suffered so much that the father had chosen to send his three daughters into prostitution. This story became the basis of the gift-giving Santa Claus, a story that fits well with gift-giving consumerist Christmas.

Rather it is Nicholas, or Nikolaos (which is ‘People’s Victory’ in Greek), put forward as a humble and pious shepherd of his flock in Myra, always ready and willing to help people in danger, as one who fights against heretics, and one who supersedes many of the heroes from the Old Testament (Joseph, Moses, Elijah etc). Had it not been for the Stoudios monks’ prolific hymn writing, St Nicholas of Myra might never had risen to the fame he acquired in the long eleventh century. And had the hymnographers not emphasized his role as shepherd of his flock, always willing to help and intercede, the saint’s fate might have been like in the West, where he slowly turned into the white-bearded jolly Santa Claus in red clothes.

Image: The Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Photo: Eric Marinitsch Source: Arvo Pärt Centre (2011)

 

In the Byzantine storyworld that lives on in the Orthodox cultures of Eastern Europe, St Nicholas of Myra remains an important helper and intercessor for the faithful, someone who watches his flock and delivers them from perils. In the West, he gained fame when sailors from Italy ‘translated’ – rescued or stole – his relics from Myra to Bari in 1087. Since then he has been transformed several times, especially in the last two centuries.

As Santa Claus, he now inhabits several Western storyworlds and is accommodated to suit each culture, where his home is located in as diverse places as the North Pole, Greenland, Norway, Finland and Spain, to name but a few. In the East, he never left Myra, yet can appear anywhere when his flock needs help. This includes also New York on October 31 2021, where he was invoked by the voices of the Artefact Ensemble, singing the melodies of Arvo Pärt.

The question of how that which is left untold determines the characteristics and essence of journalistic storytelling is very important and continually changing for any journalist inspired by real life informants and situations. However, it takes time to reach this comprehensive question, it takes constant self-questioning: what am I supposed to tell and how much am I supposed to tell?

A recent example of this questioning occurred last week during a trip to Istanbul, because if you are an enthusiast of social relations and interactions who writes monthly columns based on them, it is impossible not to recognise the underground life in the pubs of Beyoglu as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions. By law, the last call for bars is 20:30 and closing time is 21:00, but the reality is very different … First, the bar owners with whom we have friendly relations offer their upper floors and keep serving until midnight with a closed rolling shutter. When police bust their place, they give us a narrow map of other ‘open’ places. We walk the deserted streets after curfew, reaching the appointed address, and someone lets us in. We enter, leaning down beneath the rolled-up shutter, a party with a DJ, tens of dancing and talking people: old/young, tourist/local, straight/queer, drunk/sober… I am now in a real-life storyworld which is a potential home to tens of different angles on tens of different stories. Until the journalistic instinct kicks in: What am I supposed to tell? How much of it can be told by staying loyal to the value of the story? Is it worth endangering this fragile economy and solidarity for a story, or tens of them?

Image: Closed rolling shutters of Istanbul

While struggling with these questions, I remember an anecdote from the legendary comedy show Seinfeld. I now shout over the loud music into my friend’s ear: “Do you remember the episode when Elaine starts to eat only the tops of muffins? The story goes to such weird places; an “only muffin-top store” opens, they toss the stumps and give them to the homeless, but the homeless get too offended and ask where the tops are?! So long as journalists keep their good intention of protecting the communities they are involved with, this community has to remain as a stump for its own sake, and journalists will continue talking only about how the economy is affected. On the other hand, stumps are much more tasty and interesting to approach in this kind of sensitive political environment, but what do you do with them?”

A journey through research based narration

It is indeed an important question for journalists, especially in research based narration, which I have practiced for several years – ever since I made the choice to taste the stumps. If a reporter goes to the scene of an earthquake, the picture speaks for itself… If that reporter talks to football hooligans, they speak of their own anger. On the other hand, a journalist needs more to put what they see or hear into words, and this is especially true if what they see and hear is not acceptable to mainstream media providers and their audience, who are often motivated by nationalist, sexist and conservative values. Therefore, research based narration has been the key method for me to develop storyworlds from the real-life incidents which happen during my personal and professional everyday life. Because to reach to the top of the muffin, the stump has to grow first. Hence, the story that the audience read becomes only the tip of the journalist’s journey. Only the part they are confident enough not to hide, confident enough to publish to serve the purpose of the involved task.
This project based working is surely a bonding concept for the journalist; you reach out to the scene or informant to receive an insight which is already decided in the agenda. On the other hand, the journey to get that confirmation is much more complex and inspiring, which has to be left out based on the task based agenda. This little inevitable fact causes the journey of the journalist to become more worthy and insightful rather than the final piece. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the journey of the journalist has been used as a popular culture phenomenon while developing adventures for children and adults. This is why we have famous journalists in whose lives we feel involved, to get the whole story.

Image: Adventures of Tintin

Remember the adventures of Tintin, Clark Kent (Superman), Peter Parker (Spiderman), and think about how dry their adventures looked when cases were resolved in a newspaper article at the end. The creators of these storyworlds were aware of the attraction of the ‘untold’ and used them as such effective storytelling tools to charm billions of viewers over years. Indeed it is a very well formulated success standard in the framework of show business; the reality, however, is much different if you consider the journalist as the main subject to decide what can and cannot be told. In contrast to these iconic characters, a regular journalist does not have a camera and storyline writer to accompany their journey, to capture its essence. A regular journalist’s camera and filter is no one but themselves. In their world the ‘untold’ means any other person and incident which led to that particular story, furthermore any other event which has happened to reach to the final script.

Building storyworlds by relying on impressions rather than quotations

Therefore, I would like to present three samples from struggling with being both the camera and the filter of my own adventures. A couple of months ago, I was interviewing Turkish feminist cartoonists for a Swedish periodical and I learned that one of my interviewees experienced sexual violence for years at an early age. How did I get this information? Just as an answer to my very first interview question: “How did your drawing journey start?”
Secondly, a few months back, I was interviewing a friend for my column and chasing insights of the decision making processes of refugees when migrating to Europe from Turkey. While I was overwhelmed with my technical questions he started to give an example of his visitors from last weekend. A young couple had visited him in Istanbul to seal the deal with a smuggler. The woman is actually a Turkish citizen but she chooses to go as a refugee by pretending to be a Syrian like her husband, and also receive the rights of one. Also, they are thinking of a three-destination escape…I ended up listening to them for 40 minutes without any of my technical questions being answered.
Finally, a few years back, I was contributing to a “Mother’s Day compilation” for a magazine and we were interviewing “The other mothers, or the mothers of others” about their marginalized children and the challenges that comes with it. My task was to interview the mother of a guerrilla. We talked over the phone for an hour for one paragraph of written content. She cried half of that time, complained that she did not know if her son was alive or not, and prayed for me to listen to her. At the end I had transcribed so little material, I asked her permission to compile sentences randomly so that it could be publishable.
In all three stories I did not involve the details above completely in my final scripts for two reasons: Protecting informants and commitment to the task oriented nature of journalism. However, would the piece still be relevant without these anecdotes? If so, how? I think of two effective ways of still telling the story while operating as a regular story collector: editing and rewriting.

Editing: hiding for good, Rewriting: fictionazing with the crooked truth

Since I was there to collect one specific story, it is impossible to hijack the main task and talk about the other one. Hence, here is the concept of hiding for good which is in direct relation with the editing process. For instance, I chose not to mention the abuse in the cartoonist’s  background too much, but I did try to highlight her work, which is centred around sexual abuse and wounded personalities. I focused on her insights about post trauma and its contribution to artistic creativity. Basically, I tried to get the message out without letting anyone be exposed. I use my own fragility filter unless told otherwise by the informant.
I used a similar operation for the third story as well, keeping the mother’s name anonymous (fake name) but the places and incidents real. It was, however, extremely difficult to tone down the drama from the interview and reflect it as sharp truth. Considering Turkey’s sensitive political climate around the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, I needed to simplify the message of the guerrilla’s mother to remain relevant and impartial, which led me to leave out a lot of very powerful emotional statements and focus on the naked experience of a mother.
In the case of the second story (smuggling story) I even chose to hide it all because the story could be told much more powerfully with a resourceful re-writing. Hence, when editing is not possible anymore, it is time for rewriting. Since there was so much to hide in the essence and the incidents involved in the smuggling story, it was better to stick with the full version so as not to lose the core, but instead tell it by twisting any real indication. Re-writing is a way that I choose when I want to create a story of what has been told to me but I cannot due to the complex interplays of protection (informants’ and mine), power relations, political strategies, etc. However, re-writing is quite vague, since the bind of sticking to reality is lifted. It comes with great responsibility, considering the owners of stories and their reactions when they read the piece.

Power of observation and responsibility of co-creation

Observation becomes a vital tool to capture the essence of the stories, in impressions as well as situations especially when a journalist is willing to tell the “untold” in journalistic story seeking.

Image: Elaine and the Muffin Stumps

Eventually the capability of observation gives the strength to capture the moment, and creates the paradox of telling without telling. While editing by ‘hiding for good’ provides the necessary space and model for journalists to exert their choices, re-writing comes forward as a more challenging yet rich area for creating storyworlds from material collected through research. When the journalist chooses to re-write the material to assign the value that ‘untold’ deserves, it is no longer reporting. Journalists take the liberty to narrate the research based material to make the most insightful point out of it. Hence the responsibility of co-creation begins. Because even though journalists take the liberty of narrating the material anonymously, there is still a level of responsibility to the story owners in order to not exploit it by using it against informants’ initial purpose of sharing.

Considering this strange dance between the told and untold, if a journalist goes through all these steps and chooses to develop storyworlds anyhow, it proves the level of dedication to the cause. It is also good to know that what makes the muffin tops that crunchy and tasty is what it is built on. Any journalist who does not want to miss it and works around research based narration has their own methodology and ethical dilemmas about working through the stump. That alone could be a good reason to take a closer look into research based narrations: to catch the real story behind the true event, to reach the real understanding beyond what was presented.

(27.06.2021)

Alev Karaduman

is a research-based writer and cultural consultant from Istanbul who works mostly within the area of diverse communities and identity issues.
She is currently based in Malmö and writes a column (in Turkish - https://otdergi.com) about humourist human situations related to migration.

Ingela Nilsson explains what storyworlds are, what they can do, and why we enjoy studying them so much.

“So what’s a storyworld?” says a friend who has seen the title of our new research programme. And this is one of those fairly rare occasions when I find myself able to explain in detail and with contemporary references and examples exactly what it is I’m currently working on, because storyworlds are something we all take part in and know – they surround us and imbue our consumption of facts as well as fiction. And while I so far in my research have been considering primarily ancient paradoxography and medieval romances, my favourite example when friends ask is the HBO series Lovecraft Country – a treasure trove of recycled, overlapping, and remanipulated storyworlds that have been widely enjoyed and discussed internationally since it premiered in August 2020.

Quite a few years ago I spent a summer reading the stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). A friend had become obsessed with this legendary writer of horror fiction and lured me into his weird world of monsters and madness. It was an interesting reading experience for many reasons. First, I was a big fan of horror fiction, so I enjoyed the stories on a personal level. Second, I was at the time very interested in Roland Barthes’ reality effect and the workings of fictionality, and Lovecraft’s way of employing his native New England as a semifictional setting in his otherwise fully fictional plots was fascinating on a more professional level. It was a strange summer, with the dark world of Lovecraft in stark contrast to the sunny town in Italy where I was visiting my friend.

The storyworld of Lovecraft is one in which reality, hidden beneath a layer of normality, is so alien that it becomes harmful to experience.

Against this background, it was fascinating to watch the HBO series Lovecraft Country while at the same time reading extensively on the concepts of storyworld, worldmaking and possible worlds. The fictional universe created by Lovecraft and shared by some of this followers – both contemporary members of the famous Kalem Club or the so-called Lovecraft Circle and later writers of Lovecraftian horror –  goes under the name of the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu was the central creature in Lovecraft’s seminal “The Call of Cthulhu”, first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales (1928): a huge cosmic entity with an octopus-like head and an anthropoid body with wings, terrifying and worshipped by cultists.
While the Cthulhu has become representative for the universe of Lovecraft, it is not the monster itself that is the scary part: what it truly appalling is the cosmic horror of the unknown rather than more traditional shock elements or gory details. The storyworld of Lovecraft is one in which reality, hidden beneath a layer of normality, is so alien that it is harmful to experience.

a
Original sketch of Cthulhu drawn by Lovecraft, May 11, 1934,
Brow Digital Depository

This is the aspect that was picked up by author Matt Ruff in his novel entitled Lovecraft Country (2016), offering a contemporary twist to the legendary but partly dubious heritage of Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s racial attitudes not only marked his personal ideas and other writings, but also found their way into his weird tales in the form of disparaging remarks and in the shape of dark-skinned monsters. As implied by Michel Houellebecq in his H. P. Lovecraft : Contre le monde, contre la vie (1991), racism is the basis of all fear in Lovecraft’s world. Ruff’s novel confronted and subverted this Lovecraftian legacy by exploring the affiliation between his horror fiction and the prevalent racism of the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the American South. The conjunction between horror and racism was focalized through the character of the black science fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family, experiencing the truly harmful workings of the real world.

The not-so-implicit racism of Lovecraft’s tales has accordingly been incorporated in the new storyworld, so that the protagonists have to overcome the terrors of racism and segregation while at the same time fighting supernatural monsters, though the two often – beneath or even on the surface – coincide.

Those of you who watched the HBO series recognize the story here: Ruff’s novel inspired the series, which – as is often the case – has received much more attention than the book. So Ruff should be credited with the subversion in which Lovecraft’s monsters are no longer scary dark “halfbreeds”, but white supremacists. The not-so-implicit racism of Lovecraft’s tales has accordingly been incorporated in the new storyworld, so that the protagonists have to overcome the terrors of racism and segregation while at the same time fighting supernatural monsters, though the two often – beneath or even on the surface – coincide.

 

So far, my use of the term storyworld has been very general but still, I think, comprehensible to most readers. The term can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be. In its most basic and ‘metaphorical’ sense it is the literary world in which characters and their actions are set within one or several works. I think this is the most common way in which we understand it as consumers or critics of fiction: we speak without thinking about the world of Stephen King or the world of Star Wars. But in order to be not just a handy term for something we all think we know, but also a useful concept in analytical practice, storyworld needs to be defined in relation to both the world created by the authors and the understanding of that world by the audience.

A possible world is dominated by its own logic: it doesn’t need to adhere to the rules of the actual world (at least not beyond what makes it comprehensible for actual world-readers), but it has to make sense as a world.

Postclassical narratology (that is, narratology as it developed after its structuralistic beginning, over the past couple of decades or so) has devoted much attention to the way in which readers, in the words of David Herman, “use textual cues to build up representations of the worlds evoked by stories, or storyworlds.” (Herman 2009: 106) In this sense, storyworlds can be seen as “mental models”: a “worldmaking practice” according to which the reader maps and works to comprehend a narrative (Herman 2002: 5). In this sense, a storyworld is the cognitive result of the reading process during which the reader’s comprehension is at work. As aptly put by the science fiction writer Arkady Martin, “A storyworld is thus a co-created world between author and audience, bound by mutually held-in-common rules of causality and verisimilitude.” (Martine 2019)

These mutually held-in-common rules also dominate the construction of so-called possible worlds, creating what could be seen as belief-worlds shared by members of a group. A possible world is dominated by its own logic: it doesn’t need to adhere to the rules of the actual world (at least not beyond what makes it comprehensible for actual world-readers), but it has to make sense as a world. Common examples are drawn from fairytales or superhero comics: such stories suspend belief in the common sense of the word, but they are perfectly logical as long as the characters and their actions are understood and accepted within their own storyworlds and thus by the reader (Ryan 1992). Even if we, as human beings, are deeply rooted in the notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think, we can clearly handle the idea of multiple worlds in the form of aesthetic constructions, if not necessarily in physical reality (Kukkonen 2010).

When Matt Ruff wrote his novel in 2006, he was accordingly able to enter and rewrite a storyworld already known and shared by many. This resulted in the subverted storyworld the viewers encountered in the HBO series: a world in which the terrors of racism and segregation compete with the supernatural monsters in horror.

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The original cover of the publication that featured the first Cthulhu story. (1928)
Source: Wikimedia.

We don’t need more theory than this in order to briefly analyse the Lovecraftian tradition that I described above. Lovecraft was not very successful in his own time; he could not make a living off his writings and he published primarily in pulp magazines. But his storyworld attracted other writers so that an entire Lovecraft Circle devoted themselves to share and develop that same storyworld, which ultimately led to Lovecraftian horror fiction being seen as a subgenre of its own. That Lovecraftian world and the Cthulhu Mythos have since inspired endless tales, novels and films, but also music and games. When Matt Ruff wrote his novel in 2006, he was accordingly able to enter and rewrite a storyworld already known and shared by many. This resulted in the subverted storyworld the viewers encountered in the HBO series: a world in which the terrors of racism and segregation compete with the supernatural monsters in horror.
The subversion that appears in Ruff’s novel and the subsequent series could be described in terms of worldedness, or an augmented entanglement with the real world (Hayot 2011). Ruff creates the character Atticus Turner in order to focalize both the science fiction fan and the discriminated African American in 1950s, thus relating to the presumed reader’s/audience’s interest in the genre and their socio-political awareness.

Even if we, as human beings, are deeply rooted in the notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think, we can clearly handle the idea of multiple worlds in the form of aesthetic constructions, if not necessarily in physical reality.

The latter aspect has been further emphasized in the HBO series, incorporating historical events – for instance, the 1921 Tulsa massacre and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till – in the Lovecraftian storyworld. This further blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality has received both praise and critique (see e.g. Phillips 2020 and Dent 2020), but from a strictly narratological perspective it opens up for a multiverse representation that contradicts Lovecraft’s idea of one underlying reality. In episode 9, the character Hippolyta travels through a series of alternative worlds, intrinsically interconnected and all potentially real, in a search for herself. While the episode within the frame of the series relies on the Lovecraftian tradition, it also opens it up for the inclusion of other storyworlds, most notably perhaps those of afromythology and afrofuturism.
Whether we appreciate the revisions and additions or not, we – the audience – can rather easily recognize and accept the multiple worlds, somehow related to but not quite the same as our real-life experience. Some of us have been well prepared for such multiverse representations through super hero comics or fantasy novels, but even readers or viewers who don’t enjoy that kind of fiction are, in fact, surrounded by storyworlds in the form of, for instance, historical, philosophical and scientific narratives of the kind that are included not only in Lovecraft Country, but in most human expressions.

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Lovecraft Country (2020) Poster
Source: IMDB/HBO

From Homer’s Odyssey to Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” – we are transported into alternative realities based on shared belief systems. And this, I say to my friend (who is now starting to look a little tired), is the reason why we want to investigate Byzantine storyworlds. She nods and smiles, and then we have another glass of wine.

Ingela Nilsson is a professor of Greek and Byzantine Studies at Uppsala University
and the director of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul (2019-21).
She is a specialist in Byzantine literature with a particular focus
on issues of literary adaptation, often from a narratological perspective.