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.

a
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.

a
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.