Swimming in a Story Sea

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Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) is a refreshing and must read text of magical realism for those who love fantasy. Rather than giving a traditional review of the novel, however, in this post, I plan to use the story as a jumping off point for another topic. Throughout the novel, Haroun and other characters ask: “What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?” This is a relevant question that those of us who read, appreciate, and study fantasy literature should consider.

In a way, we, as people, are telling stories everyday that aren’t even true when we function as visionaries, and imagine the future, whether it is for ourselves or for our families. These stories may not be true yet, but they will be.

Another response is possible: How do we know these stories aren’t true? Furthermore, if an author is portraying the joys and trials of human life, how can one say the story isn’t true, even if it tagged as fiction? Perhaps we need to remember that we have been telling stories for as long as we can recall. Telling stories is a way to exercise our abilities to dream and develop vision. They are also important for reflecting on and working through our past in order to ensure that we can flourish in our present and future.

Fiction may be more important than material tagged as “true” because many people are afraid of telling the truth, and can only express it within a fictional story. By framing life in a fictional context, we can treat important issues from a safer distance.  We don’t have to worry about people we know running after us for including their names in a publication. Even more importantly, there is something powerful about individuals articulating their ideas about the world through the vehicle of a story, and in this way, “telling stories” allows for an experience unlike any other. Some people find it therapeutic to do this—others might paint or create music. As Lloyd Alexander points out, these are stories as well. What all of these activities have in common is that something is created that previously did not exist. And they all treat that which is important to people.

Alexander, in his article, “The Grammar of Story,” describes storytellers as those who build illusions, and these must speak of reality in order to be meaningful. “The test of illusion is how thoroughly it convinces us of reality; how strongly it resonates in our emotions; how deeply it moves us to new feelings and new insights” (4).

One implication of Rushdie’s narrative is the significance of stories (whether it be through literature, song, film, dance, etc.) for our post 9/11 world. We cannot allow the ability to story to slip away from us—“storying” helps us to make sense of the world, and to deal with tragedy. Like the Land of Gup threatened by Khattam-Shud, who detests story and language, we also should recognize that losing story means we also may lose the ability to connect with others. For example, I think we can approach Haroun and the Sea of Stories by exploring its concern with creating and telling stories, but it can also be thought of in the context of reading stories. For example, reading broadens one’s horizons, and can increase social sensitivity. This is especially crucial for our 9/11 world—anything that encourages people to understand other perspectives more deeply is a good thing.

What’s interesting about Haroun is that it is not only the child having the adventure in a fantastic world—the adult, Haroun’s father, joins him to take part as well. In a sense, the two are working together, and this unity models the notion that the merging of generations can be a powerful force.

In the article, “Fiction Under Siege: Rushdie’s Quest for Narrative Emancipation in Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” Janet Ellerby discusses how readers can not only approach Rushdie’s narrative as a children’s fantasy, but also “as a politically subversive narrative of resistance.” Because Rushdie was separated from his son, it seems appropriate that he used the vehicle of a children’s text to articulate his ideas about freedom of expression and creativity. In responding to the question of the use of stories that aren’t true, Rushdie’s narrative demonstrates how stories can influence our outlook on life, and bring us joy in the midst of gloom (as with the people at the end). Ellerby points out that Rushdie’s fiction responds to oppression in society, and this brings up yet another significant aspect of the fantasy: working together, those who are certain of what is right can make a difference.

As we continue to read and talk about fantasy for children and young adults, perhaps it is safe to say we become even more aware just how useful these “untrue” stories are. And we continue to seek them out.

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