While McCarter Theater Artistic Director and playwright Emily Mann and noted American playwright Ken Ludwig were the guest story tellers at the People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos March 6 fundraiser at the Nassau Club in Princeton, they may be the first to tell you that the real story is that the Lawrenceville-based nonprofit project mixing literature and community has many voices, locations, and stories.
And the following story about a visit to a recent session gives a glimpse into the program’s heart.
Nancy Brown is the first to arrive for the 2 p.m. Wednesday People & Stories afternoon gathering at the Lawrence Community Center.
She steadily moves with a walker across the room, sits at one of the community room tables, sighs with relief, and says she’s glad the series is starting again.
She’s here to gather with others to hear someone read a story, read along with a text, and then discuss the story’s thematic, social, artistic, and personal layers.
Just as Brown will be joined by several others, this small group mirrors other such regional and national gatherings.
They occur in prisons, immigrant centers, senior centers, residential treatment facilities, homeless shelters, adult education programs, libraries, alternative schools, and other venues.
But today it is all Lawrenceville with the Lawrence Township Community Foundation providing support.
“We have about 10 people who come regularly,” says Browns as Judy Briel, Jean Kauffman, Joan Sargo, and Bazey Turner take their seats around two joined kitchen tables in the center’s dun-colored multi-purpose room.
Now People & Stories facilitator and Lawrenceville resident Patricia Andres briskly walks in and unloads her armful of photocopied stories, and since this is the first regrouping since the holidays, there is some catching up and calls to others in the building to join in.
The women smile happily as Andres hands out the copies of today’s tale—Juan Armando Epple’s “Garage Sale People.”
It reflects the Chilean-born contemporary writer and professor’s own experience of immigrating to the United States.
“I found the story a bit confusing,” says Andres who has been running the sessions at the center for 12 years. “There are three voices in the work. We’ll have to figure out why,” she says to help guide the participants into the story and discussion.
The group quiets as Andres slowly reads the story’s opening lines, “I’m going for a spin.”
Then for 20 minutes or so, she takes the group on a literary ride through a tale that arrives at an ending that offers more questions than explanations.
“Can you imagine living in Chile and then you end up in Oregon?” says Brown at the end of the story. She’s scrunching her face as if she had just tasted something strange.
The others murmur in agreement and start taking turns thinking aloud about the story’s ending: the immigrant professor purchases an old American grandmother at a garage sale.
The conversation twists from questions regarding the reality of the story and potential meanings.
To make their points each uses evidence from the text and recalls her own personal experiences—such as alienation and America’s questionable values.
And since the group members were informed that the story was originally written in Spanish, questions arise on the art of translation and the difficulties of transferring meaning and tone from one language to another.
As the two hours wind down, Brown says what she likes about sessions like today, “I learn a lot, and I use my brain.”
The others’ nods and bright hum-like sounds signal an overall agreement.
“There is an underlying method to the presenting the story and generating conversation,” says Andres about the ongoing publicly and privately funded project connecting people of varied backgrounds and ages to literature— and to one another.
“(The method) is based on the assumption that there is an innate potential beyond script-centric literary skills, a belief that literary art resonates at a depth level that all of us have access to —if it is presented in a way that crosses barriers. I think this defies Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”
That final reference reflects her belief that sharing stories is as important as the other components in American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s model of necessities to create a self-actualized individual.
People & Stories (also known in Spanish as Gente y Cuentos) materials explore the method more: “The rationale behind the program method is that new audiences will enter and enjoy the critical interpretation of literary works when the conversation is structured by a back-and-forth flow between probing the work’s poetic elements and exploring its vibrations within life experience.”
For example, those leading the sessions will focus on “shadows,” an element pointing “to the story’s unanswered questions, enigmas, and ambiguities.”
This is also where a “resistance to closure will often raise more questions for readers than it answers. These unresolved and inconclusive aspects carry a residual power that reverberates to mirror the intricate design of life.”
As demonstrated in the session, it also promotes group discussion and exploration rather than passively listen to a predetermined or “correct” explanation of what the story is about.
One of the stories not read during a People & Stories session but important to the program is the organization’s founding and connection to Trenton and Princeton.
The brainchild of Sarah Hirschman, the program’s earliest roots are in a 1972 pilot project involving Puerto Rican women in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, housing project.
That project grew out of Hirschman’s work at a training center for Hispanic people and Boston University where she assisted placing Latin America female students in temporary jobs.
It was also affected by something she experienced in a seminar led by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator.
“It was about how he had taught literacy to poor people in northeastern Brazil and how to relate literacy to the lives of the people; the importance of life experiences in learning,” she said in a published interview.
“This really impressed me, and I thought maybe I could do it with short stories and how people could talk through those about their own life experiences. In 1972, I decided just like that to go to public housing in Cambridge and see if there was interest in this. I talked with Puerto Rican women, and they were receptive.
“The participants often had little or no formal education, and some were illiterate. But the beginnings of an intriguing idea had taken root. I read stories aloud in Spanish, and the people would enter the stories through experiences in their own lives. So the perspective of the story and their own individual perspectives connected.”
Hirschman (1921 to 2012) was born Sarah Chapiro in Lithuania. Her father was a businessman who moved the family to Paris, where she studied with prominent existentialist and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.
Then in 1939, like many other European Jews, they moved to New York City where she studied philosophy at Columbia (later attending Cornell and the University of California, Berkley).
In 1941 she married German scholar and economist Albert O. Hirschman, who among other activities participated in helping artists and intellectuals escape from Nazi occupied Europe, worked with the Federal Reserve board to implement the Marshall Plan in Europe, served as an economic advisor to the Columbia government, and took faculty positions at Yale, Columbia and Harvard.
Later he was a fellow at the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton.
Hirschman used her move to South America to become fluent in Spanish and the other locations to experiment with humanist projects using literature to enhance communities, communication, and the importance of language.
Upon arriving in the Princeton area in 1974, she continued developing Gente y Cuentos and established locations in Trenton and Newark.
Then, as organization materials note, “Eventually, through her efforts, the program grew to encompass sites in learning centers, libraries, and prisons. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled the project to expand to other states across the country, and Mrs. Hirschman held workshops to train others in the program’s concept and method. She also set up a program in a barrio outside Buenos Aires. An English program, People & Stories, was added in 1985, and Mrs. Hirschman also began an inter-generational and inter-town (Princeton and Trenton) related project, a pre-cursor of Crossing Borders with Literature.”
Andres shared some of that story after the session and probably contributed to that above statement. Andres joined the program in 1987, was People & Stories executive director for 20 years, and now serves as president of the advisory board and program coordinator.
Also participating in the writing of organization’s story is Cheyenne Wolf. Raised in Hightstown (and now living in Philadelphia), she joined the organization in 2014 as associate director of development and programs. She became director in October 2018.
Perhaps the big story being told by the program is the universal one about the power of a short story.
“Because they rely on intense compression, (short stories) are much closer to poetry than to novels,” says Andres. “Poetic images, rhythms, metaphors resonate at a depth dimension within us, so a greater sense of well being can develop from connecting with others over a poetic story. Also, the program engages people on the social, cognitive, emotional, and imaginative levels so it creates a really enjoyable experience. Over the years I’ve seen that no matter the age, everyone loves being read to.”
As Hirschman has once said, “The participants’ view of the story depends on their own experiences. When they see that they can talk about it, that they can hear themselves, they become validated. They defend their point of view and become curious about others. It also gives people enormous pleasure.”
Then she rhetorically adds something gleaned from her experience as an immigrant American working with other immigrants and hearing so many stories and voices. “I always say ‘What’s democracy?’”
Her answer: “A chance for people who don’t usually have a voice to participate.”
For more information, visit peopleandstories.org.
This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 Newspaper.