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TheZebraStoryteller

SpencerHolst

OnceuponatimetherewasaSiamesecatwhopretendedtobealionandspokeinappropriate
Zebraic.

ThatlanguageiswhinniedbytheraceofstripedhorsesinAfrica.

Herenow:Aninnocentzebraiswalkinginajungleandapproachingfromanotherdirectionis
thelittlecat;theymeet.

Hellothere!saystheSiamesecatinperfectlypronouncedZebraic.Itcertainlyisapleasant
day,isntit?Thesunisshining,thebirdsaresinging,isnttheworldalovelyplacetolivetoday!

ThezebraissoastonishedathearingaSiamesecatspeakinglikeazebra,whyhesjustfittobe
tied.

Sothelittlecatquicklytieshimup,killshim,anddragsthebetterpartsofthecarcassbacktohis
den.

Thecatsuccessfullyhuntedzebrasmanymonthsinthismanner,diningonfiletmignonofzebra
everynight,andfromthebetterhideshemadebownecktiesandwidebeltsafterthefashionofthe
decadentprincesoftheOldSiamesecourt.

Hebeganboastingtohisfriendshewasalion,andhegavethemasproofthefactthathe
huntedzebras.

Thedelicatenosesofthezebrastoldthemtherewasreallynolionintheneighborhood.The
zebradeathscausedmanytoavoidtheregion.Superstitious,theydecidedthewoodswerehauntedby
theghostofalion.

Onedaythestorytellerofthezebraswasambling,andthroughhismindranplotsforstoriesto
amusetheotherzebras,whensuddenlyhiseyesbrightened,andhesaid,Thatsit!Illtellastoryabout
aSiamesecatwholearnstospeakourlanguage!Whatanidea!Thatllmakeemlaugh!

JustthentheSiamesecatappearedbeforehim,andsaid,Hellothere!Pleasantdaytoday,isnt
it!

Thezebrastorytellerwasntfittobetiedathearingacatspeakinghislanguage,becausehed
beenthinkingaboutthatverything.

Hetookagoodlookatthecat,andhedidntknowwhy,buttherewassomethingabouthis
lookshedidntlike,sohekickedhimwithahoofandkilledhim.

Thatisthefunctionofthestoryteller.

From:TheNortonIntroductiontoLiterature
CarlE.Bain,JeromeBeaty,&J.PaulHunter

TheZebraStorytellersuggeststhatthepurposeofstoriesistoprepareusfortheunexpected.
Thoughthestorytellerthinksheisjustspinningstoriesoutofhisownimaginationinordertoamuse,his
storiesprovetobepractical.WhentheextraordinaryoccurslikeaSiamesecatspeakingZebraicthe
storytellerispreparedbecausehehasalreadyimaginedit,andhealoneisabletoprotecthistribe
againsttheunheardof.

Otherstorytellersmakethefunctionoffictionlessextraordinary.Accordingtothem,fiction
enablesreaderstoavoidprojectingfalsehopesandfears(suchasthezebrassuperstitiousbeliefthat
theyarebeingpreyedonbytheghostofalion)andshowsthemwhattheycanactuallyexpectintheir
everydaylives,sothattheycanpreparethemselves.InGeorgeEliotsnovelAdamBede,HettySorrelis
beingpaidadmiringattentionbytheyoungsquire,andshedreamsofelopement,marriage,allsortsof
vaguepleasures.Shedoesnotdreamthatshewillbeseduced,madepregnant,abandoned.Her

imaginationhasnotbeentrainedtoprojectanynarrativeotherthanherdreams:Hettyhadnever
readanovel,GeorgeEliottellsus,[so]howcouldshefindashapeforherexpectations?

Weareallstorytellers,then,ofonestripeoranother.Wheneverweplanthefutureorpondera
decision,wearetellingstoriesprojectingexpectationsthroughnarrative.Whetherwetellstoriesor
readthem,weareeducatingourimaginations,eitherextendingourmentalexperienceintheactual,as
Hettymighthavedonebyreadingnovels,orpreparingourselvesfortheextraordinaryandunexpected,
likethezebrastoryteller.

Theactualandtheextraordinarysuggesttwodifferentusesreadersmakeoffiction.Sometimes
wewanttoreadaboutpeoplelikeourselves,oraboutplaces,experiences,andideasthatarefamiliar
andagreeable.MostofusinitiallypreferAmericanliteratureandtwentiethcenturyliteratureto
literatureremoteintimeandplace.Indeed,storiesmustsomehowberelatedtoourownlivesbefore
wecanfindthemintellectuallyoremotionallymeaningful.Nomatterwhatourliteraryexperienceand
taste,mostofusrelateinaspecialwaytostoriesaboutpeoplelikeus,experienceslikeourown,and
especiallytoastorythatmentionsourhometownorneighborhoodorthenameofthestreetthatwe
usedtowalkalongonourwaytoschool.Noonewoulddenythatoneofthemanythingsthatfiction
maybeforislearningaboutourselvesandtheworldaroundus.

Butoccasionallythelastthingwewantisastoryaboutpeoplelikeourselves,experienceslike
thoseofoureverydaylives,andplacesandtimeslikehereandnow.Onsuchoccasionswewant(orare
accusedofwanting)toescape.Iffictionmustberelevantenoughtorelatemeaningfullytous,itmust
alsobeirrelevant,different,strangeasstrange,perhaps,asaSiamesecatspeakingZebraic.Itmust
takeusoutofourselves,outoftheconfiningvisionofourowneyes,whichisconditionedbyourown
backgroundandexperience,andshowusthattherearewaysoflookingattheworldotherthanour
own.

Whatastoryshowsusorteachesuswemaycallitsmessageanobjective,universaltruththat
wewereunawareofbeforereadingthestory.Wegraduallylearn,however,thatstoriestellusnotso
muchwhatlifemeansaswhatitslike.Ratherthanabstractorobjectivetruths,storiesdealwith
perceptions.Theseperceptionsmaybetranslatedintomessages,butwesoondiscoverthatthe
messagesboildowntothingslikeTheresgoodandbadineverybody,Hurtingpeopleiswrong,and
EverythingisnotwhatitseemsmessageswedonotneedWesternUnion,muchlessWestern
literature,todeliver.Indeed,wedonothavetoagreewithwhatastorysaysorshowssolongasweare
convincedthatifwehadthoseeyesandwerethere,thisiswhatwemightsee.

Wheneverwecansayyes,weareconvinced,thenwehavebeenabletogobeyondthe
limitationsofourownvision,ourownpastandconditions.Weareabletoseeanewworld,orthesame
oldworldinanewway.Andbyrecognizingthatwecanseethingsdifferently,werealizethatthingswe
usedtothinkwerefixed,objectiveentitiesoutthere,werefixedonlyinourperceptions.Or,asittoo
oftenthecase,werealizethatwehavebeenacceptingthingsatfacevalue;wehavebeenperceiving
whathabitandconventionhavetoldusisreallythere.Stories,then,mayawakenustolookatthings
forourselves.Forexample,weknowatabletopissquare,butinastorywemaybetolditisdiamond
shaped.Weunderstandthatifweweretolookatthetabletopfromacertainangleitwouldappear
diamondshaped.Butdoesntthatmeanthatthetabletopissquareonlywhenwelookatitfroma
certainangle?Howoftendowelookatatabletopfromthatangle?Welookagain,andwerecognize
thatthoughwevealwaysknownatabletopisasquare,wemayhaveneveractuallyseenitasone.
Thestoryhasnotonlyallowedustoseerealityfromanotherangle,butithashelpedustosharpenour
ownvision,ourownexperience.

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