The Power of Retelling

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So says Leslie P. Hartley in the opening line of The Go-Between

Kerouac has a slightly more pessimistic take. In a letter published in The Beat Vision, four years before The Go-Between came out, he wrote:

All of life is a foreign country

Familiarity and estrangement seem to intertwine whenever we approach the past. The picture below is of my great-grandmother – born in the late 1890s, Dorothy Gregory nee Cooke died in her early forties of TB, leaving behind eight children and her first grandchild, my Aunty Margaret, who would soon become the oldest in a family of eleven children. Dorothy is still young and healthy in the picture, and those with memories of her speak of her as kind and hard working. It is so little to know. Her dreams, her hopes, the texture of her daily life… those are a foreign country.

I face the same in reaching into the lives of those who inhabited Cwmorthin in a similar time period. I have more source material, but there are still gaps – especially in glimpsing the women of that community. Yet the task feels like a vital and urgent one. Moreover, I was encouraged by an excellent little article in The Paris Magazine, written by Jeanette Winterson, in which she says,

If you read yourself as a fiction instead of a fact, you have much more control over how things are. If we are a story we are telling, we can change the story …even what has happened can change if we learn to retell it.

Winterson is speaking of narrative power here, not advocating revisionist history, and on its own terms I think it’s a really intriguing and fruitful thought. I also like the way I keep finding fragments that work together – Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of living to narrate and believing that we can understand others by telling our own story, moving outwards – Paul Ricoeur’s insistence on the power of narrative as a witness to those who have gone before, especially those who have been marginalized, those who we otherwise know so little of. So here is Dorothy Gregory nee Cooke.

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